Pooja Pande is the lead reportage editor at Papercuts. Growing up between Sharjah and New Delhi, Pooja has always searched for that which withstands time. The word on the page, the music in the sky, mental mathematics. A post-graduate in English Literature from Lady Shri Ram, Delhi University, Pooja spent 13 years building the critically acclaimed arts and culture magazine, First City; first as a writer and then as an editor. Pooja is currently pursuing her writing and editing career as a freelancer, working with publishing houses and authors, helping shape manuscripts such that they achieve their best potential. Her first book, Red Lipstick: The Men in my Life, a literary-styled memoir chronicling the personal life story of transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, was published by Penguin-Randomhouse in August 2016. Pooja lives with her husband and six-year-old daughter in New Delhi, India. She’s still seeking a few answers on Time, Eternity and the likes, but she’s getting there.
What Language are Dreams Made of?
What language are dreams made of? Our interviewee has tried answering that, in a form that rasiks have lapped up, auteurs have lauded, and varied audiences have enjoyed. An age-old undying art form, Hindi poetry, shair-o-shaayri, Urdu couplets, repurposed with purpose, on – where else? – YouTube.
Papercuts chats about the democracy of the internet, and the perception of timelessness – is it an elusive thing, then? Reportage Editor Pooja Pande in conversation with Manish Gupta, founder, Hindi Kavita & Urdu Studio: He who made all that dreamy stuff real. As real as streaming.
Pooja Pande (PP): Do you have personal connections with poetry and shair-o-shaayri? What are your earliest memories of poetry or song?
Manish Gupta (MG): We all have a personal connection with poetry, don’t we? Someone singing something is what a child grows up with. Machhali Jal Ki Raani Hai and numerous other poems I remember singing to every guest (who came home). Then my mother humming Ye Kadamb Ka Ped Agar Ma Hota Yamuna Teere – it was such a personal talk between my mother and I that I suspected it was written by her.
Much later in life I learned that this poem echoes the bond between every mother and son, and the poem was written by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan who has also written that very popular Hindi poem, ‘Jhansi ki Rani’.
PP: If nostalgia and the expression of it is a legitimate form of art now, would you say this thought is inherent in the genesis of Hindi Kavita and Urdu Studio? Also, do you find nostalgia a trap at times, one you have to avoid as creator/curator? I’m thinking about the popular tendency these days to find past eras incredibly “cool”, in a way that we don’t seem to view them objectively, in terms of quality.
MG: In my case I’d conveniently forgotten that in my formative years reading literature was not a hobby, it was a love affair. Growing up in a small town in Madhya Pradesh, I devoured libraries after libraries. I read the literature penned in all Indian languages and the world classics, all in Hindi. However, I was reading only prose, I didn’t have much appreciation for poetry then.
The genesis of Hindi Kavita (Urdu Studio came much later) could easily be attributed to an accidental encounter with ‘Kamayani’ by Jai Shankar Prasad and then ‘Urvashi’ by Ram Dhari Singh ‘Dinkar’. Those were the days filled with apathy and alcohol. Was I going through a midlife crisis, or confusing heartbreaks, I don’t quite recollect now, but I remember feeling awed by the philosophy, imagination and creative use of the language in both these stellar creations.
We all get fascinated by the Kafkas, Camus, and Shaws of the world, but here in front of me were our very own, arguably better, writers who were once very big names, but eventually forgotten. These people need to be discovered was the compelling need that led to the creation of initial videos.
I’d made only five videos when I ran into Vishnu Khare, one of the most respected authors in Hindi literature. He is the one who introduced me to other significant poets of our time. The poets I met introduced me to others and their poetry. In a way, the entire literary circle guided me (and continues to do so) as to which poet should be covered (or rather, re-discovered).
This has been almost an entirely new world for me so no, nostalgia rarely plays a role. Also, it’s not really about reminiscing the past; it’s more about the treasure I stumbled upon and a need to share it with the world.
PP: What does the term “timeless” mean to you, in the context of your work? What does it mean for something to have withstood “the test of time”?
MG: ‘Timeless’ is a term that’s very often used here. It’s deeply satisfying when they call Hindi Kavita and Urdu Studio channels timeless classics. Some have even compared it with heady days of parallel cinema!
With such generous praise comes the immense weight of expectations. When great editors/ actors/ media icons/ culturists /authors compliment you on your work, you feel truly elated. But one considers quitting and running away to an island where no one is judging your work anymore.
PP: And as a follow up to that, Manish, If Hindi/Urdu poems (or the language even) has phased out of mainstream spaces and lives, wouldn’t you say it turned out not to be timeless after all?
MG: Umm, not really. Classics never go out of the mainstream. Literature and the language haven’t really phased out of the mainstream. The intellectuals in our country have a feeling that we are getting more and more mediocre by the day. We used to have such amazing primetime shows when Doordarshan was around and active, but the quality of work kept deteriorating, allowing English language content to occupy more space. Psychologically, the fact that English is a superior language was being cemented in people’s minds when our own content was compared. Then the petty politics amongst the writers, the low business acumen of publishers, the spread of English language education – all these factors led to Hindi / Urdu literature disappearing from the public imagination a little bit.
But it silently lived on. In people’s hearts.
A project like mine is not creating new awareness, we are triggering latent love (and the need for quality literature) that was already there, buried deep in our consciousness.
Now that these things are making a big comeback, hopefully, they will stay forever.
PP: What is the role of personal human effort in all this? The notion that you have to work hard at something, to keep it alive, if it matters. Like a relationship, or a language, or a cultural practice.
MG: Yes, greatly. When I hire someone for this project, I’m not looking for someone who works very hard or is very smart. I look for a person who can fall in love with this project. When you love it, it doesn’t count if the effort is big or small.
I had a team when I started off. With time, the work kept getting a lot more complicated, the money scarce, and I gradually became more difficult to work with, so the team started shrinking. For a long period of time, the team was my stay-at-home maid and I. She was a quick learner, and had the best eye for cinematography. I have managed since with part-timers, but I’m always looking for people.
PP: What personal resonance does language have with you? What did you hear and speak around you growing up? And when did this “search” become more deliberate?
MG: We think because we have language, it’s not the other way around. The more words we have, the more thoughts we can have. Language is not merely a medium to communicate, it is a tool for growth. I feel that as a society, we (India) are falling into mediocrity and the major reason is a loss of language. We do speak multiple languages, and our collective average vocabulary is extremely limited. We only get by with a mix of Hindi, English, or a vernacular language we speak. It’s a big concern—this watered-down version is dumbing us down, but there’s hardly any discussion on this in our society.
We Indians have so many evolved languages, all with rich literatures and traditions, but we have lost our confidence in our mother tongue. We might be the only country where we strive to communicate in a foreign language irrespective of whether we have a command over it or not.
Growing up, the spoken language around me was Hindi. But for me, it is not about “saving” Hindi, it is about making it more aspirational for our youth. All my efforts are directed towards that.
PP: What are your views on the politicizing of language in India – the conversation around making Sanskrit compulsory in the name of cultural preservation, for instance? Would you say this too is a way of working hard at something that deserves to be saved?
MG: Politicians have always been using language to divide and rule, and the worst is when they attribute language to a particular religion. We need to address issues (there are aplenty with 15 constitutional languages and many others aspiring to join the list) at many levels. Yes, at the policy level too.
PP: And what are your views on some of the other new trends and art forms that play with the evolution of the subject or language, such as Dastangoi? Would you view it in the same light as Hindi Kavita/Urdu Studio? Are you familiar with any other such initiatives?
MG: We have used Dastangoi in our videos too. There are many other forms of storytelling and poetry recitation that have been revived. We have been encouraging such efforts, because traditional forms need to be revived, while new experimentations need to continue.
This is an exciting, almost a virgin field. We’re witnessing many trends and some of them are here to stay.
PP: What is your big dream for Hindi Kavita/Urdu Studio going ahead?
MG: They are calling it the most significant literary cultural project ever, so I suddenly feel more responsible. It now actually looks like we have arrived at a stage where we can actually make a difference. Perhaps, it’s time to join hands with socially responsible corporations that want to help chisel the future of Indian literature. So far, we have not accepted funding, but I guess it’s time we think big.