Poetry is quite the thing in Bangalore these days. Firstly, Toto Funds the Arts (TFA) has been organizing poetry readings at Crossword every month. Their strategy is to pair a well-known poet with a newbie and provide a platform for both to present their work. I think it’s an admirable effort to encourage one of the most neglected art forms that exist. What is even more heartening is that the readings are well attended even though they’re usually held on weekdays. There is more to this city than IT and pubs, and it’s nice when things like this remind one of that fact.
Before I talk about the poetry, I just want to get one niggling point out of the way. While I think it’s great that CKS is taking an initiative, I’m not sure that its small, cramped office quarters are the best venue for poetry readings. That aside, it was a worthwhile experience. Sridala has a lovely, deep voice with the tiniest hint of melancholia and her poems were easy on the ear and resonant (as Mamta Sagar called them).
Finding Quiet in the Flurry
The relationship between language and meaning has always haunted poets. Surviving the onslaught of familiar words and bending them to one’s will is something that most poets grapple with daily. In her debut collection of poems, A Reluctant Survivor (Sahitya Akademi, Rs. 50), Sridala Swami not only ‘reluctantly survives’, but also explores words—and the silences between them—to considerable effect.
Sridala’s concern with the freshness of words is evident in poems like ‘Category Instability’, in which she likens us to “beasts of burden / tied to our words”. The inability to do away with the “laziness” of oft-used words and symbols, the “weight of history”, worries her because, as she says in the poem, “When we think of something / we are really thinking / of something else.”
Political and social concerns (or the “flurry of the world”) resonate in Sridala’s poems. In her introduction to the book, she asserts: “The part that gets caught up and shivers in response to the world is the voice of the engaged poet.” Many of her poems reflect this capacity to be affected by external events, even those at a distance. Take Aftermath, a poem written in reaction to the bomb blasts in Mumbai’s local trains last year. In this brief poem, potent images such as “railway tracks / like slit throats, / that grin at the empty sky” stare up from the page to bring the horror alive.
Celebrating Rain is another example of this preoccupation with giving voice to the lives of others. Sridala was surprised when her poetry reading group chose rain as a theme last year even while war raged in Lebanon. The poem is both rejoinder and appeal:
“if nobody speaks of remarkable things
who will know
about torn lands where the rains
do not fall at this time.”
The same strain is visible in Myopic in which she describes her struggle to “piece together the world” where “a woman…has brought up her children / and lost them to unfinished spaces”.
Images of nature are woven deftly into some of her poems to illustrate larger concepts. In Nocturne, she conjures up the violence of the night and the stillness of the morning to talk about change and stasis.
In her more personal poems, longing and hurt echo in the minutest gestures. An entire relationship is sketched into a moment in A History of Scars, when she, “looking at the thin, livid line that runs” down his cheek, touches her own to trace a “line that isn’t there”.
The lyrical Quantify My Love is almost a romp with words. The poet frolics through it, tracing love’s many aspects from “goose-pimply” moods to “shred-the-paper murder”, its wickedness and its calm. The short lines and gentle rhyme scheme give the poem a sing-song lilt.
Her battle with cliché and over-use is obvious in Hospital Catalogues. The long poem consists of a series of impressions but none of the customary visions of disease and grief. The images are almost matter-of-fact. Pain and ennui are always understated and the poem ends on the hopeful note that “somewhere there must be / something that causes the body to heal.”
Sridala read a selection that demonstrated her range and scope at an event organised by Centre for Knowledge Societies (CKS), a company that develops innovative media and technology products. Noted Kannada poet and playwright Mamta Sagar introduced Sridala and spoke about how her poems display many aspects of good poetry such as strong visual imagery, resonance, playfulness and subtlety.
The small room was filled with poetry enthusiasts and the air was heavy with thoughtful attention despite the rather unusual setting, a welcome sign that the muse is still alive and kicking in Bangalore.