Posted tagged ‘Women’s Labor collective’

SEWA Slam, Women’s Poetry Reading, Ahmedabad

April 6, 2013









I cannot understand more than a word or so of Gujarati but it turns out that there is a certain style to empowerment poetry–strong rhythms, impassioned spirit, use of repetition and refrain, and sardonic humor–that is universal.

But before getting on to poetry — and you can see it being read in all of the photos above –I should say that the reason that I am in Ahmedabad right now is that my daughter has been working with the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a women’s organization that was started by the extraordinary Ela Bhatt in 1972, first as a women’s wing of the Textile Labour Association, which in turn is India’s oldest and largest union of textile workers, founded by Anasuya Sarabai, the philanthropic daughter of an Indian industrialist family in 1920 (after being inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s successfully led strike of textile workers in 1917.)

SEWA split off from the TLA in 1981, as a separate woman’s collective, made up of “self-employed women,” that is, women from the informal labor sector – headloaders, rag pickers, vegetable sellers, piece workers (usually working at home), bidi cigarette rollers (also often working in the home), women who tend to be extremely poor, with few sources of capital and little bargaining power against their bosses, landlords, the law, family members, anyone.

After its split from the TLA, SEWA spread out a number of limbs and roots –its symbol is a Banyan Tree–including (in addition to the labor collective), the organization of a women’s bank, social security system, insurance program, health clinics, child care, rural workers associations, training programs in various trades (everything from henna decoration to computers), literacy programs, life skills programs, a girls’ club (largely for the daughters’ of SEWA members), a SEWA academy, video SEWA, radio SEWA.

So, I come here to visit one of the offices for the afternoon as my daughter finishes her work, and guess what they happen to have set up for that day — a large poetry reading! (Not, I admit, in any connection to me.) Except that I got to go.

About thirty women read. All were beautifully dressed. (A few in my daughter’s office were busily applying eye liner to each other before they left.) Many spangles and bangles. (Some people think of women as dressing up for men, but when women dress up for other women, they can really go to the max.)

There were young girls reading, and also women who had been members for thirty years. This means that these women most likely started out as manual laborers–headloaders or vegetable hawkers, women who first learned to read and write in SEWA literacy classes.

The poetry was serious and impassioned–some, you’ll see in the videos below, read with great gestural emphasis. There were also, of course, many jokes. Although I had a strong sense that “the Man” was mocked somewhere, I really do wish I could have gotten the particulars.

SEWA is multi-religious, multi-caste. Hellos were said by poets with traditional muslim or hindu greetings and sometimes both. The hoots and whistling following some refrains would occasionally have an Inch’Allah thrown in, if the poet was Muslim. (I also think that some poets read in Urdu, but I cannot be sure as it is also a language I do not understand.)

Was it different from a Western slam? Sure, aside from the beautiful dress, each reader sat cross-legged, was barefoot, and afterwards took, as a reward, a wrapped-up wad of pan (betel nut leaf with flavorings folded into a little triangular “football”) from a small brass pot in the middle of the stage.

But even my unschooled ear could pick up the rhymes, the repeated phrases (each one growing and growing into a further, longer, more resonate repition), the rhythms and echoed refrains.

Ela Bhatt, now fairly elderly but unbelievably sweet and dignified, spoke (and even sang briefly). The women adore her, often using her name in their verse. It is clear that they feel that she (and SEWA) have given them a chance in life.

The closing, which my daughter tells me is typical of all large SEWA gatherings, involved the singing, with rhythmic clapping, of “We Shall Overcome.” In Gujarati. With multiple verses. All known by heart.

Pure poetry.

(I have included very blurred photos of some readers above, and of Ela Bhatt. Sorry that my light and camera were poor. I was only able to upload one video and I’m not sure it’s really there. She was one of many spirited readers. )