The Kali Project: Invoking the Goddess Within |
Anthology of Poetry representing Indian Women’s Voices |
Ed. Candice Louisa Daquin & Megha Sood |
India Blue Publishing, 2021 | ISBN: 978-1951724061 | pp 590 | 1,595
The Courage of Indian women
‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’. Celebrated poet Maya Angelou’s words rang true as I started reading The Kali Project – an anthology of Indian women’s voices from India and overseas. Poets and artists alike pour forth their myriad emotions and thoughts creating an eclectic labyrinth of Verse interspersed with Art. This amalgamation seeps into the reader to build an incredible internal experience. For me, this is the hallmark of a good read.
The cover of the book designed by Mitch Green sets the tone for this exhaustive and comprehensive tome of 590 pages. Megha Sood, co-editor of the book, published by Indie Blue states the purpose of the book in her Introduction, ‘To voice and curate the experiences of Indian female poets and truly celebrate their magnificent achievements and brilliance in creative art, we put out a call to women writers of Indian heritage to submit work that resonated with their desire for equality; illustrating their struggles, angst and pain in attempting to carve an equal position in patriarchal Indian society.’ A clarion call that elicited a terrific response of 1500 entries.
The Kali Project celebrates the writings of well-established writers and emerging ones with equal respect. Featuring authors as young as nine through to the oldest who is 87 years old! This anthology was born from a deep appreciation for Indian authors who write so beautifully in English despite it often being their second or third language. The courage of Indian women has lent their voice an unparalleled power. This is what the book identifies and emboldens. ‘Kali was the perfect Goddess to represent the project, she is multi-faceted and both nurturing and powerful’, remarks Candice Louisa Daquin, co-editor of the book.
The book encapsulates angst, rage, passion, sadness, bitterness, cynicism, despair, frustration, isolation, longing, passion, courage and creativity, transforming it into potent poems and striking representative art. In the interesting Foreword to the book, Dr Neela Bhattacharya Saxena, Professor of English and Women's Studies at Nassau Community College, USA explains, ‘Kali is the fiercest aspect of the Divine Mother in her mythic aspect. Fierce feminine energy of Kali is arising today so that we can save ourselves from total annihilation. This volume is a sublime expression of that emergence.’
A powerful theme requires powerful images in a book… either in words or illustrations and this provides fine lines for thought. The Art work here makes you think. It is serene, aesthetic and disturbing in turns but very symbolic of the title and themes it represents. The appealing and fine ‘spot art’ is done by Lakshmi Tara Chandra Mohan.
As expected, many of the sketches are in keeping with the tagline of the book, ‘Invoking the Goddess Within’ and therefore, represent Goddess Kali in her many forms. Artists like Punam Chadha-Joseph, Meenakshi Mohan, Antara Joshi, JapNeet Kaur, Nayona Agrawal, Sudipta Maity, Kali Kalyani and others infuse their sketches of the Goddess with contemporary, androgynous, graceful, modern and fierce qualities.
Other sketches by self-taught or trained artists like Nupur Ghosh, Dr Naina Dey, Nameera Anjum Khan, Mehak Varun and Simran Wahan are intriguing forms of artistic expression that capture the imagination. There are also age-old designs like the snake, the Trishul, woman carrying a burden and ploughing. Very Indian in depiction and thought.
It is refreshing to see Lakshmi Tara’s intuitive sketches, ‘Kali in Theatre’ by Shweta Garg, ‘Victory Pose’ by Sohela Chhotaray, ‘Shatter the Silence’ by 16-year-old Shaumya Shinde and ‘Dustasamhartri- the destroyer of all evil’. Some pictures like ‘Consent not found’ by Aditi Puttige (half man/ half woman) and ‘Untamed’ (inspired by the nude of Sylvie Guillot) are disturbing yet powerful. Kanchan’s artwork is a reaction to the most horrifying recent rape case in Hathras, a small town in India.
I believe every creative endeavour is multi-dimensional. Paintings add depth to the verse in the book and poignant lines are enhanced by apt illustrations.
Most of the poems are home truths based on reality. A few are upbeat. The goddess is invoked for strength but also for power to fight the injustice and escape from the metaphorical cage…gender bias. Some poems are dark and blatant with graphic imagery. They scream, they screech. Almost to the point of hysteria. Others disturb with quiet but unforgettable images. Some invite a smile and a thin sliver of hope. But they all manage to garner a gamut of powerful emotions from the reader and you cannot help but engage.
Most of the authors featured in the anthology are published poets and award winners. There is a wide spectrum of themes – sexual inequality, racism, rape, casteism, domestic violence, broken relationships, fractured marriages, prostitution, gender bias, injustice, gang rape, discrimination, misery, loss of freedom and self-esteem, infant foeticide, dowry, love, marriage, Hindu traditions, colour, transgender issues etc. Broken bodies and fractured souls…
There is a lot of poetic licence. In style, in language and technique. The disturbing and uncomfortable imagery is in keeping with the darker themes. Some poems are very prosaic or written in a winding style where sentence structures and word spacing are taken liberty with.
The poems on Goddess Kali stand out as theme pieces as poets like Abha Iyengar (‘Finding Myself’), Kashiana Singh (‘Reclaiming Kali’), Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, an Indian American poet, Zehra Naqvi (‘The Dark One’) and others interpret the celestial yet earthy powers of this goddess of power and immense strength in their own fashion.
Dr Sabreen Ahmed states simply, ‘She dies to relive/She is me she is you’.
Mehak Varun’s ‘The Kali in Me’ invokes the Kali within, when she exhorts, ‘O, woman, you have it in you to stand up against the wind, undaunted.’ This idea of an unwavering strength, undaunted spirit and indomitable power is epitomised by Kali, the one we all have, the one we all are. Dr Sanjukta Dasgupta portrays Goddess Kali as a ‘caregiver…prowling panther, Tireless vigilante!’
The literary element that gives depth to the poetry are the classical and mythical allusions. Interesting references are made to Ahilya, Kubuja, Ganga, Draupadi, Shakuntala, Sita, Savitri, Tara, Medusa, Oedipus, Athena etc. Nandini Sahu’s poem ‘Letter to My Unborn Daughter’ is full of Indian mythological associations and Chaitali Sengupta, referring to the rebellion and surrender of classical figures says, ‘In the womb of our past, the present lives on.’
Candice Daquin, who conceptualised the anthology, says, ‘We wanted to ensure we had a true mix of talent. It is never sufficient to invite only famous or notable poets, but to consider all kinds of voices.’
There is Aanya Sheth, youngest poet in the anthology, who talks of a ‘Quest for Equality’ instead of playing with dolls.
And then there is Anna Sujatha Mathai, awardee of the first Kamala Das Prize for Poetry, who writes,
‘She who seeks light,
Must learn to walk in the darkness,
On her own road.’
Noted poet from India, Lakshmi Kannan, dedicates her poem ‘Don’t Wash’ to Rasha Sundari Debi who lived during the times when literacy was denied to women and learnt the syllables of the language on her own by writing on the walls of her kitchen.
‘You need no book, Rasha Sundari
no paper or pen either
you have the black, smudgy kitchen wall
for your magical scribbles…
lines, ellipses, curves
all of them your secret codes for
a whole new world.’
For Sohela Chhotaray writing is a journey, not a destination and Dr Supriya Bansal feels words are her happy place. Some talented youngsters like 16-year-old Antara Joshi and poets like Sonali Pattnaik, Punam Chadha-Joseph, Tikuli from Delhi and Sudipta Maity sketch as well as write poetry. Arti Jain is a writer, poet as well as a photographer.
Numerous poems in this varied collection deal with infant foeticide and other societal vices. There is committed and witness poetry. Rita Malhotra writes powerful poems (‘Leela is Sixteen’ and ‘Molki’). There are many committed poems on Nirbhaya (gangrape) and the sad Dalit rape case in Hathras, India. Zilka Joseph’s ‘Havan’ is an ironic and sad piece. There are bold poems on prostitution by Emily Thomas and Anu Mahadev (‘Sonagachi’).
Mona Dash in her poem ‘Woman’, draws a parallel between myriad female victims. Their similarity gives birth to a oneness that makes them seem almost like a mirror image of one another, as the poet says, ‘Always, a different name, a different country, a different life, But the same I.’ This ‘I’ has a shared history that is sullen, bruised, violated and empty.
Namrata K pleads, ‘Don’t kill us…in the womb for a genetic quirk of fate’. And Shalini Chakraborty observes, ‘My mother drapes her nine yards of silence/ Like an invisibility cloak’.
Mubida Rohman’s ‘Kali and the Black Panther’ takes the reader on a journey of the dark skinned or ‘kali’ girl who is alienated because of her colour all through her childhood. Goddess Kali, and the Black Panther from Jungle Book, a most unlikely duo, are the ones to lift her up and teach her the true meaning of being kali – the ‘embodiment of Shakti’.
There are deep yearnings and sad voices here, touching your heart. Priya Sarukkai Chabria writes,
‘Time has charred me
See what I’ve become:
Stretched sand of a riverbed
too hot to walk upon,
and this breeze –
from a phoenix’s wings’
K Srilata wants to be ‘a woman of letters.’ Sulochana Ram Mohan has ‘an overwhelming urge to run out and touch the blazing horizon, so far off, yet so near in imagination’. Neera Kashyap talks of ‘Tall Dreams’. Latha Prem Sakhya explores the concept of the woman as a ‘trapped bird’.
Then there is Escape. In ‘Flight’ by Somjeeta Pandey. And Crossing the Threshold by Tikuli,
‘For a split second, she wavers, then crosses
the threshold, her heart frantic with haste,
leaving behind the walls
that had risen around her brick by brick’
Upbeat poems in this collection that features dark poems of despair uplift the spirits like a ray of sunshine. Usha Kishore writes about a tradition in Piplantari, Rajasthan where local women plant 111 trees in the village common, each time a baby girl is born. Young voices like S Rupsha Mitra (a student from India) and teenagers writing from metros strike a positive chord.
Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca’s choice of words in ‘The Poet’s Breath’ leave a lasting imprint on the reader’s mind.
‘May all fathers be poets.
And all aunts and grandmothers pray prayers
For their girls to be women of faith and character
Loved for their hearts and minds
Not their colour.’
In N Meera Raghavendra Rao’s poem, ‘My Mother-In-Law Surprises Me’, empowerment is simple and begins at home. ‘When two women understand each other, And feel at home with one another.’ This feeling of ‘home’ is perhaps the sisterhood we seek around us in a world ridden with patriarchy.
And when Sukrita Paul Kumar talks of women over centuries she sums it up.
‘Multiplying in numbers
As also in Shakti
Each one searching
for her own path
Her own tune...’
When I finally reached the closing lines of this extraordinary anthology, I realized I had found my own voice within. Not of despair but of courage. Not of darkness but of hope. The book was a kind of catharsis that strangely gave me undaunted faith in my own self as a woman. And my tryst with Goddess Kali reached full circle.
Issue 98 (Jul-Aug 2021)