Daak: A weekend tryst with forgotten words and art
Indians often forget the wealth of words and art in their own backyard.
Every Sunday, sometime around noon, my inbox pings with a letter from the past. A newsletter, with an image of a vintage postcard, and the postmark ‘Daak’ appears, bringing with it poems, letters, unknown pieces of history and art and the most awaited of all -- rare pieces of literature from across India, beautifully packaged and presented in a compact digital form.
Most recently, the vintage postcard was about Shiv Kumar Batalvi, considered a stalwart in modern Punjabi poetry. The lines of poetry were a favourite of mine and familiar, though for a very different reason – I’d heard them sung by Shahid Mallya in the film ‘Udta Punjab’.
Jida Naam Muhabbat
Saad Muraadi, sohni phabbat,
Gum hai, gum hai, gum hai
(A girl whose name is Love,
She is lost. She is lost. She is lost.)
My Daak (Hindi for mail) said the name of the poem is Ishtehaar, a narrative about a man looking for a girl.
Known for writing about true love and passion, Batalvi was the youngest recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1967. He won it for his epic play Loona, a popular folk tale retold from the female villain’s perspective. Much of his poetry has been used in popular songs in movies.
I wouldn’t have discovered so much about Batalvi (the email also had links to his recording and interviews) had it not been for Daak – a subscription-based newsletter service run by two women who are passionate about literature.
I wouldn’t have known about Habba Khatoon either, the Kashmiri poetess queen who wrote longingly about love and desire in the 16th Century as she pined away for her husband and lover Yusuf Shah Chak, thrown into prison by Emperor Akbar. I know of her now, as I do about Mirza Ghalib's livid letter to an editor or the artist Chittoprasad Bhattacharya, who documented the 1943 Bengal famine so vividly through his caricatures that the British considered them seditious enough to be destroyed.
Daak is an initiative started in 2017 by Onaiza Drabu and Prachi Jha that lands a digital postcard with a relatively unknown story, poem, letter or artwork every week into the subscriber's inbox. The focus is on works that have been instrumental in shaping the subcontinent’s cultural identity.
Why call it Daak?
“We essentially bring together stories from the past -- we also thought about combining it with the lost art of letter writing. We added the element of postcards, and tested out the concept with a group of friends and acquaintances. The idea of calling it Daak came from us planning to do a weekly newsletter,” they explain.
The concept about the lost art of letter writing and the vintage postcard in the newsletter works like a charm. It feels special, intimate, and informative at the same time. I look at Daak as a love letter from forgotten nuggets of our literary history and have convinced like-minded friends to sign up for it.
Doing so feels apt because much of Daak is also about a friendship and a shared love.
Drabu and Jha met at the Young India Fellowship (YIF) at Ashoka University and instantly connected over their love for literature and nostalgia for the past. “During the YIF, Prachi worked on an internship project with one of the Founders of Ashoka, which was similar to this idea. However, the project did not materialise. The idea stayed on and so did the desire to bring it to fruition,” they tell me in an email interview from across worlds. Drabu, a consultant with UNICEF has been living in Nairobi and Jha, who runs an NGO, Life Lab Foundation, in Delhi. And while Jha has a literature background courtesy a BA in English Literature, Drabu has a Masters in Anthropology.
Prachi (left) and Onaiza (right)
The two became good friends and never gave up on the internship project idea completely. “We were discovering so many new writers, poets, and artists, and also realising that there was a huge gap in our understanding of this region and the key figures that have shaped it. A few years after YIF, we started discussing this project again and how we could revive it. That’s how Daak came about.”
Drabu and Jha try to meet as often as they can and spend 6-8 hours each week working on Daak, a passion project they are both committed to despite their day jobs. Apart from the newsletter which has a 1000 subscriber base currently, Daak has an Instagram page with 10,000 plus followers, a Facebook page, and a website.
Indians often forget the wealth of words and art in their own backyard. Daak has a welcome bent towards lesser-known regional work, though Jha says they don’t have the bandwidth or resources to get reliable translations and haven’t been able to really do as much as they would like.
Daak’s focus is on works that are forgotten and largely undiscovered, often finding gems in the process to remind you that love doesn’t have one single form – it can be manifested and expressed in multiple ways – each of them special and luminous.
You can find that love in Nobel Laureate and poet Rabindranath Tagore’s letter to Argentinian writer Victoria Ocampo, with whom he shared an unusual platonic bond. She was 30 years younger and his host in Argentina before he set sail to explore the rest of Europe. He gave her the Bengali name Vijaya and dedicated his volume of poetry ‘Purabi’ to her.
One weekend, the vintage postcard is about the poet and scholar AK Ramanujan’s stirring ‘Love Poem For a Wife 1,’ essentially an intimate conversation about an unshared childhood between two people; a reminiscence of changing equations and families. It is a revelation, making me read it again and again, finding something new each time.
Then there’s Savitribai Phule’s simple yet staunchly supportive letter of love and devotion to her husband Jyotiba. Together, they set up India’s first school for girls in 1848 and went ahead with their mission to educate women despite harassment and excommunication. In her letter, she is unwavering of her belief in his work and her love, standing up to her brother who derides him: 'My husband is a God-like man. He is beyond comparison in this world, nobody can equal him.'
Then there’s Amrita Pritam’s incomparable Main Tenu Phir Milangi, her dying ode to Imroz, her partner for 40 years.
“Main Tenu Fer Milangi
Kithe? Kis trah? Pata nahi
Shayad tere Takhiyl di Chinag banke
Tere Canvas te Utrangi”
It makes you wonder at the sheer amount of research that goes into the weekly Daaks. Drabu and Jha tell me they are both readers, who are constantly researching and discovering more. Jha takes care of the editing and Drabu the design.
In the past year, their readership has both expanded and evolved thanks to becoming better known courtesy media articles. “We now have a large number of readers from smaller towns in India,” they add.
And feedback, of all shades, is more than welcome as they go about discovering works of art, culture, and history that have fallen off the map. “We have a fair share of readers who question or challenge our interpretations,” they point out. “Then there are extremely touching stories that really show us the power of literature and art. A reader requesting a postcard for a relative who has a terminal illness and another one reading out our newsletter to their grandparents.”
The vintage postcard in the inbox has also seen an offline audience. Daak has organised events like poetry readings or music performances on themes such as love, partition literature, or on women writers of the subcontinent. There are plans to do a collaborative project on literature and art.
Meanwhile, their search for finding rare works across the Indian cultural landscape continues, despite their day jobs and lack of resources and bandwidth. And some of us wait for the weekly postcard that sparks our romance with words, paintings, and slices of life from the past.