Rasul Gamzatov, People’s Poet of Daghestan – A Life

By: Shailendra Chauhan


Gamzatov, Rasul Gamzatovich, was born on 8 September 1923 in the Avar village of Tsada, Daghestan in the north-east Caucasus. His father, the People’s Poet Gamzat Tsadas, was his first teacher and mentor in the study of poetry. Gamzat Tsadasa was a well-known bard, heir to the ancient tradition of minstrelsy still thriving in the mountains. Bards were held in high honour. When Makhmud, famous poet of the previous generation, sang in a busy market-place, plucking the strings of his pandura for accompaniment, young and old would listen in silence with bated breath: even a bee’s flight could be heard. Gamzatov wrote his first poem when he was nine years old. The young Rasul, impatient of any interruption, would listen for hours on end to the Avar stories, legends and fables his father would relate. «When I was quite small,» he recalls, «he would wrap me in his sheepskin cloak and recite his poems to me, so I knew them all by heart before one ever rode a horse or wore a belt.»

From the small window of his father’s flat-roofed house of solid stone he could see a patch of green field spread like a tablecloth below the village and, above it, overhanging rocks. Paths wound like snakes up the steep slopes where caves gaped like the jaws of wild beasts. Beyond the mountain ridge rose yet another, arched and rough as a camel’s back. As a boy Rasul would graze a neighbour’s horse for three days with the telling of a story as his reward. He would climb half a day to join shepherds in the mountains and walk half a day back just to hear a single poem!

In the second form at school he walked twelve miles to see an old man, a friend of his father’s, who knew many songs, poems and legends. The old man sang and recited to the young boy for four days from morning till night. Rasul wrote down what he could and went happily home with a bagful of poems. He was eleven when he wrote his first verse, lying on a bull’s hide on the balcony at home. It was a poem about the local boys who ran down to the clearing where an aeroplane landed for the first time in 1934. Gamzatov studied at the pedagogical institute and, in 1940, returned to teach in his village school for a short time. He then took on a series of jobs, including director”s assistant in a traveling theatre troupe, and worker for radio as well as the newspaper Bolshevik Gor.In 1943, he published his first collection of poems, Firey Love and Burning Hate, in Avar, the language of Dagestan. That same year, he became a member of the Soviet Writers Union.

Gamzatov studied at the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow between 1945 and 1950. His first collection of poems in Russian was published in 1947. The title of his first book of poems was «Love Inspired and Fiery Wrath». He was overjoyed when girls in the mountains who had read it wrote to him—and to this day he cannot forget his pain on seeing a shepherd in winter pastures using a page to roll a cigarette. This was in 1943. In 1945 with a few books of his own in Avar tucked under his arm and with a meagre sum of money in his pocket, he arrived in Moscow to enter the Gorky Institute of Literature. There in the stimulating company of younger poets and under the guidance of veteran writers he studied Russian and world literature and the craft of poetry. By turns he fell in love with Blok, Mayakovsky, Yesenin, Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, Bagritsky, the Avar Makhmud and the German Heine. But Pushkin and Lermontov remained his constant love. Over the past fifty years Rasul Gamzatov has been one of the most prolific of Soviet poets. From his pen have come short love lyrics, long narrative poems, ballads, epigrams and philosophical octaves, which have won him millions of devoted readers. Since then, he has published over 20 books in both Russian and Avar.Gamzatov translated many of the best Russian poets into the Avar language. ! Of the land of his birth, of its people and its poets he has drawn a fascinating, intimate and human portrait in his prose volume of musings and reminiscences «My Daghestan».

Among his many translations are the works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Mayakovsky, and Esenin.His poetry collection Year of My Birth (1950) was awarded the USSR State Prize in 1952. Gamzatov also won the Lenin Prize for his 1962 collection Lofty Stars. Some of his other titles include, Word About The Older Brother (1952), Dagestani Spring (1955), Miner (1958), My Heart is in The Hills (1959), Two Shawls, Letters (1963), Rosary of Years (1968), By The Hearth (1978), Island of Women (1983), Wheel of Life (1987) as well as the lyrical novel My Dagestan (1967-1971).In 1959, Gamzatov was declared a People”s Poet of Dagestan. In 1974 he became a Hero of Socialist Labor. In 1950. Winner of a Lenin Prize for poetry and honoured with the title of People’s Poet of Daghestan, Rasul Gamzatov was a well-known public figure. He travelled widely in Europe, Asia and America. Rasul Gamzatov wrote in his native Avar tongue, a language spoken by no more than 500,000 people. Yet even so the Avars along with the Darghins, Lezghins and Kumyks are among the largest ethnic groups in the two-million population of Daghestan, where 36 different languages are spoken. In connection with the approach of Gamzatov”s 80th birthday, the entire of 2003 was declared the Year of Rasul Gamzatov in Dagestan. Gamzatov was named Chairman of the Dagestani Writers Union, a post he held until his death. On November 3rd ‘2003, Rasul Gamzatov passed away in the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow.

Categories: Essay, Poetry

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