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Laureate of Assam-Nilamani Phookan

By Dr. Ashok K. Choudhury | PUBLISHED: 06, Aug 2011, 14:23 pm IST | UPDATED: 06, Aug 2011, 14:34 pm IST

 Laureate of Assam-Nilamani Phookan

 “Modern man is searching for a soul. It is through poetry that one day he would find that soul, will find a clue to world of love, new spiritual value and a human ear in its entirety. Since time immemorial, poetry, the living objects, has been reverberating with its sound in the deep recesses of mortal humans. 

Whenever one tries to listen, each person can hear in the quietness of his own mind the flowing cadence of dawn and dusk, of truth and beauty”, says Nilmani Phookan, who has created “a unique voice” through his poetry, a poetry cargoes with his simple sounding unpunctuated lines, his minute observation, extrasensory perception, emotional restraint, compactness of frames and designs, generation of internal music. 

Regarded as a ‘saga-like presence’ in Assamese literature, he has a distinctive voice. His poetry has a universal appeal with a fresh diction reflecting hopes, dreams, anguish, love, death, horrors of contemporary life and so on. In their construction his poems seem to be simple, but there is a complex pattern of experiences at an inner level. It takes the reader into regions of what can be called racial memories and the unconscious recesses of the individual mind.

To him, “Poetry is ‘the voice of humanity’. Whenever there is a man, there is a poetry, which enlivens all the living and the inanimate alike. The poem will continue to live even amongst those who have never read the poem. This is because the poem is the ultimate language of man- the general as well as the concrete embodiment of the agony and ecstasy of life”.

Phookan’s poetry is polished with a rare artistry and imbued with a deep sensitivity and deeper understanding of life and reality. His compositions contemplate the plight of society with an equal embrace of Assamese landscape in its theme and imagery. His canvas is vast, his imagination mythopoeia, his voice bardic, his concerns ranging from the political to the cosmic, from the contemporary to the primeval. The metrical compositions seems be simple, but there is a complex pattern of experiences at an inner level.  His poetry has richness and intensity that immediately strike a chord in the hearts of discerning readers.

His concern for society is deep-rooted. He speaks of fire and water, planet and star, forest and desert, man and rock, time and space, war and peace, and life and death. Epic and elemental are the landscapes he evokes. Phookan is an epitome and humanism. He believes that poem is a human moment, a moment of inexpressible joy and sorrow, culminating in a silent but sure regeneration and awareness. His poem endeavours to establish a transition from transparent imagery to symbolism, and creates archetypal imagery and a style in which folklore and living language of a community provide a deep resonance. Phookan’s poems strike a delicate balance between the subjective and the objective. It is marked by intense involvement with the reality of life and people. Its diction is highly evocative.

Phookan conferred Fellowship of Sahitya Akademi on 24 April 2002 for his eminence as poet. Ramakanta Rath, then President of the Akademi, honouring him said, “Phookan was instrumental in giving Assamese poetry a distinctly modern form and voice together with two other poets: Navakanta Barua and Ajit Barua. The Fellowship is recognition of the exceptionally valuable contribution made by Phookan to Indian literature”. Prior to Fellowship, he was awarded Sahitya Akademi Award in 1981 for Kavita (1980), which is considered an outstanding contribution, to Assamese literature.

One of the most acclaimed and forefront Assamese poets, Phookan began writing poetry in the early ‘50s. But established his reputation when together with contemporary poets like Navakanta Barua and Ajit Barua, he adopted the modern free verse which was started by the veterans like Hema Barua, Amulya Barua, and Maheswar Neog in the mid‘40s. His dedication to the task of writing poetry, over the years, is, perhaps, due to the most distinguishing characteristic of his personality.

The Assamese countryside, of the rich heritage of tribal myth and folklore, the rhythms and village life, all of which have helped shape his sensibility as a poet. Influenced by the French symbolist poets as well as the imagists and formalists of the West, his style is unreal that flows naturally and bears an untouched sequence. He emphasizes the importance of the expression of personal feelings through symbols, images and suggestions. Its appeal lies in its inherent masculine qualities.

He has used novel themes and has generated a high pitch of social consciousness in his poetry. The common themes of his poems are nature, love, the death instinct, and the basic loneliness of the human soul. Phookan says, “Since my childhood days in some unknown village, I struck a perceptive relationship with nature, life and reality, and slowly it blossomed into an awakening of life, thought and grief. Even after fifty long years in the city, it is the village itself that is my memory, dream, grief and happiness, and countless other things: melody, smell, colour and glimpses of day and night. All this has constantly stirred my mind, heart and imagination”. His intimate knowledge of traditional Japanese and Chinese poetry finds expression in many of his poems.                                                                      

So far he is the author of thirteen volumes of poetry, two anthologies, including one Indian tribal love poems, and four volumes of essays on art criticism. Phookan is deeply aware of the painfulness of life and often seeks peace and shelter in feminine love, which he expressed in his first collection of poems, Surya Heno Nami Ahe Ei Nadiedi (The Sun they say comes down along this River, 1963). The volume, significant in more ways than one, expresses the loneliness and isolation of modern man in a society that seems to have lost its moorings. The second and third collection of poems, Nirjanatar Sabda (Sound of Silence, 1966) and Aru Ki Naisabda (What more Soundlessness, 1968) show a looseness of structure. But the imagistic quality of the poems in these volumes points to a major new direction for Assamese poetry.

The publication of Phuli Thoka Suryamukhi Phultor Phale (Toward the Sunflower in Bloom, 1972) is, in fact, the turning point in Assamese poetry. The anthology suggests new possibilities in the use of language. It generates vibrations that were to last long and exert considerable influence in the development of modern Assamese poetry. The poems here are marked not only by the bold thematic innovations but also by skilful handling of craft.

His other well-known poetical collections are Kaint, Golap Aru Kaint (Thorns, Roses and Thorns, 1975), and Nirtyarata Prithvi (Relentless Earth, 1985). Phookan received the State’s most prestigious ‘Publication Board Literary Award’ in 1997 for Kaint, Golap Aru Kaint. His last collection Olop Agate Ami Ki Katha Pati Achilo was published in 2003. Some of the recurring images in these anthologies are sunflower, house, river, tree, mountain, snow covered peaks, etc.

The uniquely evocative language used in these poems and recurrent symbols of death, loneliness and the sorrow of self, redefined Phookan’s poetic personality. Through these poems, he made the transition from a phase of imagism to symbolism.  These poems are deceptively simple in construction, but there is a complex pattern of experience at an inner level. Phookan used archetypal imagery and a style in which folklore and the current language of a human community intermingle to province.                                                          

Though youngest of the group of poets Phookan has done more than any other poet to set these trends in modern Assamese poetry. A few young talents in the ‘60s joined his school, but his personal contribution remains the greatest. He adopts the more colloquial syntax but, on the whole, his work is considerable demanding. The reader has to be sensitive to the overtones of words as well as the association of images in a specific context. His poetry took a new turn in the ‘80s as more of his works came close to the folk motifs and culture and to life of the masses in subtle ways.

Some of the poems are marked by a stark simplicity of diction and a new tone of urgency. But the intrinsic strength of Phookan’s poetry truly lies in concrete, visual imagery and metaphorical use of language. His tone of total acceptance of life is significant. One finds a clear and confident note in his work in the face of the traumatic vision of death and darkness. These poems in a way establish Phookan’s affinities with the Latin American rather than Anglo-American stream of modern poetry.

Phookan published an anthology of Indian tribal love poems titled Aranyara Gan (Songs of the Forest, 1993). His Golapi Jamurlanagne (Time for the Rosy Berries), a collection of poems selected by him, came out in 1997. Some of his poems selected and edited by Hiren Gohain have been published in 1994 with the title Sagartalir Sankha. Selected Poems of Nilamani Phookan (2007), sixty three poems culled from Phookan’s eight collections, published by Sahitya Akademi, translated by Krishna Dulal Barua, attempts to acquaint a wider readership with his poetry. The natural smooth flow of the rhythms and the pathos of the original are finely captured in the translation. The tragic, comparative mood of the original has also been retained.

Phookan has translated a good number of Japanese poems from the 17th century till the present day and has brought out Japani Kavita (Japanese Poems, 1971), and the Japanese Haiku poems into Assamese. He has also published an anthology of Chinese poems titled Cheena Kavita (Chinese Poetry, 1996). These translations bear witness to his intimate knowledge of traditional Japanese and Chinese poetry. Besides, Phookan has rendered selected poems of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca in Garca Lorkar Kavita (1981) into Assamese. He has brought out an anthology of modern Assamese poems chosen by him under the title Kuri Satikar Asamiya Kavita 1977.                                                                         
He has developed a keen interest in the rich folk heritage and native rhythms of life in the countryside of the Brahmaputra Valley. This is seen in his Loka Kalpadristi (Folk Vision, 1987), a book on Assamese folk art, which serves as an introduction to the rich variety of arts and craft of Assam. The book was awarded the ‘Jagadhattri Horomohan Award’ in 1988. His deep interest in the visual arts, especially in painting, is reflected in his writings on some great painters. So far he has published three books on visual arts: Rupa Barna Bak (1988) and Silpakala Darshan (1998), both containing essays on art and artists; and a lecture on art appreciation titled, Silapakalar Upalabdhi Aur Ananda (1997).

He was an able editor of the now defunct weekly Navyug, and editor of Sanjaya, a leading Assamese literary and cultural quarterly, between 1977 and 79; Alochani; and No-Son; and the editor of daily a Batori. He was also a member of the Assamese Selection Committee constituted for the preparation of Masterpieces of Indian Literature (3 Volumes), brought out by NBT, India.

Phookan was born in a middle-class family at Dergaon near Jorhat, an important town in Upper Assam in 1933. A small sleepy hamlet is noted for its pristine natural beauty and gently rural charm. Graduated from the prestigious Cotton College, Guwahati in 1957, he persuaded M.A. in History in 1961 from Guwahati University.  He joined Arya Vidyapeeth College, Guwahati as Lecturer in History in 1964 and worked there till his retirement in 1992. In childhood he came under two early influences that of his mother and his uncle Lakshminath Phookan, a well known figure in the field of literature and journalism.

His creative pursuits won him many awards and honours. The major ones among these are: ‘Raghunath Choudhury Award’ of Asam Sahitya Sabha (1972); ‘Asam Prakashan Parishad Award’ (1977); ‘Padma Shri’ by the Government of India (1990); ‘Chaganlal Jain Award’ of Asam Sahitya Sabha (1991); ‘Kamal Kumari National Award’ (1994); ‘Assam Valley Award’ (1988); ‘Bhartiya Bhasa Parishad Award’ (2000), and ‘Joshua Foundation Award’ (2001). Phookan was Emeritus Fellow of the Department of Culture, Government of India during the period       1999-2001                                                

His dedication to pursuing of writing poetry is the most distinguishing characteristic of his personality. The range and depth of his poetic creation, especially and the surpassing brilliance of his later poetry place him among the frontline poets of Assam. Phookan, over the decades, has achieved a remarkable mastery over the poetic craft, acquiring a deep insight into human life. His poems magnificently express of his humanism, sunflower, river, pees, mountains, snow-covered peaks, some of the recurring images of Nature, make a dominant presence in most of his poems. Rather Phookan set the trend for incorporating natural elements in Assamese poetry.

His biggest interest is the ‘social change’ in the country to bring all Indian languages and dialects under one platform so that literature and poetry becomes understandable to everybody. That will ensure a sense of ‘belongingness’ for the masses. His poetic expression sincerely of feelings and contemplative responses to trials and tribulations of life, unravel before a reader a broad vision of life. Being an explorer, he is always excited by life’s hidden mysteries and possibilities, pained by sufferings of ordinary men and women, and troubled by the inequality, exploitation and mindless violence that so often threaten to dismantle our social fabric and destabilize our individual selves.


Dr.Ashok K. Choudhury, a postdoctoral scholar & lit critic, is with Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.