Decorated with the title of People’s Poet, Durga Lal Shrestha is the greatest name in contemporary poetry, lyrics and plays. His pen can evoke fire, love and tears simultaneously or repeatedly. Born on August 25, 1935 into an underprivileged family, Durga Lal possesses the special gift of being able to dedicate himself to whatever he does. He has been able to touch the hearts of a vast audience. His first love is progressive works, but he has also produced children’s literature, translations and other powerful writings that brilliantly reflect contemporary times. His thoughts and poetry search for enlightenment. He can freely go in and out of his own and other people’s minds like a practitioner of Vipassana meditation. He believes in writing when lost in oneself. His lyrics are of an international level. What follows is a special interview by Basudev Adhikari with the embodiment of creativity and devotion Durga Lal Shrestha.
Basudev: I have heard that your byname is Khwabilu. Could you tell me something about it?
Durga Lal: I did not choose the byname “Khwabilu”. At one time, frequent literary meets used to be held in Kathmandu. Once, an event was held at the home of Prem Bahadur Kansakar under his chairmanship. Presenting a review of the programme at the end, he described me as a tearful poet. This struck the other participants, and I became known as the tearful one in the group. After that, many people even began printing this epithet in the media. I never protested, but I did not use it either. You can check all my books published till now, you will not find it in them. Khwabilu means “tearful”.
Basudev: You are essentially a poet. How did you enter this field? Have you written prose too?
Durga Lal: I am a Gai Jatra artiste before being a poet, songwriter and playwright. I would be proud to be called a Gai Jatra artiste instead of being described as something else. In the early days, well-to-do people used to look down upon Gai Jatra performers as being low class. Despite that, I immersed myself in the field. I became so attached to the stage that even now I feel that I am under its control. I still find the stage entrancing. I became attracted to the theatre from the beginning. During those days, the stage was the chief entertainment for the public. Where else could the people go for recreation? The stage is a symbol of cultural activities. I did not enter the literary field or start writing poems and songs on my own. Whatever, I have become known as a litterateur in your eyes today due to circumstances.
Basudev: How long were you involved with the stage?
Durga Lal: I became attached to the stage in 1948. I not only wrote plays, I also acted in them and directed them. I was involved in Gai Jatra programmes for 14 years continuously. We used to perform our plays in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Kirtipur and other places. When the tradition of Gai Jatra street theatre started fading, the practice of showing plays in auditoriums emerged to take its place. As a result, I was forced to start writing one-act plays, and I wrote more than a dozen of them. I also wrote about half a dozen operas to be shown during cultural programmes organized by libraries, schools and colleges.
Unfortunately, I was not able to save even one of my compositions during the 14 years I spent on the stage. I regret my carelessness till this day. I was able to publish my one-act plays and operas. If I had saved the songs I wrote in those days, they would have been a contribution to the store of Nepalese literature. A play based on rural life that I wrote in 1953 was quite different from the usual productions. The audience described it as being a revolutionary drama. We used to perform programmes mainly in Nepal Bhasa as part of the effort to raise language awareness.
Basudev: How did you become involved in writing songs then?
Durga Lal: Songs were needed for the plays I wrote. In the beginning, other people used to compose them. But they were always busy performing, and I was not able to get them on time. So I started writing my own lyrics set to the music of Hindi film songs. This went on for some time. I also took part in other programmes, and most of the time I used to write the welcome song for them. Regarding performances, I have acted in plays written by others. I have also translated Prem Bahadur Kansakar’s play Paschatap (“Repentance”). I started writing songs in 1954 and plays probably around 1952
Basudev: Can you tell us something about the essence of music?
Durga Lal: I became socially close to peasant leader Sanu Maharjan of Kilagal. Being with him, my views changed. I began spending my time with the farmers in the fields when they were planting, weeding and harvesting the rice crops. They used to sing and dance even when they were doing very hard work in the fields. I found their songs and music amazing. The dances were related to wonderful stories and the movements were original.
In those days, the farms were not mere farms, they represented the cultural heart of Nepal. For somebody who used to write songs set to Hindi tunes, the music that I heard there was astonishing. The music was marvellous and the dances beautiful. All these things I experienced on the farms, and they made me realize that this cultural wealth was our own. We had just not been able to know ourselves, and this was the reason for our poverty. We had not been able to appreciate our own, and had taken to tasting India’s leftovers. After rediscovering our original folk tunes, I started writing songs set to them. And most of my compositions of that time were instantly liked by the public.
Basudev: How did you get into the theatre?
Durga Lal: Like I said before, I joined this field in 1948. That year, preparations were being made to put on a children’s theatre performance at Nhaikan Tol near Bangemudha. This was the first such performance in Nepal and my contemporaries were involved in it. We knew about that, and we used to go to watch the rehearsals in the evenings. We went there for a couple of days. We entered through the ground floor and went upstairs to the hall. One day, the ground floor was open but the hall upstairs was closed. We could hear the sound of chimes coming from the hall. I knocked, but there was no answer. So I put my eye to a large hole in the door and peered inside. Suddenly, somebody from inside put his finger though the hole and poked me in the eye. I saw stars and was dazed. We were distressed by this nasty behaviour. I got poked in the eye, but all of us felt hurt. We were offended by the arrogance of our friends who had become so big just because they got to act in a play. If they could put on a performance, why couldn’t we? And right at that instant we decided that we would show our own play.
We didn’t have a clue about theatre, but we were convinced that we would do it. Their play was based on a fairy tale entitled Sattal Singh. At that time, I didn’t know any of the stories like Ramayan, Mahabharat or other legends. However, the job of writing the play was given to me. It’s surprising that if handled in the right manner, an insult can turn into a boon. I wrote the play however I could. The hurt of being treated badly was still there, and lack of knowledge about the theatre made us more serious about our work. The neighbourhood elders were impressed by our dedication, and with their help, we were able to stage our play.
Basudev: So your very first play was a hit?
Durga Lal: Yes. Everyone helped us. We put together the necessary equipment. We got the actors. Everything became easy. In those days, men played women’s characters, and we needed wigs and other things. The audience was touched by the performance, and it was shown in different places of the Kathmandu Valley. After that, I was hooked on Gai Jatra theatre. I was not only involved with my own productions, I helped other performers too. Despite my family’s weak finances, the cultural scene became my passion; and I found myself as the “King of Gai Jatra”.
Basudev: Would you say something about composing poetry?
Durga Lal: In the beginning, I didn’t know how to write poems. Really, I had no idea. Later, I started writing poems too. I cannot compose poetry by following my emotions like other writers, I have to hum the tune too. I need a melody to compose a poem. Prosaic poetry is insignificant compared to verse. I cannot simply express my feelings in a one-way flow. My poems are lyric poems, they come with a tune. I learnt melody from Hindi poetry, because my place of learning in those days was the library. There I got to enjoy the poetry of timeless Hindi poets like Maithili Sharan Gupt, Jaishankar Prasad, Sumitranandan Pant and Harivansh Rai Bachchan.
Occasionally, I got to listen to Bachchan’s poetry recitals at the Nepal-Bharat Cultural Centre. The other Hindi poets that I got to listen to, they too would recite their poems from memory. The recitals would be accentuated, and I was influenced by them. That influence is the reason behind my lyric poetry, and I followed that path in my compositions. Associating with the farmers gave me an intimate knowledge of their musical heritage. I found out about the various seasonal songs and tunes. We possess not only diverse melodies but also varied songs and rhymes. The world’s musical experts have praised our music lavishly. Sadly, we are renowned internationally, but in our own country, we are nowhere.
I pursued only one profession in my life — teaching. I got to be engaged with the students of Kanya Mandir for 23 years as a teacher. I taught a small class. I used to save a few minutes after teaching my subject with the aim of providing some diversion to the students. They would ask me for lyric poetry. I would think deeply for a moment, and then I would put my composition on the blackboard in careful handwriting. I would sing and the students would follow. The ambience would be captivating. The students in those days knew what kind of song would be played during a certain season. They did not sing Dasain songs during Ghode Jatra like they do now.
Basudev: Where did you get the inspiration to write poems?
Durga Lal: There was no particular reason, I just drifted into it. A long time ago, some of my friends used to publish handwritten magazines, and I wrote a few things for them in both Nepal Bhasa and Nepali. My poems were published in these journals. Composing poetry is different from writing other things. I cannot write a poem just because I feel like it.
Basudev: Your recitals have a special style. Would you say something about that?
Durga Lal: My friends tell me that my poetry recitals are different from others. As I said before, I have been influenced by Hindi poets, and their reciting style too left an impression on me.
Basudev: Does feeling have a language? Does it always emerge in the mother tongue?
Durga Lal: I like to think that feeling is the source of language. Feeling is created in the mind. So how does it find expression? It has to take some shape, some form. That form is language, and it usually appears in the mother tongue.
Basudev: Didn’t you find it difficult to express yourself in other languages?
Durga Lal: Yes, I did. That is because I grew up immersed in my mother tongue. It is not narrowness, but purely natural.
Basudev: Your translated works are also highly renowned. Do you think that a translated version can do justice to the original.
Durga Lal: I am not the chief translator of my works from Nepali to Nepal Bhasa or vice versa. It is Shanta Das-ji who has encouraged me in this field. We should honour him for his contribution to children’s literature. It was at his request that I started translating children’s literature, in both Nepali and Nepal Bhasa. He was the one who brought me English versions of Russian and Chinese books. I have translated simple books, not difficult ones. I have translated the essence as opposed to making a literal translation.
Basudev: Can poetry be translated? In a recent interview, Scottish poet Tom Leonard said that poems cannot be translated exactly.
Durga Lal: Poetry can be translated. If you find it difficult, don’t do it. I only choose works that affect me and into which I can put my heart. I was touched by Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s work Madhushala (“The Tavern”) and translated it into Nepal Bhasa. In the book, Bachchan has portrayed life through the subject of alcohol. Readers have liked my Nepal Bhasa translation of Siddhi Charan Shrestha’s celebrated work Urvashi as much as the original. I try to be honest when translating. I will never deceive knowingly. I am committed to this literary principle.
Basudev: When does inspiration strike you? When do you like to write poetry?
Durga Lal: Usually in the morning. When the morning breeze wafts in, I feel like poetry is calling me. During this time, I start moving away from reality. But this does not mean that there is a particular time which I find right for composing poetry.
Basudev: How much time do you spend reading?
Durga Lal: I am behind in reading. If others possess a sea I only have a spring. It may be because of my somewhat weak economic status that I did not become a bookworm. In other words, I was not so attracted to books. But I will not say that others should be like me.
Basudev: Didn’t you get into epics? You have written many short epics.
Durga Lal: It’s not that I didn’t have the illusion that writing an epic would make me a great poet. But sometimes I wonder if I am a poet at all, so I don’t see the need to try becoming a great poet. Be that as it may, one should keep writing, and one’s work should reflect life. If I can stick to this, I am satisfied. I have written about 10 short epics. But they weren’t planned. I kept on writing, and I realized later that they had become short epics. A similar thing happened a few days ago, it was a short epic in Nepal Bhasa. About 20 days ago, I composed a short epic about America. In the beginning, I wrote two verses. I kept on writing and seven days later it had turned into a short epic. Its title is Dhu Madu Phay ya Dey (“A Country without Dust in the Air”).
Basudev: The tunes of your poetry aren’t that varied.
Durga Lal: I have written poems with many different melodies, perhaps more than other poets. It’s only that you don’t know about them. I have composed more than 600 poems with varied tunes with Nhyu Bajracharya alone. And among them, more than 250 have been released. If Nhyu Bajracharya had not supported me with melody, it would not have been possible. Nowadays, musicians come to me with their tunes, and I have to compose the lyrics to go with them.
Basudev: It is said that poets need to travel to inspire their imagination. How much travelling do you do?
Durga Lal: You should fly through the vast sky to expand your imagination. But I am beginning to feel that this is not really true because no part of the sky is free from the smell of gunpowder. It’s the same with travelling. Is there any part of the world which makes you feel that you have arrived at a different place? Therefore, reflecting upon yourself and delving as deep as you can is a poet’s journey.
Basudev: You are almost 80 years old. How much does advancing age hinder writing?
Durga Lal: I am writing less, of course. But producing fewer works does not mean creating less. In the past, I used to write a lot; but if you were to look for creativity, maybe you would find little of it. Now I am producing fewer works, but I find creativity in full bloom in them.
Basudev: You have been writing children’s literature even in your old age. How difficult is it to understand child psychology to write children’s literature?
Durga Lal: Writing is something that I got into due to circumstances. I was not well off, and I taught in school. I even opened a school in my neighbourhood named Bal Ketan where I worked for three to four years. Then with the help of Dr Kamal Prakash Malla, I got a job as a teacher at Kanya Mandir School. I spent 23 years with the children at Kanya Mandir. To be close to the innocence of children is truly a heavenly experience. Today, when I sit down to write children’s literature, I feel that I have become a child.
Basudev: You are the composer of powerful lyrics like Phulko Ankhama Phulai Sansar. Would you say something about them?
Durga Lal: Powerful is a synonym for special. Intelligence, logic and opinion are important, but they will not lead you to your literary goal. Only those who lose themselves and persevere in getting there with reach the temple of literature. And they will also obtain the true fruits of their labour. The works created by such persons will be filled with energy.
Basudev: How many awards have you received?
Durga Lal: Many, I have received many awards. A few years ago, the president decorated me with the Suprabal Janasewa Shree Padak. That also made me a little greedy about when I will receive another.
Basudev: Are you aware of any research that has been done on your works?
Durga Lal: To my knowledge, three persons, Madhav Lal Pradhan, R Manandhar and Buddhi Man Karki, have conducted studies of my works. I am not aware of others.
Basudev: How would you characterize the contemporary changes?
Durga Lal: I feel that I have become a little old now. I think deeply about anything. Let’s talk about the present political changes. Politics is like water, but it does not quench your thirst. How many governments have come and gone? We have seen them all, the king, the Ranas and democratic governments. We have seen the present republic too. The names of many things have changed, but their character has not. Whatever way you look at it, political changes have not realized our dreams or people’s rule. Moreover, we are being forced to see the past returning like an unnatural river flowing backwards due to the laziness of the carriers of people’s rule.
I am the son of someone who was much exploited. My father did not have a good life. It is because of this feudal tradition that those who are against society are being honoured while those who are working hard for it are being sidelined. Therefore, the changes are not actually changes. The change that should have happened is mental change, but that is in an unconscious state. In the flower’s eyes, the entire world is flowers. But it is not enough to have flowers until the thorns become flowers too by looking at them.