Poetry with Prakriti has always been about thinking outside boxes

An event where a verse and a bar strike a chord

Published - December 23, 2017 04:21 pm IST

Sofia Ashraf performs at Poetry with Prakriti

Sofia Ashraf performs at Poetry with Prakriti

Dim lights, high stools, the smell of peat and peanuts, the clatter of glasses being cleared away — the Secret Society bar in R.A. Puram is probably no different from any such drinking joint in the world. But it housed an eclectic audience that December evening. Sure, there were the young professionals grabbing a few drinks with their friends, but there were also older people (“I’ve never been inside a bar before,” whispered one lady), students and expatriates in the audience, and all eyes were fixed on the young woman performing in front of them.

Rational, professional

Dressed in a golden coat and wearing large earrings of the same shade, the gamine Sofia Ashraf took the stage with an energy that belied her slight frame. “Ring-a-ring-rose, ah...pocket-full-of-projects, ah,” she rapped, a deliberate Tamil accent colouring her voice. She continued in the same vein, progressively building on that picture of an ideal life which includes being “rational, professional”, to “get inside my cubicle.” She then extolled her audience to “think outside the box.”

Poetry with Prakriti, the Prakriti Foundation’s annual poetry festival that first became part of the city’s landscape 10 years ago, has always been about thinking outside boxes and books and heads, making oft-neglected verse more mainstream. Chennai-based poet and writer, Sharanya Manivannan, who launched her book The Altar of the Only World as part of the festival, is wont to agree. “In the 10 years of attending or participating in Poetry with Prakriti, what has always been clear to me is the generosity of the endeavour. I don’t think I know of any other festival in India that looks after poets, provides them with assured audiences and gives this neglected form its due,” she smiles.

Sandhya Kannan, a literature student of Women’s Christian College, Chennai, admits to attending every session of the festival. “I like that it is purely interest-based, offers diversity and provides tiny intimate settings that genuinely help one in being more connected to poetry,” she says.

From educational institutions to bars, cafés, railway stations and roadsides, there is space for poetry everywhere. The turnout at these readings reaffirms the fact that, “poetry is consumed by and absorbing for all kinds of people in our communities... students, housewives, regular office-going people, musicians and dancers,” as Prakriti’s founder Ranvir Shah said in an earlier interview. Dutch poet Erik Lindner, still a little jetlagged when we meet, concurred with Sharanya. “It has been very hectic, lots of readings. I’ve visited six colleges since I landed here,” said Lindner, adding with a smile, “yet when I see students in college, I get a life again. It is great to find an audience outside that little circle, that little bubble of people who always know what is going on.”

Uneasy meditation

What perhaps helps is the range of the repertoire presented over the two-week long festival, which includes performances, book launches, group discussions, readings and music. So if one day of this year’s edition saw American war poet Brian Turner recite ‘Sleeping in Dick Cheney’s Bed’, where he opened his uneasy meditation with the observation that, “it is unnerving how comfortable this is,” another had veteran Indian-English poet Jayanta Mahapatra make poetry out of hunger.

“Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber/ She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there/ the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside,” he read, alluding to the poverty-driven pimping of a 15-year-old girl by her fisher father. Sandhya was especially excited to see Mahapatra in person. “He was prescribed in our syllabus and I feel lucky to have met him,” she said, excitement colouring her voice.

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