diplo­mat ab­hay Ku­mar on po­etry-diplo­macy con­nect

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Ab­hay Ku­mar is a poet and a diplo­mat, a 2003 batch of­fi­cer of the In­dian For­eign Ser­vice, now serv­ing as In­dia’s deputy chief of mis­sion in Brazil. He edited 100 great in­dian Po­ems, an an­thol­ogy that was pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary and is be­ing trans­lated into Por­tuguese. He is also known for the Earth An­them, which he penned in 2008. It was set to mu­sic in 2013 and recorded in eight lan­guages. The Sym­phonic Orches­tra of the National Theatre of Brasilia re­cently per­formed the an­them in English and Por­tuguese. In an in­ter­view with Deepak Par­vati­yar in Brasilia, Ab­hay speaks about the po­etry-diplo­macy con­nect and how po­etry is an ef­fec­tive diplo­matic tool.

Would you say that po­etry is an ef­fec­tive tool to prac­tise diplo­macy?

Po­etry and diplo­macy have a num­ber of com­mon el­e­ments such as am­bi­gu­ity and brevity of ex­pres­sion. As emily dick­in­son put it, “Tell it but tell it slant.” it’s as true for diplo­macy as for po­etry. one can ex­pe­ri­ence the power of brevity in the do­has of Kabir. like­wise, diplo­macy is gen­er­ally con­ducted in short sen­tences. “Po­etry is the am­bas­sador of the spirit,” write Tina Chang, ravi shankar, and nathalie Han­dal, ed­i­tors of Po­etry for a New Cen­tury: Po­etry from Asia. They add that, “Po­etry seems to us the most pro­found kind of diplo­macy, one that can help gen­er­ate more en­dur­ing con­ver­sa­tion and un­der­stand­ing in the world.”

My po­ems on cities, mon­u­ments and peo­ple cre­ate a poetic mem­ory trail of places where i have served so far – Moscow, st Peters­burg, Kathmandu, delhi or Brasilia. The earth An­them has found support across the globe. schools and or­gan­i­sa­tions from many coun­tries use the earth An­them to celebrate the earth day and World en­vi­ron­ment day. it gives us a sense of be­long­ing to the whole planet, no mat­ter where we come from or how we look. My an­thol­ogy, 100 Great In­dian Po­ems, cel­e­brates 3,000 years of in­dian po­etry in 28 in­dian lan­guages. it has al­ready been trans­lated into Por­tuguese and span­ish and is be­ing trans­lated into ital­ian, rus­sian, greek, nepali, Burmese and ser­bian. These trans­la­tions, i be­lieve, are cre­at­ing po­etry bridges be­tween in­dia and coun­tries where these lan­guages are spo­ken, adding to in­dia’s al­ready great soft power. Be­ing a poet, I find it easy to con­nect with peo­ple. I think con­nect­ing with peo­ple from other coun­tries, cul­tures can be a great as­set for a diplo­mat. As a poet, i con­nected with other po­ets in Kathmandu by start­ing Poe­mandu, a monthly po­etry read­ing pro­gramme at the nepal-bharat li­brary, and in Brasilia with Cha Com le­tras. These reg­u­lar

pro­grammes at­tracted not only po­ets but writ­ers, jour­nal­ists, artists as well as the in­tel­lec­tual and creative com­mu­nity of nepal and Brazil, cre­at­ing a dia­logue of sort across cul­tures.

Quite a few of your peers in the In­dian For­eign Ser­vice are cel­e­brated writ­ers – Vikas Swarup and Navtej Sarna to name a few. Then you had Kofi Awoonor of Ghana and In­dran Amirthanayagam of the US. How do you com­pare your work with theirs? Could these award-win­ning writer-diplo­mats take diplo­macy to a new level?

Well, frankly, i don’t com­pare my work with any­one. i read and write to sat­isfy my spir­i­tual needs, be­cause i can’t do with­out it. i have not read ei­ther Vikas swarup or Navtej Sarna. I learnt about Kofi Awoonor only when i read the news of his un­timely death. i am fa­mil­iar with in­dran’s work and have in­cluded one of his po­ems on Colombo in Cap­i­tals, the an­thol­ogy i edited on the cap­i­tal cities of the world. i don’t know how to an­swer the part on tak­ing diplo­macy to a higher level, i think by work­ing hard on both their writ­ing as well as diplo­matic work, is a safe bet. in­ter­na­tion­ally the best known poet-diplo­mats are per­haps Ge­of­frey Chaucer and Thomas Wy­att; the cat­e­gory also in­cludes re­cip­i­ents of the no­bel Prize in lit­er­a­ture: gabriela Mis­tral, saint-john Perse, Miguel An­gel As­turias, Pablo neruda, ge­orge se­feris, Czes­law Milosz and oc­tavio Paz.

But would you say their lit­er­ary ac­com­plish­ments over­shadow their work as diplo­mats?

i have writ­ten ear­lier a piece ti­tled ‘Po­etry and diplo­macy’, on this very lit­tle known lit­er­ary fact ex­plor­ing the phe­nom­ena of poet-diplo­mats.

Why have so many poet-diplo­mats have done ex­ceed­ingly well? Is there a con­nec­tion be­tween po­etry and diplo­macy or po­ets and diplo­mats? If yes, what con­nects them?

Well, some of them were also highly suc­cess­ful diplo­mats. For ex­am­ple, saint-john Perse rose to be­come the gen­eral sec­re­tary of the French for­eign Of­fice. Oc­tovio Paz was Mexico’s am­bas­sador to in­dia for sev­eral years. Pablo neruda was Chile’s am­bas­sador to France. of course, now they are mostly re­mem­bered as po­ets but i am sure that their ex­pe­ri­ence of other cul­tures while serv­ing abroad has in­formed their poetic works.

How do you as­sess the tan­gi­ble out­come of your ef­forts as a poet-diplo­mat par­tic­u­larly in im­prov­ing bi­lat­eral ties and in fa­cil­i­tat­ing bi­lat­eral agree­ment?

Po­etry pri­mar­ily helps in con­nect­ing with peo­ple at a deeper level. When one con­nects with all sec­tions of so­ci­ety at a deeper level, it helps in im­prov­ing the un­der­stand­ing of each other and at some stage find­ing a com­mon ground amidst vis­i­ble dif­fer­ences at the sur­face. Such con­nec­tions cre­ate a vir­tu­ous cir­cle of good­will and pos­i­tive en­ergy trans­form­ing re­la­tion­ships at all lev­els.

Your Earth An­them is go­ing places. Would you tell us more about it?

The idea of a com­mon song cel­e­brat­ing beauty and diver­sity of our planet was born in my mind in 2008 while i was serv­ing in st Peters­burg, rus­sia, in­spired by the blue mar­ble image taken from Apollo 17 and the an­cient in­dian idea of ‘Va­sud­haiva Ku­tum­bakam’, i.e., the world is a fam­ily. i had writ­ten it as a poem. later, in 2013, it was set to mu­sic while i was serv­ing in Kathmandu, nepal and was recorded in eight lan­guages. it was re­leased in 2013 at a func­tion con­ducted by the in­dian Coun­cil of Cul­tural re­la­tions on the oc­ca­sion of the World en­vi­ron­ment day. since then it has been trans­lated into 30 global lan­guages, has been set to mu­sic by dr l subra­ma­niam and sung by Kavita Kr­ish­na­murti. it was re­cently per­formed by the sym­phonic orches­tra of the national Theatre of Brasilia. unesco has called the idea of a com­mon earth An­them an in­spir­ing thought that can help the world come to­gether. sev­eral prom­i­nent per­sons across the globe support the idea of a com­mon earth An­them in­clud­ing film direc­tor Shyam Bene­gal, ac­tress Man­isha Koirala and no­bel lau­re­ate Kailash sat­yarthi. i’d like that some day un gen­eral As­sem­bly opens its ses­sion by singing the earth An­them and the olympic games in Tokyo open by singing the earth An­them.

The Earth An­them is dif­fer­ent from the World An­them in a sig­nif­i­cant way that it in­cludes all species who in­habit our planet in­clud­ing us hu­mans. it has a cos­mic per­spec­tive which sees earth as a life-giv­ing oa­sis in a cos­mic desert. it has words such as ‘We are hu­mans, earth is our home’ and ‘All for one, one for all’ among oth­ers.

Here is the an­them in full:

Our cos­mic oa­sis, cos­mic blue pearl the most beau­ti­ful planet in the uni­verse all the con­ti­nents and the oceans of the world united we stand as flora and fauna united we stand as species of one earth black, brown, white, dif­fer­ent colours we are hu­mans, the earth is our home

Our cos­mic oa­sis, cos­mic blue pearl the most beau­ti­ful planet in the uni­verse all the peo­ple and the na­tions of the world all for one and one for all united we un­furl the blue mar­ble flag black, brown, white, dif­fer­ent colours we are hu­mans, the earth is our home.

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“Be­ing a poet, I find it easy to con­nect with peo­ple. I think con­nect­ing with peo­ple from other coun­tries, cul­tures can be a great as­set for a diplo­mat.”

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