Matwaala : A poetry festival for the South Asian diaspora

“The word ‘Matwaala’ evokes bonding, creative adventure and non-conformity. A Hindi/Urdu word, it was the name of a radical literary magazine edited by the poet Nirala from Kolkata a century ago,” writes Jhilam Chattaraj.

A sea is a scary place
If your home is the Sea World
I am a migrant afraid of home
Homelessness is my sanctuary!

Yogesh Patel, Sea World, Swimming with the Whales, pp.53

Yogesh Patel, Poet-of-Honour, Matwaala-The South Asian Diaspora Poetry Festival, 2019, redefines homeland not as a distant, physical space with geo-political boundaries but as an evolving metropole of desires, floating on the ocean of imagined latitudes. Diaspora poetry festivals like the Matwaala, which recently concluded its fourth edition in New York City, is culturally inclusive in its mission showcasing poets from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Matwaala’s inaugural reading was hosted on 3rd of April at the New York Global Liberal Studies Department. The participating poets were Yogesh Patel and Kavita A. Jindal from UK and Pramila Venkateswaran, Ravi Shankar, Zilka Joseph, Vivek Sharma, Ralph Nazareth, Sophia Naz, Yuyutsu Sharma, Usha Akella and Indran Amirthanayagam from the US. Salman Rushdie made a surprise visit on the first day and graciously listened to all the poets. The festival continued on 4th of April at Nassau Community College and on 5th it concluded at Hunter College, where the poets paid homage to the late poet Meena Alexander. The three-day festival created a constellation of readings, panel discussions, book releases and sweet camaraderie over shared meals. 

Poet Yogesh Patel cheers with the Matwaala mug as Salman Rushdie watches on.

The word ‘Matwaala’ evokes bonding, creative adventure and non-conformity. A Hindi/Urdu word, it was the name of a radical literary magazine edited by the poet Nirala from Kolkata a century ago. Matwaala refers to someone who is drunk, but the word is used more often in a transferred sense, for a free spirited person

Matwaala, materialized in a magical way in Austin in 2015. The idea of a poetry festival emerged after an editorial project was co-edited for Muse India. The issue focused on a project involving diaspora artists and poets who generated the idea for sustained collaboration and initiatives: a festival was its magnification. The first festival included poets like Saleem Peeradina, Pramila Venkateswaran, Ravi Shankar, Sasha Parmasad and Varshs Saraiya Shah. 

In 2019, Matwaala launched its website, branding, hosted readings, published interviews of poets and an e-anthology of poetry, Matwaala Anthology of Poetry by South Asians (MAPS) and collaborated with New York colleges and universities. It received sponsorship from Poets and Writers, the iconic NYC based organization, and hosted South Asian diaspora poets from the UK. The Matwaala festivals have been cheered for their ambiance of warm camaraderie, community and friendships. Senior poets, emerging and young poets meet and mingle to mutually enrich each other in the spirit of poetry. The stellar poetry by the eleven poets was received with admiration by poets, students and faculty members of the host centres. The atmosphere was electric with live updates on social media. Festival directors, poets Usha Akella and Pramila Venkateswaran laboured for months to give life to the fruitful hours of poetry, friendship, literary discussions and interviews during Matwaala.

Directors of the Festival share a light moment.

In times of ‘liquid modernity’ when ‘all that is solid melts into the air’, Matwaala takes us to a literary space where the imagination of hyphenated-identities, leap across borders to create an evolving reality of world literature. New cultural identities are born as poets from different communities join the carnival of verses and ethnicities. Matwaala seems to have evolved as an identity marker of global South Asian writing. This is the uniqueness of Matwaala, the South Asian, is no longer the clichéd wise man from the east or the software guru of a flat world but a drunken artist, intoxicated with poesy, cup-overflowing, eyes pouring love out into the universe, its ceaseless charisma and possibilities.

Poets of Matwaala with writer Salman Rushdie.

Jhilam Chattaraj is an Assistant Professor at R.B.V.R.R Women’s College, Department of English, Hyderabad, India. She has authored the books, Corporate Fiction: Popular Culture and the New Writers (2018) and the poetry collection When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays (2018).


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