Inside an Artist’s Head: Seep Agarwal

Seep Agarwal

Seep is a spoken word artist who spends her days building artist communities at Soulstuff, driving youth innovations at UNICEF India and championing the inclusion of arts learning in formal education systems. She believes accepting uncertainty is actually great evidence of courage, and hopes to always be remembered by her poems.

Q: What has your experience of writing during the pandemic been like? What were the challenges?

Seep: I think for me, it’s been a little different than others because I have been continuously working full-time. I was already doing a job when the pandemic began. Then I shifted homes and started working from home. So, in the initial few months, the transition was about striking the balance between getting things done, being productive, while also focusing on my mental well-being.

Writing-wise, I’ll just say that for the last one and a half years, I have been in this space where I have just felt that there’s so much happening in life, that I want to be able to live it fully and feel it completely, before writing about it. For me, otherwise as well, writing is very observational in nature and the part about living and observing really matters a lot.

My writing has seen a shift from me saying things, to me asking questions, and it also quite focused on growth and the concept of adulting, because I think people don’t talk about it enough, especially how difficult it is. So, this is how it has been. I’ll just say that the past one and a half year has been a process of me trying to discover myself.

Q. Tell us about your writing process. Do you follow a strict writing schedule? Are you an ardent notes maker? We’d love to know what the process looks like for you.

Seep: I think for me, writing is very observational. I’m very particular about the long-form content that I consume whether that’s cinema or articles because those are the things that stay with and influence us the most.

I often get ideas at the most random moments- going to sleep, writing an email, reading an article, so the process of conceiving these ideas is mostly impulsive and observational. Although most times, I forget to write them down ( chuckles) but when I do note it down, I type ideas out in the WhatsApp group that I have with myself or send myself a voice note, so when later I finally sit down with my words, I go back to these little realisations and build my craft around them.

I usually try to convert one thought into a metaphor. Earlier, when I used to produce more spoken word poems, my writing used to be focused on themes. I would choose concepts like balance, self-love or homesickness and then weave a story around it or incorporate my own experiences with it in my pieces. However, now, since I have shifted to long-form essays, I usually sit with my thoughts for longer durations, ask myself questions, and then I bring it all together.

I don’t have a stringent writing schedule, because of my full-time work and also because the emotional turmoil of living in a pandemic doesn’t really allow it. I think I have grown to be comfortable in not writing for prolonged periods because when I come back to it, it stems from an honest and authentic place and I would much rather prefer creating pieces in gaps of longer periods than writing inauthentic pieces often.

Q. We have noticed that you are a great proponent of mental health. How important do you think it is, especially in the current day atmosphere, for art to recognise the sensitivity of mental health?

Ans. It is extremely important, so much so that I think that one can not exist without the other. And of course, it is always better if one is aware of and sensitive towards such things because that also helps in creating the required space to talk about it. Adding to that, I am of the opinion that performance poetry, in such cases, is a great medium to be our own selves and to be in a space where our feelings will be honoured and heard.

In the past few years, even the organisation of slam poetry events has revolutionised to such an extent that there’s more focus on the procedural aspect – proper trigger warnings and guidelines are given out before every event. This is also really great because performing a poem about mental health or someone’s own challenges and/or experiences with it, is one part, but the moment you say that this is a space where these experiences would be heard and more than that, the fact that one would be heartily welcomed to share such feelings, things really change. So, we again come to the point that one won’t really exist without the other. If you don’t create a space where people can speak for themselves, I don’t think slam poetry would exist.

With reference to that, we also have such amazing poets in the Delhi poetry circuit who write strong and powerful poems about their own challenges, without romanticising or whitewashing them, and I think that really lays the groundwork for similar pieces to follow. They really paved the way for such great work to come after.

Q. Where did the idea of establishing a spoken word platform like Soulstuff come from? Could you also shine a light on your transition from writing poetry to its spoken form?

Ans. I would like to take on the latter part of the question first. I started writing poems or as one might say, some brief metaphorical pieces, when I was in the 11th grade. It mostly happened because of my English teacher who used to teach us, Shakespeare. She used to draw metaphors out of trivial things, such as blue-coloured curtains, and I would get fascinated just by the amount of poetry people see in everyday life.

After that when I came to DU, the first spoken word poem I saw was Sarah Kay’s “If I should have a Daughter” and I was really moved. I kept crying while listening to it because I could relate to it and I thought that this is how my mom and I are. I hadn’t heard anything like that before, and I didn’t even know spoken poetry.

Almost 6-7 months after that, I started writing longer poems. My first spoken poem was something really preachy. Eventually, I started going to slam events. So, I sort of directly segwayed into spoken poetry. I have written a lot of poems that are not performative in nature and could be read as paper poetry, but I technically started with spoken word poetry itself.

Coming to the establishment of Soulstuff, it has been co-founded by me and Aprajita, who is again an amazing spoken word poet. Since its inception, Soulstuff has been a place where we are not very regular with events, but whenever we do something, we put our heart and soul into it. We try to think of events as thematic concepts. For example, our very first event – ‘Neon’ was named so, keeping in mind the fact that art is like the neon city lights in the night. The next event was called ‘9798’. It was about the people who were born in 1997/98 and are in their 20s currently. It was essentially about growing up and finding ourselves in that process.

Something that we also wanted to do and acknowledge while establishing Soulstuff was to create some part of the ecosystem, where artists are also monetised for the efforts they put in and that is something that Aprajita and I are both really proud of.

Q. Who are some of your favourite growing artists?

Ans. Wow (chuckles). I don’t really know how to classify, because all of us are growing artists, but all of my friends are my favourite. Even people from the Delhi poetry circuit, are so talented, it’s crazy. I think that the world is missing out because they don’t know these people exist. Aprajita is surely one of them. Utkarsh, who is a brilliant political poet and also Muskaan, whose poetry is conversational in nature. In the music scene as well, there are some amazing artists like Manikaant.

There are literally so many more names, other than the ones I mentioned.

Seep often shares her words via Barstool, her newsletter named after the first spoken word poem she wrote. You can subscribe to it here: http://eepurl.com/g-JZNz

A tryst with partition, objects, and Remnants of a Separation

by Muskaan Grover

Growing up, I heard my paternal great-grandfather time and again reiterate stories from his life pre-partition, during partition, and what followed post-partition tracing our family’s roots to Gujranwala in the Punjab province of what is now Pakistan. We were sahukars (moneylenders) or so I was told, owning acres of land, living in a big haveli. I remember being told about people using the barter system even when money was in rotation, how our family was the first to own a bicycle in the village capturing the attention of all, how even though being Hindu-Punjabi’s, we had the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy Sikh scripture) at home with the daily religious rituals starting as early as 2 am.

When partition struck, the entire family, unbeknownst of what lay ahead for them, set out for Delhi, carrying with them a few clothes huddled in a bundle along with some cash and a lot of strength, willpower, and hope of building back all that was lost from scratch. On reaching the city they captured a flat left abandoned by a Muslim family near Inderlok, surviving mainly by selling Kohlapuri juttis on the sidewalks of Janpath and Connaught Place for years, eventually climbing up the social ladder and emerging to be pioneers in that trade.

It was the urge to make more sense of my family’s history, a hunger for some closure, a need to be a part of a collective, and to source more insights on ‘the other side’ that pushed me to pick up Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra a memoir of 21 lives who lived through partition, narrated with the use of material objects. Each memoir transported me into the room where the interview took place as an intruding observer, now privy to not only sweet, beautiful but also the gravest of memories that were perhaps locked in, not thought of, not talked about for the longest of times. These memories of belonging and longing made me feel uncomfortable, then comfortable to uncomfortable again with inexplicable polarised emotions coursing through my being.

Reading the book awakened me to recognize the emotionlessness in my great grandfathers’ narrations as though what he recalled wasn’t a life he once led- but a story, a piece of fiction distant from today’s reality. It made me cognizant of the curtain that was pulled over the gory details in an attempt to protect me, and uncurtaining them was not just an option anymore.

Objects act as catalysts. They are tangible doorways to the past, mirrors reflecting moments long forgotten, uncovering memories that were lost to time. They are like glasses, you think you don’t need them but when you put them on you can see even more clearly, the green dancing blobs are in fact leaves.

The objects in the book were a gateway to the partition era, an opening door to the memories of lives in undivided and then divided India of the individuals interviewed. A particular chapter ‘The Guru Granth Sahib of Sumitra Kapur’ reads of how post-partition Kapur’s family was able to visit their former home in Pakistan and were lucky enough to carry their Granth Sahib across the border to their new home. This chapter evoked in me a spiral of innumerable questions about my family’s Granth Sahib, about the fate it would have met, about what it would have been like only if my family would have been able to carry it with them, would I have valued it as much as I value the idea and the longing for it so on and so forth.

I am a hoarder, from train and museum tickets to anchoring scripts from college I keep them all tucked in my drawer, and naturally so, post this read I was rummaging around, pestering my family for a tangible object to overwhelm myself with. My mother gave a lot of attention and thought to my obsession. She pulled out a notebook from around 22 years back in which she had noted down a prayer her nani (maternal grandmother) used to recite, the same one she grew up reciting. A few days later, someone sent a voice recording of my mothers’ nani reciting the prayer, calling it serendipitous.

A question that kept hammering my head post my reading was to what extent can one rely on memory, the answer to which I found in Amit Verma’s podcast The Seen And The Unseen where Malhotra goes on to say “…sometimes you need to see things to believe in them, sometimes you need to believe in things to see them.”

For years at length, it has been the decisions by a handful of power-holding individuals taken to satiate their own interests that have been the hallmarks of war, clashes, chaotic insanity that affect the common man, uprooting their lives for them to never be the same again.

Raghu Karnad said in his book The Farthest Field“People have two deaths: the first at the end of their lives, when they go away, and the second at the end of the memory of their lives when all who remember them are gone. Then a person quits the world completely.”
It is only through books like Remnants and continuous conversations around history, both personal and political, that we understand how an artificial line ‘the border’ does not make us any different from each other. It is through communal belonging, that answers to questions that loom over us like dark clouds concerning who we were, what makes us, will always be present to overwhelm us and humble us like a bright sunny soulful day.