As per the history of Assamese literature, probably the earliest text in a language that is incontestably Assamese is the Prahlada Charitra of the late 13th-century poet Hema Saraswati. Written in a heavily Sanskritized style, it tells the story, from the Vishnu-Purana, of how the mythical prince Prahlada’s faith in Vishnu saved him from destruction and restored the moral order. The first great Assamese poet was Madhava Kandali (14th century), who made the earliest translation of the Sanskrit Ramayana and wrote Devajit, a narrative on Krishna. The bhakti movement brought a great literary upsurge. The most famous Assamese poet of that period was Shankaradeva (1449–1568), whose many works of poetry and devotion are still read today and who inspired such poets as Madhavadeva (1489–1596) to write lyrics of great beauty and many more that followed thereon. Some pieces of evidence also note that several poets were inspired by Western literature. While the list of great poets from the region seems to be endless, today on World Poetry Day, let’s have a look at a few that are known for their revolutionary contributions.
Writer, poet, historian, teacher and linguist from Assam in the early part of modern Assamese literature, Hemchandra Goswami was the fourth president of the Asom Sahitya Sabha in 1920 held at Tezpur and he retired as Extra Assistant Commissioner in the British Assam. Goswami published the first Assamese dictionary, Hemkosh by Hemchandra Barua, with the help of Colonel Gordon in 1900. Some of his other works include Asamiya Sahityar Chaneki, Phular Saki (The Bunch of Flowers), which contains the first sonnet in Assamese — Priyatamar Sithi (A letter from the beloved), Kako Aru Hiya Nibilao, among others. ‘Katha Gita’ (Gita in Prose) of Bhattadev was edited by him in 1918, which contains the first sonnet in Assamese — Priyatamar Sithi.
Srimanta Sankardeva was a 15th–16th-century Assamese polymath: a saint-scholar, poet, playwright, social-religious reformer and a figure of importance in the cultural and religious history of Assam. He is widely credited with building on past cultural relics and devising new forms of music (Borgeet), theatrical performance (Ankia Naat, Bhaona), dance (Sattriya), literary language (Brajavali). Besides, he has left an extensive literary oeuvre of trans-created scriptures (Bhagavat of Sankardev), poetry and theological works written in Sanskrit, Assamese and Brajavali. Some of his notable and globally famous poetry works are Kirtana-Ghosha, Harischandra-Upakhyana, Rukmini-Harana, Ajamilopakhyana, Bali-Chalana, Kurukshetra-Yatra, Gopi-Uddhava-Samvada, Amrita-Manthana, Krishna-Prayana-Pandava-Niryana, and Kamajaya.
Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi
A notable poet, lyricist and folklorist associated with Assamese literature, Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi received several awards including Sahitya Akademi Award in 1983 for her poetry book Sudirgha Din Aru Ritu, President award in 1957 for children’s literature, and Asam Sahitya Sabha award twice in 1977 and 1989 for her scholarly non-fiction books Dinar Pisat Din and Debi, respectively. She was conferred the `Saraswati Sanman’ title in 1987. Bordoloi wrote over 54 Assamese and English books, and thousands of songs. Prominent among the books are Kabita: Mon Faringar Rong, Samipesu, Antarang, Asamar Luko Sangonskriti, Siba, Asamar Luko Kabita.
A prominent Assamese novelist and poet, Nabakanta Barua was also known as Ekhud Kokaideu. As Sima Dutta, he wrote many poems in his early life. Barua was considered the renaissance of modern poetry in Assam. Barua’s writings were the most contemporary of its time. He started his career in writings, mostly poems, during World War II and boomed around the post-independence phase. The Sahitya Akademi Award and Padmabhushan awardee’s Kokadeutar Har is referred to as all-time classics. He wrote 5 novels. He also wrote essays and short stories for children. His works have also been translated into different languages. Barua’s most important contribution to Assam was his poems which were considered the most modern and most contemporary of its time which paved the way for modern poetry in the state. Barua started his career writing mostly poems. Among his most noteworthy and popular poems are included in the book Kapiliparia Sadhu. He wrote eleven poems. The most important poems of Barua are Polokh, Monot Pore Arundhati, Norokot Don Juan, and Crussot Don Juan. In 1984 he published the Assamese magazine Sirolu, which later got published as Notun Sirolu.
Nalini Bala Devi
A noted writer and poet of Assamese literature, known for nationalistic as well as mystical poetry, she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1957 for her contribution to literature, and in 1968 she won the Sahitya Akademi Award for her poetry collection Alakananda. She is the first woman Assamese poet to be awarded Padma Shri and the first lady to the chair of the Assam Sahitya Sabha. Her first book of poems Sandhiyar Sur (Evening Melody), published in 1928, was later adopted by Calcutta University and Guwahati University as a textbook in 1946 and 1951 respectively. Her other works include Alakananda, Sopunar Sur (Melody of Dreams), Porosh Moni, Yuga Devata (Hero of the Age), Shesh Puja(The last worship), Parijator Abhishek, Prahlad, Meghdut, Suravi, Rooprekha, Shantipath (Essay anthology), and Sheshor Sur (The last Melody). In 1950, she established Sadou Asom Parijat Kanan, which later became famous as Moina Parijat, the children organisation in Assam.
Popularly known as Hiruda, Hiren Bhattacharya was an Indian poet and lyricist best for his works in Assamese literature. He had innumerable works published in Assamese and achieved many awards and accolades for his poetry – Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad Award, Bishnu Rabha Award, Rajaji Puroskar, Soviet Desh Neheru Award, Sahitya Akademi Award, and Assam Valley Literary Award. Bhattacharya was the editor of several Assamese magazines and newspapers. Some of the newspapers he worked on are Chitrabon, Monon and Antorik. He was the poetry editor of the Assamese magazine Prantik for over three decades. Few of his notable poetry works are Roudro Kamona, Kobitar Rod, Tomar Bahi, Xugondhi Pokhilaa, Mor Desh aru Mor Premor Kobita, Mur Prio Bornomala, Bhalpuwar Buka Mati, and Bhalpuwar Dikchou Batere. His Assamese rhymes collections include Lora Dhemali and Akon Dhemali.
Mahapurusa Srimanta Madhavdev was a genius creator of the 16th century. He was the most prominent pupil of his guru Srimanta Sankardeva. As an author and saint-poet, Madhavdev’s contribution to his guru’s religion (Ekasarana Dharma) is immense. He is the author of the holy Naam Ghosa, (the book of the Lord’s Name), which is as great a work as Sankardev’s Kirtan Ghosa. This work is also known as the Hazari Ghosa (the book of thousand couplets). The English version of this book subtitled ‘The Divine Verses’ translated by Soroj Kumar Dutta in 1997 in lucid verse. His other significant work is the Bhakti Ratnavali. He is also the author of many Borgeets (noble numbers) (191 of them) besides nine Jhumuras (one-act plays). His first literary work is Janma Rahasya, based on the creation and destruction of the world. Among his other outstanding contributions are Naam Maalikaa and the Assamese rendering of the Adi Kanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana. His Guru Bhattima, the long poem of praise to his guru Srimanta Sankardev, is also widely popular. Madhavdev also composed the third chapter on having lost the two chapters composed by Sankardev, of the Kirtan-Ghosha titled ‘Dhyana Varnana’.
Kaviraja Madhava Kandali was a notable 14th-century poet best known for the earliest rendering of the Valmiki Ramayana into Assamese verse (Saptakanda Ramayana). Another significant work of his is the narrative poem Devajit, which is about the superiority of Krishna over the other avatars of Vishnu. Kandali’s patron was the Kachari King Mahamanikya (Mahamanikpha, 1330-1370), whose kingdom was located in what is present-day Nagaon. Srimanta Sankardeva, who was also a great scholar, recognised him by the title ‘Opromyadi Kobi’.
Jyoti Prasad Agarwala
A noted Indian playwright, songwriter, poet, writer and filmmaker, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala was considered an icon, deeply revered for his creative vision and output, and is popularly called the Rupkonwar of Assamese culture. He is regarded as the founder of Assamese cinema for ‘Joymoti’. He composed more than 75 popular poems, to name a few: Biswashilpi, Hai Mrityu Nomoskar, Adhunik Kobita Moi. Jyoti Raamaayon and Luitor Paaror Agnixur are two of his notable poetry collections. Remembering his contributions, every year, January 17 (his death anniversary), is observed as Silpi Divas.