Performance poetry is becoming increasingly popular in the big metros in India, thanks to the efforts of Raghavendra Madhu who founded Poetry Couture in 2014.
What comes to mind when you think of poetry? Is it Robert Frost urging you to take the road less travelled? Or is it Wordsworth sharing his happiness at seeing a field of daffodils? Poetry Couture is a movement that is attempting to change perceptions regarding poetry in India.
It aims to shake off the academic vibe attached to poetry and make it more performance-oriented.
The man behind Poetry Couture is Raghavendra Madhu.
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After working in the field of public health for many years, Raghavendra quit his job to pursue poetry as a full time career. It all started in Delhi a few years ago, when he was at a closed poetry recital. A little boy wanted to go up and read out his work but wasn’t given the chance. Raghavendra says he realised then that there weren’t enough spaces where people could share poetry, be it their own or that of others.
“Look at the stand-up comedy scene in India. They (stand-up comedians) now have so much respect. I want poetry to evoke the same kind of respect too,” says Raghavendra.
The open mic scene was just catching on in India. So he decided, along with a few friends, to start a poetry reading group. The first event was held in a small restaurant in Delhi. And the rest is history.
Now, every Monday, there are poetry performances in Delhi’s Hauz Khas village. And that’s not all. Since 2014, Poetry Couture has spread to other Indian cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Chennai too.
“In these cities, there are monthly sessions. And now we are even aiming at expanding the initiative to smaller cities in the country,” he says.
Poetry Couture is a pro-bono initiative. In every city, creative art spaces are identified and the events are held there for free.
Anyone and everyone can come and read out their poems.
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There is no language restriction either. Raghavendra recalls the story of a Pakistani doctor who came to an event they hosted to commemorate the birth anniversary of Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi in Delhi. A doctor from Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, Muhammad Irfan recited one of his poems at the event. He also gifted Raghavendra a Persian book of Rumi’s Rubayat and ghazals.
“We may not understand Persian but we definitely understand the language of love,” says Raghavendra.
As many as 10-15 people come for these events on a weekly basis. However, for specific events, there is often a bigger audience. For instance, for the American Poetry month at the US Consulate, there are as many as 100 attendees.
The success of Poetry Couture has spawned other small poetry performance groups. Raghavendra is happy with this development. “How is one going to hold on to art? It’s not mine. It is for everyone,” he says.
Poetry Couture has also brought together established poets with ordinary people. Poets like Arundhati Subramaniam and Keki Daruwalla are often seen at these poetry recitations.
“My journey with Poetry Couture has been very purposeful and fulfilling. All I knew was that this space between annual literature festivals and poetry lovers had to be bridged. Poetry Couture has had a very organic growth and it has been very inclusive — bringing in other people who practice other forms of art too. It has witnessed participation from known filmmakers, painters, designers, lyricists, novelists, and playwrights, across cities,” Raghavendra says.
The group has held many events across the country. In 2015, it teamed up with shaadi.com to raise awareness about child marriage, dowry and domestic violence. It was also part of a ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ campaign, with poetry recitals at the Sheroes Hangout – a café run by acid attack victims in Agra.
At another event, Poetry Couture brought together renowned poets to sensitise college students on environmental issues.
Going forward, Poetry Couture aims to bring performance poetry at par with the stand-up comedy scene. Raghavendra is also working towards setting up a for-profit wing of Poetry Couture, in order to develop a sustainable model for budding poets in the country. He is exploring crowdsourcing, partnerships, and sponsorships for this purpose.
“One can never survive on poetry alone. More often than not, poets are also academicians or journalists. They usually have an alternative career. I want to make performance poetry sustainable. This will encourage more youngsters to take up poetry,” he says.
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” – Dead Poet’s Society