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Of freedom and the Fab Four

Roger McGough is a poet who belongs to the Beatles generation. And the evening of poetry organised recently at the British Council, Chennai, where some of McGough's poems were read, took one back to the Sixties, to Liverpool and the music that shot the foursome to fame.

Theatre personalities Krishna Kumar, Yog Japee and Raghuram Avula rehearsing for "The way Things are."

IT WAS an evening where words took form, colour and shape, walking down the streets of Liverpool into a garden in Chennai, as the koels sang from the branches. It was an evening of poetry to welcome Morna Nance, Deputy Director of the British Council, Delhi and her colleague Sushma Bahl, who is in charge of the Arts section, to Chennai.

Eunice Crook, who heads the British Council at Chennai, and her husband Phil, had opened their house to a number of artists, dancers and theatre people, who have either just returned from a stint in the U.K. or are preparing to go there to take part in the famous Edinburgh Festival in August.

You always expect poetry to celebrate sounds, to create rhythms of speech and staccato repetitions of phrases, long episodes of silence when you can hear a poet thinking. This too was there in the short recital of poems by Roger McGough, selected by Renuka Rajaratnam and read by a trio of ardent theatre personalities, Krishna Kumar, Yog Japee and Raghuram Avula.

These were more like echoes, however, than sounds, voices heard from a long time ago, bouncing back at us from the riotous, rollicking, free-spirited era of the Sixties, synonymous in the U.K. with the Beatles. For Roger McGough belongs to the Beatles generation. His poetry talks the talk that made the Beatles songs famous and some of his poems such as "Hey Dude!" suggest the lines that were to be on everyone's lips. It was also an evening of nostalgia for the innocence of those times.

What made them different? They were part of a generation that came out of the secure cocoons of their homes, of differences based on class, privilege and educational backgrounds and met each other in the streets. Their poems are shouts of youthful exuberance, a liberation of the senses and a solidarity with people across political and social barriers that the threat of the Bomb and the Cold War had made impossible, before it all dissolved in an excess of revolt, drugs and defiance against any form of authority.

Or as Renuka Rajarathnam observes in her note to "The Way Things are... ", which is taken from the title to one of McGough's poems, "Assuming a democratic voice, the Liverpool poets, Brian Patten, Adrian Henri and Roger McGough reaffirmed through `new poetry', the significance of the arts as public utterance. Many of these poets were either influenced by or went on to influence the rock music culture that exploded in the city at the time. `New Poetry ' was poetry that was accessible, entertaining and yet reflective of a wide range of perennial themes of the way things are."

She also shares her experience of actually meeting Roger McGough and watching him perform. "He was so dead pan in the way he read out his poems. He just stood there looking very cool, and that itself was worth watching," she says.

Her trio of performers lack the "coolth". Their energies lie in coaxing words to leap and dance about, which they did with a fair amount of rehearsed competence. There's also the problem of speaking the language in a particular type of street-smart slang, a variety of sound that can create its own resonance, as Beatles fans will know.

Robert McGough, whose poetry was selected for a reading at the British Council.

Reading from their prepared scripts with the clipped accents that most Indians feel constrained to use when `performing' poetry, Renuka's actors gave an entirely new sound to McGough's poetry. They told stories, rather than shared experiences. Yet the originals chosen for their small, sharp imagery of life on the streets of Liverpool, or in a room where Paul McCartney has just stepped in to try out one of his lyrics, or of a hilarious description of a body full of tattoos are so vivid that they seemed to flicker like transparencies clicked on a carousel and projected on the screen of our imagination.

Sitting in the audience were both Pritham Chakravarthi and Malavika Sarukkai who will be performing at the Edinburgh Festival. They could not have presented a starker contrast, Sarukkai, the dancer cool and stately, Pritham Chakravarthi not just fizzing, but practically exploding with glee at the thought of taking her unique one woman enactment of her experience of working with the Hijra or eunuch community in India, to the frontline at Edinburgh. Her talents were spotted when Brian Mcmaster, Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, came down to Chennai and watched her perform. "I perform in Tamil but when Brian came I was asked at the very last minute whether I could do an on-the-spot translation of my performance in English. I can't explain how I did it," says Pritham, whose body language is so vivid, it does most of the talking. So, it does not matter at all, whether she will be speaking in Tamil, or Indian English, or Scottish, the Hijras will also be out there at Edinburgh making their pitch.

"It will be a contrast," says Eunice Crook speaking about the differences that exist in just watching Sarukkai and Chakravarthi. "But sometimes, you also need to be reminded about tradition, you can't have something that's in your face all the time."

Finally, that was what the evening was all about. Exploring differences, sharing traditions. In the way that things happen, Roger McGough has become part of the tradition of poetry, no longer the rebel but an accepted member of the establishment. As Renuka notes, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire and the Freedom of the City of Liverpool.

Do people still listen to the Beatles, do the lyrics of "Hey Jude!" spring off the lips of today's generation or is it just a question of retro chic for those who enjoy an evening at the British Council?

Krishna Kumar, who seems a card holding member of the Beatles Are Forever club has an answer to this question. "Do you know I went out recently and you know what happened? Some kid wanted to hear Jennifer Lopez!"


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