Saturday, August 21, 2021





'NEELGAATHA'  by  Agnishekhar
Published in August 2021  by Pralek Prakashan Pvt. Limited, Mumbai.
  ISBN 978-81-95410-78-1
Price Rs395/=
(Available on Amazon and Flipkart)

Long back , I read  "Rashmirathi " ,  one amongst the most popular epic poems composed by poet  Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar'. In this epic  poem, Dinkar Ji  has presented the story of Karna with all hues of  history and  human emotions so as to impart it  a timeless relevance . The poem leaves a profound and indelible impact on the mind  of the reader . Something similar happens if you  read  poet  Agnishekhar's  recently published book 'Neelgaatha'. I finished reading   "Neelgaatha "  yesterday .It is an epic poem set in eight Parvas( segments ) wherein the poet brings in Neelnaag, son of Rishi Kashyapa  as the  interactive onlooker and central protagonist who observes the tragic history of the original inhabitants of Kashmir right from the  draining of Satisar  lake to their recent exile and suffering . As I finished the book, entire painful history of Kashmir and its original inhabitants  kept visiting my mind again and again. This is an  excellent  poetic documentation done by Agnishekhar  with a narrative that has truthful historical background and content.

Agnishekhar  ( born 1955 ) is a well known name in the field of  contemporary Hindi literature . With six poetic collections already published and very well received , Agnishekhar has established himself as the most cogent , impressive and loudest  voice in  the arena of  the  ”  Poetry of Exile “  from India . He has shared platforms  with many  leading international poets of this genre. His poetic collections like ‘’Mujh se chheen Li Gayi Meri Nadi , Kissi Bhi Samay , Kaalvriksh ki Chhaaya Mein . Jawahar Tunnel , Meri Priya Kavitaayein  and Jalta Huva Pull have already  been translated into many languages of the country .  He has also edited  Kashmir editions of  some magazines like Pahal  and Pragtisheel Vasudha . He is also recipient of many  prestigious awards that include Girija Kumar Mathur Smriti Puruskaar , Sarva-shreth Pustak  Samaan ( J&K Academy  of Art Culture and Languages.. 2010 )  and Sahitya Shatabadhi Samaan .

Neelgaatha or the book under review  has 178 pages and is dedicated to  folklorists ,  writers and poets of   Kashmir  who’s symbols , stories and memories have been used by the poet in compilation of the epic poem.There is no formal foreword . The foreword has been substituted by a lucid and impressive  introduction to the epic poem by  Kripa Shanker  Choubey , professor at Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, Wardha.  This introduction is seen on the inner side of   red jacket to the book.

If we look at the corpus of the  world literature , the topic of human banishment or exile has always occupied a dominant space in it. The issue of exile has its space in our great epics like the  Ramayana  and the  Mahabharata. The literature of exile encompasses bitter, impassioned indictments of unjust, inhumane regimes and  rulers . It also includes wrenching melancholy for lost homes, lost families, and a lost sense of belonging.

The tragedy of human banishment remains a topic that finds ample space in the works of post second world war writers, artists and  playwrights . Even to this day we have great poets like Sherko Bekas  or sculptor Bruno Catalano who are masters in conveying the innermost feelings of human beings  in exile either through their pen or brush .  They are respected and loved for this as exile is a reality lived and  experienced by human beings since times immemorial . It is neither fictional nor imaginary . Even in the Indian subcontinent , majority of the  post partition ( 1947 )writers have created a corpus of literature that deals with the painful and heart wrenching stories  of exile.

One has to have some basic knowledge of the history of Kashmir for  purposeful comprehension of the epic poem Neelgaatha that begins with a chance meeting between an exile from Kashmir with  the protagonist Neelnaag. The poet has painted this encounter in the backdrop of refugee camps , dirty  lanes , gloomy faces , bare feet children playing in a  dusty ground near the refugee tents   , women fetching drinking water from open roadside taps , men in tattered clothes and  some young boys and girls  getting  ready to take out a procession .  This is the first Parva titled Bhavishya Ka vartamaan ( Present of  the Future ) .The rest begins in flashback that conveys the story right from the draining of the Satisar lake  to this day .This story is spread in remaining seven Parvas ( segments ) titled Samay Ke  Mool, Punaragaman , Yudh , Mahaayaan ,Turushak,Ananadpur Sahib and Asamaapat .

As you leaf through these eight Parvas , you are told the story of Rishi Kashyapa ,  Nagas , Pitsachas , Indra , Hari ( Vishnu ) Garuda , Sheshnaag , Shiva , Keshva , demon Jalodhbhava and the collective efforts of Devtas ( gods ) in slaying  the demon Jalodhbhava and draining out the water of Satisar lake through Varah-mool ( present day Baramulla ) . We are told that the  Sudershan Chakra that is associated with Sri Krishna was also  put to use by Vishnu  in this fight between Devtas ( gods ) and Asuras( demons ) .  Our protagonist , Neelnaag is also witness to the scripting of Matasya Avtara , Koorm Avtara , creation of Sharika’s abode at  Hari Parvat ,  arrival of goddess  Kashmira and goddess Sharda to the land that is created after the water of the  Satisar lake is  drained out and demons are driven away. Neelnaag also witnesses the arrival of  Shiva , Parvati ,  Yashovati , Sri Krishna  and Hanuman  to Kashmir . The poem has the story of Takshaknaaga,  the  battle of Kurukshetra , Vijyeshwara shrine ( demolished in 14th century ), Gopadhari  Shrine ( Gupkar ) ,Sureshwari ( an ancient shrine dedicated to goddess Durga on the banks of  the Dal lake )  and Mahasarit  ( ancient name of the Dal lake ) apart from  Nagarjuna ( Buddhist philosopher from Kashmir  ) ,  Kanishka , Lalitaditya and many other  icons from   the glorious civilization of  Kashmir . Neelnaag  also witnesses how  saints and sages from Satidesa  or Kashmir move to China , Khotan, Tibet, Mongolia , Korea and Japan to spread Dharma and convey the message “Buddham Sharnam Gatchhaami ”. He also is privy to the arrival of Turushkas resulting in some unpopular deviations in the discharge of  Rajdharma during the rule of King  Harsha  of Kashmir .Neelnaag is pained to see a period that changed the course of Kashmir’s history. This period   begins with the arrival of Rinchena,  a fugitive prince from Tibet  . He also witnesses  the   acts of   Kota Rani ( a brave queen of Kashmir) , Ramchandra , Udayandeva  and the deceitful  refugee Shahmir  .
Nothing pains Neelnaag  more than the demolition of temples and Viharas  during the rule of Shahmiri Sultans especially Sikander Butshikan  and forcible conversion of  the people to the new faith. The  demolition activity  makes the landscape of  Kashmir free from  Viharas and temples and our protagonist or  Neelnaag remains a silent and  helpless spectator  to this destruction and mayhem .It pains him to see thedestruction of the  Martanda ( Sun Temple ) , Vijeyshwara Teertha , Kalishri Temple , Avantiswamin Temple ,  Parihaspora temples and town , Avantishwara Temple and many more  majestic temples and Viharas  . He is also privy to the rule of Sultan Zain ul Abdin  who tries to apply balm to the painful wounds of the  native Hindus  . Neelnaag  is amazed at the magnanimity of the Sultan who appoints Shirya  Bhatt as  Sarva Dharma Adhikari   and brings back the Hindus to their native  land from the plains of  Bharata ( India ) at the specific request of Shirya  Bhatt who cures the Sultan from a serious ailment.

As the poem progresses further ,Neelnaag becomes a mute witness to the cruelties of  Iftekhar Khan , the Mughal governor of Kashmir during the rule of Aurangzeb. Under the leadership of Pandit Kripa Ram of Mattan , native Hindus   seek help from Guru Tegh Bahadur . Neelnaag consoles a weeping Kripa Ram at the supreme sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur to save Dharma . Wiping his tears , Pandit Kripa Ram  pledges to take care of child  Dashmesh  or Guru Gobind Singh Ji . Neelnaag is amazed to see Kripa Ram and his brother Sanmukh Ram  attaining martyrdom in the battle of Chamkaur Sahib fighting the Mughal forces . Both the brothers  become a part of the group of 40 Muktas who attain martyrdom at Chamkaur Sahib. We also find Neelnaag seeking reasons as to why there is no end to the pain and suffering of native Hindus  when Mughals are followed by cruel Afghans . Placing his hand on the shoulders of Pandit Birbar (  Birbal ) Dhar , he suggest the sagacious Pandit to visit Lahore Darbaar  and seek  help from Maharaja Ranjit Singh  for amelioration of the miseries  and sufferings of the people  of Kashmir .  Entrusting his wife and daughter in law to his friend Quddus Gojwari  and helped by Malik family  ( Muslim ) to cross Pir-Panchal pass , Birbar ( Birbal )  Dhar reaches Lahore and  impresses Maharaja Ranjit Singh to send Sikh forces and  make Kashmir free from the cruel rule of Afghans . The Sikh army defeats  Afghans in the battle of Shopian and  Kashmir comes  under Sikh rule .Sitting on the  Shankrachrya hill , Neelnaag witnesses   peace returning to  the Kashmir valley . After some time, the Dogra rulers  emerge on the scene . Neelnaag is now  happy to  see the  clouds of darkness dispelling from the sky over Kashmir and rays of light and hope emerging gradually.  He finds  progress and development visiting his Kashmir  .The city that had forgotten the sound of temple bells is   abuzz with    tinkling of bells and Shankhnaad . There is peace and focus on developmental activities like  construction of roads , schools , hospitals , courts and  colleges . From the top of Shankracharya hill, Neelnaag looks at  the serpentine path  of river Vitasta ,  which happens to be the undying witness to many tragedies that visited the  Kashmir valley. There is a sudden turn in the poem and Neelnaag brings the poet back to his misplaced tent in the refugee camp. A camp that he shares with the victims of  armed insurgency  and ethnic cleansing . This is a crowd  abandoned by time and forced  to face antipathy from all quarters of  the establishment .

Writing such epic poems is not every poet's cup of tea.  It requires profound knowledge of history, unshakeable committment to a cause and conceptual clarity. I believe and am convinced that the author of this epic is in command of these great skills . Neelgaatha has established that   exiles are quite capable of telling their own stories without having others speak for them. I have always believed that  exile can also be a source of creativity for many writers. And the' Exile Consciousness' is surely a way to reconnect with a life that seems increasingly distant  . With its subject and style of presentation , I am sure about the immortality of this work. 


                 ( The book review  was published by the Daily Excelsior newspaper on 3.10.2021)

(The author presenting the book to actor K K Raina)

This epic poem is not only documentation of miseries and sorrows that visited a peace loving  community for the last seven hundred years , it is essentially a powerful petition to powers that be . A petition that seeks their attention saying loudly “ Look this way  to ameliorate our pain and suffering. We had it enough. ” Doesn’t Urdu poet Moin Ahsan Jazbi  also convey  the same story when he says this :-

" Sarvo saman bhi mauje naseem e sahar bhi hai
Aey gul tere chaman mein koyi chashm e tar bhi hai
Duniya sunne to kissa e gham hai bahut taweel
Haan tum suno to qissa-e-gham mukhtasar bhi.."

(  You have the cypress and the jasmine,  And  the wafting morning breeze as well,
O flower ! look around carefully , 
There sits a person with moist eyes in your garden  .
Should the world listen, the story of my sorrow is long and detailed,
Should you desire to listen, I carry a brief version as well)

( Avtar Mota )

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