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Mumbai: ‘When you become the poem itself’

Updated on: 04 September,2023 07:27 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Hemal Ashar |

Words took centre stage at launch of Varavara Rao’s poetry book at the Press Club on Saturday

Mumbai: ‘When you become the poem itself’

Varavara Rao’s wife Hemalata with human rights lawyer Indira Jaising during the book release on Saturday. Pic/Ashish Raje

Key Highlights

  1. Varavara Rao’s first anthology of poems translated into English
  2. The book is a collection of poems translated by nine translators
  3. Rao has been implicated in the Bhima-Koregaon case

Varavara Rao’s first anthology of poems translated into English called, ‘Varavara Rao: A Life in Poetry’ was released at a function held at Press Club Azad Maidan, late Saturday evening. The book is edited by N Venugopal and Meena Kandasamy. The book is a collection of poems translated by nine translators from 16 books published between 1968 and 2014.

Let’s celebrate

Rao’s nephew N Venugopal said at the outset, “this is not a conventional book launch. This is a celebration of Rao and his poetry.” Varavara Rao was in the audience with his wife, Hemlatha.

Rao has been implicated in the Bhima-Koregaon case and incarcerated in Pune and Mumbai prisons for over three years since 2018. The case refers to the violence during an annual celebratory gathering also called Elgar Parishad on January 1, 2018 at Bhima Koregaon to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. Rao is currently living in Mumbai for the last two years on conditional bail.

Anchored by Venugopal, the written word was the hero of this meet. Playwright Ramu Ramanathan said, “I am generally profoundly pessimistic but literature is our reason for hope.” Ramanathan compared the recitation of Rao’s poems to a waterfall, “there is a lot of noise, like when a waterfall is crashing down, the underlying message is that you have to make noise to be heard in this world. Yet, just as the silence that descends when the water stops flowing, there are moments of utter calm too,” he stated. 

Poem power

Jerry Pinto said, “what does poetry do? It stands witness to moments when we have been ourselves or more than ourselves.” Of fiery revolution Pinto said, “there has not been a revolution that has not started with words or thoughts.” Pinto explained that the young often say, “we do not want only words, we want to see action. I say, words in their own way are much more ‘active’. One job of a poem is to go sparking in someone’s ear, and say to him: you could be doing this. When you enter the poem, it is an act of empathy. It becomes so large that it becomes a threat to all established structures like patriarchy, fascism, casteism…”

The challenge

Human rights lawyer Mihir Desai, who confessed he seemed to be “the odd man out in this collection of creative people,” said, “poetry is one of the most subversive ways of dealing with the present establishment. It is a very important vehicle and VV (referring to VV Rao) is one of the foremost exponents of this vehicle.”
Though a number of speakers including Desai referred to the current BJP government calling these “dark times” others referring to the, “threat to freedom of expression” Desai did say that Rao has been “the target of governments throughout his life.” 

The struggle

Professor and Rao’s family friend Tejaswini Niranjana said that the name of the book is, “a life in poetry but it should have been called a life in struggle. Whenever there was an epochal political event or turn, me and my students would ask ourselves what would VV (Rao) think of this?” said the Niranjana referring to the arc of influence Rao had on her life. Poems were read out in Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Punjabi and in English.

Indira Jaising’s speech focused on upping healthcare for the incarcerated. The human rights lawyer said, “Social and economic rights of prisoners includes the right to health. I got a WhatsApp on my phone years ago, stating: is there no lawyer in this country who can get VV out before he dies in jail?” 

While revolution and Rao were the context, it was language, its potency, and the ability it has to transform you in fundamental ways which shone as bright as the first stars in the sky, as the late evening sky gave in to darkness at the end of two hours. 

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