12 MIN READ
Uttam Kunwar’s 1963 conversation with the Rashtrakavi
Only Kumar-ji and I were at Rashmi round-table today. Due to the heat, rivulets of sweat were dripping down my face.
Kumar-ji asked, “Why is your face so red?”
“What can I say, Kumar-ji! I faced a worthless hassle today. I went to Naya Bazaar to meet someone. It was right around noon and blazing hot. But the person had moved to Samakhushi. So I headed there in the heat. What else could I do? As it turned out, even that piece of information was wrong. Pointing towards a house under construction near a graveyard, someone said, ‘That’s it!’ Again I headed uphill through the fields. A construction worker was mumbling, ‘This is what happens when you come to meet someone without prior notice.’ I felt like he was addressing me. So I went to speak to him but he merely smiled, denying the fact. At the end, I was able to meet the person but the mission remained incomplete. Uff! It’s so hot, isn’t it?”
Chuckling, Kumar-ji asked, “Who is this mysterious person?”
Disappointed at not being acknowledged properly for my troubles, I responded, “Madhav Prasad Ghimire.”
“I have heard of him and have also read some of his works. But I can’t remember his face clearly.”
“How can you not remember? He wears glasses, has deep-set eyes, ears covered with hair and a long nose.” I tried to describe his features: “If you have met someone like this who also has a narrow face, it is Madhav Prasad Ghimire.”
“Maybe. Why does it matter if I recognize his face or not! I have read his poems, listened to his songs and know a little bit about him”
“What do you know about him?”
“Just that he is against contemporary poetry. Once, he had presided over a gathering of poets at Seto Durbar and there was quite a controversy regarding modern and classical poetry. Apparently he said that he can condense a seventeen-line modern poem into two lines! He insists on rhythm in every poem. At least that’s what I heard!”
“Well, I am aware of that but when I met him today, I felt that maybe it was just a rumor. I was also curious about his perspective on contemporary poetry. So I inquired.”
“What did he say?”
The regulars at Rashmi round-table were still absent. Kumar-ji had arrived early, perhaps because he was a new member. To kill time, I decided to delve into the topic.
“I asked Ghimire-ji whether he was against contemporary poetry. Let me summarize his response to you, Kumar-ji.”
Actually, Ghimire-ji had clarified that he is not against contemporary poetry. He had explained, “I only disagree with people who refuse to accept rhythmic poems as poems. A style gets developed with experience. If someone thinks rhythmically, it shows in the writing. Otherwise it becomes prose. Transitioning from prosody to prose takes time, just like it takes time for a slouched person to correct his posture and walk smartly. That’s why one shouldn’t drop the rhythm abruptly. Rather than starting with a poem, perhaps one should attempt prose poetry first, the way Gopal Singh Nepali demonstrated in ‘Kalpana’. Besides, a certain kind of change in style naturally occurs with the passing of time. For instance, Lekhnath-ji’s ‘Kali Gandaki’ is influenced by the Puranas and there is a distinctive Nepaliness in it but Dwarika Shrestha-ji’s ‘Kali Gandaki’ has more of a European influence.”
“And Kumar-ji, when I asked Ghimire-ji whether contemporary poems are any good, he responded, ‘Poems these days tend to ramble on and they are often incoherent, but some do provide new perspectives. That’s why those with novel styles need to construct their own histories. Talented poets do not have to worry about being accepted. That will happen eventually. One can refer to the trajectories of Bhanu Bhakta, Lekhnath and Sama-ji for examples. Besides -”
Interrupting me mid-sentence, Kumar-ji asked, “Didn’t you ask him about the significance of this modern movement in poetry?”
“Why would I leave that out?”
“What did he say?”
“According to him, some claim to be modern but write in the same old style whereas those who have been around for a while are writing new things. Since Lekhnath, there has been no clear-cut way to differentiate the new from the old, he said. There are slight differences between the poems of Lekhnath and Dwarika Shrestha. The difference has to do with style. To put it simply, they can be differentiated in two ways - the use of rhythm and the tendency to break out of traditional structures in a way that reflects current international standards. This tendency can be found in contemporary poems. And as far as the issue of significance goes, what I think is that literature should not be labeled ‘contemporary’ or ‘traditional’ because literature is timeless. But, for the sake of the idea of modernity, any kind of poem - regardless of whether it pays attention to rhyme or not - that manages to address current issues and worldly concerns can be considered contemporary.”
The restaurant was starting to get crowded but my conversation with Kumar-ji continued, “By the way, how hopeful is Ghimire-ji regarding Nepali literature? Did you get any hints?”
“I did. He is very hopeful. He said that despite the fact that Nepal is economically underdeveloped, one can find admirable progress in Nepali literature compared to other countries that have made higher economic and educational gains. We have been blessed with great writers because of whom we have a chance of making a mark internationally. The new crop of poets have brought a new kind of light; apart from ushering a postmodern movement, they are making unique contributions. And almost every young person is curious about literature, as well as about writers and poets.”
Straightening up, Kumar-ji started to smile.
“These days, educated youngsters generally think of a literary career as a matter of pride. Even the king considers himself proud to be a poet; where else can one hope to fully develop literature? That’s why I am immensely hopeful regarding the future of our literature.”
Kumar-ji’s smile was still there. He may not have stopped smiling but it seemed like his questioning was coming to an end. But after a momentary pause, he opened his mouth, “Ghimire-ji is also an academic, isn’t he? Didn’t you ask him about the Academy?”
“You keep saying ‘Didn’t you ask about this and didn’t you ask about that…?’ What would I have discussed with him if not these topics? Didn’t you ask about the Academy! I even went as far as suggesting that the Academy hasn’t been able to do its work. He responded in this way - ‘It’s not that the Academicians are corrupted on a personal level. But the organization hasn’t been able to fulfill its task and satisfy the public. It should have been able to implement the policies drafted by its members in a methodical way; but that has not happened. In any case, it seems that the Academy will work towards implementing the three-pronged policy ordered by His Majesty (He refused to elaborate this point); if that happens, the public will be content. And do you know that apart from our Academy, there are individuals working on fundraising in order to help the literary cause? This is a rather admirable and remarkable contribution towards our nation. Madan Pu -”
Interrupting me again, Kumari-ji inquired, “And what else did he say?”
This time, his words had a sarcastic undertone.
“Not much else, although he did mention one thing. But I don’t want to tell you because you only appreciate postmodern poetry. You don’t like to hear about traditional ideas that emphasize rhymes and prosody. I feel like you have been making fun of everything I have said so far.”
“No, it’s not that. Please do tell!”
I wasn’t able to reject his request. On our table, there was a pile of cigarette stubs, eight empty glasses (from four rounds of tea) and a plate containing a bill. Regardless of whether he liked what I said or not, I continued, “Alright then, Kumar-ji, this is what I asked him - What do you think is the purpose of literature?” And he replied, ‘People think of literature’s utility along the dichotomy of art versus society, an idea that came from the West. But we ought to remember that it has always been part of our Eastern consciousness. Mammot said, ‘Literature is enmeshed in it’; meaning, for the most part, literature should serve life. The aesthetic and cognitive dimensions are secondary. And the other thing is - rather than thinking of it in terms of purpose, one should consider it as a whole. For example, a flower might be small but if it has managed to bloom fully, it can lend itself to anything - life, art, solitude, etc. Actually, nothing is outside of life. Even a yogi meditating in the middle of a forest is within Life. In other words, anything that has managed to attain its full potential is useful for life.’ That’s pretty much what he said, even though I wanted to continue our conversation. But he had to go to a meeting so this is all we talked about, Kumar-ji, sitting under a tree in front of his house that was undergoing construction. But I still have some things to discuss with him so I’ll go to the Academy tomorrow.”
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September 23, 1919 was the day Shree Madhav Ghimire was born in a village called Pastun, which is nestled under Mannchuli in Lamjung district. The Marsyangdi river flowed closeby - he grew up in this kind of natural setting. Even as a young boy, Ghimire-ji sought solitude. Besides, his father Shree Gaurishankar Ghimire had to spend most of his time in the high hills, tending to animals. Since his wife was no more, the father had no choice but to shuffle young Madhav up and down the mountain with him. While growing up, Madhav-ji studied the Laghu Koumudi [One of three famous texts related to a specific type of Sanskrit grammar] at home, internalizing his Brahmin roots. And eager to begin formal education as a student, he ran away from the village with seven fifty-cent coins and managed to ace the secondary level exams at Durbar High School. He continued excelling in studies and graduated from Benaras in the first division - his subject was classics and religion. But Ghimire-ji had contributed to Nepali literature even before that.
Since he grew up listening to folktales (about the adventures of a witch who cut off a horse’s tail, Sunkeshari and her golden hair, Madhu-Malati’s love-story) and reading texts such as the Upadesh Manjari, a poetic sensibility arose in him at a young age. Haphazardly, he experimented with words, sitting under the shade of the Nigalo-bamboo bush - a waterfall roared within the folds of distant hills - and, in 1934, at the age of fourteen, published his first poem titled ‘Bairagya Pushpa’ in Gorkhapatra.
After graduating, while professionally affiliated with a literary Nepali group that dealt with translations, he started writing his first epic titled Govinda. Inspired by an epiphany (‘One can write a book even in Nepali!’), Devkota-ji had also began writing a book and eventually managed to publish it: Shakuntal. But Ghimire-ji’s Govinda remains unpublished, its fate tied to seven other works including Divya Sangeet, Sudama Charitra and Latika. All of these completed titles are locked inside an old chest because of his disinclination to share his work with a wider audience. It was only in 1948 that Gauri came out, a grief-stricken tribute to his first wife who had passed away. By this point, Ghimire-ji had joined Gorkhapatra as an Assistant Editor. But he quit the post and signed up for a training course on technical education. The course complemented his literary inclinations, arming him with scientific and historical knowledge. After being exposed to Gandhian principles and social work, his worldview expanded and he returned to Lamjung, opened a school and started promoting education. But he became discouraged by the attitude of villagers who complained a lot, he was bogged down by daily hassles. Meanwhile, secret political groups had formed and as a result he was even jailed for a few days in 1951.
When he returned to Kathmandu in 1952, he was amazed by the changes - anyone could enter Singha Durbar and anyone could ride a motorcar! Later he would remark, “Bhim Darshan Rokka and I were the only ones who were able to dodge the socio-political literary movement at the time”. In any case, he was appointed to teach as an instructor of technical education in Kathmandu until 1958. That same year, he became an academic and started frequenting literary gatherings in places such as Delhi and Tashkent.
This was the same person whom I went to meet for the second time at an office inside the Academy. Continuing our conversation from the previous day, I asked, “What are your thoughts on literature?”
“Before providing a direct answer to your question - what I think is that a writer should not be confined by style or theory. Talented writers don’t get limited by principles. A theoretical idea eventually inspires. For a long time, I used to think that poetry means a web of words; later, I thought that anything that rhymes is poetry. Then I felt that only poems that present new perspectives are legitimate; then I thought it was all about style. Ultimately, I reached the conclusion that it didn’t have to do with only prosody, or new perspective or new style. I realized that my earlier poems were not really poems. Anything that is written in one’s unique perspective, that is related to worldly issues and is able to stand the test of time can be considered poetry.
“These clouds - how pleasant to just look at the brightness and shadows of these clouds. For scientists, these are only mixtures of gases. But when I look at the same clouds, I feel like I’m traveling; sometimes, they help me sense something tender within. Many people get joy and feel at peace from the natural world and from our environment. But one has to have a poetic sensibility to appreciate all this. Any kind of writing that is intricately tied to life and that helps us understand the social, natural and scientific aspects of our lives can be considered literary. What our country needs is writing that takes the public experience into consideration and that is accessible to people from all walks of life.” This was Madhav Ghimire’s belief. Immensely influenced by nature, he is highly regarded due to his prosodic use of words and is also considered to be one of the finer songwriters. Equally popular amongst the intellectuals as well as the masses due to songs such as “Aaja ra raati ke dekhen sapanamai mari gayeko” and “Kerako paatma kateko batti”, the poet confessed that his financial situation was quite delicate before joining the Academy; these days, he didn’t need to worry about meals and also wrote more than before.
I asked, “What have you been writing these days?”
Placing a hand on top of a table, he replied, “A three-part song collection is almost ready for publication. And another collection of songs that has a mixture of various rhymes, is about to come out. I also plan to write a couple of historical works.”
“How do you write?”
“I gather my feelings and inspirations and write in one go, bursting with excitement. If I’m in the mood, I write whatever comes to mind, without analyzing too much. I revise after a few days. Then, when I revisit the draft for the third time, I aim for completion. This process also helps me memorize the words and sometimes I find myself humming in solitude.”
“Ghimire-ji, which of your works do you like?”
“It is rather difficult to answer that but still - when it comes to children’s poems, ‘Mya Mya’; then Gauri, which I won’t be able to write again; in terms of songs, ‘Aaja ra raati’ and ‘Yo chhaya dhwani’; and regarding poems, ‘Baisakh’.”
I also asked him - a well-known defender of prosody in poems - about his favorite writers. He provided a long response, “Two things inherent in folk literature are my absolute favorites - the simple style and the poignancy of experience. Also, some sections of the Rig Veda and the Upanishads that convey so much in such few words. I like the wholesome creations of Kali Das that are so simple and so full of natural descriptions. The works of Rabindranath Tagore that dazzle with exquisite beauty. And, based on my daughter’s recommendations, I like Wordsworth’s poems that contain simple descriptions of nature. Some Urdu poems and a few poems by Pant due to their novel use of words; some of Lekh Nath’s works that reflect his unique style; reading and listening to Sama’s powerful thoughts that become easy to follow by the first couple of sentences; the mysterious fluency of Laxmi Prasad Devkota who I think is incomparable to anyone I have ever met and also some of Siddhi Charan’s poems of a certain level.”
To the poet who was so deeply interested in the folk style, I wanted to bring up some of the issues raised by his critics - that he had a formulaic way of writing about legends such as the Buddha and Sita and that he composed a few ‘new poems’ by altering a couple of words from one poem. But then, thinking to myself “Why now?”, I returned home.
Born in 1919, Madhav Prasad Ghimire is a renowned and beloved poet known for his many works, including "Gauri," "Malati Mangale," "Himal Pari Himal Wari," and "Shakuntala." This is a translation by Niranjan Kunwar of an article from Uttam Kunwar’s anthology of interviews, Srasta ra Sahitya (Authors and Literature), published by the Uttam Kunwar Memorial Award Fund. You can read more from the series here.
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Uttam Kunwar Uttam Kunwar was the publisher and editor of Ruprekha. He won the Madan Puraskar in 1966 for Srasta ra Sahitya, an anthology of literary interviews.
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