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The Moydanav of poetry could turn the familiar into unfamiliar

Unlike today’s self-assured amateurs, it was Sahitya Akademi award winner Hiren Bhattacharya’s humility that brought honesty to his poems and enabled them to reach a higher level of perfection, writes Aruni Kashyap

Aruni Kashyap  15th Jul 2012

Hiren Bhattacharya

hen I was a child, I wanted to run away from these two words: 'Hiren Bhattacharya'. Every year, my mother — an ardent fan of Bhattacharya's poetry — would force me to learn one of his poems to recite in my school's annual function. I hated those practice sessions, though, for every successful recitation of a stanza with the proper voice modulations and pauses, I'd get a mango-bite. On the day of the function, she would dress me up in a small, specially designed dhoti and kurta, take me to school to recite the poem in front of the schoolchildren and their parents. Those labourious sessions went on till I was in Class Four.

How could I not run away from that name? Especially at that age when I couldn't appreciate the imagery and metaphors in his poems? At an age, when I didn't know he had won the Sahitya Akademi Award (1992) for his collection Soisor, Pothar, Manuh, and that, during the '70s and '80s, he was as popular as a movie star?

'Hiru-da' – as everyone called him, passed away on 4 July 2012 at a private hospital in Guwahati not very far from his house. He had named it 'Sneha Tirtha' (The Pilgrimage Site of Affection) by joining the names of his father, Tirthanath Bhattacharya and mother, Snehalata Bhattacharya. He was also honoured with Asom Sahitya Sabha's Raghunath Choudhury Award (1976) for Bibhinno Dinor Kobita, Bishnu Rabha Award for Xugondhi Pokhila (1985), Soviet Nehru Literary Award (1987), and many more.

Apart from the poems in the school textbooks, perhaps it was because of those tiny-dhoti sessions I wouldn't read poetry until I reached secondary school. I had developed a mental block against poetry, as one of my teachers observed once, encouraging me to 'read' them on my own. Poetry for me had turned obscure, esoteric – stuff that went above my head. It was Bhattacharya's poems that renewed my friendship with poetry a year before I was to leave for Delhi.

It was summer and there was a power cut in our locality. At home, we had left the windows open. It had started to rain and with the rains, a mild breeze hopped into our living room. In the dimly lit room, my father started reciting a poem, "Breeze, don't come and create waves" (Botah toi ahi dhou nutulibi) and my mother who taught Hiru-da's poems to college students, recited the next line, "and interrupt our love-immersed state" (Bhangi nidibi premor mognota). I was transfixed.

Later, I played and replayed the audiocassette where several well-known people from Assam had recited some of Hiru-da's poems, set against music. I didn't know poetry could be so simple, so profound, so beautiful, until then. The images he used, spread wings like early morning white storks, covering a clear-blue autumn sky. I was ashamed that I hadn't read his poems. The smug person in me, who thought he knew much about contemporary Assamese literature, was shrunk like a grape in the sun.

But the truth is, I had read Hiru-da's poems and lyrics all my life without even knowing he wrote them. His famous lines about death are inscribed on epitaphs across Assam: "Even death is an art/ Carved on the tough stones of life/ it's an exquisite sculpture." Zubeen's popular song Mrityu, is a response, a question posed for Hiru-da, the poet of his previous generation, 'If death is an art, how is death is so easily available (in Assam)? Death is a festival now.'

I had read Hiru-da’s poems and lyrics all my life without even knowing he wrote them. His famous lines about death are inscribed on epitaphs across Assam: “Even death is an art/ Carved on the tough stones of life/ it’s an exquisite sculpture.

ubeen's song, that turns my skin into gooseflesh whenever I listen to it, is perhaps one of the best Assamese songs ever – where a poet of the new age, questions the poet of his previous generation about blood-splattered times. Lyrics of many popular songs were written by him, and we hum, listen to them often without knowing whose words they are.

'The Poet of Love and Sunshine', as Bhattacharya was also known, was the Moydanav of Poetry. Moydanav? Anyone who is familiar with the Mahabharata, and Duryodhan's plight at the Palace of Illusions: Indraprastha, knows about this demon. Moydanav had built Indraprastha so beautifully that pools looked like floors and floors looked like pools. During a visit, the eldest of the Kauravas, falls into a pool of water. The humiliation churns greed in his heart for the wonderful palace and envy for the Pandava's prosperity. Hiren-da wrote about familiar places, but because of his Moydanav-like competencies, he could turn the familiar into unfamiliar with his metaphors. He mentions in his Assam Valley Literary Award's (2001) acceptance speech, that poetry isn't spontaneous; it has to be built through a "cultivated spontaneity" and behind this spontaneity rests a Moydanav like expertise. In the same speech, he maintained that the common life of the fields, the paddy, the harvest, the farmers, and villagers infuses life in poetry.

In his poems, we see a desire to preserve heritage, for he believed, that heritage isn't just our past but the foundation of our present. The astounding simplicity of his poems that throbs with lively images is the main strength of his poetry. In Roudro Kamona (Wish for Sunshine), he describes how the sun descends from the sky, waking up millions of sleepy stars. In Bosontor Gaan (Spring Song), he wonders, "only if a bird could usher in spring/ only if a bird's slim wings could blow away the fog".

Hiru-da lived just 10 minutes walk away from our house. I'd see him often, taking a walk, whenever I went to buy momos from the shops near Guwahati Commerce College. I regret that I never tried to know him personally because I have a tendency to keep my heroes a little away – 'what if they disappoint me and that disappointment, clouds my appreciation'? But once, when I had gone to buy groceries with my mother, she stopped by and started talking to him. 'Do you know him?' I asked her later. "No, I don't know him personally? But who doesn't know him? He is very approachable."

Hiru-da wrote, for a long time he couldn't call himself a 'poet'. I wonder how that must have transpired in his poetry. What he would have done if he was born in the '80s and lived through the age of technology when people who call themselves poets upload freshly-written poems incessantly on Facebook, tagging 50 people? That discomfit with the identity of a poet, kept him and his poems simple, forced him to chisel them again and again. It kept him honest and that rendered him the greatness as seen in the hundreds of people who came out of their houses to take part in his funeral procession, despite heavy rains.

Sometimes, when I am working, or stressed (or when the breeze blows), one of his poems come and stand in front of me. At that moment, I feel immensely grateful to my mother for those mango-bite days.

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