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Report on the Annual India Poetry Reading

Vivek Sharma


First there was silence, then emerged a sound, the sound became part of a word, the word then searched and searched till it found a meaning, the meaning became the unspoken baggage of the sound, then a poet picked sound after sound, set it to a rhythm, with all the baggage of spoken and unspoken meaning, and out came a poem. Words are material objects, words live on paper, words are printed and written, but sound is just a vibration and poem is neither the meaning nor the vibration, or perhaps it is both and more.


On 14th May, 2011, Harvard University’s Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies organized the Fifteenth Annual India Poetry Reading. The theme this year was ‘Spirituality,’ which probably is the stated and unstated essence of every poem, the "more" every poem carries within it. The event, held a week after Rabindranath Tagore's 150th birthday, included several recitals of his poems. The confluence of various spiritual quests that is resonant in Tagore's verses arises from, and perpetuates, an endless tradition of poetry, and in this event, we celebrated the continuation of that quest.


Achyut Adhikary from Nepal opened with an invocation titled "Rise". It was a call to all to write and express thoughts and emotions, and then the event commenced. Ravi Shankar was the visiting guest to the event and presented poems from his latest, award-winning collection "Deepening Groove". Ravi is an American poet whose childhood sojourns to India provide inspiration for several lyrical lines that acknowledge a regard for the ancestors who loved and lived in a world quite different from his own. By conjuring sounds, smells, colors from nature and arranging them in verses about human aspirations, ideas, emotions and thoughts, Ravi’s poems sing to the spirit, while the body is in the act of hearing, feeling, smelling, seeing and even forgetting itself.  Poets representing seven languages – citizens and exiles of different traditions, brought up in different landscapes of belief – then followed in quick succession.


After Jamunabai Prakash read a poem in English titled "Free of Form", Rosie Kamal presented Sufia Kamal's "Listen O God" in a translation by Kabir Chaudhary. Through the recital, Rosie paid homage to her mother-in-law Sufia Kamal, an eminent Bengali poet from Bangladesh, whose hundredth birth anniversary is only a month away. Thereafter Vivek Sharma recited a poem in Hindi titled: "Anth Mein Tera Kaun Hoga?"/ "In The End Who Shall You Call Your Own", and followed up with an Anglicized Ghazal titled "Lexicon of the God." Hema Pant recited "Microscope" (Hindi) by Subash Gogate. Julie Batten read two poems next, and in a highly evocative poem, "Born to Dance", she merged the sorrowful narrative of massacre of Royal dancers in Cambodia by the Pol Pot regime with the human quest for beauty and art. Ola Mackiewicz from Brown University read a short poem "Into the void" narrating the journey in life.


Sajed Kamal recited self-composed "Dance Shiva Dance" next, followed by "Dust Temple" by Rabindranath Tagore. Maya De also paid tribute to Tagore by reciting two poems written in his honor in Bengali. This was followed by a Bengali verse "Chinno Bastra" by Alok De. The winds then left Bengal and musical notes of Gujarat emerged in voices and verses read by Pallavi Gandhi and Bharat Dave, who recited "Saundryanu Gaanu" by Makarand Dave and "Halvad Taari Yaadon Aneri" by Bipin Shukla respectively. Madhukar Shah then read his poem "Ocean and Wave" on the approach of the finite to the infinite, and Jayent Dave followed up with a self-composed poem "Vedana" in Gujarati. Vedana, sometimes translated as suffering, is a deep emotion that itself arises when a person transcends his own ego, his own self.


The next poem "Buddha" was recited by Shantamma Prakash in Malayalam. As she recited a poem committed to memory in her high school days, the resonant notes throbbed quite like the chanting of Sanskrit hymns. The next composition, Arun Chaudhari's "Preet Jagao", was a poem in Bhakti tradition, sung like a Bhajan, designed for Satsang (literal meaning good company; refers to coming together of many people to sing and celebrate their chosen divinities or to a gathering like this one was!). Chandrakant Shah who recited next turned "Blue Jeans" into his chosen divinity. As the poem unfolds, you hear a poet’s wholehearted praise and dedication to blue jeans, as if blue jeans are the best manifestation of divine form and function. Pramod Thaker then read six "chappas" from his translations of Gujarati Bhakati/Sufi poems by Akha. Like Kabir, Akha's verses contain spiritual nuggets brought forth in lyrical language of common people, and the nuggets are served wrapped in examples that stick your tongue to remind of you of the taste and the treat. Ameeta Kaul read two poems on the theme "Spiritual Questions of our Times." They explored the harmony of beliefs uniting the faiths and the humanity.


Bijoy Misra then closed with a soulful rendition of a poem in Oriya, titled "Mana" or mind, where through the poem he evoked and echoed the ancient philosophical Indian thought about 'maNa/mind' as the creator of universe, conscious as well as unconscious, earthly as well as divine.  Ruth Hill, the symbol of oral traditions in American culture, had the last word at the event.  Ruth has been a regular participant in this annual gathering.  Ruth recalled that her late husband Brother Blue, who was also a regular participant, was still in the audience and enjoying the words though he physically passed away two years ago. It was a spiritual conclusion to the poetry offerings.


A vote of thanks was offered to the participants and the volunteers, particularly to Gregory Miller, staff employee at Harvard University who has helped with the logistics for the event every year since its inception. As the event came to the close, poets of different chimes walked out with their varied rhymes. The stirrings that brought us all together run deeper than the physical and metaphysical distances that separate us migrants from India or Indians in India from people of different languages, states or religions. Only by exchanging words, no matter what our languages, will we begin to transcend our distances, and approach the plane of spirituality where humans as poems find their true resonance.


The annual opportunity to celebrate the diversity of Indian voices was created by special efforts of Bijoy Misra and the Department of Sanksrit and Indian Studies, and will present itself again next year. Chandrakanth Shah announced the formation of the South Asian Poetry of New England (SAPNE), a group which will meet every quarter to bring together people of like interests. The event brought to a conclusion the offerings of the Outreach Committee for the 2010-2011 academic year and the next season will commence with a lecture in November 2011.



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