Pavitra Lama (b. 1976 in Kalchini, Dooars) is an Indian Nepali poet and an Avisangi performer, a form of performance poetry primarily found in the Darjeeling Hills, West Bengal.

In Conversation with Pavitra Lama: ‘Avisangi Realises that the Future of Indian Nepali Poetry is with Acting and Music’

in Interview
Published on: 15 September 2020

Ishani Dutta

Ishani Dutta is currently pursuing a PhD from the Centre for Comparative Literature, Bhasha Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University, Bolpur, West Bengal. She is also working as a Project Assistant for the project titled ‘Tagore in English: Essays of Decolonization’ under Rashtriya Uchchattar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA).

Pavitra Lama (born in 1976, Kalchini, Dooars, West Bengal) is an Indian Nepali poet and performer of avisangi, a form of performance poetry primarily found in the Darjeeling Hills, West Bengal.

She is a deputy magistrate, currently posted at Malda collectorate, West Bengal. Apart from avisangi, she is best known for her books of poems Sabhyataka Pendulamharu (2016) and Ma Deh Raato Ranginchu (2019). In this interview, Pavitra Lama talks about the genre of avisangi and the aspects that go into the making of avisangi performances.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted primarily in Nepali on October 1, 2019, in Darjeeling, West Bengal, and has been translated into English by Ishani Dutta. 


Ishani Dutta [ID]: You call your performances avisangi. So, what is avisangi? Is it same as performance poetry in the Western sense?

Pavitra Lama [PL]: Jai ‘Cactus’ Gurung coined the term avisangi kavita [poetry] for my performances. Avisangi is the mode of presenting a poem. Avisangi is a combination of the words abhinaya and sangeet, which, simply put, refers to ‘acting’ and ‘music’. Therefore, in avisangi kavita performances, poems are presented through the means of both abhinaya and sangeet, and neither aspect can be neglected. Avisangi kavita is far from being just performance poetry. Unlike performance poetry, we not only compose all the poems that are to be performed ourselves, but we must also learn the poem by heart before its performance. Additionally, in the course of the performances, there is often an overlap between the roles of the poet or the composer, the performer, the narrator, and the characters. 


ID: What goes into the making of an avisangi performance? Has it been theorised earlier? In other words, are there certain rules or guidelines that your performances follow or are based on?

PL: First and foremost, for an avisangi performance, the length of the poem is an important aspect. Since the narrative of an avisangi performance must bear resemblance to the plot of the story such that there is no gap between the poet-performer and the audience, the poem and its performance must be medium to long in length [a performance of about seven to 10 minutes]. The poem must be learnt by heart such that maximum abhinaya is possible. The use of paper might hinder the performance in more ways than one, and thus might directly impact the effect that the performance is intended to have on the audience. Apart from this, in the course of an avisangi performance, poetry and music should go hand in hand and music should fill the gaps between the various stanzas of a poem, such that the audience is not distracted. Therefore, not only is the selection of music crucial, but the choice of musical instruments is also important. Finally, intonation is another significant aspect, and it should resemble the flow of a river. In other words, apart from the necessary, there should be no break when it comes to intonation. 

Jai ‘Cactus’ Gurung and Kabir Basnet [assistant professor at the Department of Nepali, Darjeeling Government College, Darjeeling] have been trying to theorise the genre of avisangi primarily based on the Natyashastra [classical Indian text on the art of performance attributed to a sage named Bharata], as well as by taking into account audience reactions during and after the performances.  


ID: Why did you choose performance as the method of presentation? Avisangi has, in more ways than one, completely changed the picture of Indian Nepali poetry as it has brought in such developments that one could not have imagined even a decade ago. What are your opinions on this?

PL: I began writing when I was four years old. Even though my father was a musician, it is only after participating in Dhamari [a competition akin to slam poetry competitions] conducted by the Nepali Sahitya Sansthan in Siliguri in 2015 that I decided to take up performance as the mode of presentation. By then, I, along with many of my contemporaries, had come to realise that people both within and outside the Indian Nepali community had been losing their connection with poetry. Additionally, they did not have the same relationship with printed literature as they once had. 

I took up performance to reinforce that lost relationship with literature in general and poetry in particular. Common people are no longer as interested in reading a poem. In such a situation, how would it be if we made them listen to a poem? We as a generation want to make people listen to poems because we believe that the impact is more when a poem is heard as opposed to when it is read. I believe that when poetry and performance are combined, people tend to be more attentive and focussed and over the years, I have seen that people sitting in the audience often laugh, cry or feel anger during the course of my performances. Irrespective of whether they understand the language or not, the audience more or less tends to understand the sentiment behind the poem. To put it simply, our vision is to focus on the fact that poetry is communicated to everyone and that it reaches every household. 


ID: What are the kinds of innovations that you brought forth in terms of the mode of expression and the method of presentation in Indian Nepali poetry?

PL: Avisangi realises the fact that the future of Indian Nepali poetry is with music. Apart from this, the genre has been trying to establish a one-to-one connection between the poet-performer and the audience, such that the members of the audience has the scope to not only engage with the poem, but to also be able to interpret the poem in their own way. Also, in order to minimise distraction, music is used to fill the gaps not only between the various stanzas of a poem but also between different poems during the course of a longer performance. Until our generation, the focus had more or less been on the written word; it was, therefore, generally difficult to assess the kind of impact that a particular poem had on the reader. 


ID: What are the elements of a good poetry performance according to you?

PL: For a poetry performance to be good, one must have a good poem or a good text before anything else. For a poem to be good, it is very important to interact with people about the kinds of issues that they want literature to talk about or reflect upon. 

Secondly, performances become better over time and with practice. Interaction with people paying attention to audience reactions and feedback is also crucial. A good performance involves multiple rounds of corrections on various levels. 

Next, for a performance to be successful, the poet must be mentally involved with her poetry. It must be the case that during the course of the performance, the audience also becomes so involved that it becomes difficult for them to differentiate between voices of the poet, the performer, the narrator and the character.  

Finally, the poet-performer must bear in mind that the audience can comprise people belonging to any age, class, caste, gender and, thus, the language should be comparatively simple. The poems must not include a lot of technical or complicated words. Further, the pronunciation should be correct, the diction clear, and there should not be any break in the intonation. The music should be chosen very carefully and must go with the primary theme and the rasa [essence] of the poem. What must also be kept in mind is that for the poem to have the greatest impact, the poet-performer must learn the poem by heart and must not take the aid of paper during the course of the performance. 


ID: Your transformation into a performance poet must have been a rather long journey. Can you briefly elaborate on the primary difficulties that you faced on the way?

PL: As I said before, I began performing in 2015 even though I had been writing for a long time before that. What always acted as my primary motivation was the belief that poetry mixed with performance will be able to draw people’s attention towards issues that are normally overlooked.

I am often criticised because I talk about women, transgender people and even refugees in my poems. Instead of looking at the refugee problem as a global concern, and as something that affects us on an everyday basis, people take it as a political issue and criticise me. They tell me that I am talking in favour of those people who are trying to settle and take over the hills. 

Additionally, performance poets in the Indian Nepali scene are often trolled by critics because they believe that abhinayaand sangeet are of secondary importance, and that it is the poem [the written word] that is of primary importance. Thus, before everything else, one must have a good kavita or poem in tow, and it is what we performance poets always have to keep in mind. Apart from this, the political scenario in the Darjeeling Hills often hampers literary inventions and innovations. Finally, when it comes to the question of the inclusion of performance poetry in the curriculum at college or university level [primarily in the Nepali departments], we are still hopeful because we believe that there are certain institutions that are more inclusive and liberal in comparison to others, and that they are more open to modifying their syllabi with time.


ID: Women characters are very important in all the poems that you compose and perform. Most of the poems in your first book of poems, Sabhyataka Peṇdulamharu [2016], either have women characters or mention the lives of women in one way or the other. What is your primary intention behind this? Can you also elaborate on the kind of inclusivity that your poems seek?

PL: One must remember that, while the Indian Nepali community is marginalised vis-a-vis the rest of India, Indian Nepali women are marginalised doubly, not only for being women but more for being women within an already marginalised community. Thus, most of my poems either have women characters or talk about real-life women or transgender people because they are the ones who are the most marginalised and it is their rights and equality that we need to fight for. 

Apart from this, because I am a woman, the woman’s perspective tends to come into my poems automatically as I cannot do away with whatever I think and feel as a woman. At the same time, I cannot disregard the fact that my experiences are similar to most other women across the country, as a result of which my individual concerns, anxieties and fears often refuse to stay within the boundaries of the individual. They go beyond it to become a part of the collective, the national and at times, even the universal. Therefore, my poems do not look at regional level problems or the problems of the Darjeeling Hills as isolated issues. Instead they focus on the fact that the problems faced by all the marginalised communities vis-a-vis the mainstream across the country are the same and thus, overlap with each other. The difference lies only in the form that these issues take and the way in which they are resolved. Thus, my poems tend to link the issues in one part of the country to those in another. For me, the problems brewing in Kashmir are more or less the same as those pertaining to the agitations in Gorkhaland and Bodoland, because even though the form that the problems take changes depending on the region, the fundamental nature of the issues remain the same. At the core, the struggle is always between the centre and the periphery and the marginalised and the mainstream.


ID: Would you say that your poems form a repository of the Indian Nepali way of life? To make this simpler, your poems try to take the local to the universal level, but most of your poems still talk about an essentially Indian Nepali way of life. What are your thoughts on this?

PL: Just as I resonate with the experiences of women because I am a woman myself, I cannot help but resonate with the concerns and the anxieties of the Indian Nepali community because I have always been a part of it. However, I will not say that my poems only talk about the Indian Nepali way of life or simply about the concerns of the Indian Nepali community. 

Through my poems, I have always tried to speak for and represent the subaltern who cannot speak for themselves. I believe that their concerns are the same everywhere, irrespective of where they belong, and must be addressed. Even though this subaltern will never be able to read my poems, which try to talk about their daily struggles and problems, I believe that it is, nonetheless, my responsibility to speak for and about them. When my poem, ‘Harkamaya’ released for the first time in March 2019, many people came to realise something that they had never realised before, something that women had been facing and struggling with on a daily basis but had never been able to bring to people’s notice. Thus, even though some themes primarily related to the issues of identity and identity crises come naturally to me for belonging to the Indian Nepali community, I connect as much to the everyday problems of women as to the issues related to the subaltern, the marginalised, and the peripheralised.    


ID: Translation is possibly one of the best ways to make Indian Nepali poetry a part of the larger Indian consciousness. What do you think should be the approach that one should take while translating your compositions to be able to make them available to a larger audience?

PL: Translation is indeed the best possible bridge for Nepali literature to not only go into another region, but to also connect with universal issues. Translation can act as a means for people across the country to realise that certain issues and problems are similar everywhere, which is why it is important for us to remove physical boundaries. 

In the process of translating texts that are composed for performance, as opposed to those that are written for print distribution, one must keep in mind that it is not enough to merely translate the text. The translation should be done in such a way that the target text can also be performed with the means of abhinaya and sangeet in the same way as the source text. However, a good translation, according to me, should always lead one back to the original.