Hailing from Nalanda — the home to one of the world’s earliest universities, Abhay K. Kumar is an Indian Foreign Service officer who at present is India’s Chargé d’affaires in Brazil. As a diplomat who is a poet at heart, he carries the legacy of Nalanda — the ancient seat of learning — in the truest sense. Soft spoken, and euredite, his passion for poetries and yoga recently made Mint Lounge newspaper call Abhay“The Sage Indian of Brasilia”in an article published on him. Abhay though prefers to call himself a poet-diplomat. For his contribution to contemporary South Asian Poetry, he was honoured with the SAARC Literary Award 2013. His poems have been translated into Russian, Chinese, Nepali, Hindi, Irish, Portuguese, Slovene, Spanish and Turkish among other languages.
Abhay is the lyricist of highly acclaimed: ‘Earth Anthem’, and ‘South Asian Anthem’. He is also the author of ‘The Seduction of Delhi’ and ‘The Eight-Eyed Lord of Kathmandu’ (Bloomsbury); and the editor of ‘CAPITALS’(Bloomsbury) — a poetry anthology on the capital cities of the world.
His latest work,100 Great Indian Poems (Bloomsbury), is an anthology which is key to the astonishing rasas and riches of Indian poetry of Indian poetry in many languages across three millenia .
In an exclusive interview to Deepak Parvatiyar, Abhay talks about Bihar, Bihari poets and poems, about ‘100 Great Indian Poems’ and the unique combination of diplomacy and poetry. Excerpts:
Q) You have your roots in Bihar. Bihar has a very rich literature. In particular the state has given some great poets of Hindi, Maithili and Bhojpuri languages. Your take on them and how you propose to take their work forward?
A) I come from a village called Chhabilapur in Nalanda district of Bihar. My father was a primary school teacher and at home we had a number of books on literature. I remember stumbling upon a worn out copy of Rashmirathi by Rashtrakavi Ramdhari Singh Dinkar at home and reading it several times as a child. Rashmirathi has played a significant role in making me passionate about poetry and I carry a copy wherever I am in the world. The sad part is that his poems do not translate very well in English and therefore I could not include them in 100 Great Indian Poems. I have included poems of Mahakavi Vidyapati from Maithili, Baba Nagarjun and Anamika from Hindi. I read a number of poems from Bhojpuri but translations were not of very high quality so could not include one from Bhojpuri. You have forgotten to mention Magahi, my mother tongue, which is spoken in Nalanda, Gaya, Patna and other adjoining districts of Bihar. Magahi does not have literature it seems. I have tried to find books written in Magahi but have not succeeded. I express my experience in this poem I wrote some time ago-
A Poem in Magahi
Surprised to learn that there is no written poem in Magahi
I get restless, then sit down to write a poem in Magahi
I listen to people in the street talking in Magahi
their sonorous voices and sounds in Magahi
they twitter like birds all day long in Magahi
even their abuses sound sweet in Magahi
thik hai is thik hako in Magahi
khana khaye is khana khailhu in Magahi
I go around the town looking for books in Magahi
I return home without finding a written word in Magahi
and hear my mother say her prayers in Magahi— ‘hamar beta-ke
buddhi da bhagwan, hee waants tu wraaite a pooeem in Maagahi!
Thik hai : All well
Khana khaye : Did you eat
Hamar betake buddhi da bhagwan: God give my son some sense
Q) How do you look at the future of Bihari literature? Particularly the poets and poems?
A) Bihari literature is very rich and diverse spanning over thousands of years. Bihar continues to be a fertile ground for poetry and poets. Anamika, Tabis Khair, Kalpana Singh Chitnis, Raj Shekhar, Vivekanand Jha among others are some well known contemporary poets from Bihar.
Q) Recently you edited a highly acclaimed anthology — 100 Great Indian Poems,which was published by Bloomsbury and also translated in other languages. What was the thought process involved behind selection of poems and poets? Any Bihari poet featuring in the book?
A) 100 Great Indian Poems celebrates poetry from 28 Indian languages spanning 3000 years. Unlike several poetry anthologies published in the past focusing on poets, the focus of this anthology is rather on poems. I have selected poems which moved me in some way. These poems are accessible to general readers. Poets from Bihar whose poems have found place among 100 Great Indian Poems are Vidyapati, Nagarjun and Anamika.
Q) Given the rave reviews that your book has got, would you say that poetry actually transcends languages?
A) Yes, poetry comes from the need to share our common human experience, without the aid of any loudspeakers or instruments. In fact, poetry transcends both space and time. Poetry is also a way to remember and record our experience. When we did not have alphabets, everything was memorized in the form of sound– sound patterns such as rhymes. Images were captured and compared using metaphors when we did not have cameras, and imagination provided to us what special effects do today. Poetry remains a powerful medium for us to express ourselves even today. It is a very humane and democratic medium.
Q) You are a career diplomat. You have written poems about the places that you have visited. You have even written an Earth Anthem as well as a SAARC anthem. How do you look at the art of poetry? Is it a tool to connect the world? Or should it be treated as art for art’s sake?
strong>A) I have served as a diplomat in different continents. I have worked in Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia, Kathmandu in Nepal, and now in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, the largest country in Latin America.I wrote Earth Anthem in 2008 when I was in St. Petersburg, inspired by the blue marble image of our planet taken from Apollo 17. It was put to music in Nepal and was released in 2013. I wrote SAARC Anthem in Nepal which was put to music there in 2014. Both these anthems have given me great satisfaction.
For me, the art of poetry is communicating and connecting at a deeper level. I think being a poet makes my job as a diplomat much easier. But my passion and dedication for poetry transcends using it as a tool to connect with the world. I am a poet foremost, diplomat afterwards.
Q) Literature has often fomented language fanaticism. Can poems bring the world closer? How?
A) Literature acts as a mirror to an individual, society or nation in which we can see our human frailties. If it does anything else, we have to take responsibility for that. Poems connect individuals across cultures at a deeper level. Through our poems, we learn of each others experiences, sufferings, joys in this world and learn to empathize with fellow human beings no matter where they come from. I have experienced it first hand with poet friends all across the world, thanks to poetry! Poetry connects us, brings us together.
Q) Your message to budding poets…
A) 1. Read much more than you write. 2. Publish your poems in literary journals, magazines before bringing out your own collection. 3. Pay attention, take notes, as these may become poems. 4. Revise your poems several times before sending them for publication. 5. Don’t get discouraged by rejections, they are part of publishing.