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Nepali Literature: Antecedents

Nepali is an Indo-European language that is closely related to the other major languages of northern India, such as Hindi and Bengali. Approximately 17 million people speak Nepali, of whom perhaps one-third have acquired the language in addition to the mother tongue of their own ethnic group. The great majority of Nepali speakers, of course, live within the borders of modern Nepal, but Nepali is also the dominant language of the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, Sikkim, and parts of southern Bhutan and Assam. Substantial Nepali communities have grown up in north Indian cities such as Patna, New Delhi, and Banaras. For at least three centuries, Nepali has fulfilled the need for a "link language" or lingua franca among the various communities of the eastern Himalaya, a region of extraordinary linguistic diversity. During the past few decades, Nepali's prestige as a major language of South Asia has also grown considerably. In 1958 it was formally declared to be the national language of Nepal and was thus invested with an important role in the promotion of national unity. More recently, it was recognized as a major Indian literary language by the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi, India's foremost institution for the promotion of vernacular literatures.

The oldest specimens of written Nepali extant are royal edicts from western Nepal, inscribed on stelae and copperplates, that date from the thirteenth century. Other than epigraphic material, however, very little Nepali literature has been discovered that dates back further than the seventeenth century. Nepali literature is therefore a much newer phenomenon than is literature in certain other languages of the region; Newari, for instance, has a rich literary tradition that dates back at least five hundred years. The translations into Nepali from Sanskrit scripture, royal biographies, and medicinal treatises that emanate from the seventeenth century possess very little literary merit, and the first Nepali poet of any real stature was Suvanand Das, who composed panegyric verse in praise of the king of Gorkha, Prithvinarayan Shah. Although the works of several other quite interesting eighteenth-century Nepali poets have been preserved and published, it is to a Brahman named Bhanubhakta Acharya (1814-1868) that Nepali literature really owes its first major work.

Bhanubhakta Acharya played a fundamental role in the development of Nepali as a literary language and is therefore honored as its "founder


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poet" (adi-kavi ).[1] Obviously, he was by no means the first person ever to compose Nepali verse, but his rendering of the Ramayana epic into simple, idiomatic, rhyming Nepali was entirely without known precedent. in the language. Until Bhanubhakta,[2] few Nepali writers had been able to shake off the influence of the more sophisticated Indian literatures. As a consequence, their literary language was heavily larded with Sanskrit philosophical terms, or else it borrowed extensively from the languages of adjacent regions of India that possessed more developed literatures. Hindi devotional verse was an obvious source for such borrowings. Nowadays, Nepali writers come from various strata of society and strive to distance their language from Hindi, to which Nepali is quite closely related and with which it shares much of its word stock. These efforts are inspired partly by a nationalism that was largely invisible among the high-caste Nepali elites that monopolized the literary culture of Nepal in earlier centuries. Bhanubhakta's Ramayana was the first example of a Hindu epic that had not merely been translated into the Nepali language but had been "Nepali-ised" in every other aspect as well. It is still among the most important and best-loved works of Nepali literature, and along with Bhanubhakta's other works it became a model for subsequent writers.

The second great writer in the history of Nepali literature, Motiram Bhatta (1866-1896), was an enthusiastic literary activist inspired by the example of the Indian writers who were organizing themselves in Banaras, where Motiram spent about twenty years of his short life. Bhatta was the first to recognize the significance of Bhanubhakta's Ramayana, and it was due to Bhatta's efforts that the poem was first published in 1887, some forty years after its composition. The Ramayana was followed four years later by Bhatta's biography of Bhanubhakta (M. Bhatta [1891] 1964). This is a delightful narrative interspersed with poems, but its historical authenticity is open to question. Bhatta subsequently became concerned about increasing the prestige of Nepali literature: he gathered groups of contemporaries about him in both Banaras and Kathmandu, encouraging literary debate and undertaking publishing projects. Through his own writings, he also attempted to broaden the scope of Nepali poetry, which was still largely confined to devotional verse, by developing interest in other genres such as the Urdu lyric known as the gazal (a Persian meter used in popular love songs) and the "erotic" style


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of shringar poetry. This latter genre, which celebrates the beauty of the female form in heavily stylized and allegorical language, is now generally considered decadent and indulgent, but it retains a few exponents among older poets. Kedar Man Vyathit's "Woman: Flavor, Sweetness, Brightness " (Nari: Rasa, Madhurya, Aloka ) is an example of modern shringar poetry.

Bhatta and his contemporaries prepared the ground for the growth of a body of creative literature in the Nepali language that would eventually enhance its prestige beyond measure. At the turn of the century, however, this process had barely begun. There were very few printing presses in Nepal and even fewer commercial publishers. The grammar and spelling of written Nepali remained completely unstandardized. The almost total absence of facilities offering public education meant that literacy was still the exclusive preserve of the powerful elites. The scope of existing Nepali literature was governed and limited by traditional convention and the somewhat decadent tastes of a tiny readership. The development and enrichment of Nepali literature that have taken place since the early twentieth century can only be described as remarkable.

The first signs of a literary awakening are actually to be found in a number of important government initiatives. A tradition of formal journalism was established in 1901 when the unusually liberal Rana ruler Deva Shamsher established the Gorkhapatra (Gorkha Paper). This newspaper, which is now published daily, is the official organ of the government of Nepal, and during the first thirty years of its existence it was the only periodical publication to be produced within the kingdom. It therefore provided a much-needed forum for the publication of poems, stories, and articles. The Rana administration headed by Chandra Shamsher (r. 1901-1929) also sought to promote Nepali literature by establishing the Gorkha (later Nepali) Bhasha Prakashini Samiti (Gorkha Language Publication Committee) in 1913. Chandra Shamsher is reputed to have declared, "There aren't even any books in Nepali! Just reading the Krishnacharitra and the Ramayana is not enough!" (Dhungana 1972, 29).[3] The committee had a dual role, however: as well as publishing books that met with its approval, it also operated a strong code of censorship:

If anyone wishes to publish a book, he must first bring it to the committee for inspection. No book may be published without the stamp of the committee's approval.... If a book is published without the committee's ap-


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proval, its publisher will be fined 50 rupees. If the contents of this book are deemed to be improper, all copies will be seized and punishment proclaimed and meted out. (Bhattarai 1976, 30)

Although this law was not enforced very consistently, there were periods during which offending writers were punished with extreme severity. The committee therefore came to be regarded with suspicion, and because it maintained an effective monopoly over Nepali publishing inside Nepal until the 1930s, poets and writers who wished to escape the overbearing censorship of their work had to publish, and even live, in Indian towns, most notably Banaras and Darjeeling. The relative conservatism of early works by poets such as Lekhnath Paudyal and Lakshmiprasad Devkota is explained partially by the fact that they resided in Kathmandu and therefore had to exercise extreme caution. Periodical publications, such as Sundari (The Beautiful, established 1906), Madhavi (1908), Gorkhali (1916), and the Nepali Sahitya Sammelan Patrika (Nepali Literature Association Journal, 1932),[4] that emanated from Nepali communities in India played a crucial role in the development of Nepali literature during the first few decades of the century. Indeed, Balkrishna Sama is quoted as once having said, "What Darjeeling thinks today, Nepal thinks tomorrow" (Giri & Pariyar 1977, 5).

In my discussion of Nepali literature I have avoided as far as possible the question of modernity because any division of literature into the categories "modern" and "premodern" is inevitably contentious. Nevertheless, the concept of modernity is of central concern to Nepali writers and critics when they consider the development of their literature. Some consider Bhatta, Lekhnath, or Guruprasad Mainali to be the founders of the modern era; others regard the political changes of 1950 as a watershed. These assessments are based upon a number of assumptions. It is held to be axiomatic, for instance, that religious or devotional literature is "old-fashioned" and that the modern writer should concentrate on secular themes. Time-honored forms and conventions inherited from Sanskrit literature have come to be considered restrictive; the abandonment by many poets of metrical forms and the development of prose genres are therefore regarded as major steps forward. In fiction, social realism came to be highly prized, and Western genres such as the novel and the short story were adopted and developed. This impulse to modernize Nepali literature was closely linked to a widespread desire for greater freedom of thought and expression and a growing interest in, and exposure to, the world outside Nepal.


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Perhaps the most important event in this process was the appearance of Kathmandu's first literary journal, the monthly Sharada , in 1934. Sharada , named after the goddess of the arts, Saraswati, was published with the help of a government subsidy under a regime headed by Juddha Shamsher that initially gave ground to demands for reform and liberalization. Described by Yadunath Khanal as "a product of an unwritten, silent compromise, allowed and accepted as an experiment, between the authorities and the rising impatient intellectuals" (1977, 236), Sharada provided a vital forum for Nepalis to publish their works within the kingdom itself. In a sense, this journal also gave birth to some of Nepal's first "modern" writers. Between 1936 and 1963, when its publication ceased, Sharada published nearly two hundred poems by Siddhicharan, Lekhnath, Rimal, Sama, and Devkota alone, as well as innumerable stories by Sama, Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala, Bhavani Bhikshu, and others (Subedi 1978, 7-9). It is therefore from the Sharada era and the years that followed that most of the works translated here emanate.


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