An alternate history

  • Bhanu was a great poet but others too have helped enrich Nepal’s cultural life
An alternate history

Jul 13, 2014-

The poet Bhanubhakta Acharya has played a major role in the imaginations of the citizens of this country. He has had many supporters, and he has had many detractors. His 200th birth anniversary last week offered the opportunity to reevaluate him and his role in Nepali history.

Through the Panchayat years, Acharya was used significantly in the state’s efforts to legitimise itself. The Nepali language was central to the Panchayat’s efforts at state building. King Mahendra felt that a strong nation could only be created if all of its inhabitants spoke the same language. Bhanubhakta, through his writing in Nepali, became a symbol of this very purpose. Hundreds of thousands of students learnt that Bhanubhakta was the country’s Aadi Kavi, someone elevated far beyond any other poet or writer.

Of course, this version of history was not universally accepted, even during the Panchayat years. For many, Bhanubhakta was not a symbol of union. Rather, he became emblematic of the hegemony of the hill upper castes and their language upon others. While giving such great prominence to Bhanubhakta, the state quietly glossed over the poets of other communities. This effectively meant that the languages and histories of many different ethnic groups were subsumed. This point of view was effectively silenced for much of Nepal’s recent history. But after 1990, and especially after 2006, these voices have gained more prominence. On the occasion of Bhanu Jayanti last week, such voices were expressed in the media and came into conflict with others that sought to maintain Bhanubhakta’s previous status in the mythography of this country.

There is need to reevaluate our national ethos in keeping with the changing times. Public consciousness is at a much higher level than it was even a decade ago, and most people realise that the old Panchayat history was fraudulent. This does not mean, however, that Bhanubhakta should simply be torn down from his pedestal. He should not be regarded as the country’s “premier poet”. Rather, he should be celebrated as one among many individuals who enriched the cultural life of this country. What would be even more helpful is for historians to find other angles with which to approach Bhanubhakta and his work. Regardless of the way in which the state used his memory, everyone accepts that he was a great poet. And there were democratising tendencies evident in his career. His translation of the Ramayan, for example, allowed many Nepalis to read the great Sanskrit text in their vernacular language. Previously only those who spoke Sanskrit had access to such texts. To continue to dispute Bhanubhakta’s legacy is something that has already been done. It is now time to move beyond, derive alternative symbols of Nepali history, and find new ways of exploring the place of Bhanubhakta and other poets in history.

Published: 14-07-2014 09:52

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