March 3, 2011
Women Writers of Nepal: Profiles and Perspective, is a compendium of condensed biographies of fifty-four women writers who have contributed to Nepali literature, primarily during the 20th century. Born between 1860 and 1960, the writers represent a broad spectrum of the talented and the not-so-talented, but all have in some way left their imprint on an extremely dynamic and transformative era in Nepali history.
The author divides the timeline of his compendium into two equal parts: the first half the the 20th century, when the Rana family enjoyed absolute rule over the kingdom; and the last half of the century beginning with the 1950 revolution, which ended the Rana regime and marked the renewal of Shah monarchal control, as well as sudden influx of technical and cultural influences from the outside world.
Some of the women writers do not meet the aesthetic standards one might expect in such an undertaking, but the author makes no apology for his choices. He is just as interested in the social, political and cultural forces that molded these women as he is in the quality of their writing. And it is precisely because of his ideosyncratic choices, which makes his book so historically important. In Western terms, his book might be likened to compendium of American female writers influential in the 20th century: Sure, you would include the Susan Sontags and Toni Morrisons but what about Judith Krantz and Grace Metalious? (Remember Peyton Place?)
Those non-Nepali readers who are unacquainted with Nepali women writers will be introduced to the best of the lot, such as Parijat and Banira Giri. They will also become familiar with the lesser known – from their (often) rudimentary educations, to their pre-arranged marriage contracts, to the almost overwhelming obstacles preventing them legitimate careers in writing.
Whomever Jagadish Rana opts to write about, he seems to be in a singularly privileged position to describing them. As he says in his Introductory Note:
Almost all the writers in the list were contemporaneous to me. I knew and had contacted many of them personally and intimately. So, I did not have to compromise with my creative instinct, if I chose to chisel out their different profiles in words and also add historical, psychological and social perspectives to each account.
Surely, one of the most controversial women included in Jagadish Rana’s book is Queen Aishwarya Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah, who was presumably murdered by her own son, Crown Prince Dipendra, in the tragic 2001 palace massacre. Here’s an excerpt from Jagadish Rana’s entry on the murdered queen:
Chandani Shah was the pen name adopted by Her Majesty Queen Aishwarya Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah of Nepal. The very first question that we might ask is – again a Queen litterateur?
Why should an ordinary versifier and songwriter be included in the list of the lady litterateurs of Nepal? Is it because she happens to be a queen or are there other reasons too?
The other question is, did she write verses and songs herself or had ghost writers who were rewarded for the service?
Some take pleasure in downgrading her because of her royal and aristocratic status. And there are many sycophants and hangers on who want their name attached to the queen’s writings by encouraging rumours about their closeness to her.
Undoubtedly Queen Aishwarya and poetess Chandani Shah presented two faces of the same individual. Being a queen, she is automatically a historical figure. The saying that “Influence of the queens of the Shah Dynasty has not been all for the good of the state” does also apply to queen Aishwarya. The moon-faced queen definitely was eternally ugly and sinister at the back. She was vain and arrogant, aggressive and obtrusive. In the heyday of her assertiveness, she used to overshadow the King. Self assured and self-centered she posed as a self appointed dictator. With limitless self-esteem and self righteousness, she even trampled into the fields of international relations with self-conceit, creating diplomatic commotions. More royalist than the King himself she not only harmed the image of the King but also made all attempts to overturn his apple cart by inciting the king to subvert even the democratic constitution given to the people by the king in the aftermath of the peoples’ revolt of 1990. Her self seeking and self-indulgent nature made her use dubious methods to amass wealth, dole out posts to undeserving ones and sell out monopolies to sycophants and traders. As a queen, her relationship with members of the family whom she did not like or who failed to remain submissive to her whims and orders, was disgusting. It was this arrogant and intolerant nature that disturbed the crown prince to such an extent, that it became the immediate cause for driving the irrational, irritable and impatient crown prince Dipendra to mow down thirteen of the immediate family members, including the king and Queen Aishwarya herself, in a shootout within the royal palace, an incident that stunned the whole world.
Her songs or sonnets started being published in magazines, though not regularly nor in large numbers. The palace even published a literary magazine with writings from quite a few members of the royal family. Though Aishwarya could more or less freely fabricate her identities for herself, she had to restrict her decree of choice about how to represent herself. Though there were writers or poets with whom she could associate or exchange thoughts, the number was restricted by the pride and prejudice within the palace on the one hand and the self righteousness and self respect of conscientious litterateurs on the other.
Chandani Shah enjoyed and preferred to write poetry and songs that could be set to light music and sung by Nepali singers, whose number was fast increasing and who were gaining respectability in society. The contribution of the royal music writers and versifiers were to some extent responsible in bringing such respectability to folk poets and folk singers. Many popular singers of Nepal rendered Chandani Shah’s verses into music. There was a constant trickle of her works being sung and broadcast. In 1986 (when Chandani Shah had projected herself as a powerful person even in the affairs of the state) her collection of verses Writings of Chandani Shah was published. Then there was a rush of musicians who composed her work into music. All frontline musicians competed to sing Chandani Shah’s poems and songs and broadcast her music through the media. Tara Devi, a popular and respected singer, sang almost all her songs, Narayan Gopal the musician, most respected in Nepal, Shiv Shankar, Jara Thapa, Milan Chanku, Anand Karki, Kunti Moktan, all of whom turned Chandani Shah’s writings into sweet and sonorous songs. Even noted composers Ambar Gurang, Deepak Jangam, Shil Bahadur Moktan took time to set her poems and songs into music.
Some are of the view that both the quantity and quality of Chandani Shah’s writing does not exactly justify the decision to put her among the selected women writers of Nepal. Such remarks should be discounted. Being a queen, she spared time for ars poetica, and she never tried to be self-assertive in this field nor tried to pose herself as Queen among litterateurs. She always maintained herself as the humble devotee to the goddess of poetry.
She could effortlessly mix landscape with love poetry.
Among upward slopes and descending trails, in the vales and the resting tops
Among fascinating lakes and among wide breastplate of Himalayan heights
Wherever you roam, like your foot steps I shall follow
In cascades, rivers as rivulets carrying recollections I shall follow.
You do not have to be very erudite to compose verse, because it is based on emotion, not learning. That is why many people try their hands at it while at school or college. This applies also in the case of Chandani Shah.
Moreover the valuation of Chandani Shah’s literary expressions cannot be made only on the import of its text but more so in its impact on the large audience, generally the common lover of song and music and above all folk tunes, extensively broadcast through the media. By this time the technological revolution in electronic media had come to Nepal and even otherwise inaccessible corners of this rough and rugged country had started experiencing the impact. The definition of aesthetics as well as emphasis on class and mass culture had taken a new turn.
A stage has been set; when a sheep grazer of far off Mustang, a shopkeeper at Kathmandu, a professor of a University and a member of the royal family in the palace, simultaneously see the dance of Madonna on their own television sets or listen to the songs of Nepali musician Madan Gopal through their radio sets, at the same time, the leveling of high and low culture, of the class and mass concept comes into focus.
So there is all justification in including a woman writer in our collection, whose works, apart from its intrinsic merits have been aired and telecast for more than a decade, sung by major singers and musicians of Nepal and have provided entertainment to a large number of ‘common’ listeners.
Whatever one decides about Jagadish Rana’s choices, the book is fascinating throughout. Seldom has more insight been shed on the female psyche during Nepal’s tumultuous 20th century. This book is long overdue and highly recommended.
The book is amply illustrated by artist Indra Kshetry.
To purchase a copy:
Rajesh Rana Publications
Yodha Niwas Shimla 171001, Himachal Pradesh (India)
Tel. 0177-2802710 Mobile: 09418109036