From washing dishes to writing epics, 66-year-old Haldhar Nag has had a life filled with setbacks, but his perseverance finally paid off in March 2016 when he received the Padma Shri award for his excellence in Kosli poetry. Nag was born in 1950 in the Bargarh district of Odisha. His family had always been poor and this situation only worsened with the death of his father when he was 10 years old. To provide an extra income Nag dropped out of school and took up a job washing dishes at a local sweet shop.
At the age of 12 he gave up this job and became a cook at a local school, here he remained for sixteen long years. When he saw that a number of schools had come up in the area he took out a loan of Rs. 1000 to set up a small shop selling snacks and stationery. During this time he wrote a few folktales in his native language of Kosli but it wasn’t until 1990 that he penned his first poem Dhodo Bargachh (The Old Banyan Tree) which was published in a local magazine.
This magazine later published three more of his poems which was when he started to gain the notice of critics and admirers. As his schooling was cut short Nag feels more comfortable memorising his work rather that writing it down. A close associate of his told the Times of India ‘He remembers whatever he writes and has been reciting them. You just need to mention the name or subject. He never misses anything.’ This extraordinary talent earned him the name Lok Kabi Ratna (Poet who is the world’s gem) in Odisha.
The themes in Nag’s poetry are incredibly diverse, he explores the facets of nature, society, religion and mythology because he believes poetry must have a real world connection for people and deliver a solid message. He also takes up poems championing the oppressed and promoting social reform. He is very pleased with the popularity of his work and hopes it will inspire others in the future ‘It’s great to see the huge interest of young people in poems in Kosli. Everyone is a poet, but only a few have the art of giving them shape.’ says Nag.
His humility and unassuming nature is at odds with the level of fame he’s attained. When he was chosen as the recipient of the Padma Shri award (the fourth highest civilian award) for poetry, he accepted the award from President Pranab Mukherjee wearing a plain white dhoti and was barefoot. Nag has reportedly never worn footwear in his life claiming ‘I feel free in this attire.’
In a (frankly poetic) twist of fate, the writings of this school dropout have been chosen as the subject of no less than five PhD candidates. In addition to this, Sambalpur University in Odisha is planning to publish his entire works under the title Haldhar Granthabali – 2 which will then be added to their syllabus. In a tale that reads like fantasy itself, this phenomenal artist rose from nothing to become a respected and beloved member of society that is slowly changing the face of Kosli poetry.