Arising Out of the Spoken Word


Rahiman dekh badhen ko

laghu na dije daari

jahan kaam aave suii

kaha kare tarvari

Thus spoke the poet philosopher Rahim (1556-1627) in his well-known doha. The paraphrase would read thus — it’s not always the bigger one that does the job, but oftentimes, the smaller achieves the desired goal/where the needle can come handy why then flash a sword? If mainstream written tradition of poetry is the sword, spoken word poetry, a long-established tradition, is the needle that is precise and sharp. A large number of young and upcoming poets today feel that with spoken word poetry gaining more and more prominence in urban areas of the country — especially with the aid of social media and other democratic spaces — poets are increasingly confident to take over the landscape of emotions, memory, and the quotidian, and not wait for a publisher to vet their work for printing on a page.

This very aspect came alive at the recent Poets Translating Poets (PTP) festival in Bombay. PTP is a massive, ambitious and highly successful project conducted by the Goethe Institut and Max Mueller Bhavan (MMB) involving poets in 20 languages and 51 poets. From November 25-27, Bombay buzzed in different city venues with the congregation of poets, participants, organizers and audience, a stellar gathering. This writer was the moderator for a riveting panel.

Ever since poetry came to humankind, its utterance always has been in the forefront, once memory and observation played their crucial roles. Kabir’s dohas, Akka Mahadevi vacanas, Adivasi incantations and even the Shruti tradition in the Vedas have long configured the spoken word culture in India from centuries. What a panel titled “Rise of the Spoken Word” then did at the PTP festival on Nov 27, is to bring some passionate practitioners and speakers together to reaffirm their belief in the power of the intonations, words, images, improvisation and of course, storytelling. Arising from the din of street cars, shopping arcade crowd, auditorium noise, faraway chugs of the local train, the words the participants let free like birds soaring high, mingled with the listener’s minds. A gentle throb of the vein on someone’s neck, a tweak in the cheek muscle, a flutter in the stomach — everything combined together to celebrate the feeling and its cause. German, Hindi, and English collided across the poetic firmament like delightful pigeons trying to find a favorite perch.

Ulrike Almut Sandig from Germany explores spoken word through music and narration. Her quest is to bring in more so-called taboo subjects — politics, feminism and children’s literature as a storytelling tools. A versatile poet and writer who started off her career by pasting poems on to lamp posts and distributing free poetry flyers and post cards, Sandig enthralled the gathering at MMB Library by reading out a piece in German incorporating her musical skills and dramatic proficiency.

When lyricist and poet Raj Shekhar started singing “Jantar Mantar pe Lori (Lullaby at Jantar Mantar)”, the emotions swayed like a cradle rocking a child. The personal is political, any passionate poet will tell you. But none better than Raj Shekhar who is perhaps more well-known for his songwriting for hit films such as Tanu Weds Manu and Tanu Weds Manu Returns. His words literally showered prem, barish aur inquilab (love, rain and revolution) as the core of spoken word poetry.

And naturally, in a discussion involving poetry slams, film songs, dramatic poetry, stand-up routines, and their impact reflecting a multicultural menu, Rochelle D’Silva’s point of view brought sharp insights to the panel. Her performance for the panel was measured and well delivered. Spoken poetry, with its immense potential, is for her a conduit of not just protests or radical stands, but also about life and its small delights and peeves in generous sweeps.

Sandig’s absurd but beautiful world gleaned from children’s stories, D’Silva’s down-to-earth reading, and Raj Shekhar’s lyricism held the evening like a delicate breath, at once charged as well as quivering with expectation. Expectation because, all present there knew something was rising from the core of each heart there, something was moving the air. All because it held a prophecy of more exciting things arising out of the spoken word tradition in the times to come. No swordplay, just deft stitches from a fine needle to create more patterns in words and images.

Nabina Das

Nabina Das

NABINA DAS is the author of a short fiction collection "The House of Twining Roses-Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped", a novel "Footprints in the Bajra", and two poetry collection titled "Into the Migrant City" and "Blue Vessel". Nabina blogs at and teaches Creative Writing in classrooms and workshops. The views expressed are her own.