At a time when poetry is considered an art limited to an intellectual minority, thousands wait with bated breath to listen to the poetry of Haladhar Nag. The much-feted Odia poet sings at every poetry festival, reciting his poems for hours to a mesmerized audience.
Earlier this month, Nag was felicitated by the Odisha Sahitya Academy for his works and his contribution to the Koshali, a language spoken in western Odisha. Sixty-four-year old Nag gives voice to the voiceless through his poetry and is the most influential voice in Koshali, bringing it to a larger platform.
Acclaimed as a creative phenomenon in western Odisha, Nag is revered by his people as their own poet. So much so that dozens of podiums are named after him and he is invited to universities in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
His poetry anthologies have been published by state universities. Nag’s body of work includes at least 11 kavyas and several poems. His first anthology of poems Haldhar Granthabali-1 was published by Friends Publishers, Cuttack. Given the soaring popularity of the man, Sambalpur University is now coming up with Haldhar Granthabali-2, the complete works of Nag, which will be part of the syllabus.
Yet Nag wears his fame lightly. He looks quite ordinary, clad simply in a white dhoti and vest. An elementary school dropout, he was born in the remote Ghens village of Bargarh district. An orphan, he survived by working as a hotel boy and selling peanuts to make a living.
“Orphaned in early childhood, life was an unending struggle for every morsel,” he reminiscences. “I have seen misery and that is the reason the realities of village life have found their voice in my poems,” he says.
The subjects of his poems are things that he comes across every day, such as the Banyan tree of his village which became the inspiration for his first poem The Grand Banyan Tree.
Nag uses characters from mythology as metaphors of the present time. “I was always inspired by mythological characters and try to explore their untold pain. Many mythological characters have been the epitome of virtue yet oppressed for their vulnerability. They become people’s voice through my works,” he says.
In many of his poems, neglected women from mythology form the core of his narrative, making a statement against social oppression and exploitation. Of the 11 kavyas penned by Nag, Maha Sati Urmila, Achhian, Tara Mandodari, Prema Pahechan and Satia Biha are based on women from mythology and analysed from his point of view. Two others—Karam Sani and Siri Samalei—are based on the Goddesses of the region.
“The social vulnerability of people in the lowest strata of life made me write poems,” he says of his works which address critical social issues. His epic poem Achhian (which means The Untouchable) is a strong critique of the caste structure and the protagonist fights for justice in the social system.
“Nag has inherited the vision of poetry from his imagination and his surroundings,” says Dr Mahendra Mishra, critic of Odia literature.
For Nag, poetry is not merely an individual expression of self. Rather it goes beyond and works as a weapon for the marginalized to fight for justice. He hardly writes about politics but his works reflect the rebellion towards the social and geographical discrimination.
He has been at the forefront of a movement
demanding support for Koshali and its inclusion in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. Nag also wants Koshali to be the medium of instruction in schools of western Odisha up to Class V.