Caferati's first annual Celebrating Shakti Bhatt Workshop - a report
Annie Zaidi on the session about Indian Poetic Forms:
The evening began with me making emergency calls to Ashwini — had forgotten to organize envelopes — and Danish — would he please pick up blank paper and extra pens — before landing up a good 45 minutes early at the Attic, where the organisers of the miniature paintings sat at a little table, looked at me expectantly and offered me a chair.
I looked at the paintings, thought about how beautiful the photos would look with these as the backdrop, fretted about what we’d do if enough people didn’t land up or too many did, and paced about anxiously while the Attic staff laid out the ‘farsh’ and the chairs.
As people began to stroll in, I worried about whether to put the shoes inside or outside and whether there was a chance of them being stolen outside. Then I went about collecting money from the participants — and one would-be participant who could not attend because of a last-minute emergency, but showed up anyway to pay up since he had confirmed attendance (thank you, gentle person).
When Professor Shivaprakash called, unable to find his way from Regal, Monica kindly went down to fetch him. He arrived with another scholar from JNU and ten minutes later, we started the workshop.
While the good professor said several things about poetry in general, and more specifically about the historical contexts of forms and short forms like the haiku, I did not manage to take down everything.
However, I do remember that he had compared poetry to firecrackers.
Just like there are two kinds of crackers — the single dazzle-burst kind, like the anaar for instance, and the multiple boom-boom-boom kind, like the larhi — similarly, there are two kinds of poetry. The latter kind gradually reveals itself, one idea leading to the next, and culminating in one final burst that may be a big, definitive finale or a quiet fizzle. The other kind says all it has to in a very short space of time with a very limited use of words. The haiku for instance. Or a doha, a tanka or an abhang. Or the vachana.
He also said that these shorter forms could be equated with a Zen-like instantaneous illumination.
Prof Shivaprakash had chosen to concentrate on vachanas, a form of Kannada poetry from the medieval ages, and also the subject of a forthcoming book he is editing for Penguin India.
Literally, a vachana means ‘speech.’ Alternately, it also means ‘promise.’ A vachana he said originates from triplets in Kannada that was often sung by women, and often contained rural and/or domestic themes.
In the medieval era, vachanas were popularized by speaker-poets many of whom came from the artisan classes and as the form evolved, their poetry became a tool of critique, against both the existing modes of poetry and transmission of knowledge.
Poetry is comprised of meaning and sound, he said. And what these new speaker-poets did was to challenge the content of Sanskrit poetry while simultaneously changing the way it sounded. They were opposed to the use of ‘abhida’ or a referential language. A referential language would depend on figures of speech, such as similes. They felt that a simile is a substitute, and therefore nor the real thing. Only real experience ought to be the subject of poetry, according to the vachana poets and therefore, they often spoke of their own lives, their work and their immediate environment.
Professor Shivaprakash also discussed the two foundations of meter in poetry. One depends on the contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables, which is how it is in older English poetry. The other kind depends on the equivalence of syllables, that is, vocalic length, such as it is in a ghazal. However, meter, he said, is only one manifestation of rhythm in a poem. There is also the notion of a sprung rhythm, which is what vachanas use. Such as ‘we were the first that ever burst into the silent sea.’
In the Kannada vachanas, there are few end rhymes, but there is often an initial rhyme. The first or second sounds of each line may rhyme. This brought a different kind of symmetry to the language. One of the best-known, and Professor Shivaprakash’s favourite, vachana poet is Akkamahadevi. He had circulated copies of some of her work as samples that were given away to participants.
The session was opened up to questions later and several participants wanted to ask the professor tough questions. On the question of what exactly the form was like, he said that the thing about this form was that it followed no rules. It is rooted in the breaking of form, and therefore, it is difficult to ascribe rules to it. He was not sure that new poets will succeed in writing a vachana, or how to advise them to write it, but added that it is possible to write ‘a vachana-like poem’.
Towards the end of that discussion, I observed that forms seem to grow from one to the other, with new twists and variations leading to new names for the form. Such as the qasida giving birth to the masnavi, the marsiya and the ghazal and how the ghazal itself seems anxious to grow in different directions but seems not to be able to find a new name for the newer experiments.
That led to some talk of other Indian poetic forms such as the anthadi and the keh-mukarni (both of which we have seen many examples of in Caferati's forum), examples of which were read out and met with much delight.
The participants seemed more enthused by the idea of the naughtier, saucier keh-mukarni so that form was chosen for an exercise. Several people came up with instant verses which were read out to much merriment and blushing. (Note to participants: do post your efforts in this thread, if you don’t mind.)
Though I had not read mine out, I had written this one:
There’s such black in his eyes
Black his tongue, black his lies
Black as coal, black as a rai
Your beloved? No, the kadhai.
This was followed by a short break for snacks — dhokla, samosa, gulab-jamuns, tea — and we went on to the next session on editing, led by Anita Roy and Urvashi Butalia.
Anita Roy, on the Editing for Non-Editors session that she and Urvashi Butalia conducted. Urvashi and Anita are from Zubaan.
The workshop kicked off with the participants all coming up with their own definitions of what an editor should be/should do. This ranged from correcting grammar to taking the author out for a drink (specifically: after their MS has been rejected). The nice list of editorial roles defined by Gary Kamiya — “Editors are craftsmen, ghosts, psychiatrists, bullies, sparring partners, experts, enablers, ignoramuses, translators, writers, goalies, friends, foremen, wimps, ditch diggers, mind readers, coaches, bomb throwers, muses and spittoons — sometimes all while working on the same piece” — was added to by the group: my favourite being “butcher.” Urvashi went on to elaborate on all the different kinds of editors there are out there — commissioning eds, desk eds, copy eds — and what to expect from each.
I then, perhaps fancifully, compared an editor's work to that of a gem-cutter: polishing, honing, cutting, until the light passes through as sparklingly and as clearly as possible. Some diamonds are rougher than others, so need more work. Some will never be more than a hunk of coal, and best consigned to the fire early on.
Then, having hedged around a bit and said how there aren't any real guidelines about how to approach a commissioning editor with your work, proceeded to contradict myself totally by laying down THE LAW in the form of 10 Commandments (see below).
Getting down to brass tacks, we all had a bash at re-punctuating a piece of de-punctuated text: specifically, an extract of Don Marquis's free verse work, Archy and Mehitabel. Had a lot of fun figuring out where to put quote marks and arguing about commas.
Then we sharpened our pencils and the cutting blades of our editorial minds by tackling an extract of an article that appeared in "Crime and Detective", whose idiosyncratic usage of the language reduced many participants to tears — of laughter. But which, usefully, kicked off a discussion about how much authorial quirkiness (and specifically Indian-English intonation, usage and vocab) one should or could allow.
One of the nicest comments afterwards was a backhander: "When they said there'd be editors coming to talk to us about editing, I thought: Oh my god, how dull can it get? But actually, I really enjoyed that."
Well, good. So did we.
I think Shakti would have too.
Anita's Ten Commandments:
Submitting your MS to a publisher
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
1. Thou shalt first find out about the publisher.
If you’ve written a short story for children, there’s no use sending it to Granta. If you’ve written a book review, send it to a journal that actually carries reviews. If you’ve written a book about growing dahlias, don’t send it to a publisher of feminist fiction. Etc. etc. Go to a bookshop or your bookshelves and see who’s published the kind of book that you think yours would sit well next to. Do your research first, and find out which place is going to suit your work best, which ground is likely to be the most fertile for your kind of seed to grow.
2. Thou shalt abide by the submissions process.
Usually on their website the magazine, journal or publisher will have something called “Guidelines for submissions”. Do stick by these if you possibly can.. They are there for a reason. If they state up front that they only accept proposals through an agent, don’t expect them to make an exception for you. If they say: don’t send it by email; then don’t.
3. Thou shalt not tell the publisher why they should publish you.
It’s an editor’s job to figure out whether this MS is suitable for their list, whether it will sell, and why: not yours! Editors are invariably turned off by authors going for the hard-sell: eg “I am sending you the gist of my most valuable work. I am sure it will excite you and you would react positively.” Also be realistic about your target readership — “It will appeal to young ones and senior citizens” cutteth zero ice.
4. In your covering letter, never resort to LARGE FONTS, underlining, exclamation marks, bold, or coloured type.
This smacks of a kind of lapel-tugging desperation on your part — not good — and also the suspicion that you think the editor has the deductive powers of a three year old, who needs Bright colours and Loud sounds to hold his/her attention. Is this really who you want to be editing your precious prose?
5. Thou shalt make sure thy covering letter is not full of typos!
Scan and rescan and print out on paper and then get someone else to read through your covering letter before you send it off. There is nothing more off-putting than having an author make spelling and grammatical mistakes in his/her initial approach – does not encourage an editor to read on.
6. Thou shalt judiciously exploit personal contacts.
“X suggested I contact you.” “We met at Y launch”. “I heard you speak at Z conference” – anything that helps the editor feel that there is some kind of personal connect will help your MS stand out from the crowd.
7. Chose your fonts with care.
Go for safe fonts: Courier, Times, Garamond, Times New Roman. Don’t feel that you need to have ‘designed’ your page before sending them in. In fact, that may backfire: if you’ve got illustrations that the editor hates or have laid out a page in a way that just doesn’t go with their style, it makes it that much harder for the editor to see past the flummery to the “meat” i.e. your words!
8. Attach attachments.
Double check when you say you’re attaching an attachment that you actually do! And make sure it’s in as bog-standard a format as you can think of: MS Word almost always. 1.5 or double-line spaced.
9. Tell them who you are.
Always helpful to have a bit of biodata about the author — where you’re based, age, profession, what else you’ve written or done. But keep it relevant, and keep it short.
10. Thou shalt take ‘No’ for an answer
If you’ve been rejected by one publisher, go kick the door, or the dog, put on some loud rock, pour yourself a stiff whisky, cry, wail or otherwise get it out of your system. Then find someone else to reject you again. Do NOT argue with a ‘reject’ letter. Everyone knows they are full of platitudes like “not quite right for our list at the present time” — do not write back and say, oh, that’s ok I can wait, what about next week/month/year?
There’s no reason why you can approach the same person/publisher with another story another poem another time, but asking for a re-trial is a big no-no.
And finally, comments from some of the participants.
Thank you, you guys, for organizing this fabulous workshop! I enjoyed Prof Shivaprakash's session even though I wish there were more interactive, poet-friendly elements in it. And sorry I couldn't stay for the entire editing session.
Yes, it was fun to attend. Thank you for organising it, it was a great way to remember your friend and what she stands for. I have put up the kehmukarni I wrote at the workshop on my blog.
The pics are great!
looking forward to the next session.
I really enjoyed the workshop. Professor Shivaprakash was really very interesting and enlighteneing and opened new windows of interest. In fact I have recently picked up a book by Ramanujan on Vacanas! Urvashi and Anita were useful in terms of the exercisesthey made us do. I would have skipped some of the points Anita made re what one should or shouldn't do, which mostly called upon good ole common sense. Some of the comments/suggestions presented a& very personal, even prejudiced view, rather than one that could be seen as universally appplicable advice. There were times when I felt that for every negative idea she presented, I could already hear someone I had read/heard etc, contradict this, in my head. But that was really a very minor point.
A workshop in memory of someone who has contributed significantly to the field of writing and publishing is a great idea. However, it would be appropriate to list these contributions during the introduction. I, did not know Shakti, nor her work and really would have liked to know more than what the young girl talked of. I could not make much sense of her "being a huge person" and that ilk.
Thank you for all your efforts towards organzing this and hope that we shall have more in the future.
I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop. Thanks to you guys for putting it together.
Just one suggestion. You might want to start earlier next time. It's not very fair to people of the caliber of Urvashi and Anita to have people leave mid workshop. Perhaps an all day affair next time with a break for lunch?
It was great to be at the workshop. I did find it useful, but I had to leave early and could not sit through the entire second session - the one i was more interested in. The invite mentioned the editorial workshop would be the first one and I had planned accordingly. Anyway, I do look forward to more of such workshops. Can we have one on hindi literature too - giving an overview - history + brief information about the different genres?
Yes, it was a good afternoon. And I did think Anita's ten commandments were helpful. Thou shalt drop names! Why not?
For what it's worth, here's my keh-mukarni, written that day.
I lick wet, salty, spicy skin;
I bite, I suck, I sigh, then grin.
Who gives so gives so good, I wanna hollah?
My wife? No, friend, the Bhutta wallah!
If you were at the workshop, please feel free to add your impressions and/or feedback as comments. Those of you who attempted keh-mukarnis, please post them in the comments, or email me.
P.S. There are photographs taken at the workshop posted in a Facebook album.