All of 11, when Manish Gupta read Bhavani Prasad Mishr’s poem, Satpura Ke Ghane Jangal, in his school textbook for the first time in 1980, he had goosebumps. Verses from the poem — Satpura ke ghane jangal/ neend mein doobe huye se/ unghte anmane jangal (The dense forest of Satpura/ submerged in sleep/ a snoozing, indifferent forest) — rang through his head as he cycled into the forest near his house in Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh. “The description resonated with me, I felt a connection with the trees in Satpura,” says Gupta. On other days, he would spend afternoons under a tree with his friends, reading Munshi Premchand’s short stories, a Hindi translation of Mark Twain’s works, or “adult novels”, not meant for a boy so young.
Decades later, it is this connection with words that the 47-year-old aims to evoke with his YouTube channel, Hindi Kavita. Almost three years old, the channel invites actors and writers to read the works of their favourite poets — from lyricist-writer Varun Grover reading Main Laut Jaaunga by Uday Prakash and actor Manoj Bajpayee’s nostalgic narration of Dushyant Kumar’s Ho Gayi Hai Peer Parvat Si, to actors Swara Bhaskar and Rasika Duggal reciting their favourite verses by Pash and Amrita Pritam, respectively. “Hum toh bas Hindi sahitya ki advertising agency hain (We are just an advertising agency of Hindi literature),” says Gupta over the phone from Mumbai, where he now lives.
Usually shot at his house, the videos are short and crisp, with a violin piece in the background, and the anchors explaining their choice of poem for the day. There is actor Shilpa Shukla singing Piyush Mishra’s Mulk Ki Toh Le Li Bhaiya and speaking about how the poem ignited a passion to change the society; TV anchor Tanu Sharma acquainted the listeners with the love story between Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam and artist Imroz with Main Tujhe Phir Miloongi. Lyricist Kausar Munir adds some fun with a lover’s quarrel in Main Aur Meri Tanhaayee, as she recites, “Tum nahi hotey toh Morissette ke cassette nahi hotey/ tum nahi hotey toh main vanilla hi rehti, cassata na hoti/ nek rehti dil-phek naa hoti”. Bhaskar, on her part, travelled to Varanasi, Bhopal and other small towns to promote her recital of Nil Battey Sanata. “Recently, at a friend’s place, a vegetable seller told me how he can’t read but had watched the video of me reading. This was very humbling. They also made me realise that the vernacular belt doesn’t only enjoy Rohit Shetty and Salman Khan films. They enjoy this as well,” she says. “Hindi poetry never had a marketing channel of its own. People love poetry but it never left the pages of our school books. With this channel, in this age of sharing, Hindi poetry has become ‘cool’,” says Grover, who was approached by Gupta a year ago for the project.
It started as a conversation between tipsy friends one night in Mumbai in 2013, about the long-gone days of reading Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. Weeks later, Gupta, who had just returned from the US after a stint as a software sales official and a filmmaker, decided to start the channel. “That night we spoke about how we had shifted from quality stuff such as Nukkad and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron! to SAB TV. We had compromised. It’s then that poetry came up. I woke up hungover on this idea,” says Gupta.
Somewhere between his teenage years in Chhindwara and starting Hindi Kavita in Mumbai, Gupta moved to the US, ran a beach club in Miami, and directed two films — Indian Fish (2003) and Karma Confessions and Holi (2006). He also directed a hit show for Channel V called Roomies in 2010.
With Hindi Kavita, Gupta has also discovered new voices, such as Dogri poet Padma Sachdev. “These videos, in a way, are people sharing their secret lovers with the world. While I do read a lot of Hindi poetry, there are names I discovered too. For instance, when Zeeshan Ayub read poems by Nazir Akbarabadi, an 18th century poet,” agrees Grover. Months into the channel, Gupta got actors on board to read poems they love. It took off with Bajpayee’s recitation of Dinkar’s Rashmirathi, raking in 1,90,000 views, and writer-actor Piyush Mishra’s own poem Premikaon Ke Naam, getting more than 86,000 views. He recently shot videos with director Sudhir Mishra and actor Naseeruddin Shah, and is set to shoot one with Shabana Azmi. Gupta is taking Hindi Kavita to colleges across the country — IIM, IIT, Delhi University and Banaras Hindu University. “We’d show the videos in colleges and sometimes get the performers to read out the poems too. This is a way of making Hindi poetry aspirational.
Students walked away wanting to pursue Hindi literature. We bloom in our own language. I often tell them, ‘Hindi kavita aur Urdu sher nahi bologe toh ishq kya ladaoge? (If you don’t recite Hindi or Urdu shers, how will you love?),” says Gupta, with a laugh.