Harnidh Kaur on the War of Poetry

 

She isn’t the quintessential pen-toting, old-fashioned poet. If you meet her, it’s quite likely that you’ll see her furiously jabbing away at her smartphone, jotting down poetry on the Google Keep app or unleashing another post into the big bad digital web-world. A self-confessed social media addict, this poetess is quick to shoot down the negativity that surrounds discourses around our digital age by arguing that social media is the most important tool of our age to wage war against rampant apathy. At 21 years of age, she has an extensive following online, is a three-time TEDx speaker on the subject of creativity, and is out with her first book – an anthology of poems. Meet Harnidh Kaur.

Harnidh’s poem ‘Pantheon’ recently garnered her much international attention (not without a fair bit of controversy) for being the inspiration behind a radical set of illustrations ‘reimagining goddesses as modern-day feminists’, by teen artist Priyanka Paul. The poem struck a chord with several girls who saw themselves in these humanized goddesses, embracing the totality of their imperfections – just as all of us who “fall off pedestals in our daily lives”.

Image 1
Illustration by Priyanka Paul inspired by Harnidh Kaur’s poem ‘Pantheon’

For sure, Harnidh’s poetry is not easy. It prods you to pause, read again, and wonder. A student of Public Policy at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, her poetry ranges from political to emotional. One of my personal favourites outlines thoughtfully the guilt that plagues an Indian poet who writes in a foreign language.

 

“My English is an ill-gotten, ill-wanted
gift, a constant, guilty ability, pulling
me up away from my context, and
being the only way I can belong
enough to command an audience
for the words and worlds I gave
up to try (and fail) to represent.”

 

Tuning into the shared sentiments of thousands of people seems to be the uncanny ability of poets. It certainly explains the loyal following on Harnidh’s blog. But, I wonder, how does one bring poetry into daily engagement with data and policies – an apparent antithesis? “Poetry allows me to empathise,” she answers. And undoubtedly, if policies are seen as being fundamentally concerned with human life and dignity, then poets would make excellent policy-makers.

 

‘Questions I Want To Ask Donald Trump’ by Harnidh Kaur
‘Questions I Want To Ask Donald Trump’ by Harnidh Kaur

But “even a positive thing casts a shadow,” as William Irwin Thompson said. And there is often a dark side to poetry. Speaking about creativity and healing, Harnidh emphasises that poetry can frequently steer towards negativity – becoming punishment – by augmenting anger and suffering.

“Poetry is not just catharsis. Poetry is not just rambling. It’s very powerful. If you let it be.
Your emotions are valid and important, yes. But if they cloud your perception of the world, stop writing about them.”

This is honest advice, worth sharing with budding poets. But it is, in no way, meant to dissuade them from practicing the power of words in shaping reality.

“We have ammunition. We have social media. We have a burgeoning spoken word scene. Speak up. Speak. Get angry, get mad and write about what you think.”

‘To Eklavya’, by Harnidh Kaur
‘To Eklavya’, by Harnidh Kaur

And when this urgency to speak is met by an equally deep-seated and child-like sense of wonder, the poetry, in its innocence, becomes kinder.

“And kinder intentions make for better poetry.”

Such conviction is plainly evident in Harnidh’s personal dedication to her art. ‘The Inability of Words’, her first book, is every book-collector’s dream – each copy is meticulously hand-bound and hand-stamped in Kolkata by a family of weavers, in a process that takes up to five days. Furthermore, Harnidh aspires to sign personally every single copy that goes out to her readers.

Handbound book 'The Inability of Words'
Handbound book ‘The Inability of Words’

And like any artist who is eager to evolve, Harnidh is on the move already, working on her next project. This new project aims to challenge the oft-prevalent notion that poetry is about ‘pretty things’. It instead calls for a radical reimagining of poetry – by seeking out conflict narratives from across India – striving to push to the limit the power of poetry to be able to “take something dark and angry and create something poignant and artful out of it”.

The war against apathy rages on. And its warriors continue to show up with words as their sword and armour, kindness as their shield, and a formidable platoon of digital apps.

(Images are from the Instagram feeds of Harnidh Kaur and Priyanka Paul)

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