By Pranav Dhasmana
A village deep inside the hilly terrain of Uttarakhand has been draped by the orange glow of the setting sun. The cow sheds are engulfed in the warmth of the smoke. Just like the tendrils crave the touch of the support, the calves cry out for their mother. Streams of milk flow and the mother’s heart is overcome. The matron’s stove has been lit after a bit of sweat because of the monsoon. The wood is wet. So is the smoke. The greens are sizzling and the entire village is drunk with the aroma. The moon shines like a bronze plate. In the moonlit night, as the flute’s notes hit the air the soul quivers and giggles.
For any person who has ever called the hills their home, these simple yet powerful words of “Sawani Saanjh” are bound to take them back to those very Kachcha-pakka mud houses beside the stony chowks on those hills, in the kitchen above the cattle. That is how relatable and familiar Girda’s words feel in the beautiful, homely Kumaoni tongue. Such is the magic of Girish Tewari. Every man knows exactly what he’s talking about. We’ve been there, seen it, felt it and lived it. Girda has been hailed as the “Jankavi” i.e. “the common man’s poet” and rightfully so because if that isn’t the definition of a common man’s poet, I don’t know what is.
The secret of Girda’s “commonness” in his works and poems is that he himself was a common man who had always led a simple life. He had humble beginnings in the Government Inter College, Almora and even towards the end in Nainital, after he had achieved so much he stayed rooted to his humbleness and simplicity. What set him apart was that he was perceptive and observant with a flair for writing. He took what everybody already knew and just sharpened it up so the world could actually notice it too. He himself proclaimed that he just took what the public gave him and simply wrote it down – “Jann se liya; Mann se manthan kiya; Phir janta ko hi lauta diya…..Jisko jann ne suna; Jann ne gaya.”
For him, his poetry was never separate from his life and his people. He was common in his topics; common in his language and that is what made him special. He talked about simple things in simple ways and still managed to make them ecstatic. He had actually lived the life he talked about and that is why each of his poems, be it dipped in romanticism or revolution, felt so personal and effective. Only an ordinary, government school child who had actually carried a heavy bag up and down the hills and had actually been struck on the head could have felt and penned “Asa ho school humara”. Only a man who has spent his life in the villages of Kumaon could have expressed what he does when he writes about the hills, the rain, the cows and the Kumaoni Holi.
Holi holds a very special place in Kumaoni folk-culture. It is a whole another level of celebration than any other parts of North-India and music is a big part of it all. This is where Girda comes in. Not only did he capture the whole fiasco in his poems in all its glories and forms but understanding the significance and influence of Holi on the Kumaonis, he also used it as a recurring motif in his poems to bring attention to other less obvious things that deserved it but didn’t get it by dying them in the same and much sought-after colours of Holi. He also knew other social phenomenon like the circus that are election campaigns in the hills, quite well and he often imbibed them in his works like in the poems “Chunaav ki rangte nyaari” and “Aayo videshi vyapari” in which he describes the money-hungry mafias and the ignorant and corrupt government in such an amusing way that it makes one see these things as what they really are. This is how he built a link between the issues that needed to be addressed and the mediums that the people understood.
The common man’s plight is reflected on all of his works. He did not only call out the wrong-doers but also the naysayers. Along with pointing out the general problems he also encouraged and inspired the common people to rise up and take their destiny into their own hands; acknowledge and solve their own problems. Girda had a great impact on all the social and political movements of the state. His song ‘Jaita ek din toh aalo” became the anthem of every person associated with the Uttarakhand movement. His words reached where the movement couldn’t – to the common and unaware public. He exposed what was happening to our rivers to the mainstream public like the Kosi river crisis in the poem “Kosi hare ge” along with encouraging them to participate during the Nadi Bachao Aandolan. Similarly, he put many such complicated and lost issues in his simple words so that the common public could wake up to them.
He explained the issue of man-made natural disasters in the Himalayas so easily and accurately to the average Joe in his poem “Iss vyapari ko pyaas bahut hai” describing how all the floods, landslides and droughts were direct results of growing commercialization. In the past all of these had been a huge problem for the hill-dwelling Uttarakhandis but they didn’t know what was actually causing all of this. Girda did the same for the Chipko movement and Van Bachao Aandolan. In the Nasha nahi rojgar do aandolan, Tewari aptly assessed how alcohol addiction was spreading into the state and how it was eating up the youth and the common work force. Some decades back, when Uttarakhand was nowhere in the nation’s focal point and the on-goings here were considered insignificant, he gave the hills their voice in the cases like that of Mamta Bisht whose murderers were never caught and the public was boiling with rage. He gave the helpless public an outlet for their anger through his words.
Girda had always stuck to his mother-tongue, Kumaoni and the popular Hindi with influences of other dialects and Urdu. In simpler words, he preached men in their own language which might not seem like a big deal until you consider that the displacement of Latin by the vernacular language brought about the Renaissance or that the major factor for the spread and popularity of Buddhism in India back in 5th century BC was because Buddha preached in Pali – a common folk language rather than the more sophisticated but exclusive Sanskrit. Everyone could enjoy and experience Girda’s words for they were not just meant to be read but also sung, heard and watched on stage in the people’s language. At a time when people started to feel insecure about their dialects and accent for it was an unchallenged “fact” that the folk language held no merit, Tewari was the one who refused to be anything but proud of his language.
Some thousands of kilometers far and one and a half century ago, Wordsworth had argued that poetry should essentially be written in “the real language of men” and that it is nothing but simply “the spontaneous overflow of feelings: it takes the origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”. If Tewari had chosen to write in Hindi exclusively on topics that a wider section of a country could have invested in, he would’ve surely seen a lot more widespread popularity and success but he knew who he wanted to focus on and his audience actually mattered to him because it was personal. He translated Urdu poet Kaif’s words in Kumaoni when he went to Ranikhet to support and encourage the “Labourer movement” because he felt that the men’s language would be far more effective on them than Hindi or Urdu. He was right.
This is all that it took for Girish Tewari to be the common man’s poet. Girda’s entire work of body has been in servitude of ‘the man in the streets’ or more appropriately – ‘the man in the hills” and he had solved the ever-so-complicated mystery that the simple man is.