It is 2011, a year of milestones for Nepali literature. It represents, for one, the centenary of the romantic exuberance that blossomed in poetry at the hands of masters like Laxmi Prasad Devkota. It also marks the centenary of the nihilism that replaced an earlier tradition of spiritualism in Nepali poetry, which had its roots in Bhanubhakta Acharya, and to some extent Lekhanath Paudyal. And finally, it is the centenary of the birth of Siddhicharan Shrestha and the poetry of revolution that he wrought.
Much has been said and written about Siddhicharan, and ample research has been conducted on his writing. Revered as a visionary, one who first coined the term ‘New Nepal’—the watchword of our days—Shrestha had come of age at a glorious time in the country’s history, just when autocratic rulers had begun to feel the power of the pen, which, with time, invited their doom. But this article doesn’t intend to reiterate all that has already been established; rather, it seeks to look at the poet’s life and poetics through the eyes of some of Nepal’s political bigwigs to gauge the impact he had on his contemporaries.
It was quite early on in his career that Shrestha had become aware of the idea that ‘personal is political’—an awareness that was to dawn on the West only in the early 40s when the feminists made the slogan their buzzword. Shrestha had anticipated that the future of his land lay in a mandatory revolution, a concept institutionalised first in the West with the rise of the Frankfurt school critics, and a few decades later with the Cultural Materialists in England. Shrestha consistently emphasised on the inevitable necessity to link literature with politics; for him, there was no writing outside the political sphere.
Shrestha’s writing has, in fact, been vastly influential in Nepal’s political landscape. It is said that his poems inspired Ganga Lal to become part of the anti-Rana revolution and attain martyrdom. Ganesh Man Singh himself has acknowledged Shreshtha’s influence on his political spirit during their time together in jail. “In the context of Nepal’s political revolutionary sensibility, I myself was impressed by Siddhicharan dai’s poetic personality and his individuality, and how he unhesitatingly became involved in political life,” he writes.
It was in the mid 30s when Shrestha’s family entered Kathmandu as non-residential citizens, following which he had given life to Sharada, Nepal’s first literary magazine. The late Matrika Prasad Koirala, who had been brought into his company by author Bhavani Bhikshu, had vivid memories of the poet at this time. “In our first meeting I did not get any glimpse of the fact that this placid and decent Siddhicharan was developing into a revolutionary flame. But as our relations grew closer, I could witness more of the storm and heat of revolution inside him,” says Koirala.
Shrestha’s influence also extended to Kedarman Vyathit, former minister and Chancellor of the then-Nepal Royal Academy who had met the poet in jail, when they’d both been confined for anti-Rana activities. “Siddhicharan is a free-flowing cascade who doesn’t have to exercise skills of craftsmanship while writing poetry. While describing society and nature, he does so in the tempo of a cascade whose foundation never dries up,” he commemorates. This had eventually inspired Vyathit to write poetry himself.
Former Prime Minister Man Mohan Adhikari writes of an incident where he had required Siddhicharan’s moral support in the people’s movement of 1950, and the poet had promptly assured him, “Youths and politicians should take the lead in the march for social change. The writers too will join, but we are just the means. We the litterateurs shall shape public opinion; you the politicians must lend it a leadership.” His ardent support was one of the reasons Adhikari continued to hold him in high esteem, going so far as to liken him to PB Shelley and John Keats.
Another political figure who recalls Shrestha fondly is former minister Sahana Pradhan who describes the poet as an inspiring force behind many other revolutionaries including Pushpalal and Ganga Lal. Pradhan calls him “the embodiment of the climax of the anti-Rana movement.” Pradhan’s writing reveals that it was only after the 1950 movement that she came to know Siddhicharan better. The poet and Pushpalal used to correspond frequently and after 1960s, whenever Pushpalal sent letters from exile, Pradhan would take them to the poet. It was during these visits, following the referendum, that she was able to get a more personal view of the revolutionary poet. “[Siddhicharan’s] position in Nepali literature is no less than that of
William Wordsworth in English literature. To be more precise, while Wordsworth confined himself to writing about nature, poet Siddhicharan transgressed that boundary to address issues concerning politics and social change in his literature.”
If it was Shrestha’s simplicity that Pradhan admired the most, along with his ideological genuis, these qualities did not go unnoticed by others familiar with the poet. Former Prime Minister Kirtinidhi Bista, for instance, who was intimately associated with Shrestha through the time they spent together, and able to observe closely his human and poetic talents, remarks that he had been a “sincere person of pure and spotless character.”
Almost at par with the impact made by his political writings, Shrestha’s role in ushering Romanticism into Nepali literature was also significant. Modanath Prashrit, former minister and author, credits his poem Pratakalin Kiran, which appeared in Sharada in 1934, for having brought the Romantic cult into Nepali poetry. He says: “Because of his extraordinary power to express an awareness of time and national consciousness more powerfully than any of his contemporaries, Shrestha was rightly called Yugkavi by then-intellectuals and authors.”
What 2011 represents is not only the centenary of the birth of an iconic figure in Nepali literature, but the subsequent birth of a revolutionary age, an epoch. Although long-gone today, Siddhicharan Shrestha lives on through his ideas and his poetry, the ways in which these have shaped his contemporaries, and thereby the political history of the country. We can only hope, through these accounts from various political figures, to have gained something of an insight into the man behind the legend.
[First published in The Kathmandu Post]