Protest poetry defies conventional barriers, leaves lasting impact in digital age

Shayoni Mitra
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Poetry is becoming public again. Far from being private papers, published verse or invited mushairas, they are now akin to traditions of oral literariness where rhyme is realised in performance.(File)

Something extraordinary is happening right now: India is in the midst of nationwide protests against CAA, NRC, NPR and violence against students and universities. This has led to poetry, songs, protest signs and public art projects that are saturating our social media in unprecedented ways.

Poetry is becoming public again. Far from being private papers, published verse or invited mushairas, they are now akin to traditions of oral literariness where rhyme is realised in performance. The interaction between the poet and her audience shapes the poem. In such an inverted context, the revolutionary poem is what linguistic philosopher J L Austin would call the performative utterance, where the performing is the doing.

For example, the now-ubiquitous, Hum Kagaz Nahin Dikhayenge (We will not show papers) by comedian, lyricist and screenwriter, Varun Grover. In his original posts on Facebook and Twitter — on December 21, 2019, ten days after the CAA was passed on December 11, Grover exhorts — “There is no copyright on these words — feel free to use them, adapt, sing, modify, create.” And people have. From Shaheen Bagh in Delhi to Azad Maidan in Mumbai to Park Circus Maidan in Kolkata to Sabzibagh in Patna: Within the span of a few days, the crowds knew and recited these words. On January 12, in a supercut by director Ronny Sen, a slew of Bengali film personalities across generations including Sabyasachi Chakravarty, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Konkona Sen Sharma and Tillotama Shome recite Amra Kagoj Dekhabo Na, a Bengali version of the poem, expanding and dramatising Grover’s original minimal and memorable verse.

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A sign of going viral in the digital age is when a meme becomes so popular as to have its origins obscured. Just as the lyrics “Apna Time Ayega” (Our Time Will Come) from the 2019 film Gully Boy, “Hum Kagaz Nahi Dikhayenge”, is an exercise in futurity, a promissory gesture of resistance in the face of autocratic power.

This spirit of resistance can be found in another one of my favorite poems from recent weeks, “Tum Kaun Ho Be?”, a title while in itself not profane, is probably best translated in tonality to “Who the hell are you?” Poet Puneet Sharma first released a version of this on YouTube in April 2019. But the poem surged in popularity following a performance of it in Azad Maidan this January, captured on video. A quietly defiant poem, it casts love for one’s country as private, not demonstrative: “Look! I would tell you, but the land herself is restless/ What is between her and me, is somewhat personal”. It also casts the patriotism that is the order of the day — the kind that requires you to show papers and sing national anthems in movie theatres by mandate, as sasta nasha (cheap high).

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Another pertinent example in poetry is Un violador en tu camino (A rapist in your way), a Chilean poem about sexual assault and rapists being held accountable with the memorable first lines: El patriarcado es un juez (The patriarchy is a judge). First performed in Santiago in November 2019, on ‘International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women’, it has since been translated and performed in English at a downtown Manhattan court house — at the beginning of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial on January 9, 2020; and, the next day, 8,000 miles away in Kolkata, in Bengali by a women’s collective in a flash mob. They rendered the poem’s anthemic chorus as, “Ami ki porechi, kothaye giyechi, dosh ta amar noye (What I have worn and where I have gone cannot be my fault).”

Today’s protests also strike directly at hyper masculinist, brahminical ethno-nationalism: Women are at the frontlines, after all, facing police action, mob violence. In this context, veering away from any paternalism or sentimentalism, poet Amir Aziz composed, Yeh Hai Jamia Ki Ladkiyan (These are the Girls of Jamia) where the women: “They unmask tyrants/with gestures bring revolution/the girls of Jamia/shredding the cloaks of patriarchy”. Rather than viewing women as sisters, mothers, wives or daughters, Aziz views them as individuals: “They live their lives/they also smoke cigarettes/Some are drifters/These are the girls of Jamia/And Keep your opinions to yourself/Keep a hijab handy if you need”.

No internet blockage can stop this trend. Protest performance in the 21st century is designed to go viral. Bodies animate ideas, gestures fuse with words: Far from being ephemeral, such performances circulate and change, making new meaning with each repetition.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 10, 2020 under the title “A new verse.” The writer is assistant professor at the department of theatre, Barnard Centre for Research on Women, Barnard College, Columbia University

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