Poetry and diplomacy combine ambiguity and brevity: Diplomat Abhay Kumar

Abhay Kumar speaks about the poetry-diplomacy connect and how poetry is an effective diplomatic tool

Deepak Parvatiyar | May 9, 2018


#Abhay Kumar   #Poetry   #Diplomacy   #Earth Anthem  
Photo: Facebook/Abhay Kumar
Photo: Facebook/Abhay Kumar

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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(The interview appears in the May 15, 2018 issue)

 

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