Madhu Raghavendra is a poet, social activist, and an art event curator. He is the founder of Poetry Couture, one of India's largest pro-bono poetry initiatives.
Madhu's poetry movement has created free spaces for poetry in many Indian cities. His active areas of interest are public health and women empowerment. Prior to launching Potery Couture, he was a Senior Consultant to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, and the **Deputy Policy Lead of the Knowledge Partnership Program.
His debut collection of poetry - a book called Make Me Some Love To Eat is a heartfelt anthology of voices that scream to be heard quite as much as they deserve to. The book has been received well nationwide, and is currently in its fourth edition. Madhu has conducted performance poetry workshops and performed at many schools, institutes, and festivals across India.
He has been a part of the Indian Sahitya Akademi's Young Writers Festival in Jammu. His work has been featured in anthologies such as Modern English Poetryby Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi), 100 Poems are Not Enough (Waking BookFairs), and Map Called Home (Kitab, Singapore).
He was a resident artist at the Basar Confluence, one of Arunachal Pradesh’s first artist residency programmes.
Poetry Couture is one of India's largest voluntary poetry augmentation initiatives across Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaipur, Agra, Hyderabad, and Chennai.
In the North East, it holds events in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Tripura. The initiative has organized many significant events across India in Café, Colleges and public and private institutions in most languages –English, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil & Urdu. Poetry Couture also collaborates with organizations to use poetry as a tool for the advocacy of human rights.
Some of the many institutes that have featured Poetry Couture, include the National Gallery of Modern Arts, Government of India, The Hon'ble Presidents Public Library, All India Radio, The American Consulates at New Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata; The Italian Embassy Cultural Centre, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)- Delhi, the Oxford Book Stores (Kolkata and Delhi), Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi, and Motilal Nehru College.
The initiative collaborates with some of India's leading literary festivals.
Poetry Couture received the Microsoft Create to Inspire Fellow Award in 2015.
In Madhu's Words
This is a Guest Column by Madhu, as shared with The Times Blog.
It has been four years since I founded Poetry Couture. Initially, I was running the movement alongside my full time job in public health and gender. In 2016, I quit my job to curate more poetry events across the country and make it sustainable. I tied up with Government of Delhi to initiate poetry readings in Hindi to adolescents of Juvenile Justice Homes. Some of these children had violent or self-harm histories, and came from the lower economic strata or slums of Delhi. They were overwhelmed to listen to poetry (mostly free verse or slam) first time in their lives. I collaborated with other musicians and storytellers and did ‘imagination’ workshops with these kids, which made them extremely happy. It was heartening to see them realise that they could grow up to be poets, musicians or artists. I have regularly collaborated with the American Libraries across India and curated poetry events on environment, gender, and globalization.
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I think the love for poetry came to me naturally. I may be naive, but I believe everyone has that one lyric, one song, verse, or couplet that they carry within themselves, even if like a vestigial organ. Poetry is to me what religion is to a priest. I thought of poetry as a passing phase of my life in my early twenties. I hurled it and was walking away, like a boomerang it came back and hit me hard in my head making me artistically bruised for life. And now, poetry is an essential nutrient to the soul and leaves me yearning for more.
Motivation & Growth of Poetry Couture
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The motivation kept increasing with more and more people getting associated with the Poetry Couture movement and giving me feedbacks about how they felt reciting their poems for the first time. The beginning of Poetry Couture in one of Delhi’s cafe was about the love for poetry, but building it from there to the poetic grandiosity it has become today has to do more with entrepreneurship than poetry.
I have worked in various capacities in public health and women empowerment for the first seven years of my career, in policymaking as well as the grass roots, with the Government of India, State governments, UNICEF, GIZ, DFID-UK, and many local NGOs. There is need for innovative ways of advocacy such as collaborating with art in social programs or projects rather than using age old methods of pamphleteering. I would like to include performance poetry and art in the system of implementation of Government social programs.
Performing poetry in the past few decades, even as a part of the sub-culture, was almost missing. The pan India performance poetry scene in India started around five years ago. Today one could walk into a cafe, cultural centre or any social space and talk of performance poetry events to be organized. One can find poetry evenings around the city. This was a daunting culture to build at a time when one did not know what a spoken word event would constitute.
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Performance poetry, in most instances can be interchanged with spoken word poetry, although performance poetry can be more inclusive by amalgamating with an array of other art forms like music and dance. Poetry of a particular region speaks immensely about that culture and politics. Globally, with the spread of performance poetry as an upcoming art form, there is an opportunity to use the art to propagate human rights. Performance poetry takes place in bars, theatres, streets, cafés, colleges, universities, private institutions, international organisations, and literary and cultural festivals.
Since the time I started Poetry Couture, I have been building the brand though networking and social-entrepreneurship skills. I have guided younger college students to start their own initiatives. I have used my time curating poetry events, linking arts to social issues. I have also identified partner organizations in the area of women’s rights advocacy, education and public health, to explore opportunities for advocacy through spoken-word poetry.
It has been a tough time in the beginning, writing emails, making calls, trying to convince people to give their spaces, cafes, co-working spaces, government and private galleries.
The idea was to create free art spaces in the city for slam and performance poetry. It did pay off. Poetry Couture started getting noticed and lauded in newspapers, online magazines as one of the pan-India initiatives. Today one could search online for poetry initiatives and immediately come across the work done by Poetry Couture.
In recent times I am trying to suggest to social development organizations to include art based advocacy in their projects. Published global studies suggest that including arts in social programs makes it more impactful. I travel extensively in India for events, school workshops and participate in literary festivals. The North East of India has been a neglected region in most sense; I have been trying to make poetry events accessible even there. I get invited as a social entrepreneur in many events in India.
The idea of using poetry to advocate human rights in India has never been tried before. It is unique and hence there are no funds or grants available. In the past few years of pursuing I have tried to make a little change of making organizations pay for poetry events, and recognize it as an art form.
I travel extensively in India for events, school workshops and participate in literary festivals. The North East of India has been a neglected region in most sense; I have been trying to make poetry events accessible even there.
Photo by Matthew LeJune / Unsplash
The objective ideally was not to be a leader for the purpose of being one. I am addressing an existing gap in the performing art space in India, a platform that supports young and contemporary poets and artists to voice their opinions freely.
Being one of the first initiators of this movement in recent times puts me in a leadership position and brings me the responsibility to take the art form of slam and performance poetry forward in India.
As someone who works in this niche poetry space, the objectives as a leader are as follows:
- To provide a platform for expressing poetry in all forms, spoken word poetry, poetry through music and dance, and other innovative ways
- To revive free art spaces in cities and suburban areas
- To empower the youth with a platform for free speech and human rights advocacy through poetry
- To create a pan-India movement, which would be taken forward by the youth, and art enthusiasts
- To partner with the government, embassies, cultural centres, and art foundations to promote ways of expressing art and literature
It is not an easy task to bring poetry from the margins to the mainstream. I am happy that Poetry Couture has been one of the initiators of this poetry revival movement in India involving poets, enthusiasts and organizations.
From being a purely voluntary initiative, I believe, over the last few years, I have been able to make Poetry Couture a well-recognized, regular feature in literary circles, not only in metropolitan cities, but also in tier-two cities across the country. Being a social entrepreneur, I am happy to have managed to not only establish a niche platform for poetry performers but also provide a space for contemporary audiences to appreciate good poetry.
Poetry Couture’s journey would be incomplete and impossible without getting people and organizations to the cause.
I have been one of the few initiators of the slam poetry movement in India. More than thousand students in over hundred events, over the past four years have performed through this platform. I have roped in cafes, schools, colleges and embassies across India to be part of the cause.
I have mobilized college students in various cities as volunteers who host events as and when required. As the initiative now has an existing network there is not much effort other than to write a couple of emails to host an event. Also you can find its events on facebook which I have diligently used to build a large community.
I have always maintained my own poetry and Poetry Couture as two different entities. Poetry Couture has been one of the first to initiate open mic poetry events in many cities such as Delhi, Chennai, Guwahati, Itanagar and Agartala. On 13th May 2018, Agartala will have one of its first open mic poetry in a Café, it’s a historic event.
I have experimented talking about poetry to young students from villages. A recent program last year was with ‘The Hero Academy’ project implemented by Women and Girls Lead Global. We talked about men and boys on issues of gender, masculinity and sexuality through poetry and stories in the Ambavane village in remote Pune. The stories they wrote on their understanding of gender and sexuality, as a part of that project was moving.
I have seen aspiring poets easily get fascinated by the western poets. They are fascinating each one of them be it Rilke or Bukowski. Regional Indian poetry is fascinating as well. I would love if an aspiring poet from Chennai reads Mamang Dai from Arunachal, or a young poet from Tripura reads A K Ramanujan. There are good translations available and internet is a good place to begin. India is beautifully diverse and we need to read poetry from different cultures and tribes of our own.
I am currently following the poetry of Bhasha Samman Awardee Kokborok poet Chandrakant Murasingh from Tripura.
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