Friday, June 12, 2015

Poetic picture: A Review of Abhaya Kumar's "Jatra"

This appeared in Republica on June 12, 2015.

Abhaya Kumar wears many hats- a diplomat, an artist and a poet. How these professions and interests converge in a single personality leave one baffled. I have known Kumar to be person in deep love with poetry, given his enraptured state in listening to good poems. This quality is emblematic of his large heartedness and that quality rare in modern people—empathy.

I evoke the word empathy after going through his latest poetic offering "Jatra". In the collection, elegantly translated into Nepali by veteran journalist and writer Kishor Nepal, Kumar vividly paints the poetic picture of Kathmandu through the perspective of the architectures and tourist sites. The poet injects life into the inanimate objects by entering into them in the glorious tradition of the Eastern philosophy that takes everything in the world to be part of the same over-soul. By taking this route of empathy, Kumar veers away from the ordinary onlooker in that his is not that objectifying gaze for general pleasure but of a person losing himself in the ananda of God's creation.

Kumar's tenure as a diplomat in Kathmandu has proved to be a blessing for the city as readers have been privileged to experience its beauty and grandeur in the mellifluous diction employed by him to perfection. The artist in Kumar has channelized his expression to poetry and presented the picture of Nepal's national heritages, different traditional processions, places of natural beauty and eminent personalities. Those who are still to visit Nepal will get a vivid image of the country and those who have been living here will learn the hidden meanings of the tourist sites that they took for granted.

Kathmandu's exoticness is enhanced with its medieval warren of alleys, Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas, and Kumar describes them with vigor. He hears ancient songs in birds' melodious chirpings and imagines the world stopping still in awe of the craftsmanship of the local artisans in Patan. The Valley's artisans appreciate the finer things of life and it is reflected in the lavish temples in front of which the human appears puny, as Kumar expresses in "Bhaktapur". Basantapur Durbar Square in the heart of old Kathmandu city never fails to impress visitors with its intricate wood carvings and rich history. Here, Kumar observes Lord Shiva in his ferocious Kalbhairav form, playing with birds, living beings and demons and the living Goddess Kumari stealing glances at mysterious Tantric idols.

The poems extolling the virtues of Valley architecture are relevant now more than before as the recent earthquake razed them to the ground. These monuments can never be remade in their original form, even if Nepalis are eager about the reconstruction. Lest the post-quake generation forget these manmade beauties, Kumar has beautifully captured them in his poems. The immortality of art has helped preserve the image of the toil of our god-gifted artisans for generations to come.

Once the poet moves out of the Valley to visit the hill stations in the lap of the Himalayas, his disdain against unmanaged urbanization gets expressed. Sitting atop the Daman hill, he sees the concrete jungle of Kathmandu and excoriates the wrong notion people have of civilization. He is hurt by the people's irresponsible littering of plastic bags in Lakuri Bhanjyang. However, he is not content in passing judgment and loses himself into the beauty of nature. The birds and animals in Shivapuri forest, the land appearing as the piece of the moon in Mustang, the silence of the Bardiya forest, the calm flow of the Marsyangdi River in Bandipur, the misty mountains of Bhedetar—all these places of natural beauty have come into life in the poems. His poetry is most redolent of the earthy smell as many places in Nepal have remained unscathed by the encroachment of modernity. Given the simplicity and lyrical quality of his poems, Kumar manages to evoke variegated emotions in the reader, with sheer lyrical spontaneity and subjective honesty.

That Kumar breathes life into monuments has already been discussed above. What about people in his poems? He has built portraits of Nepali cultural icons with fresh vision. The whole world praises the Gautam Buddha but before achieving Buddhahood, the prince of Kapilvastu was an ordinary man. Kumar imagines the feelings of Siddhartha at the time of leaving his family and even the sorry state of Tilaurakot as he left the place forever. By imagining Buddha's sorrows on the haphazard state of Lumbini garden, one can detect Kumar's satire on Nepali authorities who trumpet around the world that Buddha was born in Nepal yet do not bother to keep his birthplace beautiful. He describes Bhanubhakta, Laxmi Prasad Devkota, BP Koirala, Araniko and Narayan Gopal's glorious contribution to Nepali culture and indirectly expresses pains about Nepali people's apathy towards these eminent personalities.

Kumar's verses transcend the ordinary and transport the reader to the heart of the universe. These deceptively simple poems are pregnant with philosophical meanings that transpire only after multiple readings and deep cogitation. It is more than obvious that Kumar is in a state of rapture while creating these verses and he is successful in sharing the taste of that creative elixir with the reader. Italian artist Tarshito's sketches have added aesthetic depth to the book.

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