Bowled over by words

Saumya Choudhury

Saumya Choudhury, who started slam poetry with DelSlam, tells Sangeeta Yadav how performance poetry has changed the lives of many artists & about their upcoming reality TV show

She is creative, artistic, passionate about poetry. She believes in speaking her heart out on issues. Meet Saumya Choudhury, from CR Park in Delhi, an alumni of Kirori Mal College and graduate in Political Science who revolutionised the movement of slam poetry in India with her platform DelSlam that features poets from all walks of life.

“From nobody knowing the words ‘slam poetry’ in India, to making it a cult among urbanites has been my biggest achievement. Poets at DelSlam perform about their personal experiences in a broad societal context like how Bollywood’s misogyny impacts their everyday life, encounters of racial prejudice or light humorous poetry on love and heartbreak,” Choudhury says.

It all started in 2013 when Choudhury backpacked across Canada and the US, pursuing independent arts.

“During my travels I had the chance of meeting many artists and art organisers. Most people were excited to hear about poetry and theatre in India. There I came to terms with the discrepancy in performance arts in India which was focused on the academic elite of majorly the age group 45 to 60. Professors, alumni of liberal arts universities and retired Government officials were the audience to most poetry readings, plays, dance performances and music recitals. This wasn’t a thrilling and exciting platform where the youth could just take the mic. That is when the idea of slam poetry hit me, to create a safe and non-judgmental space where artists could perform their works without being restricted by age, class, ethnicity or gender identity. To represent your story in your own voice through spoken word poetry,” Choudhury recalls.

She felt a need to reinvent poetry recitation and make it more interesting to perform without any restriction. After coming back to India, Choudhury built a team of organisers coming from different backgrounds, from poets, to filmmakers and marketing co-ordinators who spearheaded the slam poetry movement in India.

“DelSlam’s shows are crafted with a structure where local slam poetry talents perform opening sets for the international feature artist. After the feature poet performs, we host an open mic where anyone from the audience can take the stage,” Choudhury says, adding that she had had many mentors like Jamaal Jackson Rogers from Ottawa, Easterine Kire (2016 Hindu Prize Winner) based in Norway and Melizarani Selva from Malaysia.

Their first show, titled Words in Your Face, in December 2013 featuring Nicole Sumner and Michael Creighton was a complete sell out. Since then, there was no looking back. The DelSlam stage has changed the lives of many artists.

“Anyone who comes here leaves as a different person. DelSlam’s in-house poet for the last year and a half, Cecilia Abraham, was just another housewife until she held the mic between her hands and destroyed every stereotype of “cooking, cleaning, rinsing and repeating” that comes along with the label. Another poet Uppa Tsuyo Bantawa found new acceptance to her identity as a man at DelSlam even though society would label her as a woman. Gender lines are blurred at DelSlam. People are free to express and simply be who they truly are and that is what makes all the difference,” Choudhury tells you.

Organising poetry shows in India is a challenge.

“Since slam poetry is still in its nascent stage in India, poets are not ready for the stage. Performance poetry is usually personal and dauntingly honest, whereas India still stands as a conservative society where artists go through the challenge of overcoming their fear of being judged. Learning how to add the “performance” in “poetry” doesn’t just come with watching YouTube videos but rather, it’s a process of reinventing your own stage persona with intensive workshops,” she says adding that her family members, who are in the Government job, gave full supportive to make her choices in life and have developed respect for the art form.

Over the years, DelSlam has produced spoken word festivals, tours and education.

“The weekend slam poetry courses which we run at Korean Cultural Centre in Lajpat Nagar is revolutionising the way education is perceived in India. DelSlam has a lot on its plate at the moment from managing South Asian tours of various artists, recording spoken word albums and producing our own reality TV show that will see the journey of Indian spoken word artists battling and competing with slammers from around the world. Slam poetry is an intensive art form and our approach is to help young poets see the potential of it as a career and not just a hobby,” she says.

(The article also got published in The Pioneer Newspaper – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/backpack/bowled-over-by-words.html).

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