Melizarani T. Selva is accustomed to speaking in front of crowds. A prominent spoken word poet in the Malaysian literary scene, she’s performed before audiences of all sizes, captivating them with her insightful words and spirited delivery.
But even the experienced performer was kind of thrilled when she heard she was going to be speaking in front of thousands at the TedxGateway event in Mumbai, India. What’s more, she was going to be the first Malaysian – and first poet – to speak at this particular series of conferences.
“In the hall, there were about 1,100 people. Around the place, there were about 800 to 1,000 people. And it was also being simultaneously broadcast to another building, the Bombay Stock Exchange Building, where there were about another 1,000 people. And not to mention all the other people watching online!” recalls Melizarani, 25, a journalist at StarMetro.
“I was really excited. But I think at one point, I just went, ‘let’s just do this!’ ”
For those unfamiliar with them, TED Talks are conferences organised by the nonprofit TED (Tech-nology, Entertainment, Design) to disseminate “ideas worth spreading” and are broadcast live over the Internet at no cost. The 18-minute presentations can be about any topic as long as they are given by “engaging, charismatic speakers whose talks expose new ideas that are supported by concrete evidence and are relevant to a broad, international audience”. Previous TED Talk presenters include Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Bono, Larry Page, and many more. As of February last year, over 1,900 talks are freely available at ted.com/talks, and in June 2011, the talks’ combined viewing figure stood at more than 500 million.
TedxGateway is one of the many satellite events (denoted by the “x”) that are held around the world – it is, in fact, the biggest TED Talk in Asia.
According to Melizarani, the opportunity to participate in the event in December came up while she was doing poetry shows in Mumbai a few months ago. A friend invited her to the local TED office, and she ended up performing her poem, Blank, for the staff.
“So I performed the piece, which was about three minutes, and I talked about my country, and where I lived. And they said, ‘OK, we want you!’ and gave me the TED speaker kit,” the vivacious Melizarani says.
It may sound hard to believe, but Melizarani initially turned down the invitation because she had a scheduling conflict. Thankfully, however, the organisers kept the offer open and were more than happy to have Melizarani on board after she re-worked her schedule.
No surprise there: Melizarani, after all, is an experienced poet who has performed at literary events not only in Malaysia but also in Australia, India, Indonesia, and Singapore. She was the first runner-up at the National Singapore Slam 2013 and Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2014 poetry slam, and recently published Taboo, her first book of poetry.
To add to that, she also organises If Walls Could Talk, a monthly spoken word open mic session in Kuala Lumpur, and Poets in Progress, a poetry workshop series that focuses on using spoken word for effective storytelling and public speaking.
According to Melizarani, however, the TEDxGateway organisers were adamant she edit her poem a little, making sure that it was suitable for an international audience.
“It’s not just, ‘you go up there, do your thing’, and then get off stage. The curation process is about two months long. It was quite intense,” she says.
For example, she had to change the word “mamak” in her poem to “dhaba”, a term that would be more familiar to the people of Mumbai.
“It was really demanding. As a writer, you feel your work is sacred. Just because my work is published, it doesn’t mean the work cannot be altered for another audience. I had to do it. Because it’s not about me. It’s about the audience, and do they feel connected to it? It’s my job to make them connect,” the poet says.
TEDxGateway Mumbai was held at the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai, on Dec 5. There, Melizarani was in distinguished company: the speakers included percussionist Max Z.T., photographer Sudharak Olwe, Harvard business school professor Tarun Khanna, the world’s first Braille watch developer Eric Ju Yoon Kim, Mars Orbiter Mission scientist Ritu Karidhal, and planetary scientist Lujendra Ojha, who discovered the existence of water on Mars.
For her presentation, Melizarani performed Indianity, a poem about the Indian diaspora in Malaysia. It wasn’t an easy crowd: a majority of them had never heard spoken word poetry before. They were either expecting a rap performance or for her to go “Roses are red, violets are blue….”
“I had to really educate them. The crux of my talk was how poetry is an instrument to bring out the minority voice, and spoken word is one of those things that does it very well. Poetry is not an easy thing: not everyone will sit down and read poetry,” Melizarani points out.
“But if people are in a café and want to watch something, and there’s a poet sitting in front of an open mic? And she starts ‘smashing’, throwing words in the air, being really theatrical with her poem? People will be interested. People will want to know what’s her story.”
Calm, she took the stage, and recited her poem with gusto.
“Though I didn’t climb Everest, or start an airline; I can’t make dhal curry to save my life, and I’m not divine. But accept me as I accept you, with arms open wide; Because I choose to tick ‘Indian’, as I am on the inside,” she delivered the poem’s conclusion.
And the result? A standing ovation from the crowd.
“It’s a huge milestone for me, and I’m so glad I did it. That said, I hope more people do this, get on a stage as big as that.
“It teaches you things as an artist. You think you’ve got it. You think you know what you’re doing. But up there, it doesn’t mean anything. You need to respect the audience, and craft something suitable for them,” Melizarani says, sounding wiser than her years.
“You need to be humble, and that’s what a stage like that does. It makes you realise there’s so much you don’t know yet. It made me realise that there’s still so many people to touch, so many people for me to teach poetry and everything I know.”