When 18-year-old Aranya Johar inaugurated the Lights! Population! Patriarchy! event (a celebration of Laadli's 12th anniversary) on 9 June 2017, everyone listened in rapt attention as she performed her powerful piece on gender.
Called Brown Girl's Guide to Gender, the spoken word performance has previously gone viral on YouTube and attracted the attention of media houses like the BBC, and even news outlets in Germany.
Before she got on stage at the Laadli event, I saw Aranya at the back of the room, sitting and chanting her poem like a mantra.Then, she took to the stage — her red lipstick and black painted nails making me wonder for a minute if that was a way of standing out from the crowd. The moment she stepped up to the microphone, however, I realised such aids were absolutely unnecessary — the youngest person in the room, Aranya already had all eyes on her.
She started off with her now iconic lines:
The first boy who held my hand,
told me boys don't want to hear about vaginas bleeding.
Younger me could smell the misogyny:
Vaginas were only meant to be fucked,
Breasts only meant to be sucked,
Mouths only meant to blow,
It's true my waist only meant to be compared to an hourglass
My voice only meant to quiver, "Uhh please... fast"
Yet I am silenced...
As she continued, I could see everyone — the audience, the distinguished panelists for the evening (which included famous screenplay writers, directors and personalities from the world of cinema) nodding along in agreement.
This must be the umpteenth performance Aranya is giving of her popular piece of poetry, Brown Girl's Guide to Gender, which first went up on the internet in March 2017. Since than, she has been lauded on national and international platforms (her poem got translated in German) and hailed as a feminist hero.
In a conversation with Firstpost after her performance, Aranya says she hadn't expected the enormity of it atall. After all, she had written the poem in under an hour. "But I listened to lots of Kendrick Lamar, J Cole before I wrote it," she says. "I am really inspired by how they rap about racial discrimination in such a powerful way. They talk about racial discrimination without actually blaming white people for their problems, which is very smart."
Aranya began writing Brown Girls Guide because she was "intrigued by the fact that women bonded over being harassed". "Like I would have these conversations with my friends about things like deadlines for coming home, and hemlines of clothes," she says. "I realised how these boundaries are an important part of defining feminism for us."
She often gesticulates wildly in the midst of her performance, and stops for dramatic pauses. "I love watching people react to those parts." she explains, when asked about the tactic. "The part where I moan, people tend to get so fidgety and avoid eye contact with me. Even though we know that women are objectified and sexualised to such an extent, the minute someone calls it out is the moment people get uncomfortable."
Aranya's tryst with slam poetry/spoken word began when she was 13: she lied about her age at the IT MIC event in Mumbai so that she could perform onstage. "(The event) was 18 and above only. I'd like to believe I fooled the organisers into thinking that I was old enough to perform over there," she recollects.
Since that first performance, she's found a lot of support within the slam poetry community in Mumbai.
Aranya says about the slam poetry culture in Mumbai: "All the performers are surprisingly very supportive. I mean there is competition, but the competition is really healthy. Because I was the youngest in many of these performances, all the other guys used to root for me. It's a great environment."
Coming back to what inspires her verses, Aranya says Philip Larkin is most definitely an influence. "I like that he didn't follow any rules in poetry. He had a very different, unique spin on things. (Even) if many poets would write about the same thing, his take would be completely different from the ordinary," she says.
And what of the feminist hero tag she's got, thanks to her powerful poetry? "Yes, I am a feminist," says Aranya. "But feminism is not the only thing I believe in. I want to talk about so much more in my poetry. I want to talk about mental health. I am really passionate about exploring the idea of mental health activism through poetry. "
So what does the future hold for the 18-year-old?
Aranya says there's lots of new poetry that she wants to release online, starting with a poem on what adults think about millennials. "I have also tried writing about love for the first time... love in a very contemporary context. This is because I have partnered up with an app," she explains.
Other than that, it's all the other things that peers her age are busy with — namely, starting college. Does she know what she'll be majouring in? "English Literature," says Aranya, "of course."
Updated Date: Jun 17, 2017 09:44 AM