By Shelly Bhoil

Bhuchung D Sonam

Photo credit: Tenzin Sangmo Dharamsala

Poet, translator Bhuchung D. Sonam is the author of four books, including Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film & Politics and Songs of the Arrow. He has edited Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry, and compiled and translated Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet. His writings are published in the Journal of Indian LiteratureHIMAL Southasian, Hindustan Times and Tibetan Review among others.

Burning the Sun’s Braids is Bhuchung Sonam’s most recent work, perhaps the first collection in English of new poetry from Tibet. This book provides an alternative view of Tibet where creative artists play a crucial role to assert their voice as well as to inspire the ordinary people to carry out resistance against an outside force.

Bhuchung Sonam’s permanent address was stolen.

 

Shelly: What a violent yet necessary, audacious yet logical, and unusual imagery of the burning of the pigtailed-sunrays in the title of your poetry anthology Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet! Can you throw some light on the title and also the intriguing cover of the book?

Bhuchung: The title of the book Burning the Sun’s Braids comes from the poem ‘Farewell Prostrations’ by Khawa Nyingchak who died at the age of twenty-six in 2015 while preventing Chinese poachers from killing endangered golden fishes from Kokonor Lake in eastern Tibet. The cover image is a painting titled ‘Two Spirits’ by Tsering Sherpa, a contemporary Tibetan artist based in California. I put them together to indicate the reality in Tibet today. Readers need to make their own interpretations and conclusions.

Shelly: As a bi-lingual book, Burning the Sun’s Braids accomplishes many things; not only does it cater to the Tibetan and English speaking readers but also reinforces the idea of rooting one’s identity in one’s home language, especially for the exile-born generation of Tibetans who have circumstantially drifted away from the Tibetan language. What was your idea behind translating poems into English from Tibetan?

Bhuchung: In an ideal world, I think, a work of art should not have any agenda or aim. But the world, as it is, is far from our dreams. This is even more so for people such as Tibetans living under occupation and as refugees away from their homes. For the third and fourth generation of Tibetans in exile who are growing far from their culture and language, I hope this bi-lingual book introduces what writers in Tibet are writing about and also inspires them to learn their language and strengthen their sense of identity.

The other goal is to get a wider audience for the poets from Tibet who have been suffering harassment, arrests and jail terms under China. I have immense respect for their courage and the least that I can do is to translate their work into a language that has, by and large, a global audience.

Shelly: The Tibetan language has undergone massive changes in the last few decades inside Tibet where a socialist ideology was introduced into it. In exile too, the Tibetan language had to be standardized in the schools for refugees who spoke different regional dialects. As I am told, the newcomer refugees (those who have come from Tibet in the last decade or so) and the born-refugees (those who were born in India to exiled parents) speak in a language which is mutually intelligible but not necessarily the same. Did you confront any issues of variations in the Tibetan language of the poems from what is standardized in the exile community, and the problem of the un-translatability of certain Tibetan nuances into English? If yes, how did you deal with these? Could you illustrate with an example or two?

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Love and the Turning Seasons

Jayadeva

The twelfth-century Gīta-govinda of Jayadeva has a reputation as the last great poem in the Sanskrit language. It holds two other distinctions. First, it appears to be the first full account in poetry of Radha as Krishna’s favorite among the gopis or cowgirls of Vrindavana. Secondly, it seems to be the first historical instance of poetry written with specified ragas or musical modes assigned to its lyrics. The poem-cycle occurs in twelve cantos with twenty-four songs distributed among them, about 280 stanzas in total. It presents the love affair of Krishna and Radha as an acutely human love affair, from initial “secret desires” and urgent lovemaking to separation — nights of betrayal, mistrust, longing, feverish anguish, strange Imaginings — and finally to a consummation as spiritual as it is carnal. Jayadeva’s birthplace is uncertain — some think Orissa, some Mithila, some Bengal. Accounts make it clear he had carefully trained himself as a poet in the Sanskrit tradition, learnéd and in command of classical metrics, when he took a vow to wander as a homeless mendicant, to sleep no more than one night under any tree. On this endless pilgrimage he passed through the coastal city of Puri in Orissa State, one of India’s cardinal pilgrim destinations and home to the huge Jagannath Temple. There in Puri, the chief priest and administrator of the Jagannath Temple had a vision. In it Krishna told him that Jayadeva should marry his daughter Padmāvatī, a dancer dedicated to the temple, settle down, and compose a devotional poem of unprecedented beauty to Krishna. The result was the Gīta-govinda. At one point while composing his poem, overwhelmed that he had to write words that belonged to Krishna, Jayadeva, unable to continue, put down his stylus and went to the river to bathe. When he returned he asked for his meal. Padmāvatī exclaimed that she had already fed him. Confused, Jayadeva looked at his manuscript; the words he had felt unable to compose sat inked onto the palm-leaf page. Krishna had visited in Jayadeva’s absence and taken a hand in his own poem—then, mischievously disguised as the poet, stayed on to eat Jayadeva’s lunch. Meeting Padmāvatī wakened in Jayadeva the bedrock emotion, the rasa, of love. What had been distant accounts of spiritual grace, a familiar theme for poetry, or even a set of metaphysical abstractions, came alive in his own body: the merging of spiritual and erotic ecstasy. Under Padmāvatī’s hands Jayadeva learnt that the old tales, the yogic teachings, and the cycles of loss and longing were no far-off vision. They are tasted through one’s senses. You could say that all the metaphysics and yoga practices of India—heady, magnificent, intricate, contradictory—return in the end to a single imperative: love. I think it the genius of Radha-Krishna poetry to take the hair-splitting metaphysics of India, lift them from our easily bewildered minds, and relocate them in the glands of the human body. Krishna devotees say that in our current dark era, the Kali Yuga, not everyone can practice meditation; few can wrap their minds around subtle doctrine or follow the eight stages of yoga. Everyone can taste the desolations and ecstasies of love, though; this is where one finds Krishna. Some centuries after Jayadeva’s death, the Jagannatha Temple instituted the Gīta-govinda as its sole liturgy, with Padmāvatī’s dances performed in the sanctuary. All day and into the evening loudspeakers mounted on poles around the temple send the poem in loud song across courtyard and roof top, out to the cashew groves and semi-arid scrublands threaded by jackal and cobras.