The poetry reading event was organised by The Prajnya Trust in association with poetry collective Mockingbirds on December 2.

Performers at Prajnya’s poetry reading sessionThe Prajnya Trust
Features Poetry Saturday, December 03, 2022 - 12:37

What does it mean to stand in solidarity with survivors of gender-based violence or to sit in silence? This is the question that five poets tried to answer over the course of two hours at the poetry reading session held by Chennai-based non-profit organisation The Prajnya Trust which works towards gender equality and peace education.

From body politics to domestic violence, from religious identity to trans rights, from the politics of love to attack on everyday sexism, the five poets who were part of the lineup explored a range of topics at the poetry reading session held on December 2, Friday, as a part of the 16-day campaign against gender violence held by the organisation. Some of the poets also noted that some of their pieces were based on the underlying theme ‘personal is political’. The year 2022 marks the 12th edition of the campaign.

Along with popular names like writers Kutti Revathi, K Srilata and Vatsala, the event featured poets like Aaliyah Banu and Manushi Bharathi, who have embarked on their poetry journeys in recent years. Sharing her experiences of being a Muslim woman and a performance poet, Aaliyah, in her piece, reflected on intersectionality in feminism and her identity among other themes. “You see White women’s feminism is different, nobody fights for a woman who wants to keep a hijab. Here’s a poem for every time I said, at least she was not killed,” said 22-year-old Aaliyah, a student of English literature, while performing at the event.

“I imagine dying on the road, with the gun held on my temples, surrounded by people who do not know how to help me. Their hands: numb. But they won’t call an ambulance because maybe they don’t want to. Because someone told them I wasn’t Indian any more. They retrace my ancestry to see if the blood in me has any Indianness to it,” read lines from another piece by Aaliyah. 

In response to a question from the audience about the decision to embrace her identity as a Muslim woman in her poems Aaliyah quipped, “When people look at me, the first thing they notice is that I am a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and it becomes my identity. And it is also my identity,” she says. Aaliyah says she understands the risks that come with the current political climate but does not shy away from being vocal about her opinions. 

Popular Tamil lyricist and poet Kutti Revathi, in a poignant piece about honour killing titled ‘The trees of our land’, recited the lines: “Engal naatin marangalil, kulaigalai pol thonguvadharkendre, kaathalithargal pengalum aangalum. (Men and women loved each other, only to be hung from the trees of our land like bunches of bananas ).”

Speaking to TNM about her takeaways from the event, Kutti Revathi, who has penned lyrics from songs from films like Aruvi and Maryan, as well as authored many poetry collections including Mulaigal, remarked, “The performers really gave a panoramic view of women’s voices. Each story had a different perspective. Their pieces were not just personal, but also political. It was also interesting to see what kind of effort poets make to put their voices out there, because it is not an easy thing to do.”

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Also read: How women lyricists of Tamil cinema have shattered the male gaze in film music

The close-knit reading event which saw the attendance of close to 50 people, was held by Prajnya in association with Chennai-based poetry collective Mockingbirds co-founded by theatre artiste and poet Michelle Ann James and InKo centre. Swarna Rajagopalan, the managing trustee of Prajnya and Michelle observed that the poetry reading event has been a part of most of the yearly campaigns. “Our purpose is to get people to confront the reality of violence  and to speak about it openly, without mincing words, without euphemism or any sort of stigma. The most effective way to communicate that is through art, and through poetry. We could give you pamphlets and handouts but you would not read them. But this is a journey that goes from performers’ hearts to ours very effectively. We wanted people to go back, moved by the power of words and human emotions,” says Swarna. 

Manushi Bharathi, recipient of Sahitya Akademi’s Yuva Puraskar award, who has been writing since 2008, performed pieces like ‘The little princess’s words of light’, ‘The god of kisses’, ‘Yatchi’s (wild demon) songs of the forest’ at the event. A children’s writer, Manushi believes that the stories have a huge influence on children while growing up and that when narrated with sensitivity, stories can go a long way in shaping children’s minds and guiding them. 

The lineup also included writer and academic K Srilata and her mother, Tamil writer Vatsala (80). Known for her  poetry collections like Suyam and Naan Yenn kavingar Aaga Villai, Vatsala says that she started writing in her 50s. The writer who views familial relationships through the lens of gender-based violence and sexism in some of her work, says her poems are inspired not just from her experiences, but also from the evolving dialogue around feminism. “I did not read feminist theories when I started out writing and yet women told me they that they’d read my poems as a group. It reassured me that what I write also mirrors the truth of other women around me,” she told TNM. 

Picks by her daughter Srilata, a fiction writer and academic, for the poetry reading session included some personal pieces and some political poems. In response to a question about the attack on activists and the response garnered from public intellectuals and academics, Srilata commented, “The only thing we can do is by writing, by taking a stand whenever we can. Of course, it is terrifying but we cannot choose not to speak up. We do have a responsibility and cannot live in a bubble.”

The 16-day campaign by Prajnya, which includes online sessions with a handful of offline events, commenced on November 25 and will conclude on December 10. 

Read: How Chennai’s storytelling and poetry collectives are adapting amidst the pandemic

Also read: A Ukrainian Mirror: War, women and peace

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