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Updated: August 26, 2011 16:00 IST

Oral odyssey

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty
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FAWNING OVER FAUNA: Canada-based H. Masud Taj’s poems grant a voice to a range of animals. Photo: Shabbir Unwala
FAWNING OVER FAUNA: Canada-based H. Masud Taj’s poems grant a voice to a range of animals. Photo: Shabbir Unwala

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty strikes up a conversation with H. Masud Taj, an oral poet, a rare breed in a scenario where anything literary means the printed word

A nudge and he goes versical; a query and he is explanatory — about why he does what he does.

Ottawa-based H. Masud Taj is certainly an experience if you can catch him reciting his poems, one couplet tailing the other, like dominoes falling to high winds. The words spoken have the power to drape you in implicit joy and you are easily immersed in his mood, wide-eyed. You hate to impede him, knit in a query only to ensure that he continues. As he recites the lines, his soft, silken voice rides a knoll at times, reacting to the string of words mouthed. And the effect is simply marvellous.

At a New Delhi hotel, striking up a conversation with this oral poet, you throw the obvious question at him at the first opportunity — so who is an oral poet? What makes him different from a regular poet? “An oral poet is one who recites his verses and may not publish them. They believe that a poem primarily belongs to the sound and sense,” he replies. Living in an age when anything literary means the printed word, you have long forgotten that the first works of literature were oral. “Beowulf”, “Odyssey”…all were first recited before alphabets took over.

So here you are with India-born Masud, who is also a part-time calligrapher and Adjunct professor of Architecture at Carleton University in Canada. Some of Masud's poems have been a part of anthologies in India, the U.S. and the U.K. but that's because he doesn't refuse “when friends and publishers ask for my poems.” But in the last three decades that he has been practising poetry, his creations have chiefly homed in on his mind. They are meant for the ears rather than for the eyes. Such an attitude definitely leaves many startled.

“Once, after reciting my poems in the University of Toronto, someone asked me where he would find my poems and I told him, ‘You have found them, they are in your mind',” he says, half-chuckling. Often people fail to understand why it is not important to publish. What if the mind forgets? “But so far I have not,” he retorts.

Masud, however, has bowed down to a long-standing request of fellow poet Bruce Meyers to allow him to publish his poems. The result is a recent book, “Alphabestiary”, in collaboration with Meyers.

“When I used to live in Mumbai, I came across a poem of Meyers and wrote to him what I understood of it. He wrote back asking, ‘Who are you?'” relates Masud. A friendship brewed between the two which thickened once Masud migrated to Canada. In “Alphabestiary”, while a poem of Masud's is on one leaf, Meyers' writings are on the adjacent one.

Interestingly, Masud's subject of verses is the animal world. From dragon fly to ant to cat to dog to name what you may, he has some of the most incisive lines on them. “Alphabestiary” is a celebration of this world of fauna. “That is why the title of the book; ‘Alpha' is Meyers' contribution and ‘bestiary' is mine. His writing coincides with the subject of the particular animal that my poem is about. It goes alphabetically, so the book starts with my poem on ant,” he explains.

Come October, Masud and Meyers will take the book to the 32nd annual International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in Toronto. The fest, one of Canada's biggest literary events, is bringing together over 100 choicest participants from 20 countries, for readings, talks, interviews, roundtable discussions and award presentations. There, Masud will recite his poems from the book. The duo then will take on a touring programme of IFOA's Ontario chapter.

Bringing to the conversation his early days, Masud rests a lot of credit on his parents who nurtured the creative side of all the three children in the household. “I write poetry, while one sister travels round the world telling stories; the other is a musician,” he says. His great-grandfather was the literary luminary of 19th Century Lucknow, Amir Minai. “My love for poetry is also because when I was in a residential school in Ooty, we used to listen to records of poets like T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas reciting their poems. It helped me develop an interest in poetry,” he adds.

He also tries his hand at writing sonnets. “I write the difficult ones, the Petrarchan sonnets,” he says. Impressed by the architecture of the famous secular museum in Istanbul, Haga Sophia, he wrote a Petrarchan sonnet on it years ago. “On this visit to Delhi, I gave a lecture at the School of Planning and Architecture on Haga Sophia and the style of its conservation architect Sinan,” says the expert on Islamic architecture.

Masud is also a calligrapher. “I am an amateur,” he says, but mentions that some years ago at Alliance Francaise, Mumbai, he made a calligraphic presentation of his poems for an exhibition.

Masud wraps up the banter by saying that he is not a performance poet. “I let the poem perform, with or without me. Poetry is the art of time. My earliest influence of living in different points of time at the same time was in the house I grew up in. It had 17 clocks and 11 mirrors. All the clocks gave different times.” No wonder, he has long got over the idea of wearing a watch.

This article was corrected for an omission on August 26, 2011

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