In February this year, celebrated Hindi poet Kumar Vishwas signed a five-book deal worth Rs 1 crore with Vani Prakashan Group. He is also frequently invited to perform poetry for honorarium ranging from Rs 20 lakh to Rs 1 crore per appearance. That’s not all. The Hindi language academician-turned-poet is also writing dialogues and lyrics for producer Vashu Bhagnani’s Rs 400-crore film Suryaputra Mahavir Karna (this will mark Vishwas’ debut in Bollywood), multi-starrer film Dasvi and Ramayana, a Rs 200-crore project, which will be directed by the makers of the Hollywood movie Gods of Egypt.
Clearly, Hindi poetry and poets are seeing a huge shift in reception today. Over the past few years, in fact, there’s been a resurgence of Hindi poetry, be it spoken (kavi sammelan) or written, as a new commercially viable genre, thanks in part to social media, e-books and offline ticketed events. “A Hindi poet is nothing short of a celebrity today… travels in a VIP charter, earns a moolah and can be a global brand name,” says Vishwas, who has close to five million followers on social media. Over the years, his straight-liners on social issues have ignited many young minds, earning him the sobriquet jan kavi (people’s poet). “A good poet has to engage his listener with lines that make a difference to his life — name, fame and money are all byproducts. Woh kahiye jo dusron ka kahan ban jaye. A poet earns respect and status from the love showered by his audience. Today’s popular poet is tomorrow’s classic… just as Premchand was popular, later he became a classic,” says the poet, who has been invited by poetic groups of 40 countries in the world, including the US, Dubai and London.
Vishwas’s poetry touches people’s hearts, asserts Aditi Maheshwari, executive director of Vani Prakashan Group, a Hindi publishing group with over 6,500 titles in print, electronic and audio format. Talking about how he has impacted the youth through his sublime, universal and simple imageries, Maheshwari says, “As jan kavi and manch ka kavi (stage poet), his metaphors touch all segments of society.”
Hindi poetry as a democratic genre has not just become a popular medium for all age groups, connecting with the common man, but is also a clear indication that perseverance, backed by in-depth understanding of literature, can usher in golden opportunities for one’s talent.
“In the past five years, we have received more than 80% mails requesting us to publish poetry books,” reveals Delhi-based Ashok Maheshwari, managing director, Rajkamal Prakashan Group, a noted publishing house of Hindi literature. “Until five years ago, a handful of poetry collections were published in print form. Today, it’s in paperback and at least 25 poetry books are published every year,” he says.
There is no doubt that contemporary Hindi poetry has become more visceral, quotidian, political, translational and global, according to Mumbai-based poet and professor Ashwani Kumar. “It has become the new address of feminist, Dalit, tribal, queer, protest and diasporic literature, and also the new home for Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat generations. No open-mike event happens without Hindi poetry,” says Kumar, a policy researcher and professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is also the co-founder of Indian Novels Collective (INC), a not-for-profit network of individuals set up with the objective of bringing classics of non-English Indian literature to English readers.
Hindi language as a medium has also been popularised through films and lyrics. “There is no doubt that films play a big role in spreading the language,” says veteran novelist and story writer Kshama Sharma. “Poet Sahir Ludhianvi is remembered for his Allah tero naam, Tora mann darpan kehlaye, Aan Milo Shyam… these bhajans resonate even today decades after his death. So the acceptance of Hindi in poetry comes when it appeals to the masses… Poets like Kumar Vishwas have both lyrical and emotional appeal, that’s why he’s prominent among the masses,” offers Sharma.
Story so far
Poetry is an important register of the social consciousness of any era. Be it the freedom struggle or the green revolution, the history of Hindi poetry dates back to the times of saint-poets like Kabir and Mira, and later in the second half of the 20th century when Hindi became the language of protests in India. It has been anti-establishment for more than half a century, with poets like Agyeya, Muktibodh, Nagarjuna, VDN Sahi, Raghuvir Sahay and Shrikant Verma shaping the character of Hindi poetry in the country.
The time between 1947 to the early 1980s was marked as the golden phase for kavi sammelans. But in the mid-1980s, Indian youth suffered from unemployment and this took a toll on the sammelans. New modes of entertainment such as TV came in, making sammelans lose their standing, both in terms of quantity and quality, shared Kunwar Bechain, a Ghaziabad-based poet and retired Hindi professor of MMH College, Ghaziabad, in an interaction with FE just before he succumbed to Covid-19 on April 29 at the age of 79.
The revival of the sammelans in the late 2000s brought back the onstage grandeur, popular poetry culture and a decent source of income, with payments starting from Rs 2,100 for a fresher to about Rs 1 lakh or more for professionals per evening. “It transformed the space, and elevated into a respectable event with huge social media presence of modern poets like Irshad Kamil, Kumar Vishwas, Manoj Muntashir, who have millions of followers — something that was unheard of before,” says Maheshwari of Vani Prakashan. “Social media in the 21st century has changed the game with young poets reciting Hindi stalwarts and a huge movement of poetry by young poets,” adds Maheshwari, who gets five to 60 new poetry submissions every day on social media handles. Some of these hidden gems his publication house now plans to publish.
Maheshwari of Rajkamal Prakashan Group agrees that Hindi poetry is making a comeback. “Poetry books are appearing in paperback editions and are being sold more than before… there are a few poets whose books are sold fast and in large numbers. After a long time of being in the shadows, Hindi poetry has returned again,” offers Maheshwari.
If poets like Kedarnath Singh, Dushyant Kumar, Gorakh Pandey, Dhoomil, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, Manglesh Dabral and Ashok Vajpayee continue to inspire millennials, others like Anamika, Savita Singh, Anita Bharti, Katayani, Rajni Tilak, Anuradha Singh, etc, have transformed the patriarchal landscape of Hindi poetry.
Hindi poetry has also become more glamorous and fashionable, says Kumar of INC. “Though the English literary industry remains dominant, Hindi poetry has also become more glamorous and fashionable with the rising popularity of celebrity poets like Swanand Kirkire, Piyush Mishra, Prasoon Joshi and performance poets such as Priya Malik, Hussain Haidry, Varun Grover and Simar Singh,” says Kumar.
Social media has helped Hindi poetry get wider exposure, encouraging a dialogue among youngsters. “People are talking about Hindi poetry with old and new names combined,” says Gurugram-based Ankur Mishra, founder of Kavishala, an online platform for new writers and poets, which has over 70% content, poetry and stories from newcomers. Kavishala receives 3,000-plus monthly new writers’ registrations and 10,000-plus monthly poetry submissions on its website and app.
Adapting to the changing ecosystem and the way poetry is being composed and recited, Red FM radio recently organised The Kavi Collective, a poetry festival in UP, MP and Delhi, to bring the best of old and new-age regional poets like Ashok Chakradhar, Sunil Jogi, Ankita Singh, Priya Malik and others, with an inclusive approach to ideas, on one stage. “The biggest debilitating factor that afflicts radio is that we focus only on music, but with the shift from broadcast to audio by other means and the growth of podcast and audio listenership in the country, there is a great opportunity of discovery through the spoken word,” says Nisha Narayanan, COO and director at Red FM and Magic FM.
Trusts and foundations, too, are working to assist young poets today. “Trusts such as Bharatiya Gyanpeeth and Raza Foundation have been providing assistance towards publication of first books of poetry by young poets. There are nearly 100 little magazines… some exclusively publish a large number of contemporary poems,” says noted Hindi poet and critic Ashok Vajpayee, who is the managing and life trustee of Delhi-based Raza Foundation, which supports cultural and artistic activities.
Even with all the success, however, there are many hurdles to cross. Take, for instance, modern-day kavi sammelans, which not many in the community are happy with. “One can make out the difference in the quality. Poets like Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Bhawani Prasad Mishra, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, Mahadevi Verma were excellent poets in both content and presentation. Mahadevi Verma with her presence ensured equal representation, grace and high-quality engagement. Among the current generation of poets, some have great presentation, but not good content,” said Kunwar Bechain.
Vajpayee agrees, saying, “Kavi sammelans bring popular poetry to large audiences, but promote taste for sentimentalism, shallow humour and vague mysticism.”
Once an affordable source of entertainment, today such events have degraded poetry to an extent, feel many. “Sammelans have been reduced to performing art with singers, live performers or standup acts. Today, there is hardly any humour left in many shows. The contemporary relevance of humour is as important today as it was 100 years ago. If live poetry is meant only for entertainment, then it’s not poetry,” says noted Hindi satirist and poet Ashok Chakradhar.
There’s also the issue of admission. “Getting entry to a kavi sammelan is difficult as it’s a hub of like-minded professionals just like the entertainment industry, so it is reserved for a select few,” says Gwalior-based poet Pawan Karan, who has written poems on subjects like imperialism, capitalism and religious fanatics. He expressed the philosophy of feminism in his groundbreaking work Stree Mere Bheetar (2004). “Only a handful of poets get their due recognition on stage… written poetry alone doesn’t help in earning a livelihood… Sombre or serious writing has no money on stage as compared to humour as the former is not so popular as a genre onstage,” says the 56-year-old.
Vajpayee adds: “Recently, poetry has been forced to be ‘saleable’ by publishers and many young poets are able to publish their books easily. But significant poetry remains financially not sustainable by and large.”
When it comes to books, lack of qualified editors can also bring down quality. “Sometimes good books are published poorly or bad books are published with a beautiful cover. In the absence of reliability and transparency, the publishing business can neither become an industry nor will it be able to build a place of trust in society,” says Maheshwari of Rajkamal Prakashan.
Another challenge is to reach out to an ever-widening literate population and develop a vast book culture. “Universities, schools, academies, media all have to play a role in both inculcating a taste for poetry and making more people, especially the younger generation, realise that there is a rich variety of poetry available. Taking books to younger students should become a campaign conducted by schools and colleges, worthy of support by CSR. The Vedas, Gita, Quran, the Bible and the Granth Sahib—are all holy books of poetry,” says Vajpayee.
Kavishala’s Mishra feels there is great scope for financial viability. “Lack of financial support for poets due to few investors available, good poets living in rural areas with poor internet connectivity, etc, are a few problems faced today… also, more collectives and platforms are required to encourage young poets,” he says.
One must also remember that tech might help open doors, but it’s a double-edged sword. “Technology has a limitation in creative writing as people are focused on writing two-liners, which kills creativity, like a crux in two lines,” says Mishra.
Many also rue that poetry writing today is taken very lightly. Many youngsters’ work is elementary level, say publishers. “Writing poetry is considered easy… jotting two lines or making several lines by twisting them does not create a poem. A short poem does not involve less effort. The moods associated with Hindi poetry deliver all social concerns—a poem tells the truth of its time,” says Maheshwari of Rajkamal Prakashan Group.
Social media in the 21st century has changed the game with young poets reciting Hindi stalwarts and a huge movement of poetry by young poets.
—Aditi Maheshwari, executive director, Vani Prakashan Group
Poetry books are appearing in paperback editions and are being sold more than before… After a long time of being in the shadows, Hindi poetry has returned again.—Ashok Maheshwari, managing director, Rajkamal Prakashan Group
Hindi poetry has become the new address of feminist, Dalit, tribal, queer, protest and diasporic literature, and also the new home for Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat generations.
—Ashwani Kumar, Mumbai-based poet and professor