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Twenty Five Years Of Harvard India Poetry – 1997-2021

Bijoy Misra

On May 17, 1997, a group of about a hundred people of Indian community mingled at Harvard University Science Center Hall C, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of India’s independence with the recitation of freedom songs in various languages from the Indian subcontinent.  The inspiration for the occasion was late Mrs. Catherine Galbraith, who had served India in the ‘60s and had been a friend to India through her life.    Late Swami Sarvagatananda, the resident monk at Ramakrishna Vedanta Center was instrumental in creating a concept and guiding through the event.  The program was sponsored by Harvard University  Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, chaired by Professor Leonard van der Kuijp, a specialist in Buddhism and Tibetan Studies.   It was the fourth meeting of the Outreach Committee of the Department, the Committee founded by Professor Michael Witzel, the Wales Professor of Sanskrit at the University.  The Committee was led by Dr Bijoy Misra, a member of the Faculty and Research Associate
in the Department. 
Thirty readers spanning their origin around the subcontinent participated with classic freedom songs simulating the voice of the people in an academic lecture hall.  Readings and recitations from literature continued with occasional student and faculty participation until 2004.  The event gained reputation as a multi-lingual literary gathering celebrating spoken words in South Asian languages.   The Cambridge poet Brother Blue and Harvard oral historian Ruth Hill became regular participants in the meetings adding color and variety to the gathering.  In 2004, with a core membership  of about twenty-five poets, we moved to encourage new compositions from the poets.  Stories of nostalgic lamentation and emotional expressions on the familiar sights of families and locations in the old land dominated poets’ thoughts. High School students and young children joined occasionally to write about their experiences in living through two cultures.  Events in the US regarding discrimination, racial injustice and social disparity found expression in poets’ voices. Brother Blue and many other storytellers participated in narrating stories of life and society in the US and in South Asia.

In 2008 summer, the group formally organized itself into South Asian Poets of New England (SAPNE) to become an outlet for creative talents of South Asian origin in New England area.  It was decided to host meetings quarterly in poets’ homes or in public spaces to create a literary space for the group.  Chandu Shah, a Gujarati poet and entrepreneur, joined Bijoy Misra as a co-convener of the meetings and the organization.  May meetings continued at Harvard University as Harvard India Poetry Reading under the auspices of the Department of South Asian Studies, an August outdoor assembly was added to have poetry in a picnic setting, a theme of “Voice of the People” was added to the November meetings.  Another theme entitled “Voice of the mothers and the Youth” was added to the February gatherings.   A website  https://www.sapne.boston was created to archive the meeting reports and create an album for the poets. 

In 2017, the poets’ group South Asian Poets of New England formally merged with the newly formed India Discovery Center, a non-profit initiative to create educational material for the South Asian youth and help educate the general public about South Asian culture. The meetings were held on theme topics such that various languages may be intelligible without a necessary translation. Language used included Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Nepali, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Odia, Kannada, Kashmiri, Bhojpuri and many other smaller languages.  The experiment of hearing each other continues to be the mission of the poets’ group that spans one quarter of the world’s population with ancient history and a diversity of systems and cultures.  The group received logistical support from the South Asia Institute (currently The Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia institute) and hosted the annual May meetings at Tsai Auditorium in Harvard University.   The August meeting was converted to a Folk Literature and Oral Poetry Festival. It is a pleasure to report that the group has received the funding to host the First New England Regional Folk Literature and Oral Poetry Festival in August this year, sponsored by the City of Cambridge and Massachusetts Council of Art.     

Our twenty-fifth annual Harvard India Poetry meeting is scheduled Sunday, May 16, 10 AM, as a virtual session because of continued health restrictions in the US.  The theme for the meeting is Mother Nature प्रकृति माता.  Thirty-five poets from all around the world
will participate to present original poems in Sanskrit, Hindi, English, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Kannada, Odia and Tamil.

You can join the program by sending mail to idcinboston@gmail.com.  The group acknowledges the support of scores of volunteers who have nurtured the organization through their creative work, technological knowhow, graphics production, report creation and video editing. The group thanks Lokvani for supporting the group by featuring the announcements and the reports.  We acknowledge the support of various writers at Harvard University who have reported about the event in Harvard Gazette and South Asia Institute newsletters over the years. 

You can join in our future meetings by writing to Bijoy Misra at misra.bijoy@gmail.com or Chandu Shah at emailchandushah@gmail.com   
The group Facebook site is https://www.facebook.com/sapneboston 

On to the next twenty-five years!

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Swami Sarvagatananda

Catherine Galbraith

Poet Brother Blue and Ruth Hill

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