Remembering Kunwar Narayan and rebellion in his works

Rebellion. A word not so often heard in these times; a word that evokes varied emotions. It is this word which describes Kunwar Narayan’s poetry the best

NH Photo by Ashlin
NH Photo by Ashlin

Ashlin Mathew

Rebellion. A word not so often heard in these times; a word that evokes varied emotions. It is this word which describes Kunwar Narayan’s poetry the best. “He is a poet of rebellion. All of his poetry has been born in a spirit of rebellion. There is Nachiketa’s rebellion in Atmajayi against a self-serving father, against the mendacity of a dying vedic civilisation, there is Abhimanyu’s rebellion in Chakravyuh,” explained academician Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

“Abhimanyu might seem like the epitome of filial duty, yet Kunwar Narayan depicts him as person who breaks the spell of civilisation on him. His death is rebellion as he exposes in his death the lie of civilisation. Like a chakravyuh, the civilisation circles our existence in way that make us seem helpless. It is always setting bounds on what we can do. In a brief moment of resistance, Abhimanyu shows that the chakravyuh can be pierced.

“In his own death, Abhimanyu reveals the entire truth of existence,” pointed out Mehta, who was speaking on ‘Identity, Tradition and Ethics in the works of Kunwar Narayan’ at a programme remembering the poet just before his birthday on September 19. Chairing the lecture was Mrinal Pande who described Narayan as a participant and an observer of this world – a witness of sorts.

What is the truth that Narayan’s Abhimanyu reveals, asks Mehta and goes on to answer that the weight of civilisation is to slaughter the innocent, shed blood and to inflict pain. “By choosing a certain death, Abhimanyu reveals the truth of his existence. In his death, he takes down civilisation with him,” said Mehta.

There are other rebellious figures too in Kunwar Narayan’s poetry, such as Kabir, but also the poet’s own metaphysical rebellions against materialism, the rebellion against investing objects with meaning which they cannot carry, rebellion against instrumentalism and his rebellion against dualism in society.

“This theme of rebellion might seem surprising for a poet whose reputation was almost opposite. This is in part because he appears less radical or less rebellious because we have narrowed the meaning of rebellion to simply visible angry social rebellion, born in a deep sense of injustice,” points out Mehta, and urges readers to look at Kunwar Narayan who has a deep understanding of the dissonances of existence.

“Kunwar Narayan believed the job of the poet is to simply bear witness. The poet is not the legislator of the world – somebody transforming it with their authority,” added Mehta.

A winner of many awards including Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi, Kunwar Narayan stood out as someone who inhabited many works, but not defined by either. Kunwar Narayan held to that one sign of literary greatness, which is he remained unhoused in any of the distinctions, underscored Mehta.

Unlike many other poets, Kunwar Narayan’s poetry gave one the feeling that the right to rebellion has to be earned. “It’s best captured in a line written by George Elliot. Elliot wrote, ‘The right to rebellion is the right to seek a higher rule, not to wander in lawlessness.’ Poetry gives us a means of higher rebellion that politics doesn’t,” observes Mehta.

“His poetry may not be like the other ones - a call to arms, but they are performances in controlled contemplation. This is also what saved him from so much misanthropy that creeps into poets who engage with politics. He wrote extensively. Kunwar Narayan was always described as a poet who took dark truth about existence and put them in poetic form,” maintained Mehta.

This is misleading, Mehta argues, as poetry for Kunwar Narayan was an alternative philosophy. It opens up different kinds of truth that no other genre is capable of opening up.

The three-day programme remembering Kunwar Narayan, who passed away in 2017, began with Mehta’s talk. On Wednesday, September 18, there will be readings and short films on the works of Kunwar Narayan and on Thursday, September 19, there is a musical rendition of Kunwar Narayan’s poetry by Shubha Mudgal with Aneesh Pradhan on the tabla and Sudhir Nayak on the harmonium.

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