IIT-Kanpur was recently at the centre of a controversy over “ Hum Dekhenge ”, a popular Urdu nazm, or poem, written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The poem was recited by a group of students on campus during an agitation. This enraged many others, including a faculty member, who found the nazm offending their religious sentiments. Few cared to understand Faiz’s poem in context. In the ongoing protests surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, there have been several occasions when protesters have chanted the poems of Gorakh Pandey, Vaidyanath Mishra (Nagarjun), Dushyant Kumar and Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, to name a few. Renowned Bengali poet Joy Goswami wrote a poem in support of JNU students who were brutally beaten up on campus. It went viral on social media. Goswami ends his poem with a lament that silence is akin to mass slaughter. Recently, an installation with Miya poetry (written by Bengali-origin Muslims) from Assam was removed from an art festival in Goa. Martin Niemöller’s “First they came” is another poem that has gained wide currency in these protests. There are many names that could join the list including Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Adrienne Rich. The ongoing protests perhaps endeared many more people to poetry, who discovered its subversive character.
That begs the question: why do so many people appear to be scared of poetry? Weren’t we always told that poetry is about emotions recollected in tranquillity and the gentle expression of sentiments? Or about beauty, which ought to be desired and cherished, about daffodils and nightingales that are far removed for many from their immediate contexts? Sometimes, in childhood, it felt like a conspiracy to equate the ornate or the decorative with the poetic as if the only purpose of poetry were to soothe agitated souls and offer relief from the vagaries of life. Reflecting upon this narrative about poetry in my childhood, I am filled with outrage. Only later, when I began to read and understand poetry on my own terms, did I realise that dissent or protest is at the core of poetry. Poetry has always been anti-hegemonic. Dissent, however, must be broadly understood in this context. It could surely mean raising your voice against oppressive powers or ills that prevail in the social structure. In poetry, or any art form for that matter, dissent or protest could also be interpreted as breaking boundaries, creating new forms, genres and vocabulary of expression and thus looking at the world with a fresh pair of eyes and sensibility. Poetry has always done that. Filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak used to say, “Poetry is the art of all arts.” Art doesn’t adhere to set standards. In defiance, it seeks self-renewal. If poetry is art, how can it resist defiance? The political events of today suggest that that poetry is a spontaneous reaction to our time. It is more adaptable to forms of protest and performance. These events also show that poetry is deeply historical. It bears testimony to the times we live in and serves as a reminder of our past. A large contingent of our Bhakti tradition poets are critical of religious dogma. Is there any other way of reading Kabir?
Giving rise to future poets
Namdeo Dhasal showed us the underbelly of Mumbai and exposed us to Dalit life in the city. Narayan Surve did something similar by tracing the history of his father’s arrival in Mumbai and the life of perennial humiliation that followed till his last day. Dilip Chitre once said that all poetry is protest. Poetry is confrontation. It echoes the joys of living but also embodies its despairs and agonies. If so much of our lived experience and reality is a constant encounter with despair, how can poets desist from showcasing the same? Protests also birth new art and uncover new voices. Perhaps future poets will emerge from the ongoing protests and their verse will bear witness to our treacherous times.