Mahakavi Laxmi Prasad Devkota
लक्ष्मी प्रसाद देवकोटा
Laxmi Prasad Devkota is known among us as the Mahakabi or Poet the Great— the title given by the state for his unmatchable contribution to Nepali literature. He deserves that title as he had done so much in this field through his genre of writing that has earned a greatest honour and respect in the heart of Nepali speaking population both at home and abroad.
Devkota was born on the night of Laxmi Puja in 1966 BS from the womb of Amar Rajya Laxmi Devi in Dillibazar, Kathmandu. As he was born at a time when the entire Hindus including his family were worshiping Goddess Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth, his parents took his birth as the greatest gift of Goddess Laxmi. Accordingly, his name was given Laxmi Prasad. However, he turned out to be the gift of Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge’.
His father Tilmadhav Devkota was a scholar in Sanskrit language. Laxmi Prasad Devkota attained his basic education at home under the custodianship of his father. His was a middle class family and financial status of the family was not very sound. He completed Bachelor’s Degree in liberal arts and law. But his desire to complete Masters’ Degree could not be accomplished in the absence of sound financial position of the family.
Right after graduating from college, he started working as a personal tutor. It is said that he used to teach more than 13 hours a day. He had to do that to support his family. During Devkota’s time, the country had been under Rana’s dictatorial regime. Young Devkota knew the importance of education and he vowed to do something to help educate the masses—the idea was not well received by the then Rana rulers.
Devkota was a brilliant student and did well in school. He was good in both Nepali and English language and could write in both the languages. Right from the early age, he was keen in Nepali literature. At the early age of ten, he wrote a poem when he was studying in Drubar High School—the school set up for the education of the ruling Rana children. The ordinary people had to seek special permission to study in this school. Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s father also had to run from pillar and post to ensure admission for his son in the Durbar High School.
Devkota and his friends were keen on generating awareness among the people and educating them. They decided to establish a library to generate public awareness. They had to seek permission from the government even to establish a library during those days. Devkota and his friends, thus, were put behind bars for trying to establish a library. As a result, poet Devkota had to undergo a great suffering. He was later fined and released. Devkota then went to Benaras, India, where he used to sell his poems for his survival. He also worked as an editor of Yugbani magazine in Benaras and gave continuity to his writing.
After he returned to Kathmandu, he wrote Muna Madan—an epic poem based on folk verses. Although, Devkota has written many books including some of his masterpieces, he loved Muna Madan the best. It is said that Devkota, when he was in death bed, had asked his friends and relatives to preserve Muna Madan even if all other works were to be burnt.
Muna Madan is perhaps the most popular of all works of Devkota. The simplicity of language, folk and lyrical verses and rhythmic expression made this book popular among the all including ordinary folks. Muna Madan’s popularity also made Ranas to appoint Devkota a member of the Nepal Bhasanuwad Parishad. During this period, Devkota wrote the epic, Shakuntala, in three months. It is said that Puskar Shumshere Rana challenged him to write another epic in a period of one month. Accepting the challenge, Devkota wrote another epic Sulochana in ten days. Both Shakuntal and Sulochana are Devkota’s masterpieces. For sometimes, he worked as a lecturer in Trichandra College. He also served as Education Minister for three months.
Although Devkota started writing during the Rana period when the free thinking and creative writing used to be discouraged, he broke the traditional and conventional style and introduced a new genre and approach in writing poems and other forms of literature. Devkota is a versatile writer and has written pomes, epics, prose, essays, plays and fictions. But he is basically a poet. He was influenced by western poets like William Wordsworth, John Keats and PB Shelley. As a lover of nature and romantic poet, we find Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats in Devkota’s poetic works. The way Devkota’s Charu and Wordsworth’s Lucy Gray appear similar in expression and theme, it is said that Devkota wrote Charu as a dedication to Wordsworth.
What spiritualism is to Lekhanath, nature is to Devkota. The theme of much of his works is nature and human sensitivity, feelings and love. In this way, Devkota is a master in romantic poetic work in Nepali literature. Although the romantic era in writing began during the period of Motiram Bhatta, it was still immature and imperfect. Devkota is the one who both professed and practiced and gave a new dimension to romantic poetic works in Nepal. While Motiram fantasised the romantic style with conservative tone, Devkota unified it with sense and reality. Devkota had a deep passion for nature and has perfectly practiced it through his aesthetic use of nature’s image in his poetic works. He tries to instill beauty and fragrance of nature in his poems through his craft of words and sentences and eloquent expression.
As a path breaker in the Nepali literature in general and poetic works in particular, Devkota is an atheist and a radical egalitarian. He challenged the tradition of attributing everything to God’s willingness. If there is, at all, any God, it is within human being and the best way to attain godliness is to serve the less privileged fellow humans. He has, thus, strongly and explicitly expressed this feeling in his much acclaimed poem " Yatri" (Traveler or Pilgrim), he has opined that God dwells within a human and not in any temple and has called upon the pilgrims not to wander about in search of God but to go back home and devote to the service of mankind—the downtrodden ones who have undergone sufferings. However, towards the end of his life, he suddenly turned religious, thus, writing " Akhir Shri Krishna Rahechha Eka (After all there is the God –Lord Krishna)
Straightforwardness, lucidity and honesty are some of the characteristics of Devkota’s poetic works. His feelings, sensibility and expressions have been blended perfectly and brilliantly with words and meanings that have created an explosion of thoughts and ideas in his writings. We find spontaneous expression in Devkota’s poems and there is no artificial sense. He had the habit of not revising his writings. Once written, it was final. He has given less prominence to grammar. His poems are like flowers grown and blossomed in the forests. This is the reason why the language in Devkota’s poems and prose is rough and less polished.
Humanitarian feelings are well entrenched in many of his poems through which the poet has advocated egalitarian society free from poverty, hunger, class and creed. For him, there is no class other than human being and no creed other than serving to human being. In Muna Madan he has, thus, said "Manisa Thulo Dilale Huncha Jatale Hudaina" ( a man attains greatness not by caste but because of his heart or feelings).
Devkota has also written essays, one act plays and plays and novel. Devkota is the first modern essayist in Nepal. Laxmi Nibanda Sangraha (Collection of Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s essays) is the example of the modern essays in Nepali language, which have clarity in meaning, expressive in feelings and eloquent in terms of language. In this, Devkota broke the traditional style of essay writing and popularized the personal and expressive style of essays writing instead of descriptive and narrative approach. The Laxmi Nibanda Sangraha is perhaps the most brilliant book of essays ever produced in Nepali literature.
As a versatile and multi-dimensional writer, Devkota has made contribution in the field of plays, fiction and short stories. Sabitri Satyaban is Devkota’s acclaimed play, which has earned equally high fame for Devkota. Champa is the only fiction Devkota has ever written.
Despite holding some important and high-ranking positions, his financial status was always precarious and he had to struggle a lot for survival. But the difficulties he suffered never deterred him from writing and making contribution to Nepali literature. The contribution Devkota made to enrich the Nepali literature would always be written down with golden letter. We cannot imagine the state of Nepali literature without Laxmi Prasad Devkota. Thus, Laxmi Prasad Devkota has earned a greatest respect in the heart of Nepalese people both in Nepal and abroad.
Recognizing his unprecedented contribution in the field of literature, he was honoured as a life member of the Nepal Academy. Devkota was also conferred with the title of Mahakabi (Poet the Great). He died at the age of 50 due to cancer in 2016 BS. With his demise Nepal lost a brilliant icon of Nepali literature.
Devkota’s contribution to Nepali literature is as follows-
Poetic works: Muna Madan, Raj Kumar Prabhakar, Kunjini, Shakuntal, Sulochana, Basanti, Putali, Bhikhari, Mhendu, Ravana-Jatayu Yuddha, Chhahara, Chilla Patharu, Luni, Mayabini Sashi, Maharana Pratap, Manoranjan, Nabras, Sitaharan, Dushyanta Shakuntala Bhet, Aakash Blochha, Balkusum, Chhayasanga Kura, Katak, Gaine Geet, Sunko Bihan, Bhavana Gangeya, Sundari Jarpini, Aashu, Prathimas, Prithiviraj Chauhan, Maina, Pahadi Pukar, Muthuka Thopa, Laxmi Kabita Sangraha and Laxmi Giti Sangraha.
Essay: Laxmi Nibandha Sangraha
Plays: Sabitri Satyaban, Rajpur Ramani, Basanti, Maina and Krishibala and Bharatmilap.
Laxmi Katha Sangraha (anthology of Devkota’s short stories)
Devkota translated William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth into Nepali
In Nepal every school boy knows the name Laxmi Devkota (1909-59), author of the short Napelese epic Muna Madan. All over Himalaya his works are revered as classics, yet in Europe and the West his folk inspired narrative poems remain largely unknown. In a special interview one of his two surviving sons, Padma Devkota, explains the continuing attraction of his father’s stories, and why a tale like Muna Madan still fascinates today, almost 100 years after it was written.
Historyradio.org: Why has Muna Madan become such a central work in Nepalese literature?
Professor Padma Devkota: Muna-Madan remains a central work in Nepali literature for several reasons. Briefly, it is the first major Romantic work in Nepali literature which revolts against the age-long Sanskrit classical tradition and seeks to tell the story, as Professor Shreedhar Lohani observes in “Life, Love, and Death in Muna Madan,” of real people through lives of fictional characters, and to fictionalize real geographical space. This is the first work in Nepali literature which elevates the jhyaure song, an otherwise neglected cultural space, to a significant literary height. Next, it tells a story of the common Nepali people which remains realistically contemporary in the context of the international labor market which still attracts many indigent Nepali workers. It is a heart-rending tragedy written in a simple diction which even the illiterate people of Nepal easily understood. They found their own lives written all over the pages of this book. Even then, Poet Devkota himself was criticized by elitist writers as having done something that would mar his literary career.
Historyradio.org: Muna Madan deals with issues like poverty and caste, to what extent are these issues in present day Nepal?
Professor Padma Devkota: The caste system is not a central theme of Muna-Madan. It is mentioned only once in the course of the story when Madan’s overwhelming gratitude to the Good Samaritan figure, the Bhote, causes Madan to mention his own caste. Furthermore, the caste system itself was efficient at the time it was created. Later practices cast a slur on its original intent, which was simply a division of labor within a small, ancient community. Quite obviously it has outlasted its use in contemporary societies and the Government of Nepal has taken efficient action against all caste discriminations. However, even as poets and thinkers point up the correct path, human habits die hard. We now fear the rise of economic castes such as those that encrust capitalistic societies. I believe Nepal, especially after its secularization, has been more successful fighting the discriminatory caste system than it has succeeded in fighting poverty.
Historyradio.org: Tell us a little about your father, Laxmi Prasad Devkota. What sort of man was he?
Professor Padma Devkota: Laxmi Devkota is popular as Mahakavi (Great Poet/Epicist). The public was quick to recognize the exceptional qualities of a poet whose fifty-ninth book, The Witch Doctor and Other Essays, a collection of thirty essays written originally in English, appeared on November 11, 2017. There are several other documents waiting to be published. He wrote in practically all the genres of literature and excelled in poetry and essay. Initially, he wrote under the influence of his Sanskrit background and English education. He started out as a Romantic poet in the Nepali tradition but continually grew as a poet to a literary modernity which the bulk of his writings have shaped. As an intellectual, he participated in the socio-political life of the nation, which he loved with all his heart. As a writer, he had vision, imagination and mastery over the medium. He also raised his voice against colonialism, imperialism, discriminations and injustice. As a thinker, he asserted the necessity of scientific and logical thinking to counteract blind faith and orthodoxy which hindered progress. As a human being, he had the gift of compassion and empathy. Legends continue growing around the life of the poet.
Historyradio.org: What kind of reception did Muna Mudan receive when it was published?
Professor Padma Devkota: Muna-Madan is a long narrative poem written in the lyrical form called jhyaure in which learned people of the time found, as Devkota himself explains, “a low standard of rural taste, an inkling of distancing from civilization or of showiness or trace of ill-manners of the hills.” He tells us how the pundits “started wrinkling their nose” at the mention of jhyaure. For them, the merits of literature were with Kalidas and Bhavabhuti, the classical Sanskrit poets. For Devkota, they were not national poets and their literary output was not the Nepali national literature. So, he compares his situation to that of his predecessor, Bhanubhakta Acharya, the Adi Kavi or the First Poet of Nepal. During Bhanubhakta’s time, the elitists asked if it was possible to write poetry in Nepali. But Bhanubhakta used the Sanskrit classical meter and produced wonderful poetry in Nepali. Similarly, in Devkota’s time, the elitists asked if it was possible to write poetry in jhyaure. Devkota elevated the status of jhyaure by writing serious literature in this rhythm of the common heart. Quickly, Muna-Madan gained popularity and it still remains the best-seller even to this day.
Historyradio.org: There is a movie version of the novel, is this film faithful to the original text?
Professor Padma Devkota: I would have to look at the movie again to tell you just how faithful it is. When I watched it for the first time years ago, I thought it was sufficiently faithful to the original text, but that is just a passing claim. Gaps, additions and interpretations of the movie need a more serious revisiting.
Watch the movie trailer
Historyradio.org: Could you describe the literary style of that your father uses in his narrative? Is he a realist writer, a naturalist? A modernist?
Professor Padma Devkota: Muna-Madan is a long narrative poem written with the ballad in mind. It uses a lyrical form called the jhyaure which was popular among people at work, especially in the paddy fields where young boys and girls teased each other with songs and fell in love. Although Devkota’s poem is tragic in essence in keeping with the eastern view of life, he insists on the importance of action, which alone can give significance to life. Throughout the poem, there are reversals of the imaginary and the real, of gender roles, of situations, and so on. The poem is romantic in vision, emotionally well-balanced and under full control of the writer. It uses fresh metaphors and images that have a lasting impression upon the mind of the reader. The work is popularly acclaimed as being simple, but simplicity of diction is counteracted by the poet’s imaginative flights that trail the syntax behind them. It is as if my father wanted to apply William Wordsworth’s famous poetic declaration in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads to Nepali literature: to write about real people in their own tongues. In trying to select a “language really used by men,” Devkota strikes gold and achieves a simplicity which stands in great contrast to the complexity he was later able to achieve in the epic language of Nepali Shakuntala, for instance.
In terms of its revolt against the classical tradition and its attempt to speak in the simple language of the common people, Muna-Madan is modernist too. It does make a very powerful statement against discriminatory caste practices.
Historyradio.org: In which way does his novel fall into the narrative of Nepalese literary history?
Professor Padma Devkota: Nepali derives from Pali, which derives from Sanskrit. Very early Nepali writers wrote devotional poetry in Sanskrit; but Bhanubhakta Acharya decided to freely translate Ramanyan into Nepali using the classical Sanskrit meters. He also wrote a few poems about the political and social issues of his time. Then came Motiram Bhatta and introduced the Urdu gazal and wrote many love poems. Lekhanath Poudyal stuck to the Sanskrit tradition but wrote a Nepali that gleamed with polished language. Balakrishna Sama, a playwright and a poet, looked westward and to science and philosophy. Laxmi Prasad Devkota introduced Romanticism and Modernity to Nepali literature.
Briefly again, my father’s poetry is spontaneous, deeply felt, sincere and honest, and has a touch of spirituality in it. He loves his nation, but goes glocal. He finds his inspiration in the histories and mythologies of India, Greater India (Bharatvarsha), Greece, Rome and Nepal. For him, mythology offers a proper window into the hearts of the peoples of the world. For the human being must stand at the center of the universe. The human being is the only significantly worthy object of worship. And the poet remains a liberal humanist.
Historyradio.org: Why do you think Muna Madan is so little known in Europe?
Professor Padma Devkota: No serious attempt has been made by the Nepalese Government to introduce its culture and literature to the Europeans, who don’t read Nepali anyway. And why should they? Nepal is not an economic or military giant. So, its richest cultural mine awaits discovery by individuals who wander in search of the best in world literature. Some such as Dom Moreas who met Devkota at his death-bed and reminisced him in Gone Away: An Indian Journal or David Rubin whose translations of Devkota’s poems appear under the title Nepali Visions, Nepali Dreams or Michael Hutt of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, who translated Muna-Madan are examples of Western scholars who have discovered him. More recently, international scholarship has grown around Devkota’s work. One such study, though peripheral to Muna-Madan, is that of Anna Stirr’s on “Sounding and Writing a Nepali Public Sphere: The Music and Language of Jhyaure” (Asian Music 46, 2015). Although Devkota himself started the tradition of translating his own works and those of his colleagues’ into English, and although he also started the tradition of writing serious literature originally in English, we have not been able to publicize it beyond the frontiers of our immediate neighbors.
Historyradio.org: Are there many foreign translations of the story?
Professor Padma Devkota: Not as many as or as good as we would like to see. Some Nepali translators have attempted rendering Muna-Madan into English. Among them are my father’s brother, Madhusudhan Devkota, and Tirtha Man Tuladhar both of whom attempted a translation of this work in 1970. Ananda Shrestha’s rendering into English appeared in 1995. Foreigners, too, have tried to translate this work in their own ways. A. M. Syangden and Ganga Singh Rai form India attempted translating Muna-Madan in 1994 and 1996, respectively. Their major problem is with the language itself. Michael J. Hutt’s translation appeared in 1996. It remains the most noted version to this day. Liu Xian translated it into Chinese in 2011. Portions of the text have been translated into Russian, Korean, French, German and other European languages, too. All of them have translated from the original text of Muna-Madan, which is shorter by 399 lines from the text revised by the poet in 1958. This one remains to be translated by someone.
|Click to buy an English translation||“Muna Madan follows the life of Madan who leaves his wife , Muna, and goes to Lhasa to make money, and while returning he becomes sick on the way. His friends leave him on the road and come back home saying he has died. The story also shows the life of a poor woman who suffered much without her husband and later dies because of grief. Finally he is rescued by a man who is considered to be of lower caste in Nepal. That is why it is said that a man is said to be great not by caste or race but by a heart full of love and humanity. When Madan returns to Kathmandu after regaining his health, he discovers that his wife is dead and becomes grief-stricken. Madan comes to realize that money is of no value at that point. In this poem, Devkota has written about the biggest problems in Nepalese society at the time.” (Wiki)|