Sunday, April 5, 2009


On March 21 this year something very special happened in Penang. This was the first ever celebration of UNESCO's World Poetry Day in that State. In case there are readers not familiar with what this is all about, it may be worthwhile quoting a brief passage from Wikipedia:

“World Poetry Day is on March 21, and was declared by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1999. The purpose of the day is to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world and, as the UNESCO session declaring the day says, to "give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements."

Several years ago, while surfing the net one night, I came across references to UNESCO’s World Poetry Day. Almost instinctively I decided that such a day should be remembered in Kuala Lumpur. I was fortunate to get the support of the University of Malaya Cultural Centre for a proposal I wrote, and some funding from the Ministry of Culture Arts and Heritage. The event was held over two days.

Reports on the internet show that at times the celebration of World Poetry Day has been done on a relatively simple scale, with a handful of poets gathering at some street corner or café to recite their work, with or without a real audience. Some are no doubt aware of itinerant solo poets singers and bards moving from place to place, coming alive as it were, wherever there is an audience; some may be aware that, in certain instances, the real audience may even be invisible, and the poet, more appropriately poet-priest, apparently sings to no one, no one visible that is.

We Malaysian are somehow different. Unless there are “proper” opening and closing ceremonies by so-called VIP’s, even if these VIP’s do not know the meaning of the word poetry it does not matter, nothing significant is taking place; unless the air-conditioned hall is packed there is no event; unless a great deal of food is consumed and all the trappings of celebration are somehow incorporated, we do not feel there has been an “event” of any kind. This is our culture of tinsel and wastage. It is symbolic not of strength but of weakness. It certainly has nothing to do with poetry.

World Poetry Day may be celebrated with poetry in a single language. As a theatre person I have often cited the definition of theatre by David Cole that one person (the doer-- actor) doing something (the thing done-- the event or the imitation of one) and another (the single audience member) observing him, would constitute a theatrical transaction. My own definition of proto-theatre of which there are many examples in Asia, is similarly constructed. Dionysus was a solo- artist as were Homer and Valmiki, as was Thespis. They were all actors just as much as they were solo-poets. Why should poetry be any different today?

Anyone who has seen/heard a single blind selampit artist in this country or a Baul singer in Bengal would know that there is no difference. It all boils down to a celebration of the word, which is after all sound. Word is sound; sound is word. And a word, as we know from the opening line of the Gospel according to St John, can do wonders! If, for some reason, anyone is allergic to the Bible he can substitute with whatever scripture or system of utterance he is less allergic to.

Given the fact that such an event was being done in Malaysia, I felt that perhaps one way to make it exciting was to bring in poetry from as many languages as possible. In Kuala Lumpur I ended up with around thirty. I suggested readers come in national costumes to enhance the sense of ritual and theatricality. Thus there were informal costume parades, and with cultural performances thrown in to break the monotony of extended reading, came into being what would be my own, possibly unique, manner of celebrating poetry, my own brand, to use contemporary jargon. The fact that foreign diplomatic missions, universities, local cultural organizations, and individuals came in to assist made it all possible.

The event in Penang was officially presented by The Asian Cultural Heritage Centre Berhad, which I founded as an NGO, with the same basic formula used in Kuala Lumpur. However, due to certain uncertainties and constraints, UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 in Penang was done on a slightly modest, but still grand enough, scale. Part of the blame for the problems and uncertainties must go to Malaysian officialdom, the definition of what constitutes an event, something I have already referred to, and also certainly to the Malaysian sense of time. Admitted I should have got the ball rolling a little earlier, but there were still several months to go before March 21. By the time the initial idea began to get moving we had less than two months left.

Not being very clear about how the activities connected with Georgetown's status as World Heritage Site actually transpire on the ground, and, more critically, how funding may be secured, I discussed the idea with Anwar Fazal. He was enthusiastic, and suggested that I bring in Wawasan Open University as a partner with my Centre, with their gleaming new campus as the venue for the event. Once Wawasan had shown interest, as far as I was concerned, UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 in Penang could proceed. The mechanism was set into motion with the appointment of my Committee.

Following discussions with Anwar I sensed that I would have problems getting funding from Penang. That did not scare me overly, for I was confident that funding would, as it logically should, come to me from the Ministry of Culture, Arts, Heritage and Unity, the custodians of our cultural heritage as well as the home of UNESCO in Malaysia. I had broached the idea, informally, as before, during my first attempt at organizing World Poetry Day in Kuala Lumpur, with the selfsame officer in the Ministry. He was also the officer with whom I had worked to get the ancient mak yong dance theatre nominated for World Heritage status. My proposal, including the accompanying documentation prepared for the Ministry was sufficient to allow for UNESCO to recognize mak yong as an item of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in the year 2005.

As before, on the UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 project, I was assured there would be no problem. All I had to do was to write in. And write in I did, directly to the Minister, with a copy to the officer, my contact person, who happened to be the Minister’s Personal Assistant. On the suggestion of the Committee I also invited the Minister to officiate at the opening of the function on March 20. My proposal was at a later date, also sent to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. I was already assured of support though verbally by the Ministry. I was also confident that Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka specialists in “the word” could be depended upon to assist. And then the waiting started.

Serious problems awaited my Committee in the coming days. To cut the story short, I did not receive any response from the Minister’s office to my official letter. My phone calls and email messages went unanswered or got the usual, very Melayu, tak tahu, tak pasti and so on. And even a desperate visit to the Minister’s office to meet someone, anyone, who could assist, produced more tak tahu and tak pasti. I could not even get an answer to the question whether the Minister would be able to launch the event (to make it a real event). Under pressure, my Committee decided that we should leave the Minister out; that he was perhaps too busy to come to Penang on March 20, the date on which we had originally planned to have the official opening.

Still I had hopes that Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka would help. In compliance with to my Committee’s suggestions, I kept reducing the scale of the proposed programme, finally cutting it down it to just single day, March 21, instead of the original two and a half. I could not invite any foreign poet as I had hoped to as time was running short, and I made other adjustments. I called Edwin Thumboo to come up, but he was in Hong Kong. Meetings with people in Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka seemed positive. There was the possibility that they would sponsor a couple of Sastrawan Negara to grace the occasion. It was suggested that I trim my budget to indicate more precisely what I expected from them. Still, at the end of the day, no Sastrawan Negara was sponsored by them, no funding came through, the final word coming to me a couple of days before the event, by email, with appropriate sopan santun, lemah lembut apologies, and assurances of possible assistance next year, 2010.

Yet, I still have not lost faith in them. I am already, like my Committee members, looking forward to 2010.

Meanwhile preparations had been going on apace. Instead of the Minister, the organizing Committee managed to get the very affable and accommodating Tan Sri Emeritus Professor Gajaraj Dhanarajan, Vice-Chancellor and CEO of Wawasan Open University to do a brief opening ceremony. There were four important readers at that session. There was the unassuming Muhammad Haji Salleh, who is in Universiti Sains Malaysia. One of Malaysia leading poets and a National laureate, Muhammad writes both in Bahasa Melayu and English. There was Wong Phui Nam, the most established English language poet in the country, and there was Marzuki S Ali, another well-known Malay language poet. Not exactly a member of this group, but nevertheless, for the Committee a very important person, was 87 year-old Padman who travelled from Ipoh to present short excerpts from the epic Mahabharata in Malayalam. The tone was set, in a sense, by his presentation, for the four poets, by presenting poetry written 2000 years apart, opened the session wide. There were to be no limits of when the poems were written, by whom and in what language. This was the tone I had earlier tried to establish in my opening address. And then there was the launching of a new volume of verse: Khoo Soo-Hay’s In Ancient Ayuthia: A Selection of Poems from the Past Fifty Years, a work which, like many others, had to wait the precise moment to materialize. Considerable pressure had been brought to bear on Soo-Hay so that the volume could not only see the light of day but get a launching on March 21, UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 in Penang.

It was a quietly impressive beginning to what was to develop into a remarkable experience for poetry enthusiasts in Penang. Readings went on from the opening ceremony at 8: 30 a.m to 6:00 p.m. with appropriate breaks for tea and lunch. The closing session included an audio and visual (the audio part coming from his own voice) presentation of Rabindranath Tagore’s work by Prashanta K Dass—the second Tagore presentation, the first being that by Lalitha Sinha earlier in the day. Tagore was Asia's first Nobel Laureate for Literature. As the final reader, I read a sampling of my own work in English and a selection each from Bulleh Shah in Punjabi, Kabir in Old Hindi, Nida Fadhli in Urdu and Jose Rizal in Tagalog. Anwar Fazal who officiated at that ceremony too presented his piece.

In those several hours, poems by some of the world’s best-known poets, spanning a good two thousand years of creative writing as well as by Malaysian poets-- established, not-so-established and new--were presented. In the case of Malaysian writers, with just one or two exceptions, the poets themselves were present to deliver their work. My Committee had decided that this should be the case for good reasons, over-ruling in some instances the jittery reluctance of the poets themselves. Possibly the most significant section of the programme, was that which saw the presentation of new poems by young Penang writers as well as by foreign students from many a different land. All in all close to fifty readers, ranging in age from below 10 to 87, presented poetry in twenty-five languages in a really fitting tribute to the word. And there were cultural items in between—dikir barat by a group from Universiti Sains Malaysia, and Nyonya dances-- to provide colour and to prevent people from falling asleep. If indeed they were still feeling groggy at the end of the day, they woke up for sure, as if on cue, when the Punjaben Jatti Group presented a lively medley of Punjabi folk songs and dances.

UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 in Penang was a truly significant event, something a Committee made up of a handful of dedicated and endlessly hard working people managed to put together under considerable strain and limitations, with the support, material and moral, that came from Wawasan Open University and Universiti Sains Malaysia. Participants-- readers, presenters and performers-- came from many different disciplines totally unrelated to the arts, suggesting that poetry has a far-ranging influence, if not upon daily lives, certainly upon the infinitely more important inner, subtler being of Man, the being that thrills with pleasure equally at the sound of a birdsong, a well-recited poem, a song whistled softly in or even out of tune, the sound of a well-tempered lute, rebab, sarangi or er hu. Poetry and music have been inseparable since the mythical days of Apollo, through those of thousands of poets the world over. It is the so-called modern, logical mind, in contrast to the traditional, that rarely sees the connection, embroiled, as it is, in the mire of materialism.

It was, in keeping with my own perceptions of poetry and its meaning, one of the missions of UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 to restore an awareness of this connection, if only just. After all it was only the beginning . . .

The Organising Committee of UNESCO World Poetry Day 2009 in Penang consisted of the following members:

Professor Dato' Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof
Professor Dato’ Dr Anwar Fazal
Associate Professor Dr Shakila Abdul Manan
Dr Mogana Dhamotharan
Satnam Kaur
Himanshu Bhatt
Lucille Dass
Norpisah Mat Isa
James Lockhead

To all of them (not including myself, of course) a million thanks.Thanks also to those many unnamed ones who made the event happen and happen in such glorious fashion.