The canvas of English literature has quite often seen brushstrokes of poems and prose painting vivid images of cities and presenting them in myriad forms ranging from a moribund setting to an idyllic and almost breathing entity. While personification of these concrete jungles is not a novel idea, especially in poetry, we often see poets revisiting this concept and exploring it through newer lenses.
One such new book, Over and Underground in Paris & Mumbai, is a creative confluence of words and images. Poets Sampurna Chattarji and Karthika Naïr along with illustrators Joëlle Jolivet and Roshni Vyam have tried to garland personal insights of these two cities using a common thread of rail networks — underground metro in Paris and suburban locals in Mumbai — which act as a lifeline for millions of people dwelling in these metropolises.
The poetry collection, which was launched in Mumbai on 14 December, celebrates duality in a very interesting way: Two cities seen from the eyes of a poet, who hails from the same city she is writing about, and an illustrator, who hails from another city. Thus, we get to see images drawn from a foreign perspective, much like the eyes of a visitor; and at the same time, we read words coming from a native, more everyday and experiential viewpoint. Doing this, these four collaborators try to comment on how two bustling metropolises of Mumbai and Paris, despite being geographically distant, are indeed closely linked. Both are ever-expanding and function at an unstoppable pace with people — both from the city and outside — swarming in and out, using the rail networks, thus underlining their cosmopolitan identity.
Firstpost interacted with Sampurna Chattarji and Roshni Vyam who shared their experience of how this collaboration came into being and what was their creative process in shaping the book what it is today.
The seed of the concept was planted by Karthika Naïr who had met Chattarji at Mumbai's Kala Ghoda Festival in 2016, and since then the project has traversed its own path. "It started as a desire to collaborate between two poets, the idea of getting illustrators on board didn’t happen initially," says Chattarji. "We have known each other and our work but it is very different when you set up this desire to write poetry almost in response to each other; that is something we hadn’t ever done before. It was Karthika who decided why don’t we look at trains as a subject, because if we just say, 'Let’s collaborate!', the canvas is too wide and many times one runs in the risk of going all over the place."
The idea of trains as the subject came as a brilliant opening for Chattarji's love-affair with her city, which according to her had almost reached a closure point after the release of her 2013 book of stories titled Dirty Love. "I used to look at the favourite corners of my city in my travels and feel a sense of melancholy that there’s nothing new for me to discover. So with this new subject, I thought it will rekindle that joy of absorbing things around when I move through a place," she says.
After the peg for the project was finalised, both Chattarji and Naïr decided on the format. They finally zeroed it to the concept of linked poems which owes its origin to the Japanese style of poetry called ‘renga’ where the last line of one poem becomes the first line of another. Chattarji explains how this new structural constraint also helped them establish a working ground-rule. "We had a subject that became our wide plain field but we wanted to give ourselves a technical challenge as poets because both of us like technical challenges. We gave each other a three-week response time; sometimes we took more time and sometimes we took less time. It was only later that the idea of having an artist came in, where we thought of reversing the gaze — it should not be an Indian artist looking at Bombay, but a French artist and vice versa."
As a result, the renowned French illustrator Joëlle Jolivet flew down to Mumbai and rode local trains along with Chattarji, while Gond artist Roshni Vyam went to Paris and explored the city travelling in underground metros along with Naïr. Vyam hails from the Gond Pradhan community of storytellers in Madhya Pradesh; renowned artist Jangarh Singh Shyam who died in 2001 happened to be her uncle. The Gond artform primarily revolves around geometrical patterns, much similar to the 'dhinga' designs that they make on floors and walls of houses for decorative purposes. Vyam, however, experimentalises with figurative drawings inspired by her traditional art. While she had previously done illustrations for stories and prose, doing the same for poetry was a huge challenge for her.
"When this project was offered to me I was fascinated as I had never done poetry illustrations. So it was definitely challenging for me. Karthika spoke to me, over emails, in detail about the project. I asked a few samples of her work but I couldn’t understand most of it. I was really afraid as to how I would be able to do this. My style of work is to observe something and then work on it. I can’t theoretically read something and work on it. Karthika anyway called me to Paris and told me that I can observe Paris metros on my own and that gave me a lot of clarity. I definitely had a better understanding of France through Karthika’s poems and that shaped my way of making the artwork. I put both the aesthetic style of the metros and my intrinsic style in my artwork," says Vyam.
The idea of a dialogue between two poets suddenly also transcended to being dialogues between a poet and an illustrator, that enabled another layer to the overall narrative. Chattarji had reservations about how Jolivet would manage to draw in the hustling locals of Mumbai, but she was left amazed at how calmly and intuitively the French illustrator brought the snippets of her multiple experiences in the trains on to the canvas. "Joëlle is a very experienced and extremely sophisticated artist. She does live drawings all the time and she has done books on various cities. She apparently, before I got to know her, used to draw on the Paris metro. She would very speedily and accurately make these portraits, almost like sketches, of people around us. If you look at the book, it is very interesting to see that Joëlle’s interpretation of the Bombay trains is the people — the daily commuters. And she has done them all in real time on board capturing everything — the fluency, the speed, the freneticness (sic), the occasional moment of quietness — of the trains," says Chattarji.
She further adds, complimenting Jolivet's creativity, "I wrote one poem especially for her — 'The Second Class Compartment Not For Ladies Only' — because she would say, ‘Why are we getting into the ladies compartment only? The men are so interesting; I want to draw their beards, caps and all.’ So we travelled in both kinds of compartments. I realised that I wanted to dedicate one poem based on her observation as a traveller. For me, it’s a whole matrix of experiences — my life in Bombay, what I know of Bombay, the roots that I am familiar with and the ones that I am not familiar with, the changed history and geography of the city. But being with Joëlle also made me look closer, to the individuals."
Vyam elucidates this dialogue between word and image through her experiences in Paris. "Coming from a community of storytellers, somewhere in my mind that imagination comes automatically. But poetry is a different ball game; it is somebody else’s vision that you have to depict in your own way. In this book, I got a lot of freedom. Karthika’s poems had different meanings — sometimes of happiness and sometimes of sadness… All these poems were read to me by Karthika where she explained why she wrote what she wrote in detail. So I got her sense and mood and I interpreted it my way and tried to put her emotions into my artwork. If you see, it’s all connected — my work and her poetry — it’s totally close to each other. All you need to know is what that artwork means. Everything is symbolic in my artwork."
As a poet, however, Chattarji explains it was also a dialogue between self and within. What more can one say of their own city? In what words? Yes, with trains as a subject, the poets did have a common thread and the format channelled the linking of one poem to another. But this inward travel, often on the lines of introspection, gave the necessary ink to their words. "We had a starting point and we knew where to begin, but where we went with it was entirely up to us. There were two kinds of destinations — one that was physical and one that was emotional. So 'Western Line', for example, is about the Bombay train attacks. So when I began, I really didn’t think that I will write about all this. As I moved from poem to poem, the narrative also unfolded for me. I realised that urgency was somehow entering the poems in a way, something that I possibly hadn’t even foreseen. It’s almost like when you have living material, you also want to capture that everydayness of it, sort of photographic immediacy, memorialising the names of people who died, lamenting, commemorating and celebrating all these things.
"Also, it was about the surge of feeding humanity that enters the trains. It was about the mechanical realities, the immersive experience of being one of these million commuters. In that crush and chaos, there’s also being on your own. You can completely travel inwards. I think I have talked about that inward travel in a lot of poems like 'Harbour Line', which was a quieter line at a quieter time and hence I could go inwards. It is also about another kind of travel... You travel in different ways — you travel with a purpose, you travel in a hurry and haste. We also drift, so making room for that drift also happened rather organically in the overall scheme of things," adds Chattarji.
With every new work, comes new learnings. As a writer who sparingly collaborates with another writer and prefers to work in solitude, this project was nothing less than a revelation of sorts. Chattarji says, "There was a sense of openness and a greater awareness of time — of my time in the city, what time does to a city, of the bad times that a city goes through. So there’s plenty of melancholy, plenty of celebration and joy also. This made me more open, acceptable, trusting and certainly a team player. I had forgotten what it meant to be a team player because I was a solitary writer with a single focus. Suddenly, we were four people and it was marvellous." For Vyam, it underlined the need of grasping the practicality of an idea over its theoretics. "If one needs to learn something you need to go out and see. You can’t put yourself in a box; you need to open up and observe the traditions, the way of life. It is only then that you can relate to put it in terms with your sensibility and then give it a context."
Other illustrations by Joëlle Jolivet.
Over and Underground in Paris & Mumbai has been published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications.
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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 13:10:31 IST