Chennai’s performance poetry and storytelling collectives aim to create a network for budding artists to understand the contemporary art forms better.

An artist is seen performing a poetry piece in the image.commons.wikimedia/Nilankurdas
Flix Culture Saturday, May 29, 2021 - 20:09

The poet standing behind the microphone roars loudly one moment and trembles with a quiver the next; her voice rises and falls as she weaves magic using the inherent music of poetry and the rhythm of words. She strings words together to paint vivid visual images of her story, taking along an electrified audience for an immersive ride. A small group of people gathered in a quaint café lit by fairy lights, let out a celebratory cheer, praising the performer once she finishes narrating her piece. Although these are my memories from a storytelling and poetry open mic held by Madras Sounds in Adyar’s Backyard café in February last year, it describes any quintessential performance poetry event. 

Performance poetry in India dates back to the time when it flourished in royal courts through mushairas and kavi sammelans (which go by different names in different parts of the country). Legendary vernacular poets like Tulsidas, Kalidas, Amir Khusrow, Kabir Das, among others, made path-breaking contributions to the literary world, which continue to shape our understanding of poetry and literature. Meanwhile, international spoken word poets like Sarah Kay, forums like Button Poetry and other global players in the game too, have had a significant impact. Hence, storytelling, spoken word and slam poetry of the day, as it thrives in India, could be viewed as a contemporary confluence of both international and Indian influences.  

What started as a group of like-minded people exploring their love for performance poetry and storytelling, has paved the way for the evolution of full-fledged, contemporary art forms with structured platforms and global forums. From romantic relationships to asexuality; from vote-bank politics to religious discrimination; from sexual harassment to unhealthy beauty standards; from stories of everyday heroes to tales about the human spirit; viral videos of India’s performance poets and storytellers discuss a wide range of topics. While storytelling and performance poetry collectives in cities like Mumbai and Delhi have been in the spotlight and enjoyed a fair share of traction online in the past, TNM spoke to Chennai-based collectives to understand how the art form thrives in the city. 

An image featuring Chennai-based artist Rachna, clicked by photographer Jerin J Jose during
an open mic event hosted by Madras Sounds at Backyard, Adyar.

Poetry in action

Mockingbirds, one of the earliest and probably Chennai’s first poetry collective, has been serving as a platform for city poets to share their ruminations and has been encouraging budding poets to advance their skills, since its inception in 2015. With the intent to commit to poetry as a craft and look at new ways to understand and interpret poetry, the collective has curated multiple events and held open mics and workshops. Since its first event in Besant Nagar’s Spaces, Mockingbirds has carved a niche space for itself. The name of the group is inspired from the lines -‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, from the award-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Staying true to its name, the founders have consistently worked for years to build an uninhibited forum where artists are provided the foundation and wings to spur imagination. “We tried conducting open mic events where artists were given an opportunity to weave music into poetry,” says Michelle Ann James, one of the co-founders of Mockingbirds, while speaking about a themed open-mic event where performers were encouraged to combine music and slam or spoken word poetry. 

Owing to the fact that storytelling, spoken word and slam poetry are contemporary art forms and still at a nascent stage in Chennai, Project Prodets — a community formed by graduate students Joel Sebastian, Vidya Rajagopalan and Poornima Mohan, has been posting educational and informative posts to create awareness about these art forms and encourage more performers.  

Speaking about the disparity between the social media following and attention Mumbai and Delhi-based collectives get, as opposed to the ones hailing from Chennai, Joel Sebastian says, “Given that there aren’t many south Indian artists when it comes to spoken word poetry and since all north Indians speak Hindi, those collectives have found a bigger audience and are hence in the limelight.”  

The club has held poetry busking events, workshops and meetings to discuss and explore various styles and formats that fall under the umbrella of performance poetry. Joel adds that they have roped in acclaimed performers from other parts of the country as guests in their open mic events. Project Prodets also held a virtual slam poetry contest called Proslam in February this year, which was judged by Foram Ashish Shah, the founder of Spill Poetry and award-winning poet Husain Rasheed, the founder of Dark Room Poets. 

Pandemic poetry: Exploring digital avenues 

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, much like other industries, storytelling and poetry collectives too, were forced to stop hosting live events and shift to digital platforms. The need to diversify and reach out to more audiences coupled with the pandemic-induced lockdown caused storytelling and poetry collectives to shift their attention to digital tools. Although performance spaces have been replaced by laptop /smartphone screens, and mics have been superseded by headphones, poets have been using digital alternatives like virtual meetings, which serve as a cradle for artists and audiences alike. 

House of T, a Chennai-based performance art collective, was started three years ago by Thomas Davis, Mrithika Munukoti and Anushka Subramanian in order to build a platform for standup comedians, musicians, poets, storytellers and all artists to perform. Recollecting how only a couple of venues including Geoffrey’s and Unwind Centre provided a space for budding artists in the city, Thomas Davis notes that House of T was introduced with the intent to provide first-timers a platform to perform and improve their craft. “We host general open mics and events which are open for all art forms but we started conducting open mics specifically for spoken word poetry and storytelling from 2019 and have held over 30 open mics since then,” 30-year-old Thomas tells TNM.  

After hosting over 70 events, House of T had to rely heavily on social media portals and video calls for organising events during the lockdown. In an attempt to use social media as a tool to provide a network for artists, the founders of House of T came up with an event called ‘Corona House Party’ during the lockdown where each artist was given the opportunity to take over House of T’s Instagram handle. By the end of the day, the artist of the day was also given an hour or two to perform their set on a live session through the Instagram page. Speaking about the feature, Thomas observes, “Corona House Party not only enabled artists to find a larger audience, but it also helped us to meet so many artists coming from diverse backgrounds, which in turn increased our social media presence.” He also adds that after successfully hosting the event for a year, they recently brought back the second edition of the event as ‘Corona House Party 2’.  

“We have been conducting contests, online events and interviews with artists. We also create special posters featuring all the participants in order to promote them through our Instagram page,” says J Jerin Jose, the founder of Madras Sounds, a popular Chennai-based collective. Apart from hosting open mics and concerts, Madras Sounds also functions as a music production company and recording studio.  

While House of T and Madras Sounds focus on Instagram, the founders of Deleted Drafts — Prakash Rangarajan, a content writer and IT employees Padmavathi and Logesh, who are active members in Chennai’s poetry circles, have been trying to create a forum for poets to showcase their artistry on YouTube. 

Tell me where do you put the anger? Do you put it on the top of your head when a mack man walks up to you with wisdom dripping in misogyny, when his privilege holds his head higher than yours? Do you put it inside your eyes that seem to ache with all this pain of watching young girls being told that they are not enough, that they are just not enough to dream, to live, to rule,” Harshana, an artist, questions in a video posted by Deleted Drafts, while she ponders whether women are conditioned not to express their anger because of how destructively powerful it is. Be it intense love poems, an angry ode or an introspective story, the YouTube channel curates pieces that touch upon a wide range of themes.  

Following the precedent set by collectives such as Terribly Tiny Tales and Kommuneity, who have gained popularity over the years, Deleted Drafts was started with the intent to curate and produce videos that feature performers experimenting with various styles of poetry and storytelling. “The idea behind starting Deleted drafts was to have a platform to shoot, edit and upload videos featuring homegrown poets and storytellers.” 

Underlining how Tamil poems and stories do not find a space in YouTube channels that are well-known across the country, Padmavathi points out that Deleted Drafts has been encouraging vernacular voices and turning the spotlight on performers who speak different dialects of Tamil and write poems that are inspired from Tamil literary work.  

Collectives like Deleted Drafts are also increasingly adapting branding strategies to optimise their social media pages to increase their following. From designing templates for Instagram to shooting and editing videos using professional equipment, Padmavathi tells TNM how usage of well-known branding strategies and following in the footsteps of popular forums, help them gain more traction on social media and make their profiles more viewer-friendly. “We have been trying to focus on the colours we use, the logo design and other elements, that could help us maintain uniformity among posts. We have also been producing podcasts and we are trying to explore more digital avenues in the future,” says Padmavathi. 

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