Walking With The Bombay Poets

Bombay Poetry Crawls are an attempt to see the City of Dreams through the eyes of the 20th-century Bombay Poets as they observe the immigrant lives, and the ever-expanding urban landscape
Saranya Subramanian, the founder of The Bombay Poetry Crawl
Saranya Subramanian, the founder of The Bombay Poetry Crawl

“As I play, 

the city slowly reconstructs itself,

stone by numbered stone.”

- Pi-Dog, Arun Kolatkar

When I replayed the interview with Saranya Subramanian, the founder of The Bombay Poetry Crawl, I was in for a surprise. As we started our conversation, we touched upon the Bombay poets and how the cityscape—be it the St. Andrew’s church or a roadside fruit vendor— decided the shape of their verse. While I replayed our conversation, I realised I had forgotten to switch off my recorder despite taking my leave. At first, I only heard the muffled voices of my colleagues at the lunch hour. But then, I remembered I had decided to step out of the office. What followed was the sound of agitated cooks in a nearby restaurant. One could also hear the metallic clang of utensils and the hiss of frying pans distinctly. A faint drilling sound rang at a distance, and stray dogs barked as if in a chorus. When I played back the recording, I realised how these dots connect to make what we call a city.

In the 1960s, as urbanscapes exploded in Mumbai, the Bombay poets—the likes of Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Geive Patel and Arun Kolatkar—wrote “modern” Indian poetry. As they carved their niche, they were not necessarily relying on past poetic traditions but drew upon the city to churn out accessible poetry, which often relinquished glamour for the mundane. “It is impossible to separate the writer from their surroundings,” Subramanian explained. “If you look at the Bombay poets, they were writing about their interior lives in tandem with what was going around them. Whether it was the train tracks, schools or colleges, they were writing about the city as much as they would about their personal life,” Subramanian added, drawing upon her archival research on the 20th-century Bombay poets.

Historically, many poetry circles have defined the poetry scene across India. For instance, in Gujarat, Ravji Patel, Umashankar Joshi, Niranjan Bhagat and Chinu Modi significantly contributed to what is known as modern Gujarati literature. Like the Bombay poets, they also challenged the traditional form and wrote literary snapshots of places they inhabited. About these poets, researcher Suresh Joshi writes, “Sometimes they seem to be mere onlookers, sometimes unexpectedly lighting upon the soul of the city in mud-filled ditches and the wrinkled faces of vagrancy–shades of Baudelaire’s Paris and Eliot’s London.”

Poetry Crawl in Mumbai
Poetry Crawl in Mumbai

About Bombay Poetry Crawls

Saranya Subramanian founded The Bombay Poetry Crawls in 2020. The idea came to her when she finished her undergrad thesis on Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems. “My primary research involved walking around the city and finding the locations from his poems since it is a very spatial collection of literature,” she explained. Often even underground, poetry walks are essential aspects of urban poetry traditions.

As people from various walks of life, from STEM students to engineers, came to attend these walks, Subramanian expanded the list of poets to include famous names such as Meena Kumari. In collaboration with Vasvi Kejriwal, founder of the poetry community Fresh Mint, they took people around Bandra while reading Kumari’s Urdu poetry. “Very few people knew that Meena Kumari was also a poet. So it was an incredible surprise for those who grew up watching her films.”

Actress Meena Kumari
Actress Meena KumariWikimedia Commons

A popular equivalent of such poetry could be the Brooklyn Bridge poetry walks organised by Poets House in New York. The walk, which starts from Manhattan and ends in Brooklyn, would involve readings of poems such as Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” reminiscing in the city landscape.

For The Bombay Poetry Crawl, one of the most intriguing crawls would be “The Shorelines Crawl,” with Adil Jussawalla’s poems from his Shorelines collection. This crawl among many others draws the portrait of the city from the poet’s perspective about the life of immigrants. “Bombay city was built on ports. During the second half of the 20th century, there was a quest for identity after independence. Bombay presidency became divided, the Communist Party died down, and unfortunately, many calls for immigrant pogroms came into being, even though without immigration, the city would not have existed,” Subramanian said.

In his poem Shorelines, Jussawalla hints at the “castaways” that make a city, “A new moon rising in the rain/ a shore buttressed with shanties/There’s a woman in a doorway/ She says, ‘We’re all castaways here/and takes me in.”

Arun Kolatkar's Bombay

Kala Ghoda region in Mumbai is usually described as an “artsy locale” in South Bombay. The name comes from the black stone horse statue installed by Albert Abdullah David Sassoon, a Jewish businessman with Baghdadi origins. The horse, among other city statues, made many rounds in urban legends. “It comes alive after midnight,” the lore states as if referring to a scene from Night at the Museum.

While Kala Ghoda might be a mere landmark, it opens a corridor of poetry for those familiar with Arun Kolatkar’s works. Like Kolatkar’s Jejuri, Koltakar’s Kala Ghoda explores the intricacies of a place with what Subramanian puts as “a self-deprecating and humorous quality.”

Kala Ghoda statue
Kala Ghoda statueShutterstock

Painting the picture of Kolatkar’s Bombay, she states, “Kala Ghoda is based in Kala Ghoda, and very famously Kolatkar used to sit at the Wayside Inn cafe, which has now been converted to Punjab Grill.” Wayside Inn was a haunt for many famous names, including B.R. Ambedkar, who supposedly drafted the very constitution inside this cafe. “Through the vantage point of Wayside Inn, the entire triangle of Kala Ghoda poems is visible,” Subramanian added.

Upma at Swagat/ shira at Anand Vihar/and fried eggs and bacon at Wayside Inn,” writes Kolatkar in his poem, Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda.

Subramanian further concludes how the very history of the city is materialised in such poems. For instance, she came across the history of open-brick architecture in Mumbai while researching Kolatkar’s works, “Laetitia Zecchini’s book, Moving Lines: Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India,  explains how the earliest instance of Kala Ghoda poems could be dated back to 1983. Continuing my research, I found that 1983 was the year when the textile mill strike came to an end. This significant strike was an 18-month-long strike that started in early January. The strike changed the city’s ecosystem, in the sense that many people were left unemployed and homeless, and as a result, textile mill lands were sold to big landowners. These landowners could not change the original brickwork due to licensing issues but built the city around the original remnants—which serve as popular social spots in Mumbai today. So essentially, poets like Kolatkar registered this socio, economic, political shift that changed the lives of many citizens.”

As a city, Mumbai still holds the eternal quest for identity for many. However, in the hands of poets, the question of a collective identity becomes easier as it morphs through the passage of time. For Subramanian, the poetry crawls also started out as an attempt to understand how her own identity fits in the picture of a city that is always expanding.

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