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Literary Arts in Nepal

The history of Nepali literature is roughly two hundred years old. With the unification of Nepal (1769), Nepali language developed as a lingua franca. At the time of unification, Nepal spread from Darjeeling in the east (now in India) to Dehradoon (now in India) in the west. Over a hundred languages were spoken all over the then Nepali territory--many of them unintelligible to the other language or dialect speakers. The prevalence of linguistic diversity necessitated the use of a common language for communication, and Nepali language served the role of such a language for all the people living within the territory of Nepal.

After the use of Nepali as a common language of communication, literature in the Nepali language had a humble beginning. Though a hundred twenty four languages are officially recorded now, literary writings are found mainly in Nepali, Newari, and Maithili. In other languages, there is a meager literary production. In Nepali literature, a gradual shift from sacred to secular imagining can be noticed.

Early Nepali literature that impacted the Nepali mind was religious in nature. Bhanu Bhakta Acharya was the pioneer poet who wrote Ramayana (based on the Hindu epic The Ramayana), a poem dealing with the mythical religious theme in the Nepali language. Virtually a trans-creation of the Sanskrit and Hindi epic in Nepali, it became so popular that for a long period of time, it was recited respectfully in every household as the story of God. Nepali writing thus began with poetry of religious nature and intent. But gradually a shift started taking place, and by the mid eighteenth century folk narratives and folk songs occupied the creative domain. In the nineteenth century, stories and poems developed as dominant genres. With stories and poems in the scene, creative imagining moved beyond religious boundaries and entered the secular sphere. For about two hundred years, the corpus of Nepali literature has dramatically expanded. Poetry, fiction, essays and plays have been written. In poetry, Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s Muna Madan, a poem written in the form of a narrative folk song, is the most popular writing in Nepal so far. It is the largest selling book in the Nepali market even today. The poet has been able to present a painful case of family loss in the language of a common man while retaining a poetic cadence. The presentation of a serious and painful story of man in the language of a commoner helped the poet earn his reputation. In the decade of the 1930s and onwards Devkota and his contemporaries produced a treasure of Nepali literature; many of them have left an indelible mark on the Nepali literary scene till now.

Current Nepali literature is influenced by global trends. Fiction and non-fictional writing are becoming popular locally. Though Nepal does not have a large readership, fictional and non-fictional works are sold the most. Young novelists are emerging every year, and the literary market is gradually making its presence. Travel narratives, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs have been appearing to a great extent. Young writers seem to be leading at present. In recent past, a few memoirs made a pretty good business in the book market, not necessarily so much because of the quality of the work as much as because of the social name and popularity of the individual. Nepali readers of literature seem, at times, to be waylaid by the media publicity accompanying some mediocre works.

Further, Nepali literary writing appears to be tendency-prone and following a single wave for a period. For example, for two decades after 1990, it was massively influenced by the socio-political change in the country. During the era of Maoist revolt and ensuing violence, poets and story writers wrote either protest literature or literature of eulogy. For a certain period, many writers wrote advocating for peace, expressing sense of loss and disappointment in the existing situation of the country. Such a scene gave at times the impression that the creative impulse capable of giving rise to timeless art work was sagging. But again, Nepali creativity has appeared with a new appeal and taste in past two three years.

The growth can be noticed in the production of literary writings in Nepal/ Creative writing, however, is not an attractive area. It is extremely difficult to be a full-time writer. Therefore, a majority of writers of Nepal are professionals working in other fields and write out of interest. Journalists, teachers and individuals involved in other professions are the major creative writers of Nepal at present. Publication of literary works is another problem. Except Sajha Prakashan and Nepal Academy, the government-funded bodies that publish literary works, there are hardly any private sector publishers willing to invest in literary works. This situation puts the literary writer in a disadvantaged position.

This essay was written in preparation for the Silk Routes Symposium, held in the Maldives, March 2014.