Laxmi Jayanti: Laxmi Prasad Devkota
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on November 13, 2012
Laxmi Prasad Devkota (November 12, 1909 – September 14, 1959), was a Nepali poet. Devkota is considered to be one of the most prolific and gifted writers in Nepali Literature. He has been given the title of “Maha Kavi,” (“The Great Poet”) of Nepal.
Devkota was the third son of Pandit Til Madhav and Amar Rajya Laxmi Devi. He was born in Dilli Bazar, Kathmandu on the day of Dipawali, the Festival of Lights, which is a celebration of Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth. His name literally means a gift “Prasad” from the goddess of wealth “Laxmi”. His family was never financially well-off.
Devkota studied science at Tri Chandra College in Kathmandu. After completing the intermediate level studies at Tri Chandra College, he enrolled in Humanities and that was when he began to read English poetry. In 1931, Devkota went to Patna on scholarship hoping to study English for his Master’s degree. But because seats were not available as expected, he enrolled for the Bachelor of Law degree instead. After he received the degree, he returned back home and started to live the family life. Despite taking tuition classes to supplement his earning, sometimes for fourteen hours a day, financial problems never left him.
Devkota lost his both of his parents and his very young daughter within a span of two years during mid 1930’s. He fell into a depression and became a chain smoker. In 1939, his brothers put him into a mental hospital in Ranchi, India for five months. He makes references to his experience in the lunatic asylum in his famous free-verse poem पागल (“The Lunatic”). After he returned to Nepal, he worked as a part of Nepal Bhasanuwad Parishad, a state organization that acted as a censorship board, and also taught at Tribhuwan University. He wrote several of his epic poetry during this time. In late 40’s, dissatisfied with the Rana regime, he went into a self-imposed exile in Benaras, India, where he edited Yugbani, an opposition journal.
After the autocratic Rana regime was overthrown in 1950, he returned to Nepal and helped publish Indreni, a bilingual literary journal. Although he was constantly in severe financial hardships, he was getting wide recognition as an important figure in Nepali literature. He was appointed the Minister of Education by the first democratically elected government of Nepal in 1957. However, in 1958, he was diagnosed with cancer, and a year later, he passed away.
Laxmi Prasad Devkota was primarily a humanist who occasionally wrote from an atheistic point of view too. Given this reality, some critics have tried to line him up with Marxism or other similar politically leftist ideologies. Apparently in on of his last poems to a friend, he said “Aakhir Shree Krishna rahecha eka” (” in the end, Lord Krishna happens to be the only truth”). However, there has been much intellectual skepticism about this last statement.
Devkota contributed to Nepali literature by bringing the Sanskrit tradition to its end and by starting modern romantic movement in the country. Devkota was the first to begin writing epics in Nepali literature. Nepali poetry soared to new heights with Devkota’s groundbreaking and innovative use of language. Departing from the Sanskrit tradition that dominated Nepali literary scene, he wrote Muna Madan (1930), a long narrative poem in popular “jyaure” folk meter. The book received immediate recognition from the Ranas who ruled Nepal at that time. It tells the story of Madan who departs from his wife Muna to Tibet to make money. The poem deals with the themes of the hardships of journey away from home, grief of separation, longing and death. The following couplet which are among the most famous and most frequently quoted lines from the poem celebrates the triumph of humanity and compassion over any artificial hierarchies created by culture:
क्षेत्रीको छोरो यो पाउ छुन्छ, घिनले छुँदैन
मानिस ठूलो दिलले हुन्छ जातले हुँदैन ।’
A son of a Kshatriya touches these feet not with scorn
The measure of man is not his class but his heart
Devkota had the ability to compose long epic poems with literary complexity and philosophical density in very short period of time. He wrote Shakuntala, his first epic poem and also the first “Mahakavya” (epic poem) written in Nepali language, in mere three months. Published in 1945, Shakuntala is a voluminous work in 24 cantos based on Kālidāsa‘s famous Sanskrit playAbhijñānaśākuntalam. Shakuntala demonstrates Devkota’s mastery of Sanskrit meter and diction which he incorporated heavily while working primarily in Nepali.
Devkota also published several collections of short lyric poems set in various traditional and non-traditional forms and meters. Most of his poetry shows influence of English Romantic Poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge. The title poem in the collection “Bhikhari” (“Beggar”) is a reminiscent of Wordsworth’s “The Old Cumberland Beggar”. In this poem, Devkota describes the beggar going about his ways in dire poverty and desolation deprived of human love and material comforts. On the other hand, the beggar is also seen as the source of compassion placed in the core of suffering and destitution. Devkota connects the beggar with the divine as the ultimate fount of kindness and empathy:
कालो बादलबाट खसेको
अन्धकार भित्र बसेको,
ईश्वर हो कि भिखरी?
घर, घर, अागन चारी
बोल्दछ, अार्तध्वनिमा बोल्दछ
करुणामृत दिल भारी ।
Crushed under black clouds
Lodged in darkness
Is he a beggar or a god?
As he wanders from house to house
He speaks in tunes suffused with pain
A heart weighed with compassion.
Many of his poems focus on mundane elements of the human and the natural world. The titles of his poems like “Ban” (“Woods”), “Kisaan” (“The Peasant”), “Baadal” (“Clouds”) show that he sought his poetic inspiration in the commonplace and proximal aspects of the world. What resonates throughout most of his poetry is his profound faith in humanity. For instance in the poem “Woods,” the speaker goes through a series of interrogations rejecting all forms of comforts and solace that could be offered solely to him as an individual. Instead he embraces his responsibility and concern for his fellow beings. The poem ends with the following quatrain that highlights his humanistic inclinations:
दोस्त कहा छन्? साथ छ को को? घर हो तिम्रो कुन देश?
जान्छौ कुन पुर भवन मुसाफिर, ल्यायौ कुन सन्देश?
दोस्त मेरो शुभ उद्योगी, साथ छ साहस बेश ।
विश्व सबै घर, हृदय-पुरीतिर ल्याउछु सेवा सन्देश ।।
Who are your friends? Who go with you? Which land is your home?
What place do you seek, Traveler? With what news do you roam?”
“My friend is decent diligence. Courage comes with me.
All world’s my home. To heart-land I roam with hues of Humanity”
Besides poetry, Devkota also made significant contributions to the essayistic genre. He is considered to be the father of modern Nepali essay. He defied the conventional form of essays by blatantly breaking the rules of grammar and syntax, and embracing a more fluid and colloquial style. His essays are generally satirical in tone and are characterized by their trenchant humor and ruthless criticism of the modernizing influences from the West in the Nepali society. An essay titled भलादमी (Bhaladmi) or “Dignitary” criticizes a decadent trend in Nepali society to respect people based on their outward appearances and outfit rather than their actual inner worth and personality. In another essay titled के नेपाल सानो छ? (Ke Nepal Sano Cha?) “Is Nepal insignificant (small)?”, he expresses deeply nationalistic sentiments inveighing against the colonial forces from British India which, he felt, were encroaching all aspects of Nepali culture. His essays are published in the collection Laxmi Nibhandha Sanghraha (लक्ष्मी निबन्धसङ्ग्रह).