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Colossus of compositions

SOUVIK CHOWDHURY

Nilmani Phukan's poetry has a universal appeal, yet the distinct Assamese fervour is not lost in his imagery. The septuagenarian poet is an epitome of humanism and his concern for society is deep-rooted.


VOICE OF HUMANITY: Nilmani Phukan - Photo: P. V. Sivakumar

A GOOD piece of literature should always mirror the aims and aspirations of society, enthralling the reader to newer heights of imagination and human values, giving a glimpse of truth in the thought, with an exceeding diversity of interpretation for all ages.

Anticipate a conscious realisation that perhaps, only a poet can do justice to such a mission as you start reading Nilmani Phukan - - the doyen of Assamese poetry - - who considers poetry as `the voice of humanity'. For perusing the septuagenarian Padma Shri, will make one believe that a poem is, in its actuality, a human moment, a moment of inexpressible joy and sorrow, culminating in a silent but sure regeneration of awareness.

Distinguished Assamese poet Nilmani Phukan, who was awarded the prestigious Joshua Foundation award for lifetime achievement in literary excellence, recently, is an epitome of humanism. He says, "Wherever there is man, there is poetry and poetry enlivens all the living and the inanimate alike."

All his compositions contemplate the plight of society with an equal embrace of Assamese landscape in its theme and imagery.

In their construction, his metrical compositions seem to be simple, but there is a complex pattern of experiences at an inner level. The experience takes the reader into regions of what can be called the unconscious recesses of an individual mind. Through these poems, Phukan has endeavoured to establish a transition from transparent imagery to symbolism. He has created archetypal imagery and a style in which folklore and living language of a community provide a deep resonance.

In one his all-time favourite poems - - Dancing Earth, in which the earth epitomizes wholeness absorbing the dead and the living, destruction and creation, Phukan expressing his faith in humanity in the midst of death and madness, asks:

"Even then, won't you plant a

Sapling of fragrant banana"

The poem is a magnificent expression of his humanism, which is essentially a compassion for fellow beings and a belief in the wholeness of human existence. The Earth's dance is ultimately a dance of creation that absorbs the destructive energy in its motion. The poem, in its concluding stanzas, gives a striking metaphor to abstain from negativity.

"Never say you don't have any

That you would never reach there

That the river is without water

That the water does not have fire"

Nature makes a dominant presence in most of his poems. Some of the recurring images in his compositions are the sunflower, house, river, trees, mountains, snow-covered peaks et al. In fact, Phukan set the trend for incorporating natural elements in Assamese poetry. It would be very modest to say that modern Assamese poetry has evolved after him.

In an exclusive tete-a-tete, Phukan talks about his life in the gamut of Assamese poetry, interspersing the conversation with his favourite verses:

Tell us something about your childhood.

I was born in 1933 at Dergaon, a small sleepy hamlet in the tea-rich state of Assam. The small township of Jorhat, where I grew up was noted for its pristine natural beauty and gentle rural charm. The green ambience of the tea gardens and the surrounding forest cover made a deep-rooted impression on me since my toddling days.

If the village disappears from the creative imagination,

Would not the beautiful and glorious rainbow of our art and culture fade away?

Schooled entirely in Guwahati, I used to spend most of my leisure time watching the tranquil waves of the mighty Brahmaputra. In fact, I started writing poems only after I caught the first glimpse of the river when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I still have vivid memories of my first experiences with the Brahmaputra. One fine morning, a couple of my friends on bullock carts decided to go towards the meandering river to see the sunrise. As the sun rose above the horizon, I felt as if the sunrays were forced to beam inside me. I must have perceived the unseen reawakening too much for which I started to write poems and songs. But I strongly believe, poetry was not incidental to me. Knowingly or unknowingly, I struck a perspective relationship with nature, life and reality, and slowly it blossomed into an awakening of life, thought and sorrow out of which evolved my verses.

How many publications do you have to your credit till date?

Till now, seven collections of my poem have been published. Surya heno nami ahe ei nadiyedi (The Sun, They say comes down along this river, 1963), Nirjanatar Sabda (Sound of Silence, 1965), Aru ki Naisabda (What more soundlessness, 1968), Phuli Thaka Suryamukhi Phultor Phale (Towards the Sunflower in Bloom, 1972), Kaint, Golap Aru Kaint (Thorns, Roses and Thorns, 1975), Kavita (Poetry, 1980), and Nrityarta Pritvi (Relentless Earth, 1985) are the publications. I have also published an anthology of Indian tribal love poems under the title Aranyar Gaan (The song of the wild, 1993).

It is largely felt that you have a lot of foreign influence in most of your poems despite the fact that they are indigenously deep-rooted.

I have always tried to endeavour and keep the local flavour alive in my poems. At the same time, I think all my poems have a universal appeal. It maybe because of my innate fascination towards French and Oriental poetry, that some of my compositions portray their influence also. I have even translated assorted Japanese and Chinese poems and brought out an anthology of Japani Kavita (Japanese poetry, 1971) and a similar anthology of Chinese poems under the title Cheena Kavita (Chinese poetry, 1996)

How do you define poetry?

Modern man is searching for a soul. It is through poetry that one day he would find that soul. In poetry, he will find a clue to a world of love, new spiritual value and a human ear in its entirety. Since time immemorial, poetry had been reverberating with its sound in the deep recesses of mortal humans. Wherever there is man, there is poetry, the living objects are there and even the inanimate world comes to life.

Poetry is the voice of humanity. Whenever one tries to listen, each person can hear in the quietness of his own mind the flowing cadence of dawn and dusk, of truth and beauty.

After having won so many coveted awards, like the Padma Shri (1990), Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry (1981), Kamal Kumari National Award (1994), Joshua Foundation Award (2001), Assam Valley Literary Award (1998) et al, and a host of other titles as the Emeritus Fellowship, Sahitya Akademi Fellowship, etc., how do you feel?

I regret to say that there is a sense of unfulfilment somewhere within my heart, a vacant feeling. The aspiration is inexplicable. It can only be perceived.

For a poet, an award, no matter how much ever big it is, can never be an adequate compensation for his work. It can never determine the ultimate value of the piece of art. And I have never hankered after awards. Although awards give me a sense of accomplishment, it can never give me a sense of fulfilment.

Is there any social change in the country that you would like to affect?

Yes. If given a chance, I would like to bring all Indian languages and dialects under one platform so that literature and poetry becomes understandable to everybody. That will ensure a sense of belongingness for the masses. I am sorry to say that but despite the best of efforts of the Sahitya Akademi and the National Book Trust (NBT) the gap between the different languages in the country has still not been bridged.

Do you have any message for those youth who have gone astray and taken up arms to fight the system? How far do you think, poetry can affect a positive change in them?

Attainment of objectives need not always necessarily be violent. Youngsters should be aware of the existence of a peaceful revolutionary method to strive for their aspirations. Those who have already taken up the armed struggle should come out and join the mainstream of life. Only then, can they strive to affect the social order change that will continue to elude them till the time they fight.

And yes, poetry can play a pivotal role in ushering a political and cultural change of the present day order. Poetry should always be a means to extend the sensibilities of its readers. As such, poetry should always aim at the emergence of a sense of brotherhood, amity, humanity and beauty. Only then, would the purpose of poetry be served and the world will be better place to live.

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