reciting-poetry-002-afroz-taj-1024x906Artist After Hours, a series from Carolina Arts and Sciences Magazine, features interviews with faculty, staff and students in the College of Arts and Sciences who pursue artistic avocations in areas not directly related to their day jobs or studies.

One day when I was maybe 6 years old my mother was talking with a friend, and I was holding onto her sari. And the friend said, “By the way, who does this kid take after?” And my mother said, “I don’t know: he’s so ugly! He doesn’t look like anyone in the family.” I let go of her sari, and went to look at myself in the mirror. She was just joking, but I think that was the day I became a poet. I wrote a little poem titled “I Wish I Was Different,” and I left it under my mother’s pillow. She hugged me and cried and then after that she encouraged me to write. I started to set my poems to music also. Some songs I wrote in eighth or ninth grade I still sing on the stage today. An ode I wrote for my university, “Naghma-e Aligarh,” is still being sung there now. Many of my poems and short stories have been published in Hindi and Urdu literary magazines. I believe that the language of poetry should be simple, but the message should be deep.

Since I’ve been in the U.S., I have been writing ghazals, which is a genre of Urdu poetry. Ghazals emerged in the 11th or 12th century, but they are still as popular today as in the past. Every couplet has an independent meaning — so when you listen to a ghazal being sung or recited, you find a lot of flavors in one poem. Every month we have a community poetry forum called Urdu Majlis that meets in the FedEx Global Education Center on the UNC campus. We discuss a selected writer and after that we share our own creative writing. We have been doing this for about 18 years now. Beyond North Carolina I’ve been invited to a number of poetry conventions or mushairas, including one recital in Washington, D.C., with an audience of several thousand.

ravana-angry-002-afroz-taj-1024x748I have done a lot of theater work as well. Every October I play the villain in the Ram Leela, based on the ancient Hindu epic poem “Ramayana.” We perform in the Hindu Society community hall in Morrisville with thousands of people in attendance. It was partly because of my theater and music experience that I was inspired to create a multimedia website for people wanting to learn Hindi and Urdu. It was funded by a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education. (You can visit the site at http://taj.chass.ncsu.edu).

I had some radio and television experience in India. A couple of years after I was hired in 1995 to teach Hindi and Urdu via teleconferencing at UNC, Duke and NC State, I started the Geet Bazaar radio show on WKNC 88.1 FM. It’s a request-based show where we play mostly popular songs from Bollywood films. Since we started we’ve received an enthusiastic response from the local community. Today, we also have a webstream and an app, and we get amazing requests from all over the world.

Once I got a phone call from The Governor Morehead School for the visually impaired in Raleigh. They said, “One of our students is from India and he is very homesick. Somebody told us there’s a radio show on Sundays and he might like to listen to it.” When they tuned in to our show, the boy said, “These are my country’s songs. Can I listen to that?” Every week, he would listen from 10 a.m. to noon, and it comforted him. We bring a touch of South Asia to people who miss home, and we have fans in surprising places, including the prisons!

With all my experience in music, theater, and film it seems natural that my research is focused on South Asian popular culture with an emphasis on film, media and literature. Meanwhile, through the radio show and my huge events listserv, I have forged many connections between UNC and the vibrant local South Asian community.

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