Between the lines

The writer on reading her specially-commissioned poem ‘Gathering’ at the Commonwealth Day Observance at Westminster Abbey.

May 11, 2015 08:05 pm | Updated 09:01 pm IST

Sharanya Manivannan. Photo: Catriona Mitchell

Sharanya Manivannan. Photo: Catriona Mitchell

How can I express to you the feeling of standing before two thousand people on the Sacrarium Steps of Westminster Abbey — the same altar on which a thousand years of coronations occurred — and sharing my own words?

The Commonwealth Day Observance is the United Kingdom’s largest multi-faith service. It is also the primary event that celebrates the Commonwealth of Nations, and is attended each year by High Commissioners, senior dignitaries, over a thousand schoolchildren and the British royal family. The hour-long service consists of brief readings from the scriptures of various religions, musical performances, an internationally-broadcast address by Queen Elizabeth II, speeches by noted personalities, and this year, for only the third time in this event’s history, a recitation of a poem commissioned especially for the service.

And so I found myself on March 9, in a chiffon sari of red, black and gold, in Westminster Abbey, reading my poem, ‘Gathering’.

When I accepted the commission to write and perform this poem, I did so not only cognisant of what it meant for me personally, but with the gravitas of history in mind. I was deeply aware of what it meant to be a brown woman in the 21st century, a happenstance of empire, having all of it in her own small hands for a few unforgettable moments.

It seemed to me that the clearest way forward was to take the schoolchildren who would be in attendance as my most crucial audience. How could I, as someone who writes for all her ancestors who could not, someone whose artistic raison d'être is silence itself, convey to them this weight as well as our own power to create our futures? The poem I wrote thus acknowledged both – history and future, the irrevocable and the capricious, verity and hope. Footage of my performance can be viewed online.

I am a political person – but I am also a believer, a dreamer, a lover of beauty, a seeker of the divine. Westminster Abbey was breathtaking, all vivid stained glass and Gothic grandiosity come alive with the rhythms of the a cappella group The Soil and eloquent voices from many cultures, many climes. It was the second time in my life that I had been blessed with the honour of reading my poetry at a hallowed ancient monument — the first had been at the Borobudur stupa in Java in 2007. I was overwhelmed by the gift of being there, and deeply moved to know that among reflections and quotations from representatives from Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Jain and Jewish communities (including, to my excitement, a female rabbi) was my own, original incantation.

But the question that everyone ultimately asks me is how it felt to meet the British royal family, whom the performers were all introduced to after the service. Truth told, despite never having an interest in them as celebrities, it was surreal. It was absolutely surreal to shake hands with the Queen and have her tell me that I read beautifully.

I wrote ‘Gathering’ for the schoolchildren, I wrote it for my ancestors, and I wrote it for my closest friends whose journeys have run parallel to mine. But there was a moment when, sitting beside the Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate Kailash Satyarthi at Westminster Abbey, I realised that I was living out the grandest vision that my seven-year old self, writing a poem for the first time, could have imagined for herself. Tears sprang to my eyes. She had never been prouder of me.

(Sharanya is a Chennai-based poet.)

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