Indian poets go guerrilla, skip the publishers

Indian poets go guerrilla, skip the publishers

Desi poets and artists from around the world mix it up on Madness Mandali's poetry-art jam session

"Ram Ram Poet and Artist Log!"

What might sound like the call of a temple priest from a one-horse village summoning his flock is actually an email greeting I'm familiar with now.

The email subject line reads "Visual Poetry Project" and the sender is "Madness Mandali".

The email is about Indian artists and poets getting together to mix inks on paper flavored with a hint of nuttiness.

KaviKalaKaviKala features 33 poems from predominantly unpublished Indian poets with artwork to complement each piece, making poetry reading a more sensory experience.It all began a few months ago when an ad appeared requesting poetry submissions for a book compilation. It wasn’t from an alpha publisher nor a random one. Their hardcover stance to poetry is usually "nobody buys it, we don’t do it". Ok, maybe if you’re Vikram Seth or the President of India, but otherwise really no.

Instead, the call for entries was from a nascent group calling itself Madness Mandali.

The poster ad featured a bald cartoony man in a lungi and tooting a horn, the text 'mother promise[d]' that our kidneys wouldn’t be robbed but selected entries would see the light of day in book form and there were no entry fees that would reduce it to a commercial plot.

Any poem dreamweaver worth his or her pun sent in entries for consideration. I couldn’t resist, along with over 150 other Indian poets from around the world.

The poetry book calls itself a Visual Poetry Project, and is aptly entitled "KaviKala". Which means artists too went through a selection process for submitting visuals. And, after a longlist and shortlist, the black and white result is artwork created to complement the poems.

With a launch expected in December, it will also feature a foreword by author, columnist, and blogger Sidin Vadukut and a back-cover blurb by author and blogger Kuzhali Manickavel.

Open invitation, guerilla-style

What's the Mandali? The tamasha stage name of the organization is explained on their blog -- "a maha mash-up of creative minds each of whom express themselves uniquely. But when their powers combine -- the results are bound to be crazy."

Ironically, in attempting to define itself the Mandali evades fitting into a box. In fact, it is all about blurring boundaries and crossing genres.

"What happens when amateur and professional poets, painters, designers, photographers, musicians and theatre troupes put their heads together? We don’t know either!" reads the blog.

What we do know for sure is that Mandali founders, college pals Paras Sharma, Joel Coelho and Eben Varghese, decided to find adventure beyond their writing group sessions.

"We don't have serious publishers for poetry today, but we have a lot of talent that is largely ignored on blogs. We're not gonna wait for publishers anymore, we’re starting our own thing," says Sharma, whose bipolar personality order includes pursuing a degree in psychology and writing comical Hinglish poems that you can occasionally see in the youth-fresh Jam magazine.

Sharma is also the fulcrum in the Madness Mandali circle, which has now grown to include Yorick Pinto, Hari Chakyar, Mira Malhotra, Pratheek Sudhakaran, Benny Sam Mathew, Tushar Bangera and Satish Suggala, all who serve as its shaping forces.

They’re a motley crew that include an ad guy, out-of-the closet musicians, an NGO starter and even the token bank manager and engineer.

Lately, Sharma has self-deprecatingly titled himself 'Chief Spammer' for the many emails he sends out.

He says he was struck by how open-invitation, guerrilla-style street-art operations in Mumbai such as The Wall Project and BlindBoys' Blow Up used their medium to "re-connect with people."

They offered "more space for artists, more recognition." And most importantly, it didn’t matter if you were a banker or a copywriter, and, often, creative expression was unlimited. "During The Wall Project there were people roaming around in superhero costumes," says Sharma.

This is the local explosion of creativity Madness Mandali wants to be a part of and foster.

Breaking rhyme conventions

In its first genre-bending exploration, "KaviKala", the Visual Poetry Project, features 33 poems from predominantly unpublished Indian poets. Artwork created to each poem will offer visuals to the word, making poetry a more sensory experience.

But behind every dream, there are nuts-n-bolts to consider. So what's it gonna cost?

The answer is self-publishing -- where the capital is zero. The creative content is entirely submissions-based, and the books have an online platform where they are printed on demand. "It's so eco-friendly, Captain Planet cried!" exclaims the Mandali blogsite.

Incidently, the 33 poems stand for all the days in the month. Er…well, that was the intention, but a last-minute decision to add a Marathi and Hindi poem (with translations) into the English-dominant book, will beef up any reader’s a-poem-a-day month.

The selection process was finally passed through the eyes of Vinita Matthew, a professor of English at Wilson College, who’s favorite class to teach is popular culture.

With infectious enthusiasm she likes to explore "new idioms of expression from comic strips to Facebook to language in film" and brightly says the Mandali is "definitely not a tight-assed group, that’s all hoity-toity and Shakespeare-spouting and all."

Concurrently, Priyanka Sharma, former art director at Jam, who owns her creative shop Circus, judged entries for artist selections.

"We were looking for people who do original, mad stuff," she says. However the result is a mix bag. The art in the book breaks away from the Mandali's lighthearted logo style with contemplative, exploratory and somber tones too.

"The Madness shouldn't be looked at in a typecast way; you could also look at it in terms of eccentricity that's not necessarily goofy," Paras Sharma explains.

"Mandali's only promise has been that it will offer projects that are unique, and allow artists from diverse mediums to collaborate with each other."

The C Word

Collaboration is a keyword in this poetry-art jam.

Mira Malhotra, a National Institute of Design postgrad student who’s designed the 'mad manoos' logo graphic, as well as the KaviKala cover, says she kept this in mind.

"I wanted a declaration -- calling for the community to meet," she says.

Which it did. Often with encouragement from the Mandali in our inbox, "Templates have been sent to your artist-log and if they haven't got in touch with you yet and you want to talk to them, trouble them I say!"

So even though artists and poets sat in different cities, or even out of India, they emailed, phoned, Skyped and worked out ideas, even deciding the book title and creating their own promos too. 

And the collaboration has just begun, which will resonate well beyond the book.

"KaviKala" artist Atul Paranjpe, who experiments with music, poetry and visual art with his two-person troupe called DawaDaru, says, “I read the poem and found a song in it. I’d be interested in composing music to it.” 

“It’s not clearly outlined yet, but I’m thinking of having an album of poetry. A band could mentor this process. This could then go into a video artist space,” says Sharma as he anticipates possibilities for cross-genre Mandali madness.

“Poetry, art, theatre, music, film, flash mobs, impromptu street events…,” he wants the Mandali to be "out there", and with the book's far-out debut it's keeping its mother promise.




Poem: Fabrications and Altercations

Poet: Himali Singh Soin

Artist: Priya Sebastian




My tailor—Aseem—has arrived. He waits

In the verandah behind dark green blinds,

And cools himself beneath the high white fan.  

I bring him my grandma’s saris to change

Their shape and form: a party dress perhaps.

He draws out my ideas with a quick  

But flimsy hand, wearing, all along,  a

measuring tape around his neck. He  

Counts my shoulders, my chest, my waist, hips, thighs,

Knees, ankles. Then I run my finger down

My collar between my breasts to where the

Neckline should be. He looks away and in-

Creases my wishes by an inch. We proceed  

To mould the past into an illusive,

Calculated, irreverent future.

"KaviKala" will launch mid-December and will be available to order online at the Madness Mandali blog.

Mrinalini Harchandrai keeps trying to escape Mumbai to spacious green pastures but a mysteriously unscientific yo-yo effect, similar but different to a black hole effect, tows her back.
Read more about Mrinalini Harchandrai