By Anand Holla Jan. 18, 2020
In the age of CAA, words are the weapons on the tongues of wounded artistes. I witnessed the power of poetry first-hand at Mumbai’s Spoken Fest, where Varun Grover reiterated, “Kaagaz Nahi Dikhayenge” and Faye D’Souza asked, “Is the government reading the Constitution?”
Last weekend, the grassy lawns of Jio Gardens played host to another edition of Spoken Fest. Under the thick envelope of soothing poetry and flowing conversations featuring artistes of all sorts, there was a belligerent undercurrent of rebellion. The anti-CAA, anti-NRC protests that have permeated Indian society ever since December wove their way into a festival pulsing with creative voices. After all, Spoken Fest, last weekend, was a celebration of words in any form, a place “where words belong”.
Words then were weapons on the tongues of wounded artistes. Varun Grover, however, took his time to throw in his punches. The writer-comedian-lyricist charmed the audience with a little story on how he cracked the mystery of his tabloid going missing every morning during his early days in the city. Grover drew first blood by describing his matchbox-sized apartment as, “Dilli police ke dil se bhi chhota tha…”
As Grover declared, “Aur ab… Kaagaz nahi dikhaaenge”, a frenzied wave of cheer ran through the audience. Much to their delight, Grover had penned a couple of new verses of his anthem that has been lighting up nationwide protests:
Tum bhed bhaav ke chaalak toh,
Hum samvidhaan ke baalak hain
Tum Khilji, Hitler, Tughlaq toh,
Hum ik bachche ke gulakkh hain
Jo gulakkh baahar maati hai,
Jo gulakkh andar chaandi hai
Tum gumma, loha, laathi toh,
Hum Bhimrao aur Gandhi hain
As Grover declared, “Aur ab… Kaagaz nahi dikhaaenge”, a frenzied wave of cheer ran through the audience.
As the crowd lapped it all up with claps and whistles, the plush open-air BKC venue could have been any of the dusty protest sites. For Grover, it was all the same, as was for his audience.
Phir ek din aisa aayega, tum prem se lais ho jaaoge,
Hum Dekhenge gaao na gaao, khud bey-Faiz ho jaaoge
Uss din ki aas mein hum paagal, chup-chaap se chalte jaaengey,
Hum kaagaz nahi dikhaaenge, Hum kaagaz nahi dikhaaenge…
More applause, louder cheers. It seemed as if words were literally dispensing small packets of joy, hope, and strength. Earlier in the two-day festival, Delhi-based visual artist Sumit Roy had similarly electrified the crowd by rapping his band RollsRoy’s anti-establishment compositions, including “Poorna Swaraj”. Underlining the “sentiments of a broken nation”, the eerily prescient lyrics — the track was released last April — reflect the recent turn of events:
Poorna Swaraj… Par shabdon pe laathi kyun;
Poorna Swaraj… sawaalon pe kyun ho bawaal?
At one point, Roy unified the crowd by continuously rapping “Modiji” and holding a particular finger up in the air.
In a poetry session with Mohammed Sadriwala, poet Rakesh Tiwari acquainted the audience with the prolificacy of 18th century Indian poet Nazeer Akbarabadi’s verses. Pointing to how inclusive the “Father of Nazm” was, Tiwari said, “Humein secularism mat sikhaaiye, hum tab hi seekh liye hain.” To illustrate his point, Tiwari recited Akbarabadi’s poem in praise of Lord Krishna, in which he alludes him to Allah. One line goes: “Hai sab ka khuda, sab tujh pe fida… Allah-o-Ghani, Allah-o-Ghani”. Somewhere in its contemplative applause, the crowd appeared to appreciate the simplicity of Akbarabadi’s times.
Given that most writers, poets, story-tellers have an opinion on the troubled times we live in, Festival Director Roshan Abbas mentioned on stage that this edition of Spoken Fest reflected the mood of our times. This explains how behind all the podcasting workshops and pop culture discussions, a decidedly defiant force shadowed the event; then be it in Sabika Abbas Naqvi’s visceral, rousing poetry, or Tess Joseph, Sheena Khalid, and Aamir Aziz pulling off an English version of “Kaagaz Nahi Dikhayenge”.
From Peter Cat Recording Company sporting anti-CAA/NRC badges during their performances, to even Harsha Bhogle, sneaking in a clever punchline during his conversation with Gaurav Kapur on cricket and memories. Recounting Mohammad Azharuddin’s “miraculous” innings driven purely by faith, Bhogle said, “Sometimes faith drives you to violence… I don’t know why.” On cue, the crowd erupted in applause.
From PCRC sporting anti-CAA/NRC badges during their performances, to Harsha Bhogle, sneaking in a clever punchline during his conversation with Gaurav Kapur on cricket and memories.
Lyricist Kausar Munir recited a poem in three parts, touching upon the three generations of her family — grandmother, father and daughter — punctuated by a haunting line:
Birth certificate hai magar, jaan ka kaagaz kahaan se laaun
Death certificate hai magar, pehchaan ka kaagaz kahaan se laaun
Towards the end of her poem, Munir had a powerful thing to tell her girl: “Your place in this country is defined by the Constitution. It won’t be denied by an amendment.” Poet Hussain Haidry’s words were more unsparing, asking the audience to not sleep:
Jo darr ke bhaagte hain hamaare sawaal se,
Unsey jawaab maangna hai, soeeyega mat
Jo huqm de rahe hain, huqumat ke nashe mein,
Unka nasha utaarna hai, soeeyega mat
Befitting her profession and reputation, the most wholesome speech had to come from journalist Faye D’Souza. With a premise devised funnily around a building gathering full of pliant, conservative “Uncles” advising her to toe the line, D’Souza dropped truth bombs by the dozen. “Corporate India is so afraid to tick off the government. They are worried their files might not move through North Block and they will be punished into not making as much money as they are used to. So they are completely silent.”
Befitting her profession and reputation, the most wholesome speech had to come from journalist Faye D’Souza.
“Our streets are now littered with human rights violations, with attempts to change the fabric of this secular country,” D’Souza continued. “Our streets right now are full of crime, and the people who have access to education, information, and communication, have covered those streets with a blanket of silence,” she said, referring to Kashmir, Assam, Jamia, JNU, and Uttar Pradesh.
Playing off on the ridiculous apprehensions of the “Uncle”, D’Souza said, “Yes, Uncle, that’s true. The government is tracking everybody, reading everything.” A pause later, to a roaring cheer from the crowd, she asked: “Is the government reading the Constitution?” D’Souza ended her piece on a high, recalling how the young stood guard for the Constitution through that cold winter night. “The young kept us safe. The young stood and fought,” she said. “Uncle was with us in spirit.”
Anand is a writer, journalist, vegan, filmmaker, traveller, photographer, musician, YouTuber, take-it-easy-er. He loves films as much as Federer’s cross-court backhand. Most of all, he loves to tell a good story well.