Indian Literature Comes to London: KALAM Leeladhar Jagoori 2017

| by Joe White

As part of the UK-India Year of Culture – a major year of cultural exchange between the UK and India – the popular Hindi literary event KALAM will be running a series events in the UK. Run by the Kolkata-based NGO Prabha Khaitan Foundation, the KALAM series has appeared in Jaipur, Raipur, Patna, Udaipur, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Ajmer, Mumbai, Bhubaneswar, and this month came to London for the first time.

The aim of the London series is to help introduce global audiences to outstanding Hindi writers who are popular in India, but may have not yet received the international attention they deserve. The first event of the series took place at the Taj Hotel in St James’s Park, Westminster on the 19th November, with the prominent Hindi dialect poet Leeladhar Jagoori.

The audience were entranced as he spoke about his life and his practice, and read from his work in conversation with Dr Padmesh Gupta, Director of Oxford Business College (also himself a Hindi poet of international repute). Although he now writes in Hindi, Jagoori is a member of the Garhwali people, and his poetry is informed by a deep engagement with the poems, sagas, and folk songs of his region.

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Addressing the audience at Kalam in London, Jagoori explained how he had run away from home at the age of twelve, returning eleven years later to become a soldier in the Garhwal Rifles. It was during this time that Jagoori’s love of Hindi literature, a result of reading widely and deeply as a teenager, compelled him to write his first serious poems. Speaking at the Taj Hotel, there was a suggestion from Jagoori that this urge to write may have had something to do with the struggle to find an identity within the army, where self-expression was discouraged.

Without really expecting anything to come of it, Jagoori dispatched a letter to the then Minister of Defence, V. K. Krishna Menon, asking for permission to quit his post in the Garhwal Rifle. Happily for Jagoori and for poetry, the request was granted.


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He decided to change his last name from one which designated his caste to one which reflected the name of his ancestral village in Garhwal. It is typical of writers in India’s satirical tradition to give themselves pen names in this manner. He went on to publish widely, and has been the recipient of a number of prestigious awards and prizes, including the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1997 and the Padma Shri in 2004.

After talking so openly and generously about his life, Jagoori read some of his short poems and haikus, each demonstrating a deft way with language, a playful approach to words, and what Jagoori himself elsewhere has called his ‘lively interest in being human’.

For those readers who would like to read some of Jagoori’s poetry in English, two poems translated by Sarabjeet Garcha appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation No. 1 2017, Songs of the Shattered Throat, which focused on poetry in the languages of India, with a selection of new translations. This issue was supported by the British Council as part of the UK-India Year of Culture. One of these poems, ‘I See Myself’, is reproduced below:

I See Myself

I see myself
always loaded with a knapsack
I see myself
always running

some horses die midway
some trains penetrate the ocean
some aeroplanes
crash into the horizon and disappear
and more and more blood
turns into water

even then I see myself
always running
and see that the earth
weighs upon my back like a knapsack

translated by Sarabjeet Garcha

KALAM is the brainchild of social activist Sundeep Bhutoria, who is also the Trustee of Prabha Khaitan Foundation who started KALAM in India to promote primarily Hindi and regional literature in the country as an interactive platform for authors and poets. Sundeep Bhutoria said about bringing the KALAM series to London: 'The Indian diaspora in London are very much connected to their roots and many speak the language and read Hindi literature. While planning to launch Kalam abroad the first city which comes to mind is London and no doubt the city has a number of Indian authors as well as an Indian population from various regions of India. We want the poets and writers from the world of Hindi literature to get an opportunity to meet with a select global audience in London and with the UK-India Year of Culture, it has motivated us to showcase our regional authors in the UK.'

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