Despite relatively improved access among the marginalised and oppressed communities to spaces that showcase their opinions, even today there are certain voices and experiences that are at the fringes in the Indian subcontinent. Dalit and Adivasi women are two of the many such vital voices in the poetic landscape, that are now using poetry to speak of their lifestyle and struggle.

Keeping this in mind, a panel discussion titled Vital Voices in Verses was organised at the Feminist Poetry Festival organised by SheThePeople, with an aim to bring forward some of the women writers from the Dalit and Adivasi community.

Moderated by Kena Shree, author and storyteller , the panel featured speaker Jecinta Kerketta, journalist, writer and poet writing on tribal issues. Along with, Nirmala Putul who is the poet hailing from the Santhali tribe and Aruna Gogalamanda, a Dalit poet and academic. All three poets have been fierce voices advocating for the Adivasi Dalit communities. Their poetry is personal and draws from their lived experiences. In this panel they shared their personal journeys with the audiences and serenaded us with their poetry.

Poetry from the Grassroots

Kekketta alludes to her life experiences and says she hails from Jharkhand and has experienced the patriarchy that prevails within the Adivasi community. Her mother has been a very powerful force in her life as she always exuded strength even in difficult circumstances. Her mother always said the Adivasi way of living is such that they can sit upon a mountain of sadness and still be happy.

Kerketta then speaks about the Adivasi language which does not make the distinction between male and female pronouns which exists in Hindi and English. Hence, she can also write on male issues because the language allows her.

Putul is the Mukhiya or chief of her village and shares her journey with us. She started working in agricultural fields at the tender age of 8 and was married off at 13. She alludes to the perception of adivasi women being “free” and says just because we are allowed to go out does not mean we are free. The question we must ask is why are we going out? That is because of extreme poverty and we don’t have any option. She says this from her personal experience where her mother used to work in the fields and that brought in the money at home to meet basic needs.

While speaking to the audience, her electricity went off. It was perhaps a rude awakening for a city bred audience to realise the privilege of having a stable internet connection or 3G on phones. After seeing the state they were in, extreme poverty among other hurdles, she started working in an NGO and writing about her circumstances. When she started writing she faced a lot of opposition from members of the upper caste but she persisted.

Gogalamanda sheds light upon the circumstances in which she started writing poetry. Hailing from a middle class family, she was married at the age of 21. She always felt that as a woman she was not allowed to voice herself and controlled all the time by her in laws. The final nail in the coffin was when she wanted to write her poetry on Facebook and she was given an ultimatum, either she can write poetry of Facebook or she can leave the house. She chose to leave.  She says it is very liberating to become the voice of women.

Also Read: Writers’ Fest: Meeting Women We Only Know As Radio Voices

Themes in Poetry

Along with sharing their personal journeys they read out their poetry to their audience. Kerketta read out a poetry where she speaks about the mahua and the wait for the flowers to fall on the ground. The child is asking the mother why we can’t pluck the flowers. To this question the mother responds, pyaar kartein hain isiliye intezaar karte hain, which roughly translates to we love that is why we wait.

Another theme that came up was the usage of the term adivasi. Kerketta says that is the term they prefer to use because it makes them feel connected to their land and culture. The session ended with two very powerful lines:

Wae humaare sabhya hone ka intezaar kartein hain

Hum unke manushya hone ka

These two lines can be roughly translated to mean

They wait us to become civilised

We wait for them to become human

A very powerful way to end the session ensuring the audience takes back with them the voices of these powerful women who are changing the landscape of the way poetry is read and understood.

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