An Oral Tradition Made Desi: Meet the Mumbai Teenagers Reinventing Spoken-Word Poetry

“I feel like a lot of teenagers in the city have thoughts they wish to express, but aren’t really sure how to say it, or where to say it. Poetry lets you put those emotions down.

– ”Ishika Srivastava (17)

A place where theatre meets literature meets story-telling. The past two to three years have seen a rapid explosion of spoken-word poetry (a style of performance art that involves poetry read aloud) all over India, but primarily in Mumbai.

A genre originating in the US and UK during the 1980s, Mumbai-based organisations such as UnErase poetry, Kommune, and Tape a Tale have lovingly nurtured a small but rising community in India’s pop-cultural capital.

Given Mumbai’s dynamism and artistic undercurrents, it might seem inevitable that spoken-word poetry – a medium gaining traction worldwide – has snowballed into popularity.

Also read: Watch: The Revolution Is Here. And It Is Not State Sponsored.

“We’re in the growth phase as an art-form right now,” comments Simar Singh, 18-year-old founder of UnErase poetry, “I feel like Mumbai is the perfect city for any performance art to exist because of the cultural diversity and people from all over the country… there’s openness to other languages.”

On a more practical level, he adds, “There are more avenues to commercialise your art in Mumbai, as compared to other Indian cities, because of the range of venues, access to corporates, the entertainment industry… people are here to succeed.”

While UnErase may be most popular for its widely-consumed YouTube channel, Mumbai also offers many exciting offline opportunities. The city boasts regular open mics hosted by the Habitat, the Hive, and Cuckoo Club, more spectacular events such as Spoken Fest, and smaller, word-of-mouth, youth performance-collectives, such as Ba Dastoor.

Audiences may vary, but are generally young and enthusiastically supportive (and occasionally tipsy). Although the late-night timings of open mics might inconvenience those still in school, it is simply undeniable that the Mumbai spoken-word scene is dominated by those in their teens to their thirties.

Also read: How Instagram Brought Feminism to My Dinner Table

Eagerly-opinionated performers foreground social activism and advocacy, hallmarks of Mumbai youth-culture and historically affiliated with spoken-word. Common themes include bodily autonomy, mental health, sexual assault, bullying, feminism, beauty standards and societal pressures. Poets may employ emotive facial expressions, rhythm, grand physical gestures and alarmingly dramatic voice modulation to captivate their audiences.

It is not uncommon for performers to stride purposefully up-and-down the stage, even descending into the audience. “No one sugarcoats their stories,” gushes Keerti Gupta, a 17-year-old theatre student who is turning her spoken-word poems into a book. Many young artists claim their interest in spoken-word was sparked by an interest in acting (a nod to Mumbai’s identity as the cradle of Bollywood).

Equally true to the Bollywood tradition, performances in ‘Hinglish’ are enormously and endearingly prevalent. The ratio of Hindi to English slam poets may be fairly even, but it is rare to watch a Hindi or English performance that doesn’t intersperse words from the other language.

Intriguingly, differences in style are almost enough to classify English and Hindi spoken-word as different sub-genres. Hindi spoken-word is more whimsical in a way, employing more stylistic flourishes, less reluctant to use humour, and with far more room for clever word-play.

“Initially, it was English getting a lot of eyeballs and media attention,” says Singh, “But Hindi/Urdu has picked up far more than English in the past year, and I think it’s going to pick up even more. English [in India] has a very selective audience and has a certain typical flow…Hindi/Urdu are more versatile, because they have a lot of other styles they’ve experimented with in spoken-word…they’ve diversified over time.”

Also read: Why the Urdu Language Is Fading Away From Bollywood

Nothing is perfect.

Despite this electrifying influx of creativity, Mumbai’s ‘serious’ culture can sometimes make the genre restrictive. Poorvika Mehra (18), whose performance on Unerase Poetry’s YouTube channel garnered over 107K views, believes that poets sometimes feel obligated to focus their work on social issues in a tokenistic manner:

“There was a time I believed that spoken-word was predominantly a form of political expression, and I wrote poems about a lot of social issues. Many of them I genuinely believed in, but some of them I wrote because I felt it was something that should be written about… rather than something I was passionate about.”

Concurrently to this, ‘lighter’ topics such as romance, friendship, family and nature are often treated dismissively by the community. “The general perception is that spoken-word poetry is not meant to deal with these themes, despite them being so genuine and real,” remarks Mehra. Furthermore, queer voices, perspectives on economic issues and people from minority castes and religions still remain underrepresented.

Is there room for growth? Certainly. But inclusion is being ardently advocated for by many prominent artists, and the genre has already shattered several barriers. It’s both shocking and thrilling to see ‘hush-hush’ topics of love, gender, loneliness, sex, depression and more not just addressed, but performed loudly and openly in a culture that encourages silence.

A flood of teenagers making militant and effective use of social media, speaking out and pushing boundaries, may ruffle some feathers, but it is changing attitudes, one line at a time.

And Mumbai is the perfect home. 

Thanks to: Ishika Srivastava, Ishaan Chawdhary, Simar Singh, Ishaana Khanna, Poorvika Mehra, Akanksha Sinha, Keerti Gupta, Yohan Singh, Varun Parkash, Tonushree Chowdhury, Vidusshi Hingad, Salonee Kumar, and Hitanshi Badani

Featured Image Credit: Poorvika Mehra