Bhanubhakta Revisted

Mahesh Paudyal

Poet Bhanubhkta Acharya of Nepal (1814 – 1868) ,  most popularly known as aadikavi, or the pioneering poet, has the same position as that of Geoffrey Chaucer, the first ‘modern’ English poet. The prefix ‘aadi’ and the adjective ‘first’ tagged with the names of Bhanubhakta and Chaucer respectively, should not, at any rate be confused or misinterpreted as poets who were literally the ‘first’ to handle the genre of poetry. Rather, they should be understood as exponents, who, from among a myriad of dialects spoken during their days, fixed a certain dialect as the standard language of their respective literatures, and by doing so, they both did away with an ancient or medieval language that was dominant. There are several points of intersection where these two poets meet, and have made similar contributions to their literatures.

Before mapping their comparison, it is pertinent to both problematize and validate the epithets tagged to the names of these two exponents. Chaucer rose at a time when English was molding itself into what came to be known as ‘Medieval English’, having passed through a long, long spell of the Old English. The Old English is, as linguists claim, a conglomeration of the Anglo-Saxon base that, with increased interaction among nations with time, imbibed vocabularies from various adjacent sources: the Scandinavian, French, German, Italian, etc. With the fall of the Dark Age and dawning of the Middle Age, English had increased interaction with even the farther frontiers of Europe, extending eastward, towards the Persian soil, and even further, into Asia Minor. Southward, its relations crossed the Horn of Empty and travelled south to the African belt. One immediate consequence was that, British mariners, who went out, came home with oral and written resources, one of them being words for food,  clothes and articles of daily needs. Consequently, the English language had new words in its domain. Thus, the language called ‘English’ became a salad-bowl.

Whenever a nation faces such a situation, a huge linguistic transition becomes imminent. Chaucer in the middle of the fourteen century, stood at such a juncture.  He neither continued with Old English, nor adhered completely with the Middle English that was in vogue during his days. He picked up what was known as Eastern-Midland Dialect, spoken those days around the coastal areas of London, where Chaucer was in a high office as controller of trades. Meeting and negotiating with a lot of customers here, living in and around London, and staying close to the palace perhaps made him realize that the Eastern Midland Dialect would best serve the general interest of the English people. Accordingly, he wrote his Canterbury Tales in that language. Its popularity was immense and immediate. Writers contemporary and junior to him quickly followed suit, and Chaucer’s experiment soon became a norm. No other writer in the English soil had ever had such overwhelming popularity and influence. Chaucer, before long, started being called the Father of Modern English literature. There were many poets before him, right from the days of Cynewulf, but their influence was not big enough to be named the first most influential poet with a continental impact. Chaucer had this, and this is what made him the first ‘modern’ English poet, the word ‘modern’ standing not for anything literally modern, but for something that delivered the English language and literature from the quicksand of Old of Medieval English language and literature. There is no debate on the world ‘first’ used for Chaucer, through everyone knows about the existence of many poets before him.

Same is the case with Bhanubhakta Acharya of Nepal. At a time when Sanskrit was the ‘literary’ language of Nepal, and several dialects existed as means of communication among people, Khaskura, the language that evolved as the national and literary language today, was limited to a few principalities. Thanks to poet Bhanubhakta, he used this language in his translation of Ramayan from Sanskrit. The popularity of the epic in his translation was immediate, as it travelled as an oral asset, something like a folk song, and crossed linguistic cleft-lines to assume a quasi-national character. Though there are reservations and counter-arguments, there is no other language in Nepal which, some two centuries ago, could evolve into a national language with such overwhelming subscription and popularity. The credit is Bhanubhakta’s, and his recognition as ‘aadikavi’ is therefore a people’s conferment, and this title does not, at all, rule out the existence of poets before Bhanubhakta. It, however, rules out the existence of any poet of his stature, influence and expanse. Therefore, the name should be understood as a case of strategic essentialism with no option to put it under erasure.

What Chaucer did in his bulk, Bhanubhakta did in his isolated, scrap works. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the mode of an epic, draws characters from day-to-day life in London, from inside and outside the court, and flays its follies and contradictions, while Bhanubhakta does the same in his less major works—his futkars or scrap works—in which he flays political nepotism, dilly-dallying and gradualism, man-wife conflict, and such other issues. In this major works like the Ramayan, Ramgita, Badhusikha and Bhaktamala, however, Bhanubhakta puts moral, ethical and spiritual messages at the centre. Bhanubhakta perhaps knew, only contents that have their bearings on religion and morality could be the subject that could bind Nepal that was very much in the grip of medieval ethics, which were by and large religious. This was a poet’s crafty design and visionary approach. Had he chosen secular issues as many of this contemporaries did, perhaps he would not have gained the degree of popularity he did in his lifetime and after it.

Bhanubhakta’s position as aadhikavi has become a part of Nepal’s cultural imagination and collective unconscious. It is something that cannot be peeled off, revised, erased or undone. At the most, it can be questioned once in a year, during his birth anniversary, and left in peace for the rest of the year. Reasons are twofold: one, his overwhelming influence as linguistic unifier of Nepal, and second, his continental inconization! By continental iconization, I mean the reverence and fame he has gained as a cultural, literary and linguistic metaphor in countries having Nepali-speaking population like in India, Burma, Bhutan, Hong Kong, the UK, Brunei, etc. The list becomes even longer, if we bring in countries where Nepali diasporas have naturalized, including countries in Australia, Asia, Europe and America. There, Bhanubhakta’s birthday is a literary festival, or even a holiday in some places. Many papers, literary groups, awards, talk shows, clubs, schools, colleges, streets, public buildings and libraries have been named after Bhanubhakta. Many poets get initiated into the literary arena through events commemorating Bhanubhakta, and this may include poetry competition, illocution, quiz of things like that on Bhanubhakta. His name is too pervasive to be undone, no matter how sharp the critiques against him are. He is a phenomenon and a global fact.

These are polemics about endorsing Bhanubhakta’s position as aadivaki. Now a theoretical revisiting of Bhanubhakta as a poet from a vantage that is removed from his temporal scale by at least two centuries! After the advent of area studies, discourses of the margin and cultural studies, two types of poles became visible in Nepal, vis-à-vis Bhanubhakta discourse. The first pole consists of the classicists, who tend to see Bhanubhakta in the light of his set merits, and believe in reciting, reproducing and eulogizing his writings. The other pole, however, is critical of Bhanubhakta, and alleges him of being an icon of a monolithic Khas-Arya cultural and linguistic dominion. It blames him for enforcing a Hindu cultural hegemony, thereby eclipsing smaller religions and cultures. It also blames him of being an agent of patriarchal norm, citing in case his Badhusikha a treatise on how a daughter-in-law should behave, staying subservient and loyal to her husband.

This conundrum may not find a settlement anywhere. I don’t see any need to do that. Eulogy and critical scrutiny are both tools that retain the relevance of a poet in all ages. The feminists in our own days vehemently criticized Shakespeare for having on board his dramatic ship only weak and frail women, Gertrude or Ophelia, or heartless ones like Lady Macbeth and Lear’s daughters, and overtly making statements like “Frailty, thy name is woman!” They don’t spare Milton either for making Eve the cause of man’s fall from paradise and so the reason for all sorts of plight on earth. They hold Donne by his collar, making his ghost answer for lines like, “my empery” or “I for him; she for god in me.” Lawrence’s fate is better either. Needless to mention the courts of the post-colonialists, the Protestants and the Marxists where trials ad infinitum have become an everyday affairs in the critical fraternity.

But then all these critical discourses have kept the above-mentioned writers alive. An English study program in any university of the world can hardly stand by effacing any or all of these writers.  More detrimental is the tendency to eulogize, idolize and finally fossilize a writer. Thank God, Bhanubhakta has many vehement critics; they won’t allow him to become irrelevant at any rate. They need him always and all the time as a counterpoint—what if he is cited only as a metaphor—to their radical, progressive and postmodern agendas. That makes no difference to Bhanubhkta, who has risen above the plane of an individual, and has become a culture in himself.

There, however, is a dire need to do two things in order to make Bhanubhakta discourse relevant to our  time, and to ensure his international visibility as an iconic Nepali poet. First, care should be taken to translate his works and highlight his original deviations and creations even inside translations. Understandably, translation of his Ramayan is underway; it is expected to be launched for the global readership anytime soon. His other works should be translated too, which will lend an archival and historical value to his creation, if not anything else. The second thing in point is a more intensive engagement with Bhanubhakta vis-à-vis latest critical lenses and methodologies, including those Bhanubhakta did not even imagine himself. Research should be directed towards updating Bhanubhakta discourse. It should be rescued from ritualistic commemoration as is done on Bhanujayanta Day, his birth day, and forgotten thereafter. Nothing is wrong in criticizing, supporting and justifying the critical claim. After all, it was Bhanubhakta who himself provided ground for his criticism. After all, no poet on earth is immune to critical scrutiny.