In the crowd that had gathered at the Ashoka Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhawan for the Padma Awards distribution last month, Haladhar Nag was an anomaly. Clad in a dhoti, his feet bare and hair slicked back with oil, he stood out among the other well-dressed guests. Nag, one of western Odisha’s most popular poets writing in Koshali, though, wasn’t concerned — he flashed his trademark smile as he went up to receive his Padma Shri award. “Perhaps, everyone was thinking how a rustic man like me could get such a big award. My not wearing a chappal and my complexion must have added to their consternation,” says Nag with a smile.
Later, at New Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel, where the awardees were put up, the security guard would be unsure about the 65-year-old poet’s claim of being a state guest. Arvind Padhee, Odisha cadre IAS officer and joint secretary in the union fertiliser ministry, had to come to Nag’s rescue. “If simplicity has a name, it has to be Haladhar Nag. He has no material possessions and still does not own any footwear. But when he starts reciting his poems, it is sheer magic. I would say he is a cult figure in western Odisha. What makes him special is his will power, and the way he has mastered poetry despite having almost no education,” says Padhee.
Born to a labourer couple in Ghens village of the western Odisha district of Bargarh, Nag was the youngest of six siblings that included five brothers and a sister. When he was in Class III, his parents died of an unknown disease, in quick succession. Like his siblings, Nag’s education came to an end as he was forced to make a living. For about two years, he washed dishes in an eatery at a bus stop till the local sarpanch found him a job as a cook in a residential school hostel, which saved him from “starvation.” For the next 16 years, Nag continued to stir the huge cauldrons in the school hostel. He developed a deep bond with the children, serving them meals and listening to them prepare their lessons. It was there that his appetite for poetry was whetted. As the school children recited poems of popular poets in their textbooks, Nag was a ready listener, marvelling at the beauty of the verses and learning them by heart through repetition.
But as more and more schools opened in Bargarh, the number of children dwindled in the hostel. It put a question mark on his future. “In 1984, when I was unsure about what lay next, a bank official arranged a Rs 1,000 loan for me. I started a stationery-cum-confectionary shop near my village,” says Nag. In between manning his stationery shop, Nag would sometimes attend poetry-reading sessions around his village, a common occurrence in the district. “At one of the sessions, I came across a high school poetry text book titled Kavita Pravesh. A poem titled Gramapatha, describing a village road, deeply touched me. I read and re-read it,” says Nag. In 1990, he wrote his first poem Dhodo Bargachha (The old banyan tree) in Koshali language, describing how a banyan tree near the village entry-point, which everyone took for granted, had seen generations of life.
Encouraged by a few college-going youths, Nag sent his poem to a local literary magazine, Art and Artist, which published it. The poem immediately created ripples in the region’s literary circles. Abhimanyu Sahitya Sansad, a Bargarh-based literary organisation that had started around the same time, started patronising him and helped publish his poems. “His poems can be easily understood by the masses. We found in him a huge spark of brilliance,” says Sushant Mishra, secretary of the organisation. Since then, Nag has written 20 books, with 90 of his poems in Koshali language, most of which have been published by Abhimanyu Sahitya Sansad.
Koshali, also known as Sambalpuri, is the lingua franca of at least 10 western Odisha districts including Kalahandi, Nuapara, Sambalpur, Bargarh, Deogarh, Jharsuguda, Boudh, Bolangir, Sonepur, Sundargarh, a block of Nabarangpur district and parts of Chhattisgarh. The name of the language has been derived from Koshal, an erstwhile 11th century princely state that comprised these districts and parts of Chhattisgarh. The first writing in Koshali language appeared in late 19th century when a weekly magazine, Sambalpur Hiteisani, published a poem. Since then, writers such as Satya Narayan Bohidar, Kapil Mahapatra, Balaji Meher, Laxmana Pati, Prem Ram Dubey, Hema Chandra Acharya, Nila Madhaba Panigrahi, Khageswar Seth, Shashi Bhusan Mishrasharma, Prafulla Tripathy, Motilal Panda and Bidhu Bhusan Guru have enriched the language through their writings. In March 2014, chief minister Naveen Patnaik wrote a letter to the Union home ministry recommending Koshali language to be included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution (which lists the official languages of the Indian republic).
Noted Odia poet Kedar Mishra says Nag’s magic, perhaps, lies in his poetry as well as his simple life. He also credits him with an elephantine memory. “In an age when poetry is becoming a little too hard for the masses, Haladhar touches people’s hearts by writing about nature and myths. His poetry has a modern and contemporary sensibility. He can recite all his poems by heart without referring to the book. I don’t know how many of our renowned poets can do that,” says Mishra.
Since 1990, when he wrote his first poem, Nag has written about nature, contemporary issues like farmer suicides, pre-eminence of cricket over other sports as well as the slow degeneration of our society. At least three scholars in Bargarh and Mayurbhanj district are doing their PhDs on his works, while Sambalpur University has proposed to make his collected works a part of its syllabus.
But despite his popularity, Nag’s approach to life remains unchanged. He remains unaffected by adulation and material possessions. “He is not attached to money at all. He does not use soap and applies mud to wash his hair. When he went to Delhi, he had a pair of dhoti, a vest and a gamchha. He donates the money he gets in poetry recitations and has to be forced to keep it for his wife and married daughter. If you offer him a bowlful of pakhala (watery rice), he would be only too happy to recite his poems,” says Mishra.
Known as Lok Ratan Kabi in Odisha, Nag still lives in Ghens in a simple hutment and insists on giving away the Rs 1,000 monthly allowance that he receives from the Odisha government to Haladhar Nag orphanage which he started in 2009 at Luhurachati on the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border. “I grew up as an orphan. Why do I need to keep money for myself?” he asks.