Shairas, women who recite poetry in mushairas, often talk about the initial unease they had to overcome during their performances. The reason is overwhelming masculinity on and off stage at these gatherings. The awkwardness is brought about by being that token female face in the itinerary of the pre-dominantly male shayars and is compounded by the apprehension about how the largely male audience would respond to a woman opening up her heart through a nazm or a ghazal.
Monika Singh Thakur, an Urdu shaira from Pune, didn’t have to go through this uncomfortable initial phase when she started publicly reciting her poetry in 2013. The reason, perhaps, lay in her experience as a civil servant which requires her to deal and work with men. She has been in state civil service since 1999 and has served in various positions in about half a dozen cities and towns in the state. She’s presently working as a Deputy Collector in Pune and is in-charge of preparations for the upcoming elections.
“In my school and college days, I was very reserved. I used to write poetry which my friends happened to read. They then egged me on to recite them so I started with small, friendly gatherings. In 2013, I recited poems at a big mushaira. Somehow, I never felt bogged down by the male presence around me on the stage or in the audience,” said Singh. She was born in Majalgaon, a small town of about fifty thousand in Beed district of Marathwada. Her family hails from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh and had settled in Majalgaon much before her birth.
She would initially write her poetry in Devanagari. However, an incident, while poring over a poetry collection of famed poet, Shaharyar, prompted her to learn Urdu. “When I went to buy Shaharyar’s Kulliyat, I was told that the only published collection was in Urdu, published from Karachi and no Devanagari edition was available. The shopkeeper generously ordered the book from Pakistan and gifted it to me. Now I had the Kulliyat with me but didn’t know how to read so I decided to learn the language in its original script,” said Singh.
She began learning the basics of the nastaliq script. She soon pursued bachelors in Urdu followed by a masters. “Now I’m looking for a PhD topic,” she said amid the bustle in her office as Lok Sabha elections approach.
Over the years she has performed at over 70 mushairas in India and abroad. In 2016, she published her collection of poetry, Lams (Touch). She is also part of a group of four women artistes who perform ‘Sahar Hone Tak’, a show which traces the history of women poets in Urdu tradition.
“Most of my poetry is about love. That’s the subject I most identify with, although I’ve also written ghazals in response to incidents that perturb me,” she said. Talking about the perceived contrast between her profession as a government servant and her passion for poetry, she says, “I don’t see any contrast in the two but I have always kept the two aspects separate from each other. The poetry and travelling involved has never been affected by my responsibility as a civil servant.”