Biography of Nilmani Phookan
Nilmani Phookan (Nilamani Phookan) is an Indian poet in Assamese language and an academic. His work replete with symbolism, is inspired by French symbolism and is representative of the genre in Assamese poetry. His notable works include Surya Henu Nami Ahe Ei Nodiyedi, Gulapi Jamur Lagna, Kobita.
Nilmani Phookan is considered Assam’s most distinguished living poet. Born in the village of Dergaon in 1933, he started writing poetry in the early 1950s. Inspired by the example of his precursors, Hem Barua, Amulya Barua and Maheswar Neog, he and his other contemporaries, Navakanta Barua and Ajit Barua, took to free verse, exploring and extending the possibilities of Assamese modernism. He has written thirteen volumes of poetry, and has won ten regional and national awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award for Poetry in 1981 and the Padmashri from the Government of India in 1990. He joined the Arya Vidyapeeth College in Guwahati as a lecturer in 1964 and worked there until his retirement in 1992.
Phookan has been described as a “sage-like presence” in Assamese literature. It is possible to see why. His canvas is vast, his imagination mythopoeic, his voice bardic, his concerns ranging from the political to the cosmic, from the contemporary to the primeval. The landscapes he evokes are epic and elemental: he speaks of fire and water, planet and star, forest and desert, man and rock, time and space, war and peace, life and death.
And yet, you find not merely a sage’s reflective detachment here, but urgency as well as anguish and a deep sense of loss. Most importantly, to my mind, the unapologetic preoccupation with the cosmic and existential does not lead to grandiosity or a resort to misty abstractions. For even while the poetry invokes generalities, it does not ignore the scorching particular that has always been such an integral part of the poet’s province. This is poetry that can speak of “the meaning of death/ and the vacuity of living” and “the mothers of five hundred million sick and starving children”, but it can also memorialise another more fragile moment: “the yellow butterflies with wings spread on barbed wires”.
In the accompanying interview, Phookan speaks lyrically of the Assamese countryside, of the rich heritage of tribal myth and folklore, the rhythms of village life, all of which have helped shape his sensibility as a poet. He reasserts the centrality of poetry in “helping man find his soul” – a role that takes on an altogether new urgency in a violent, trackless and progressively utilitarian world. Along with the impassioned defence of the poetic art, however, is the awareness of its insignificance in the larger scheme of things: poetry eventually remains, he maintains, “Nothing more profound/ Than the chirping of the cricket”.
Nilmani Phookan's Works:
Surya Heno Nami Aahe Eyi Nadiadi. Prakashan Ghar, Rangiya1953.
Nirjanatar Sabda. Dutta Barua, Guwahati1965.
Aru Ki Naisabda. Dutta Barua, Guwahati1968.
Japani Kavita. Barua Book Agency, Guwahati1971.
Phuli Thaka Suryamukhi Phultor Phale. Guwahati Book Stall, Guwahati 1973.
Kaint Golap Aru Kaint. Dutta Barua, Guwahati1975.
Golapi Jamur Lagna. Bani Prakash, Guwahati1977.
Kavita. Barua Book Agency, Guwahati 1980.
Gacia Larkar Kavita. Bani Prakash, Guwahati1981.
Nrityarata Prithivi. Barua Book Agency Guwahati, 1985.
Sagartalir Sankha. Selected Poems edited by Hiren Gohain. Lawyers’ Book Stall, Guwahati1994.
Cheena Kavita. Students’ Store, Guwahati1996.
Alop Agota Ami Ki Kotha Pati Ashilo. Students’ Store, Guwahati 2003.
As Poetry Editor
Kuri Satikar Asomiya Kavita. Anthology of Modern Assamese Poetry. Asom Prakashan Parishad, Guwahati 1977.
Aranyar Gan. Anthology of Indian Tribal Love Poems. Students’ Store, Guwahati 1993.
Loka Kalpadristi. An Introduction to the Study of Arts and Crafts in Assam. Publication Board, Guwahati1987.
Rupa Barna Bak. Essays on Art and Artists. Shanti Prakashan, Guwahati 1988.
Silpakalar Upalabdhi Aru Ananda. Critical Essays on the Art of Appreciation. Arya Vidyapeeth, Guwahati 1997.
Silpakala Darshan. Essays on Art and Artists. Book Hive, Guwahati 1998.
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Nilmani Phookan Poems
Don’t Ask Me How I Am
Don’t ask me how I am Down the Kolong comes floating A headless girl For my corpse
For days I have heard only one sound day and night. The burning tyre is stinking.
The Sky Throbs
The sky throbs, I grope for the lamp All of a sudden in full flesh and blood My mother
What Were We Talking About Just Now?
What were we talking about just now? About stone being hard, water cold, About fire burning
The Earth In Her Magnificent Dance
We were two families sharing a single house Time passing through the leaky roofs Night passing water coming down in torrents Sometimes a wagtail
I Am Going Down The Hill
I’m going down the hill It’s getting dark At my heels are some rocks
That Day Was A Sunday
That day was a Sunday A stream of fresh blood from the butcher’s Rolled over the street to the ditch by its side The tumultuous passers-by took no notice of
In the woods deep in the woods a crane calls
Do Not Ask Me How I Have Been
Do not ask me how I have been I haven’t ask me either down the Kolong flows a young, female torso
Poetry Is For Those Who Wouldn'T Read It
A poet had stated poetry is for those who wouldn't read it for the wounds in their hearts for their fingers where thorns are embedded
I Passed The Tattooed Night Wide Awake
I passed the tattooed night wide awake looking at myself in the mirror this morning I saw my face was a piece of ice a feeling of coldness ran through me
Don’t Ask Me How I Am
Don’t ask me how I am
Down the Kolong comes floating
A headless girl
For my corpse
Was lying for forty-two hours
On the pavement of Guwahati
For I’m open-eyed still
My death too has its eyes open
For in ditches—puddles rivers—lakes
Fish in shoals whisk about
Hey, ambling horsemen of mine.