Making poetry accessible, one whisper at a time

Manish Sain

Jaipur, Jan 25 (PTI) A bustling 'Press Terrace' at the Jaipur Literature Festival fell into a quiet calm as a group of nine men and women in all black three-piece suits swept the floor with gentle steps, almost as if not wanting to hurt the ground beneath their feet.

Donning black 'sensus' (Japanese folding fans) in their hands, these 'poetic commandos' first opened their black umbrellas, and then placed a long, hollow cane on the shoulders of random, unassuming journalists.

The rustic, sensuous whisper of their voices melted in the ear as they recited Hindi and Urdu poems, one after another. This seemingly spontaneous piece of performance art, where the group wove magic with their whispered recitations Gulzar's 'Welcome', Ajneya's 'Samadhi Lekh', and Kedarnath Singh's 'Ana Jab Samay Mile', is part of a larger movement by a French group 'Les Souffleurs' or 'The Whisperers' to make art, in all forms, more accessible.

It came from the desire to take the 'high arts' to public spaces, said Olivier Comte, the founder.

'We noticed the high arts like music, poetry and dance was not available to the public anymore. Poetry belongs to the masses, and the masses had ceased to have any access to it,' the French artiste told PTI.

In the process of learning to recite poems in the local languages, he said zeroing in on the text took the longest.

'We often access the meaning of the texts because they are translated (or written) in English. But also in French. It is in France that we seek and hire Indian actors to make us the voice recordings of the selection of texts, then we learn them and then come the coaching sessions,' he said.

The entire process takes five to six months of research and learning.

'For India we worked in four languages, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and English, which is a lot for French people who have a reputation for not being very good at foreign languages.

'But more than a job, it is an honor and an immense pleasure to dive into languages. Languages represent the genius of a people, a particular vision of the world. So the Souffleurs love it,' 61-year-old Comte said.

The group, which currently has 36 performers in France, and just as many in Japan, has been travelling across the world whispering texts in various languages including Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, Portuguese, Turkish, Romanian, Japanese and English, since its inception in 2001.

This passion for poetry has also taken them into 'dangerous environments' like those of Brazil and Mexico, but the poetry 'wins everyone over'.

'In all these years, through hundreds of performances, we have never experienced any hostility. Even in places like Brazil and Mexico, where we were warned not to go,' he said.

'In such places, first people look suspiciously at us as we approach them, but once we start whispering in their ears, their eyes lower and a smile comes on the face. At that moment we know we have won them over,' he said with a smile.

But, why do they call themselves 'commandos' if poetry is all they have at their disposal? 'We are commandos because we go anywhere and everywhere, even if we are told not to. It's our endeavour to slow down the world with our gestures and our voice,' Comte said.

Most members of 'Les Souffleurs' are in their 50s, and work as writers, actors, dancers, and digital artistes when not reciting poetry into people's ears.

After 'whispering' in Kolkata earlier this month, the group will spend a week in Jaipur before moving to Delhi and Bangalore later.

In Kolkata, the group whispered Debarati Mitra's 'Smriti bole kicchu nei' (There is nothing called memories), Rabindranath Tagore's 'Aalo amaar, aalo ogo' (Light, Oh Light! ), Vijaya Mukhopadhyay's 'Tumi ele' (When you come) among many other famous Bengali poems. PTI MAH TRS TRS