“If I was living in Africa right now, I’d probably be writing in one of the African languages,” says poet Sananta Tanti. One of the 24 litterateurs who was conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award 2018, announced on December 5, the poet from Assam maintains that language is “just a medium of expression.” “What matters are the feelings you want to express,” he says.
The Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters, was inaugurated on 12 March, 1954. Ever since, 24 awards are presented annually to works by writers in languages recognised by the Akademi. Apart from that, special awards or “Bhasha Samman” are awarded to scholars and writers for works in languages not formally recognised by the Akademi, as well as “contribution to classical and medieval literature.”
On December 5, in a press release, the Akademi announced the list of winners for 2018. Among them, were four names from Northeast India: Manipuri writer Budhichandra Heisnamba for his book of short stories, Ngamkheigee Wangmada, Siliguri-based Loknath Upadhyay Chapagain (who hails from Assam) for his Nepali book Kina Royeu Upamaa, Bodo writer Rituraj Basumatary for his maiden book Dwngse Lama, and Tanti, for his book of poems, Kailoir Dinto Amar Hobo.
Tanti, who was born into a tea garden family at Kalinagar Tea Estate in Karimganj district, had a Bengali upbringing. “Though my roots are Odiya, my grandfather moved to work in Assam’s tea gardens years ago,” he says. Karimganj is one of the three districts that make up Assam’s Bengali-dominated Barak Valley. “I studied in a Bengali medium school, read a lot of Bengali literature growing up. I would even write in Bengali,” says the Guwahati-based poet.
Yet, Tanti has come to be known as one of the most important voices in modern Assamese poetry. Kailoir Dinto Amar Hobo (Tomorrow Will Be Ours) — the book of poems that won him the Akademi award — is also in Assamese. “My job at the Assam Tea Employee PF Organisation took me to Jorhat in the 1970s,” he explains. In the cultural milieu of Brahmaputra Valley, Tanti started imbibing facets of the Assamese language. “I was surrounded by Assamese speakers. Growing up I had read a lot of Bengali poetry, In Jorhat, I discovered the Axomiya poetry of Nilomani Phukan, Ananda Barua etc. Dr Nagen Saikia was a lecturer there at the time. I slowly started writing for a magazine he used to edit,” says Tanti.
In 1981, Tanti published his first collection of poems — Ujjal Nakhatrar Sondhanot (In Search of a Bright Star), which he describes as his “breakthrough to become a poet”. Over the years, he has written about poverty, social change, corruption, and has consistently been a voice for the downtrodden. And in the process, won several awards, too: Mrinalini Devi Goswami Memorial Award (1992), the Birsa Munda Award (2002), the Osman Ali Sodagar Samannya Award (2011), the Krantikal Samman (2014), and last year, the Assam Valley Literary Award. Yet, he continued working as a full-time employee in the Assam Tea Employee PF Organisation, retiring as the Deputy Provident Fund Commissioner in 2012.
Sahitya Akademi announced its Annual Sahitya Akademi Award in 24 languages today. Seven books of poetry, six of novel, six of short stories, three of literary criticism and two of essays have won the Award, 2018. @MinOfCultureGoI @dr_maheshsharma @nirupamakotru, @ksraosahitya pic.twitter.com/VFoVPPf35i
— Sahitya Akademi (@sahityaakademi) December 5, 2018
Bodo writer Rituraj Basumatary, from Langhin in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, too, started out his writing career in Assamese. As a young student at the Diphu Boys Higher Secondary School, Basumatary started penning poems in Assamese in 1979. “I even did my MA in Assamese from Guwahati University,” he says, “That was in 1992.”
But soon, the author, who teaches at the Langhing Pamgaon Higher Secondary School, started writing in his native tongue: for Bodo magazines, as well as publications by the literary body of his community, the Bodo Sahitya Sabha. “We, the Bodo jati, face a lot of issues as a tribe, be it social, political, or even linguistic. I feel writing and reading can help in solve some of them. The possibilities of literature are endless,” he says. His book of 23 short stories, Dwngse Lama (A Path), deals with, in the author’s own words, Bodo “jati’r xomosya” or problems of the Bodo tribe.
The award (a casket containing an engraved copper plate, a shawl and a cheque of Rs 1,00,000) will be presented to the authors on January 29, 2019 in New Delhi. Says, Tanti, who is currently undergoing treatment for cancer — a disease he has been suffering from since 2010 — in Delhi, “I am not looking for awards. I just want to write good poems.” The 65-year-old has two poetry books in the pipeline.