One spring afternoon in 2015, a group of six friends and a dog gathered under a chestnut tree in Cubbon Park. They may have known one another in different circles, but what made them converge that Saturday was poetry - a desire to share their own, listen to those written by others, and dive into a discussion which, now that I think about it, you can only have accompanied with the smell of frying corn and the sight of the misty sun over the head of King Edward VII.
Years later, Lynessa Coutto, the founder of Poetry in the Park, gave me directions to the same century-old statue, when I, having just moved to Bangalore a month back, expressed an interest in attending the August gathering in 2019. “Make sure you carry a mat,” she told me, very seriously, over the phone. I had learned about that month’s gathering from their Facebook page - the session was going to be broken into two, the first segment thrown open to whoever from the participating circle wanted to share a poem (self-composed, or any poem that stayed with them), and the second segment a tribute to the humorous poet Shel Silverstein. There were more than fifty people in the poetry circle that afternoon, an integer multiple of the first gathering four years ago. “I never thought the community would grow so quickly,” said Lyn. “There was never any pressure for a large gathering; I would have been happy with four or five people turning up. And the worst-case scenario? I would be sitting by myself under a tree with a book - which, again, didn’t sound too bad!”
The idea for Poetry in the Park came to Lyn after she started attending sessions by retired Professor Wendy Dickson, of Jyoti Nivas College. The idea of poetry in those sessions was not to profess ideals and themes that text-books have passed down through the ages, but rather, to observe how those poems made people feel, right here, right now.
“He was a nut!” squealed Lathashree KS, as she finished narrating a Shel Silverstein poem at the August 2019 gathering. She is one of the familiar faces I have begun to count on at all the monthly gatherings. While she and Lyn drove the segment around Shel Silverstein, they also passed his poems around the circle and encouraged us to narrate a few short verses. Some of us had never heard of him before, while others were starting to see him in a new light.
This way, every session of Poetry in the Park ended with a tribute to a poet. In April, it was Mary Oliver. The coming January, it would be Amrita Pritam. Sometimes, they also chose to showcase poets from among the community in their second segment. Poet Poornima Laxmeshwar did a reading from her books at the November gathering that year. This year, in February, I was grateful to have been asked to present a reading from my books.
“I see us as a safe, inclusive space, rather than a club,” Lyn said. “Anybody can join in. Through our growing community, we have even expanded the limits of poetry - we have songwriters, rappers and so many more.”
I had grown used to meeting certain people at every meeting. I even started texting them before coming, asking if I brought the coffee, if they could bring the chips (another lovely tradition at the gatherings; participants are encouraged to bring their own snacks, and we end up having a makeshift potluck under the rain-clouds). I asked Lyn if there were certain integral characters in her Poetry in the Park ensemble.
“Our community is like a river,” she declared, and it made perfect sense - they gathered people as the months flowed, and everybody is a part of the family. The feeling of belonging was at once apparent when I walked into my first gathering, almost a year ago. There were people of all ages, seated under the tree or leaning against the gazebo, and not all of them had come to read poems. An elderly couple leaned against each other with arms crossed and eyes closed. A group of college students hung onto Tuhin Bhowal’s lines with chin on the palm. They planned their Saturday afternoons around this and simply came to listen.
I wondered if it was something about Bangalore, something in the soul of the city, that allowed people to dedicate an entire afternoon to verse. Lyn declared that it was the people who found their home in Bangalore - people who migrated from different cities and have brought their passion along. It makes you think of Bangalore as a canvas, where a picture is only complete once different paints wielded by different hands come together. This truly reveals itself in the Urdu shayars, the limerick makers, the freestyle rappers who narrate their work at the gatherings. Ankit Jha, who performed at this year’s February gathering, echoed the same sentiments when he looked back at the “accepting and receptive audience”. To him, it was less about wanting to be heard and more about having the freedom to share one’s words without limits. “Being heard is an illusion. The more important question is, are people ready to listen and remember?” He felt that this community gave him that satisfaction, and, like so many of us during this lockdown, wishes he can go back soon.
It has indeed been a long time since the pink trumpet trees blossomed this spring, and we had our last gathering in February before the pandemic struck. Poetry in the Park has been known to measure time in odd, beautiful ways. At the last gathering, Lyn was telling me about a couple who had brought their infant daughter to a session. Ever since they more or less became regulars. Once, they were making their way past the Cubbon Road crossing, and the little girl, around four years old by then, excitedly pointed past the tree-lined avenue, and exclaimed, “Look, look! It’s the poetry park!”
Madhura Banerjee is a published writer, having explored genres from poetry to fiction. She released her first book, at age 21, and her second book, 'Monsoon Arrives at the Junction Crossing', was published in 2019 by Dhauli Books. She is a contributing children's fiction writer for 'Telekids', the children's supplement of the national newspaper, The Telegraph. She also wrote freelance columns on science and technology in the same paper. Her work on science was also recently featured as part of the Scholastic Yearbook 2020, published by Scholastic India. She has narrated her poetry and travel prose on All India Radio multiple times. At age 23, she delivered her first TEDx talk at IIEST Shibpur.
All pictures by Tuhin Bhowal, Poetry Editor, Bengaluru Review.