Lakshminath Bezbarua

The people of Assam call him Sahityarathi. And, with good reason. Lakshminath Bezbarua (1868-1938) dominated the Assamese literary scene for about half a century. During his life time he devoted himself to revive the lost glory of the Assamese language and literature. In those days Assamese was not used in the school and courts of the state. Lakshminath Bezbarua fought an incessant battle with many of his contemporaries to establish a proper place for Assamese in the state. His literary and cultural crusade was aimed at the overall development of the Assamese society.

It was difficult to pigeon-hole Lakshminath into any one particular category, almost like Srikrishna Lakshminath kept amazing his admirers with his many `incarnations'. Sometimes he was a businessmen, sometimes a literary activist, sometimes a journalist, sometimes a cartoonist. Sometimes even an interpreter of Vaisnava faith. Whatever he had done or attempted to do, one identity of his predominated: a great writer for the people of Assam.

According to critics and biographers Lakshminath Bezburua was the Victor Hugo of modern Assamese literature. Eminent critic Dr Birinchi Kumar Barua says: "He was an excellent poet, a gifted essayist and a distinguished journalist. Obviously Lakshminath Bezbarua was a pioneering writer of modern Assamese literature. His style rich with humour, satire, simplicity and a magical quality of language was like a breath of fresh air in the stagnant world of Assamese literature of the time. In fact his writing took Assamese literature on to the road of modernity.

It all began with his Calcutta sojourn. He joined the General Assembly College in the city and profoundly influenced by the intellectual and cultural events of those days. Here he first came into contact with Bengali and English literature. During his college days he read voraciously everything from Rabindranath Thgore, Shelley, Byron and Keats to other great writers, both Indian and Western. He also visited theatre and attended important lectures by the prominent persons.

Calcutta's literary and liberal life gave a tremendous boost to the career of Lakshminath Bezbarua. He initiated the literary crusade by establishing the Asamiya Bhasaunnati Sadhini Sabha in 1889. He was the first secretary of the organisation, which tried to uphold the cause of the literary and cultural tradition of Assam.

During this time the famous Assamese periodical Jonaki was launched under the leadership of Chandra Kumar Agarwala. He was the editor and the publisher of the journal. Lakshminath Bezbarua actively participated this venture. His first satirical pieces appeared in the pages of Jonaki, in the second year of the journal, he wrote extensively under the pseudonym Kripabar Barua. Hemchandra Goswami, another stalwart of the time also worked to make Jonaki a successful venture of the period.

Lakshminath Bezbarua was born, romantically enough, on a boat, as it stood moored in a sand bank of the river Brahmaputra at Ahatguri, near Nagaon on a Lakshmi Purnima night, in November 1868. His father Dinanath Bezbarua, a senior official with the British government, was in the process of moving to

Barpeta. An official transfer, Bezbarua had undertaken the journey by road. It was on this journey that young Bezbarua was born. Lakshminath Bezbarua recalled this unusual event in his autobiography Mor Jiuan Sowan. Looking back on his rather unusual birth, he added that when a male child was born in those days it was customary to welcome the newborn by blowing conchshells and perform other auspicious rites. But under such extraordinary circumstances Lakshminath had to come to the world without any of the usual welcome rites.

Lakshminath Bezburua spent his childhood in different places of the state. His father brought his family with him from Barpeta to Tezpur. From Tezpur they shifted to North Lakshimpur. In between the family stayed for a brief while at Garchati and finally they settled in Sibsagar.

For Lakshminath, childhood memories would always remain more vivid, especially when compared to the more blurred recollections of his days as a young adult.

The beauty of the river Brahmaputra and its surroundings, the virgin nature of the countryside and the life of its simple people are depicted in his autobiography with a rare sensibility.

The patriarch of young Lakshminath's family was Dangoria Dinanath Bezbarua. Dangoria had engaged the services of a man called Rabinath Majudotor Barua to take care of his grandchildren. Rabinath had no formal education. But for the children he was a treasure house of folk tales and stories from religious scriptures and mythology. Rabinath quickly became friend, philosopher and guide to the young Lakshminath. During the mornings Rabinath was his playmate and in the evening a regular story teller.

Perhaps these golden moments of childhood moulded Lakshminath Bezbarua's imagination as a great creative writer.

Noted poet Neehnoni Phukan says Bezbarua's sensibility is a rare phenomenon in Assamese literature. Phukan admits that Bezbarua's Burhi Air Sadhu remains his all time favourite book. Even to this day he re-reads the narrative, and with every new read he discovers the unique appeal of the tale.

Like all creative writers Lakshminath Bezbarua was very prolific. Poetry was another passion and his verse is richly layered with a homespun idiom. He wrote beautiful love poems, narrative verse, ballads and patriotic songs. Laced with the romantic idealism of history, heritage, folk tradition and glory Bezbarua created a world of new faith and confidence among the people of Assam. His patriotic

O moraaponar desh O mor chikunir desh has become the anthem of Assam.

Lakshminath Bezbarua has to his credit three historical plays and four farces. Even the first Assamese film made by Jyotiprasad Agarwalla was based on Lakshminath's play Joymati. Bezbarua was overwhelmed by Jyotiprasad Agarwalla's Joymati (1935) and conveyed this feeling to the filmmaker by writing a note of appreciation, on the film during the last days of his life. Bezbarua was equally pioneering and prolific when it came to writing prose. His favourite form when writing prose was the historical novel and easily cast himself as the master of this genre in Assamese literature when he wrote his acclaimed Podumkuwari.

Bezbarua was an unashamed liberal and all his observations of people and places were strongly tinged with this sense of rationalisation. His thought provoking essays on the position of religion in everyday life

reflects his rationalisation as well as his liberal outlook. Though patriotism was a dominant emotion whenever he wrote a personal essay, he could just as easily slip into the analytical world of spirituality in his later works.

As a human being Lakshminath Bezburua was honest, sincere and open-minded. He was a product of the Bengal renaissance and the romantic idealism of the Western world in the real sense of the term. He cherished the renaissance ideals strongly exhibited in the life of Anandaran Dhekial Phukan (1829-1859) who was a dreamer and visionary of 19th century Assam. Like an archetypal romantic hero, Lakshminath Bezbarua was a wanderer in his real life too. He spent a considerable part of his life touring and visiting the jungles of Sambalpur and even the forests of Assam. Later he was to use material from these visits in his prolific writing. Deeply patriotic, Bezbarua remained loyal to his first love, literature. Which was also his way of communicating intimately with the people around him.

In his autobiography he unflinchingly noted the weaknesses and failures of his life and career. Including the fact that he was unable to clear his law examination. After graduating from General Assembly College Bezbarua had wanted to go abroad for higher studied. Unfortunately his conservative family did not approve of the idea, so Bezbarua stayed on.

But he was able to withstand tough opposition at another crucial juncture of his life. Growing up in a strictly Vaishnav environment,

Bezbarua faced opposition when he decided to marry Prajnasundari Devi, the granddaughter of Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, according to Brahmo rites. He even refused to accept the Rs 10,000 dowry from the Tagore family

Unfortunately like many great writers, Bezburua was denied the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. The response to all 25 books he published, before 1930, was met with little or no appreciation from the general public. Even today, very little of his prolific output is really appreciated. The house in Calcutta where he lived lies in ruins. He died in

Dibrugarh on March 26 and the Asom Sahitya Sabha annually observes this day Sahitya Divas.

(By Hemanta Barman. Mr Barman is the editor of the Assamese daily Dainik Janambhumi. He is a well-known writer with several short stories to his credit)