The People’s Poet Who Preserved Identity

December 11, 2014 , by Reetu Joshi, 1 Comment
“Rājāmati kumati, jike wo sā pirati Hāye bābā RājāmatiChā! Rājāmati mabila dhāsā Kāshi wone tela bubā Hayābigu RājāmatiChā!” For anybody born during the 80s, this song shoots ripples of nostalgic waves. The movie Rajamati and its songs carry humble tunes for many who believe in love. It’s a lover’s plea to his parents for marrying a girl he dearly loves. If in any case he fails to get her, he threatens to live his life away in Kashi. One of the writers to give a dazzling story to such an ancient song is Durgalal Shrestha.


To us, Durgalal Shrestha is known as a People’s Poet in Nepalbhasha, a dramatist, a lyricist, a revolutionary, a true master who fought and survived for Nepalbhasha and Nepali literature. But for himself, he is no extraordinaire but someone who got lucky while searching for his true calling. Born in the year 1937 AD in a small cultural paradise of Kathmandu named Itumbahal, he was raised in a Newah family with its deep rooted values and cultures. For him every festival brought a lot of joy and needed a celebration with much fanfare. This hearty love for his own Newarjat (newar community) and country made him who he is today. Let’s hear his story with a somber heart as it might catch fire which water cannot douse.

"In the name of a degree I haven’t passed my IA exams but the knowledge I gained from life experiences couldn’t be compared to the ones I read in a book. My life is a ship which sailed from the harbor due to unforeseen situations. In the year 2011 B.S., the city of Kathmandu was immersing itself in preparation of Indrajatra. Few friends of mine were rehearsing for a drama which we gladly went to observe," remembers Shrestha.


"Next day when I collected my friends to watch the rehearsal, upon reaching the entrance we found it was shut. Why was it shut? We could hear people talking inside but no one answered us when we knocked at the door. So being the bravest one in the group, I peeped through the hole. In a matter of few seconds I was poked right in the eye with two fingers. Just because they are staging a play, doesn’t give them the rights to assume themselves superior.”
An individual was poked in the eye but the fingers got injected right into his heart. This circumstance made him the man he is today. With a mindset to prove people their worth, Shrestha wrote his first ever drama. New characters, new story, new people were involved with old rituals and values. The play was so successful that it was shown all over Kathmandu and Patan almost thrice a day. The success eventually led to him to write and direct plays during Indrajatra for several years and some more.

"I never intended to do the things that I achieved in my life. The circumstances rather made them possible," said Shrestha when he was asked about being a lyricist. His success as a playwright didn’t make him want to be lyricist. He didn’t know the tune or a master to arrange music. But the lack of good songs made him belt out lyrics to old Hindi songs. He went wherever the tune took him. This changed when he had the opportunity to meet the farmers of his locality.

To a naïve boy, who didn’t know that dhan (paddy) was grown in the fields, he discovered the local songs of the people. Spending reasonable amount of time working, dancing and singing with them made him realize how important farmers have been. They are not only the one who provided food but also the life savior who spend most of their struggling for the people they barely know. Their tunes were now the tunes of Shrestha’s journey. His fight to bring out the true tunes of his community got him a prestigious acclaim as a Janakavi (People’s Poet) of Nepal.

Lucky are the ones who have a family to help through rough and tough times. His family was indeed his biggest supporters. “My family came from working class background who earned money by putting up small shops in front of their house. We didn’t have much in the name of possession or money but the love of my mother never made me feel devoid. She never stopped me from going to rehearsals or write plays unlike several of my friends who were prohibited by their parents to attend such activities. She sacrificed her present for my future. She might have passed away but her love is what keeps me standing day in and day out. My survival has been possible because of my mother’s love. No single individual can be bigger than a mother.” Love can indeed do wonders.


When we were in a middle of the interview he suddenly stopped me to tell an interesting story of how faith changed his life forever. “I used to teach Nepalbhasha in a small school named Kanya Mandir Vidhyala where I spent the most memorable times of my life. I was a teacher who loved to teach and had students who loved to learn. ” He clearly remembers the name ‘Kedarnath Neupane’, the principle of that school vividly.

“I have an interesting story to tell you about how I published my first ever poem collection” he said with a twinkle. "I was a teacher of Newah language in the school where Kedarnath first met me. During the times when castes and religions determined hierarchy, he proved me that faith could move mountains. I did not even have such belief in myself. I never thought of publishing a book of any sorts, Kedarnath suddenly came one day and told me ‘Durgalal you write very nice poems but why do you limit it to yourself. Let the world hear your sweet words.’"

Neupane’s insistence led him to publish his first ever collection of poems “pija” in the year 1967. Knowing Shrestha’s affliction towards his language and culture, the principle helped a teacher find out his true calling. Neupane gave Shrestha holidays during Newah festivals, wrote natakkar (dramatist) besides his name and helped him buy land where his house still stands. No greater thing is done if it isn’t done for people you love.

He may say he isn’t an emotional writer but his words inject deep into the heart. After his first set of poems was published, there was no stopping for him. He not only published stories and poems but also echoed his voice for a cause by writing songs for the Nepalbhasha movement and also against panchayat (partyless) system. With Nhyoo Bajracharya and Ani Choing Dolma, he penned a beautiful song “phoolko aakha ma” within just eight minutes.

His beliefs might have triggered a hurricane in a person’s heart but now his shaking hands can barely lift a pen to write a few words. With Bajracharya belting out tunes, Shrestha still creates lyrics. No obstacle too big for a person with a strong heart.


He remembers fewer houses in Kathmandu and more people to respect each other’s feelings. There was a time when even the smallest of the festivals were celebrated with joy and fanfare in Kathmandu. The small capital would glow like a mother who saw her child for the first time. But change is inevitable. Even though we have come a long way from pen to type writer and from computers to smart phones, there should be a part of us which always sticks to the roots. Seeing his beloved language and culture being neglected by Newars has made him skeptical towards new Nepal.

“I see Newah parents talking in English with their children rather than in Nepalbhasha which is such a versatile language. It has history, culture, rituals and authenticity combined perfectly like a well painted canvas. So why don’t we accept it with an open heart?"

“My memory is getting hazy nowadays, I can barely remember number, names or incident," said Durgalal who has written numerous plays and got hold of accolades greater than any award. "One might exist but it means nothing in front of the circle of time. We might have gotten the illusion of controlling time through watches, notebooks or even small calendars but it always manages to out-do us.” Shrestha believes he is just part of the circle doing what he loves and cherishing each moment of it. His memory might one day fade away but the legacy will always remain as a blessing for many.

In conversation with Reetu Joshi.
Follow Reetu on Twitter


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Categorised in: Retro Chic

One comment on “The People’s Poet Who Preserved Identity

  1. R. Manandhar says:

    This is a good presentation. But there are many factual blunders. He was born at Nhayekan Twaa, not Itumbaha. Inside Nhayekan Twaa, there is Chabaha. His birth house at Dathunani inside Chabaha.

    Dabu-pyakhan is shown not during Indrajata but before Indrajatra. When rainy season is over, dabu-pyakhan starts.

    His first published book is Jhasuka. And the book inspired by Neupane is Chini-yamha Kisicha.

    I am writing this as a biographer of Durga Lal jeevani.

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