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Date of Publish: 2016-02-07

THE POETRY OF NILAMANI PHOOKAN

Principal works  : Phuli Thoka Suryamukhi Phultor Phale (To a Sunflower in Bloom, 1972), Golapi Jamur Lagna (The Raspberry Moment, 1977); Kobita (Poems, 1980); Nrityarata Prithivi (Dancing Earth, 1985)

 

Nilamani Phookan, distinguished Assamese poet, was born at Dergaon near Jorhat, an important town in Upper Assam. Half a century ago, this place was noted for its natural beauty and gentle rural charm. The green ambience of the tea gardens and the surrounding forest cover made a deep impression on the poet, when he was still a child. Born into a middle-class family, he came under two early influences: his mother and his uncle (elder brother of his father) Lakshminath Phookan, a well-known figure in the field of literature and journalism in Assam. Mainly due to this early background and his creative response to the language, Nilamani had developed a deep interest in the rich folk heritage and the native rhythms of life in the country side of the Brahmaputra Valley. he is one of Assam’s leading art critics and a perceptive student of tribal and folk art.

Nilamani Phookan began writing poetry in the fifties but it is his later development that made him one of the outstanding poets of the post-war period. He has published six volumes of poetry, two volumes of translations from Japanese and Chinese poetry and a translation of the poems of the Spanish poet, Garcia Lorca. His deep interest in the visual arts, especially painting, is borne out by his writings on the great painters.

Modernism in Assamese poetry started during the early forties. These were the times of the Second World War, which were a kind of watershed in the history of Assamese literature. During this period, Hem Barua (1919-51), Amulya Barua (1922-46), Maheswar Neog (b.1918) and Bhabananda Datta (1919-51) started a new trend in poetry and they adopted free verse for the first time. Amulya Barua, whose life was tragically cut short by the Calcutta riots of 1946 was the most accomplished of all these poets, and the spirit of social protest provided for him the main theme. The early poetry of Navakanta Barua (b.1926) and Ajit Barua (b.1928) also had social content but their poetry was technically more innovative. Navakanta Barua, the most important and influential poet of the fifties, combined his sense of tradition with a modern idiom and did find a wider range of themes to write some of his best poems in the fifties. Later, Ajit Barua wrote a few poems, which were both in terms of form and content truly representative of the modern sensibility. These poems assimilated the ironic numbers of the early Eliot in the complex idiom of poetry.

Nilamani Phookan’s first collection of poems Surya Heno Nami Ahe Ei Nadiedi (The Sun Comes Down by this River, 1963) is significant in more ways than one but quite a few poems included here were omitted by the poet in the later anthologies. This is because the poet makes his own evaluation and a habit of script self appraisal is ingrained in him. The second and the third collections of poems namely the Nirjanatar Sabda (The Sound of Silence, 1965) and Aru kinu Sabda (And What a Silence, 1968) still retained a looseness of structure but the majestic quality of the poems indicated an important new direction for Assamese poetry. The turning point came perhaps with the publication of Phuli Thoka Suryamukhi Phultor Phale (To a Sunflower in Bloom, 1972) a series of poems suggesting possibilities in the use of language and generating vibrations that were last a long time and exert considerable influence in the development of modern Assamese poetry. Here in poetry marked not only by the bold thematic innovations but also by smoothness of craft.

The uniquely creative language in these poems and recurrent symbols of death, loneliness and the sorrows of self, refined poetic personality or the identity of the poet in the complex pattern of the experience embodied in the poetry. The experience takes the reader into regions of what can be called racial memory and the unconscious recesses of the individual mind. Through these poems, the poet has made the transition from transparent imagism to symbolism: he has created archetypal imagery and a style in which folklore and the living language of a human community provide a deeper resonance.

These poems also establish Nilamani Phookan’s affinities with the Latin American rather than the Anglo-American stream of modern poetry.

Nilamani Phookan in his poems adopts the more colloquial syntax but, on the whole, it is also demanding on the reader who has to be sensitive to the overtones of words as well as the association of images in particular to the overtones of words as well as the association of images in a particular context.

His strength is derived from the ‘power to give words a special life by their context’. During the eighties, Phookan’s poetry became socially more conscious and there is in some of the poems a stark simplicity of diction and a new tone of urgency but the intrinsic strength of the poetry still lies in concrete, visual imagery and the metaphorical use of language. One finds that there is creative clarity in the face of the traumatic experience of death and darkness.

Nilamani Phookan’s dedication to the task of writing poetry over the years is perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic in his personality. The range and depth of his poetic sensibility and the surpassing brilliance of his later poetry place him among the front line poets of Assam.

 

LALIT KUMAR BARUA

 

There’s a meaning in everything (Sakalu Kathare Eta Nohoi Eta Artha Thake)

There is a meaning, one or the other, in everything

For instance, in poems in love

Earth fire air water

In the barking of blind dogs

In a chirping insect

Inside the pocket of a blood-stained shirt

A meaning can be unearthed from everything

A meaning lies in the star upon each finger-tip

Of the framer of meanings

The games of meanings go on

As the children’s games of noughts and crosses

The wounded words seek

A voice of flesh and blood

The madness of lovers and poets goes on

The sobbing leaves of the evening

Yearn for the salty touch of a tongue

A searing lamp burns upon the palm

Of an anonymous old woman

 

O’ compassionate speaker

Deliver one more meaning

That this oppressed has been deprived of

 

Translated into English by Krishna Dulal Barua

 

In the drizzle of vermilion (Kin Kin Henguliar Majot)

 

In the drizzle of vermilion

Flitting off in a flash

You’re my little bird

 

You’re some name

Of the naked girl’s slumber

In whose hands would you sprout

 

This year too the paddy failed to ripen

Only your eyelids redden

Come and gust up the flames

 

It’s  only you who could’ve known

The present season

You’re my little bird

 

Does the conch sound

In the seven seas

 

Translated into English by Krishna Dulal Barua

 

Cutting your fingers of ferns (Muthi-Muthikoi Kati Tor Dhekiar Anguli)

 

Cutting your fingers of ferns in bundles

You sell them in the darkness of Ajara

 

Sister which village do you hail from

Do people there breathe their last

 

Do you plant the Akon in the mounds

Do you keep fish alive in the pond

 

Has your man

Returned home

 

Through the chinks in the walls

Do rivers rush in at the middle of the night

 

Sister in the skull of your kitchen

You save your days

 

With your wakeful eyes burn

The darkness of the Kanchan at the gateway

 

Sister which village do you hail from

Do you use henna on the splitting heart

 

Ajara – a place near the air-port at Guwahati

* Akon – a small tree with long broad leaves one side of which are white in colour

* Kanchan – a flowering tree

 

Translated into English by Krishna Dulal Barua

            Whenever there’s a fire on the hills (Paharot Jui Jolilei)

 

Whenever there’s a fire on the hills

I yearn to have you in my arms

 

Be reborn be reborn

The sesame flowers in your pyre

Are yet to wither

 

Come come and behold

The ablution of the rising sun

In the eyes of sorrow of the dumb infant

 

Come come and listen

To the dry tone of the dead river

On the face of love of the dumb infant

 

Come and sow with both your hands

The legumes of golden crops

In the stillness of a panicky heart

 

There’s a fire on the hills

The flames impale the sky

 

Translated into English by Krishna Dulal Barua

 

Sunset across the Brahmaputra (Brahmaputrat Surjyasta)

 

The day’s golden vase of the heart

Dropped from the hands of emptiness

 

It dropped silently

And sank

 

In the bubbles surfaced

The red pledge of the vase –

Its glaze heart-rending

 

What a flare

Of man’s final covetousness

 

Now each spectator has returned

With the relapse of the same rheumatism

 

Down the smoke and dark blue storeys descended

Emptiness itself

Emptiness of the heart

 

Translated into English by Krishna Dulal Barua

 

Come let’s go out (Ahok Ulai Jao)

 

Come let’s go out. It’s terrible. Nobody had believed. Any moment

there could be suffocation. Blood showers as rain. None can tell before

the hour of death. Kartavirjya’s hands number a thousand. The man

beheld by him in his mirror is a spectre. My deceased father looks

for me now and then. Noni !

 

Look at their eyes. What do you see? Whom do you love? Playing

pitch and toss with life ! Do you dream? Right here the road turns

eastwards. From here on the sun appears as the tongue of a sacrificed

goat. What’s written upon the stone? It came and got eroded. The

cry of the screech-owl at night. An explosive quietude. The howling

of foxes.

 

Nobody knew who was in the cab. Pre-planned murder. The sky was

fuming for a long time. The oration of Yudhisthira at Judges’

Field. The lads’ heads are bandaged. The day-light hours of

Kartika  are short. Barua had it trampled on by elephants. The

tiger dug its teeth on the breasts of half-fed women and scoured

for water. The petrol depot is on fire.

 

Come let’s keep going. It’s terrible. Grass abounds all around.

Grass everywhere. The light of the lamps in the fetching of

ceremonial water come floating along the course of credit.

What a thrill for time. An encounter with truth. That fact

has come to an end. The infinite Jesus stands up hewing and

shattering the cross of crucifixion. Extremely obnoxious.

Pure poetry. A tempestuous uproar.

 

* Kartika  - Indian name of the month between mid-October and mid-November

Translated into English by Krishna Dulal Barua

Lalit Kumar Barua is an eminent ctiric of Assamese literature,  essayist and a retired IAS officer.

Krishna Dulal Barua, a teacher of English language and music, translates both fiction and non-fiction from Assamese to English. His published works include ‘Selected Poems of Nilmani Phookan’ and ‘The sword of Birgosri’ (novel) published by the Sahitya Akademi , ‘Select poems of Lakshminath Bezbaroa’ published by the National Book Trust of India etc.

 

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