It’s been nearly exactly 50 years since Mrs Jai Verma first arrived in the UK, following her doctor husband, and with an infant daughter in tow. She now heads up one of the longest running and prolific poetry groups in the region: Kavya Rang (‘Colours of Poetry’), and – after a Covid hiatus – is back to putting on multilingual poetry events across the city.
Not only that, but back in India (she’s originally from a small rural village, Jiwana, in Uttar Pradesh) she’s been honoured with a book dedicated to her life, with both contributions in Hindi (poets, writers, and even the former Governor of West Bengal, a fine poet in his own right) as well as in English (including the founder of the Nottingham Poetry Festival / Comedy deity Henry Normal; and our director here at NUCOL, Sandeep Mahal). It’s a deserved celebration of a woman who has devoted a substantial chunk of her life to bringing cultures together, celebrating the differences while strengthening the common ground.
“I worked for years in the NHS, in one of the most deprived areas of Nottingham. In India, we were never told such poverty and hardship could occur in England. It was very much an eye-opener. But i learnt so much. I realised I loved working with people, listening them, building empathy. How we are all complex beings, every person different in their own way. It taught me much about what it is to be human, and that was essential to my future writing”
She herself didn’t see herself as a poet until relatively late in life, having spent the first decades in the UK raising her family, working and teaching Hindi, yoga and badminton in whatever spare time she had. Yet culture was always an interest, “I presented Narang, a Hindi language show on BBC Radio Nottingham for a few years, playing Bollywood music and playback singers, while getting to know the Indian diaspora in Notts”.
The Goddess Saraswati is seen in Hinduism as the connection between the arts and the divine, and poetry, music, literature and so on makes that connection. It is the channelling of wonder and magic
She faxed a poem over to the Hindi language magazine Purvai in 2000, and was delighted when they published it “It was about Heaven and Hell, and how both are here on Earth if you choose them to be. Being published spurred me to write more. I wanted to use poetry to explore my feelings of life, of community, or the awe I have for the universe. To make connections with others”
“Poetry comes when it comes. The Goddess Saraswati is seen in Hinduism as the connection between the arts and the divine, and poetry, music, literature and so on makes that connection. It is the channelling of wonder and magic”
Realising that their was not a local group dedicated to South Asian poets in Notts, she decided to set up her own in 2003, and thus, Kavya Rang came to be. Co-founded with friends Jughnu Mahajam and Professor Harminder Dua, with local businessman Nat Puri as President, it has a simple ethos: while attracting those who write in Hindi and other South Asian languages, this is by no means a necessity. Poetry -words – have no borders, have no nationality. All poets are welcome to bring their work to one of their four annual gatherings (Kavi Samellans), irrespective of language.
They’re thrillingly diverse occasions: taking place across the city from Wollaton Hall to Nottingham Castle; Bromley House Library to the New Art Exchange; and even in a (now sadly closed) pub in Beeston. Poets gather, cultures entwine, ideas exchange. Once a year, Kavya Rang brings over 6 esteemed poets from India (funded by the ICCR), who perform to a packed crowd in Nottingham Hindu Centre. These are joyous affairs, full of colour, life and ceremony, and even if – like myself -your Hindi isn’t exactly fluent, there is still much to enjoy as the performers and the crowd become one the interactivity: the cheers,the yelps of recognition, the laughter all make for a fascinating, life-affirming experience.
Jai is extraordinarily active: as well as running Kavya Rang and organising its events, she’s found time to put out volumes of poetry as well as editing others; Chair Nottingham Asian Arts Council; work with dozens of local and national cultural projects and even meet the Dalai Lama when he came to Notts. When a plaque to Mahatma Gandhi was unveiled in Beeston (he visited the town in the 1930’s, dropping in for lunch with his nephew), it was obvious who should be invited as a guest. After all, the day she arrived in the UK in 1970 -October 2nd – is famous for being the birthday of the
When the bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature was being put together, Mrs Verma’s knowledge of the South Asian diaspora was invaluable, and she joined the celebrations at Bromley House when the news came through that we’d been successful. In the years that have followed, she’s been very much an example of what UNESCO Cities of Literature are here to do: bring peace and connection through words and culture.
Kavya Rang will be hosting a Kavi Samellan at the New Art Exchange as part of the 2021 Nottingham Mela on Sunday (12th September). More on Mrs Jai Verma can be found here.