The Bard from the Valley

Ramneek Singh is a spoken word poet from Jammu. Through his poetry, he tells us stories of his home. His poems reflect on the implications of the territorial conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir dating back to 1947, and the atrocities that the Indian Armed forces have committed in Kashmir. Ramneek’s poem called Jhelum is based on one such mysterious disappearance of a Kashmiri friend. It’s about how he is trapped with a sense of guilt when it comes to breaking the news of his loss to his friend’s family members.

Every time he tries to write a poem about love, partition or conflict intervenes. It transforms the fabric of each poem. After all, “conflict gives birth to poetry”, he says. One of the biggest conflicts that an artist has to face against the world is to maintain a sense of identity. When he first shifted to Mumbai, he felt a little discouraged about getting into the poetry scene. Most of the spoken word poems in English were well received and appreciated but he had to carve a niche for Hindi poems. He had assumed poems performed in Hindi would not be as popular as in English, but his contemporaries were welcoming and encouraging which inspired him to keep at it. His intention of writing poems was not to impart knowledge but his way of sharing his pain with the world and wondering if it is capable to feeling too. One of the most significant ways in which his poems have contributed to his artistry is by providing him with an opportunity to empathize with people. One of his struggles is to recover after a poem becomes popular, to be able to compete with his own poems is a task.

His poem Rhinchin and Dolma reveals the callousness of tourists and photographers who come to Ladakh to capture its beauty completely oblivious to the plight of the locals in Ladakh and their fight for freedom and sustenance. People say that words are powerful enough to change the world. Ramneek feels that through his words he can evoke the grief of those families who have lost members due to the attack on civilians in Kashmir. The pain of migration when one loses what used to be their home. Through his poems he intends to show the beauty of coexistence without letting differences cause animosity. “It’s problematic when people refer to Kashmir as Kashmir without sparing a single thought for the Kashmiris who reside there!”

His recent poem ‘Acche Din’ on Kashmir is about a little girl who has a disability and doesn’t understand the grave consequences of living as a person with disability in a territory that is constantly under threat. Her grandfather keeps writing letters to the Prime Minister asking him to stop this fight over a piece of land. He writes:

ज़मीन का टुकड़ा ही तो है,
फ़ौज परेशान, लोग परेशान
आप परेशान हम परेशान
करवा देते हैं दो हिस्से
पार्सल करा देते हैं आधी जन्नत कराची
आधी दिल्ली
और छोड़ देते हैं अवाम को
अच्छे दिन
कान से।

Good Days (excerpt)
It’s just a piece of land,
the army is troubled, people are too
You are troubled and I am too.
Let us divide it into two parts,
Parcel a part to Karachi,
and half of it to Delhi,
Let the people wait and listen to
The arrival of good days
with ears.

Apart from the conflict in Kashmir, one of his poems is also an ode to Tibet. A child in search of his home in Tibet and describing the Tibet that existed before it was torn apart by the Chinese Regime. “Do you know that Tibet fought against China about 108 times?” He asks. Then he reads this poem called ‘Ghar.’

“काँगड़ा की पहाड़ियों के बीचो बीच 
 जन्नतों के ज़ायके 
 कुछ ऐसे सुनाई देते हैं 
 ग्याथुक ।
 इन सब में 
 अपने खोये हुए, 
 छिन चुके घर को 
 गुहार लगाता, 
 एक छोटा बच्चा 
 हर सुबह, हर गली. हर दूकान 
 अपनी झलक दिखा ही जाता है
 उसके पुराने घर की तसवीरें 
 यादों के मलबे, 
 पोर्ट्रेट, ग्राफिटी, इश्तेहारों में 
 चीखते नज़र आ ही जाते हैं
 चुपा पहन कर हाथ में तस्बीह लिए 
 घूमती मुस्कुराती परियों के बीच 
 धर्मकोट की चढ़ाई में ‘
 त्रिउन्द की उचाई से 
 उसकी गुहार 
 दिन में एक बार 
 कानो में पड़ ही जाती है
 मेरा तिब्बत कहाँ है|

Situated in the middle of the mountains of Kangra
There are flavors of heaven
I hear them as
In the middle of all this
I search for my stolen home
Every morning, every lane,every shop.
I catch a glimpse
Of old photographs on my home.
A debris of memories
From pictures, graffiti, and advertisements
Shouting as a proof of its existence
In between those laughing, fluttering fairies,
On those treks to Dharmkot,
Scaling the peak of Triund,
His Growl
once in a day
falls on my ears
Where is my Tibet?”

The very idea that someday he will run out of poems seems terrifying to him. He doesn’t want to exhaust his potential as a poet. His rage against certain steps taken by the judiciary that drove him to write poems. There are times when he fails to put words on paper, and he worries if he has become complacent. During times like these he notes down all the compliments he has ever received from people in a diary and reads them over and over to reiterate his faith in his capacity to write poems.

His love for travelling inspires poetry too, saying that “We nurture the myth that we are permanent. We are just tenants on earth. Capable of dissociating and writing.” His poems are an extension of himself, and he believes the page is a patient listener, a living entity that understands his pain. He believes that thoughts and emotions come first in his creative process, and the craft that evokes emotions comes much later for him. His poems are a collection of his experiences and encounters with people, and are prompted by his urgency to write and record their stories. Since he is a traveler and filmmaker, his poetry borrows from his visual craft by attempting to paint vivid pictures from his imagination and stir the listener’s sense of imagination. Some evoke, some provoke, while others just take the reader to a place he once travelled to.

Will poems stoke a fire in our hearts which are oblivious to the consequences of war and conflicts? We sit wrapped in a cloak of sympathy and the comfort of our chairs and drown out all pleas for help from the valley in the chaos of this city. Are we doing enough? As Ramneek questions these dark times where our freedom is threatened under the guise of being national by asking “Aazadi hain kya mujhe apne aazadi ke liye sawal karneki?” (Do I have the freedom to ask questions about my own freedom?)

Rutika Yeolekar (text and translations)
Image Courtesy: Ramneek Singh

This article was originally written for The Creative Process by The Mumbai Art Collective’s Spring 2017 Issue on The Arts of War.