The Roof of the World at Swindon Festival of Poetry

7 Oct

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As an English white woman, I wouldn’t describe Saturday’s event – The Evening News and The Roof of the World – as a culture shock (far too gentle for that) but it was a beautifully different experience.

The spoken poetry on Saturday was in Hindi by Mohan Rana. There were no English subtitles, but this didn’t matter. I opened my mind to it like I would music or dance; a different way of understanding, enjoying the musicality of the language.

To emphasis this and compliment the poetry, Mohan had invited his friend, ‘cellist Jo Quail, to perform alongside him. Jo had previously interpreted his poem The Colour of Water (From the Sea).

In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen a few incarnations of poetry and music (as opposed to song or rap). Zena Edwards at the Marlborough Festival of Literature moved and integrated the two effortlessly because she felt them inseparable. Don Share and Barry Andrews gave a joint performance because Don loved Barry’s music and wanted to collaborate.

Mohan’s intention was to use the music to bridge the spoken language gap. “His poems offer an intriguing bridge between two cultures; a sense of dislocation alongside a sense of place,” said The Guardian –  fusing music and poetry is not only following in an ancient Indian tradition but also bringing together his birthplace and his English home.

I tell him after the show that I loved the beautiful smiles that passed between him and Jo, providing the cues between music and poetry. Mohan smiles again, a wry one this time. This relationship is in its early stages; smiles covered a short fall in rehearsal. I hope they keep the smiles.

Jo’s Starfish electric ‘cello was crazy. A gorgeous hollow, butterfly of mahogany, it was the third performer on the stage with a personality all of its own. She played it alongside loop effects more commonly heard from the feet of guitarists (a look at her biography shows a love of rock music on the heavy side – that explains it). I love a bit of looping. I’m always impressed at how the musician can play their instrument, tap in the loop, then keep in time with the repetition of their own music, turning one instrument into a whole ensemble.

The event was topped and tailed with Kathak dances, Ram Vandana and Gazal.

Ram Vandana is sixteenth century devotional poetry in Sanskrit, by Tulsidas, a devotee of Lord Rama (a Hindu God). If I were to make a Western comparison: it’s like a hymn with added dancing.

This poetry and dance is rooted in thousands of years of history. Ram Vandana is in Sanskrit; Gazal in Urdu, with swirling skirts of beautiful silks and rows of bells, with every nuanced move a convenor of meaning.

This part of the show from Drishti Dance was captivating. It was presented by the South Asian Arts Performing Centre, with Urdu poetry by Majaz Lakhnawi.

I must admit I hadn’t intended to go to this performance but I was glad I made the effort.

PS I was a little surprised at the lack of cultural diversity in the stalls – it would interesting to know why it didn’t attract a more Asian audience. However, I appreciated my cultural entertainment being more diverse.

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