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(De)constructing a Nepali icon


SALIL SUBEDI


Today, 13 July, 2001, is the 188th birth anniversary of Adikavi Bhanubhakta, the poet who is credited with single-handedly cementing the Nepali nation with its unifying language. His translation of the Ramayana from Sanskrit into lilting Nepali verse made the poet a household name throughout the Nepali speaking world. Ironically, he was embraced first by Nepali-speakers living in India for whom the Nepali language had become the symbol of their separate identity. Within Nepal, even for Nepalis for whom the language was a mother tongue, there was more of a ho-hum attitude about Nepali and many from Bhanubhakta's time to today took the language for granted.

The bust of this poet from Tanahu was installed in Darjeeling in 1949, eighty three years after his death and four years after his birthday was first marked in 1945 also in Darjeeling. At that time Bhanubhakta was hardly heard of in his own homeland.

But there was something potent in the idea that this poet, an apparently apolitical man of letters, could symbolise something larger than his work-no less than a generic "Nepali" identity, with the Nepali language as a cornerstone. Bhanubhakta would not remain a poet for long. For officialdom that began to define Nepali nationhood in the 1960s, Bhanubhakta became too tempting a symbol.

Panchayat-era bureaucrats turned the poet into an icon of national identity and unity-right alongside the monarchy. Bypassing the richness and diversity of Nepal's many languages and cultures, undercutting with a broad sweep of ceremony and rhetoric the possibility that the people brought together by Prithvi Narayan Shah could have evolved their own common reference points, of which the Nepali language was only one.

Getting the stamp of approval of officialdom in a sense discredited the poet's worth. And instead of celebrating Prithvi Narayan's famous dictum of "a garden with many flowers" there was the danger of elevating one language to the level of a national symbol at the cost of others.

Bhanubhakta's legacy finally returned to Nepal in 1946, when a group of writers in Dharan took a fancy to the celebrations in Darjeeling and that year celebrated Bhanu Jayanti, as they called it. In 1951, Bhanu Jayanti, which had already started taking on the air of a tradition, made it to Chudi Ramgha in Tanahu, where Bhanubhakta was born in 1814, and resulted in the establishment of a library. Another birth anniversary also fell on this day in 1951, that of Tulsidas who is credited with translating the Ramayana. In Birgunj that coincidence was reason enough for quite a clamour, and doubtless imbued this "Nepali" Bhanubhakta to stand for with the additional characteristic of Hinduism.

Kathmandu was slower to catch on, here were a couple of years of low-key celebration by writers, and in 1953, the poet finally arrived in the capital when Darjeeling writer Gopal Pandey Asim's Nepali Siksa Parisad (NSP) funded a large celebration. By 1959 King Mahendra was unveiling the first of many Bhanu busts outside the Durbar High School opposite Rani Pokhari.

The by-now state-supported annual event was slowly pushed in different districts and along the way, many towns and villages named local sites after Bhanubhakta, and Bhanu Jayanti slowly incorporated nationalistic slogans. Krishna Bhattachan, Tribhuvan University sociologist and janajati activist calls this "the manufactured reality of Bhanubhakta", and says it was not always accepted unquestioningly. There was an undercurrent of suspicion among the diverse ethnic groups of Nepal, and also among feminists, who said Bhanubhakta's work is too patriarchal for him to be a source of national pride.

After the People's Movement in 1990, much of that anger and dissent has found expression. There is now lively-sometimes heated-discussion about this "national figure". Bhanu Jayantis themselves have become staggeringly boring affairs. Historian Pratyoush Onta has studied the Bhanubhakta phenomenon, and suggests that the elevation of the poet as a central figure in established stories of Nepali history was driven by more complicated motivations. "Perhaps those promoting Bhanubhakta wanted to bring to life a national symbol and culture that, in its distinctiveness, would provide them with a recognisable national identity in the international arena," he says. "But alternatively, their motivation primarily came from their role as brokers of the national culture." Once Bhanubhakta had been inducted into national culture, Onta adds, it became even easier to pull out all stops, use school books, posters, and film to "make Bhanubhakta every Nepali's ancestor". But he wasn't and TU's Bhattachan points to the rich story-telling cultures of the Maithili and Magar languages, and asks: "Why aren't there laureates of the other different castes and classes?"

Today, many children in government schools across Nepal who read Mahendra Mala can recite the first line from Bhanubhakta's Ramayana by heart: "Ek din narada satyalok pugigaya garu lokako hita bhani". Ballav Mani Dahal, a social scientist and authority on Nepali literature, says: "In the guise of giving uniformity to Nepali society, the Panchyat rulers and bureaucrats deprived other languages and cultures their rightful place in the mosaic of Nepali identity. This is hardly acceptable in a pluralistic society."

At the very least, believes Dahal, the official version of Bhanubhakta that we receive is guilty of distorting the poet's admittedly difficult-to-pinpoint intentions. Bhanubhakta, he says, did not undertake his epic translation to serve the Nepali language. "He was simply a poet who enjoyed the flavours of folk culture and local dialects. It was sheer coincidence that his translation (of the Ramayana) emerged at a time when the Nepali language was only just developing as the lingua franca."

Even so, the canonisation of Bhanubhakta continues. Last year, the first full-length feature film, Bhanubhakta was made on the life and times of the poet. And Yadav Kharel, its director, defends the effort: "The cultural context was different then and Bhanubhakta's contribution is purely towards literature and the Nepali language." The mixed reviews of the film reflected just how complicated the webs of identity, language, religion and nationalism are in Nepal.

"What Prithvi Narayan Shah did for Nepal's political unification, Bhanubhakta's legacy is the Nepali identity," says Kamal Dixit of Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya. "This sense of national identity need not necessarily detract from Nepal's rich linguistic and ethnic diversity." Another important factor that helped turn the Nepali language into a lingua franca was the return of ex-Gurkha soldiers from the British and Indian armies into the Nepali hinterland. Various ethnic groups in the military needed Nepali to communicate among
each other.

And yet the resonance of the Nepali language in the diaspora, combined with a more urgent need for a symbol of togetherness was precisely what drove the conception of Bhanubhakta as an icon of Nepali unity. Says noted Darjeeling-based literateur, Indra Bahadur Rai: "The beginning of Bhanu Jayanti here was very symbolic in the Nepali diaspora's fight against the oppressive West Bengal government which had been denying us our rights. The strongest unifying factor of our diverse communities here is the Nepali language. And Bhanubhakta's presence subtly knits us together."

The transplanting of socially-rooted phenomena is tricky, and if there is growing debate on the place of Bhanubhakta in Nepal, the different cultural needs of Nepalis in India ensure that there Bhanu Jayanti grows bigger every year. This year, says Rai, celebrations will go beyond Darjeeling and Kalimpong to other parts of north-eastern India.

Bhanu Jayanti in Kathmandu this year will be the same predictably rigid celebration it has been for the last few decades. Students from government schools will be made to line up outside the Durbar High School in Rani Pokhari, politicians will garland the bust of Bhanubhakta, give a speech extolling the poet we will all forget for another year. Perhaps the best way to celebrate Bhanubhakta the poet is to forget about symbols for a while, and buy a collection of his tapes produced by Music Nepal which contains the entire recitation in soothing Nepali folk chhanda of the Bhanubhakta's Ramayana.


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