Students from an undergraduate course at the University of Washington — South Asian Studies 436: Social and Political Geographies of South Asia — visited the Poetic Spaces exhibit at Odegaard Library last month.
This course, taught by Rowan Ellis, looks at the changing nature of education, employment, and political participation in the context of economic liberalization. It also explores the contested notions of development, modernity, and identity. The course meets twice a week for two hours with roughly 20 students, who are primarily upper-level Geography and South Asian Studies majors.
In the third week of the course the class went to see the Kalam’s exhibit in the undergraduate library as part of an attempt to “ground” e scholarly accounts of economic inequality and urban living. Sahar also gave a guest lecture to the class on Kalam and its work as an alternative development program for youth communities in Kolkata.
Here are some impressions of students after touring the Poetic Spaces exhibit:
Student Ashish Gupta said,
Ambition, nostalgia, personal identity; these are things that connected me with the work of these poets, transcending the gulf between our backgrounds. I was also captivated by some of the imagery and descriptive language. In “Banks of the Ganga,” for example, I was whisked away, my mind immersed in the natural sights and sounds of the riverfront. “Full Moon Night” was instantly relatable; its beautiful imagery captured the feelings of countless dreamers, and I could not help but revisit the many nights I have spent looking at the stars and thinking of the future. I was struck by the perfect simplicity of “Identity”; the metaphor was unique and the tone of the poem struck a wonderful balance between melancholic and hopeful. I really appreciated the work of these Indian poets, and I am now inspired to pick up a pen myself!
Student Brad King said,
These photographs seemed to focus on conflicts of identity. They show a struggle between the new and the traditional or as we learned it, the east and the west. These images are of young men wearing tattered dress shirts and khakis, reading books. In my mind, they show people expressing what I see as a duality of the different identities that they have been presented. These photos and essays also help because they show the individuality and make it harder for us to generalize or make the assumption that all that exists is a large faceless group of poor people. It helps us to appreciate the complexities of their everyday life and the essays and poems give us deeper insight to the conflicts they face, the differences that they have and help us to understand how they see themselves being portrayed.
Adrienna Jones said,
Poetic Spaces was a touching display about people living in Calcutta who were able to write poetry about their hardships. They lived in the red light districts, shelter homes in Kalighat and the suburbs of Bagha Jatin. Since there was a preface on how these people had or were living and what their status was, the pictures struck me as a window. I expected the display to be more depressing or overwhelmingly shocking. It was not. The poems did not deal with prostitution or extreme abuse. They did reveal a genuine person who has undoubtedly been through hardships but was able to still show their dreams and strength.
For example, the poem about the boy who wrote about the stars, at first I thought he meant shine as a human being who does great things. I realized that he was an aspiring to be a Bollywood actor. Or the poem, From a Rock to a Tree, it is difficult to imagine that a person who has been exposed to extremes or has committed crimes that there are such deep thoughts and touching words. The man who wrote that poem fell in love and was married.
The people’s work on display seemed just like anyone else who has dreams and aspirations. The program Kalam, has taken a handful of people in India and empowered them. I believe people have to find their voice and find a way to feel good about themselves. People who have been marginalized can be angry, sad, bitter, violent, scared and suicidal. The program showed that just because these people and many more are or have been in their same situations they do desire similar things to those who are socio economically stable or have not lived in extremes. Being able to hear directly from the people is a change from the lens of NGO’s. It is wonderful concepts to have the people represent themselves instead of someone else advocating for them.
Student Joni Solema said,
I thought that the exhibit was wonderful and it was nice to see that a writing group can add so much more intrinsic value to their lives, given that I was under the impression that most of these young people either lived in shelters or were very hard working. I generally related the authors to people of being from a lower class rather than the middle class that we are currently focusing on in the readings and lectures. I thought that the use of images and chosen poetry displayed very well the growing economic disparity that is going on throughout India and the concentration of commercial growth focusing on the middle class and the kind of invisibility or ability to over look the forgotten, which in this case is the young and impoverished cohort that is roughly half of India’s population. In many of the images we could see the huge advertisements in the back and the sort of way that the children’s lives are despite the economic reforms that are in progress.
I thought that the description of “A Red Light Area: Kaligat, Calcutta” of who was involved in the writing was very interconnected with the economic conditions with wording that in some senses were great opposites of each other like; “stigma, violence, dysfunction” and “jubilation and euphoria” when describing the landscape that they have to live in everyday. Also the description of how identity is achieved through poetry and expression, which also has dramatic pros and cons. In many of the poems that I read I got a sense of freedom within the author’s expressions. In which many of the writers described a feeling of being trapped and abandoned and how through poetry their expression of wanting to be more and feelings accomplishment prevailed. This exhibit showed for me the strength that everyone has in them and that anyone can endure and prevail given the right access and outlet to change, despite their socioeconomic status. My personal favorites was the poem entitled “Banks of Ganga” by Nitai Naya, that even through the beauty and greenery of the surrounding views the author can still see the thatched roof hut in the horizon, which kind if displays the kind of endless cycle that they have to endure given their environment and position, even though India is pushing for a more modernized culture there is still a great amount of poverty that they have to deal with before they move on. Another one of my favorite poems was “From a rock to a Tree” by Amit Pal, in which through the writing program he saw and experienced freedom from a world that otherwise confined him and in the end he found love and personal expression and growth.
posted by sahar romani