Working Title: Meet Shantanu Anand and Nandini Varma, lawyers turned educators and spoken word artists

Working Title is a series capturing the journeys of lawyers who pursue offbeat opportunities.
Shantanu Anand, Nandini Varma
Shantanu Anand, Nandini Varma

Having attended law school at ILS Law College Pune, Shantanu Anand and Nandini Varma chose to follow their hearts and venture into spoken word poetry in their last years in college, and pursue it as a full-time vocation ever since.

As co-founders of Airplane Poetry Movement (APM), they have conducted over 125 poetry workshops across India for over 1,500 people, and organized India's largest poetry slam 'National Youth Poetry Slam' (NYPS), which saw participation from over 100 colleges. They were also featured in the Forbes 30 under 30 list in the Arts category in 2019 for their work in the field of spoken word poetry. In 2020, they published a poetry anthology called A Letter, A Poem, A Home.

In conversation with Bar & Bench, Shantanu and Nandini speak about their journey from learning about spoken word poetry as an art form to establishing their passion project of educating the youth on spoken word performance and much more.

Nandini recalled her first encounter with spoken word poetry which happened on attending a TED event where Sarah Kay's spoken word performance left her mesmerized.

Shantanu was introduced to the art form through YouTube videos.

"From a broader perspective, there are two ways where we are introduced to spoken word - one is the Indian way through Mushayras and Mehfils, and all the other regional gatherings on poetry, which is essentially spoke word and has been part of our country's tradition and history. Then there's a bunch of us internet people who watch videos. It's a rabbit hole - the joy of discovering work that you really resonate with," he added.

On when they recognized a flair for story telling and poetry, Shantanu said,

"I used to always write even when I was a kid of about 8 years. I always loved stories and reading, and spoken word added an extra dimension. It gives that sense of connection and intimacy that other art forms don't give. There's a sense of rawness about it. Until I discovered spoken word, I had no intention of being known as a poet. My writings were always in pages, but spoken word poetry was the spark. I thought this was cool and wanted to do more of it, and the rest happened."

Nandini added,

"For me, spoken word was when I realised that writing is something that I want to do, even if I don't do it professionally; I want to have some part of me writing always."

Shantanu and Nandini at one their events
Shantanu and Nandini at one their events

On their journey as co-founders of Airplane Poetry Movement, Nandini said,

"We just wanted to have these small gatherings where poets come together and just speak from their hearts, read out their poems and just share their work - because that was not something we were also introduced to formally. We were going to places sharing what we do; that was really the initial idea of APM. We did a few workshops and realised it was something we wanted to do more of, and it was an interesting way to introduce more people to these events. We started doing small exercises in the space of spoken word and eventually built up the educational part of APM, which is doing workshops with people who are beginners as writers, and making them fall in love with poetry."

On the highlights of activities taken up by APM over the years, Shantanu said,

"We started with one small slam - first official APM slam poetry, a poster and everything was put up in Atta Gallata, a book store in Bangalore in January 2014. Then we started doing monthly slams. The next big thing for us was when we had ambassadors from 15 colleges across multiple cities. This for us was when it actually started living up to its name of a movement. We did not want it to be just about a couple of people performing, it was meant to be for people to get an entry into the world of spoken word poetry which we still believe is very magical.

All of this culminated into the National Youth Poetry Slam (NYPS) which was an inter-collegiate slam where over 400 people applied from more than 100 colleges, and the best 25 teams came down to Bangalore in 2016. We had featured performances by Sarah Kay, Kalki Koechlin and some more very fine poets from India. It was a 2-day festival and we sold out all our tickets on day 2. We had 1,200 people in the audience watching the finale being performed - which we thought was mind-blowing at that time. The only reason that happened is because the community came together. Every poet was shouting about it for a month after the event."

"In 2018 we shifted online completely, because we realised that we wanted to focus more on getting people to write. So we introduced this initiative called the '100 poem challenge' where we challenged our community to write 100 poems in a year. 2,000 people signed up for the challenge. Every week, we gave them a prompt and across the year we gave 80 prompts and 20 poems were to be ideated by participants themselves. We collected over 5,000 poems round the year from the 80 prompts shared and then invited submissions for a book. We got more than 2,000 poems for the book - we were supposed to choose the best 50, but we ended up choosing 71 poems and that became "A Letter, A Poem, A Home". It features an essay by Sarah Kay, a poem from Ruby Francisco, poems and interviews with Tishani Doshi and Anis Mojgani. And at the heart and soul of it is the community - which is the poets we met through our journey at APM. The beauty of this book is that it is forever, the words are in print, anyone looking for them can find it anytime. This book marks our legacy," he added.

Delving further into how they went about organizing an event as big as NYPS, Nandini said,

"It's actually quite funny because we did not foresee the event being as big as it turned out to be...We were still in our final year of law school back then. We were not prepared for that magnitude and scale of an event. Around 2015-16 is when spoken word started picking up in colleges, that's when we decided that NYPS is something we had to do even if it was to be a small event. We kept pushing ourselves to make it as big as possible, to get Sarah Kay and the likes of the pioneers of spoken word poetry, whom we admire and respect," said Nandini.

Sarah Kay performing at the National Youth Poetry Slam in Bangalore
Sarah Kay performing at the National Youth Poetry Slam in Bangalore

Having established connections with the global who's-who in the field of spoken word poetry, like Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, Nandini and Shantanu shared how they went about getting their attention over the internet. They released a video on Facebook requesting Sarah Kay to come to India. The video garnered over 250 shares on Facebook alone, which eventually led to email conversations and collaborations for different events, programs and workshops in India.

"Sometimes you have to do something outrageous. People forget this. If you want to achieve something you have to step out of your comfort zone. You have to go all out and put yourself at risk. We could have been ridiculed so much for doing what we did, but the community came through," added Shantanu.

Sometimes you have to do something outrageous. People forget this. If you want to achieve something you have to step out of your comfort zone. You have to go all out and put yourself at risk

Shantanu Anand

Shantanu, currently working as a Content Curator at Kommune India, shared how he thought of monetizing the skill as a full-time profession after law school.

"At Kommune, we try to help artists monetize their art. There's a broader conversation here on how audiences view and value art. Until audiences believe that art is worth paying for, artists are always going to starve. In the pandemic especially, there was this big revelation about how important art is. In time of crisis, people go back to their favourite song, favourite book, etc. Even at times of great joy, you search for words to celebrate with. The importance of art is so well-recognized and yet audiences are not ready or willing yet to invest in art.

So while we see potential for art to be monetized on, at the same time, there are extremely talented artists having to work full-time jobs and then scribble poems at night and on weekends because that's the only way to sustain themselves. It's an uphill trek. For people who are able to do that, I bow down to them, because they have to face so much uncertainty and risk and put so much of themselves out into the world. They do exist and they deserve a lot of respect. Sometimes you've got to do it as something you love, and any money you make out of it is good. But if you can't make money from it, that does not mean you stop - this is very important for me, because art still deserves to be created even without money."

Speaking about his current engagement with Kommune, Shantanu admitted that since it is a start up, everyone is doing all kinds of work everyday at the organization. Sharing a glimpse of what is in store for the upcoming months, he said,

"I'm going to try and find extremely good talent throughout the country who are poets, story tellers, musicians, podcasters and put them on a stage. The best people we find will be given outrageously cool rewards. We want to give them experiences. We want to make people believe that if you can create something, there is a stage. I am helping make this happen in whatever way I can."

Nandini is currently a research scholar at the English Department of University of Delhi. She completed her Master's in English Literature from Symbiosis after graduating from law school in 2015. On her plans after completing the ongoing MPhil program, Nandini shared,

"My aim is to be a professor in English. I do see research as a big part of this whole realm of poetry and literature that excites me. There are many places where I see gaps in research which really interests me. Literature comes from culture, from people around you, always questioning new ideas and things around. I see myself being a professor and delving on the question everyday. I also plan to do a PhD after MPhil."

Speaking about their recognition in the Forbes 30 under 30 list, Shantanu laughed and said,

"No poet ever thinks that they would reach the Forbes list. The people you imagine who will be on the Forbes List are the savvy businessmen, so it was absolutely not in our radar. I remember when they wrote to us, in the beginning we were contemplating on whether we should even fill the form, because there's this long form in the form of a questionnaire that needs to be filled, things to upload, etc. So we wondered whether this is even realistic enough to spend time on.

We ultimately did it and made it to the list. It didn't sink in for a while. It felt great to be recognized. This may sound weird, but for us, an event with 25 people where everyone leaves feeling happy and fulfilled - that's what we do all of this for; true happiness comes from there. Forbes 30 under 30 looks great on LinkedIn and in bios, but that's not why we did that."

Talking about how law school helped bring their current realities as spoken word artists to fruition, Shantanu said,

"ILS gives you a lot of free time to pursue what you want. For a lot of our friends it was MUNs, debates, moots, etc, and for us it was poetry. The freedom we had to pursue poetry was great. If we put the same time and effort into debates or moot courts, we would have been very good lawyers, but this is what we chose to do. Secondly, I got the chance to meet Nandini at ILS without whom none of this would have happened."

ILS Law College, Pune
ILS Law College, Pune

As advice to law students looking to pursue offbeat paths, Shantanu said,

"...You can go full in, you can take a shot and go for it. You might fall flat on your face and have to start from zero again. But if you're fresh out of college or in college, you actually can take that chance, as long as you don't (a) do anything that can get you into jail, b) do anything that messes with your health, and c) burn bridges with your family. As long as you don't do these, you can take a risk and do whatever you want. I really believe this, especially when you're young, because you'll have enough time to recover."

"There's always something you want to do at the back of your mind, and you don't want to regret not taking that chance. You're trying to do that, but you're always thinking, 'Will I be able to do it?' Unless you do it, you're not going to find out. I think that's where you learn what works and is not working out," added Nandini.

During their time with APM, Shantanu and Nandini also conducted poetry slam workshops at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), Hyderabad and National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore.

A still from  a workshop at NALSAR, Hyderabad
A still from a workshop at NALSAR, Hyderabad

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