Saturday, 22 August 2009

Images of a Poet

Strange to end up writing about Ğabdulla Tuqay after searching for Ildar Urmanche - both were influential Tatars in the world of art, but Tuqay is definitely more famous than the Soviet animation director Urmanche.

The national poet of Tatarstan, Ğabdulla Tuqay (often spelled Gabdulla Tuqai or Tukai), lived a short but intense life around the previous turn of the century (1886 - 1913). His works are considered as the backbone of Tatar literature, the measure which others are measured against, inescapable in cultural celebrations as well as in primary school. His poem Tuğan tel (O Native Tongue; see the end of this post for a music video) became the inofficial anthem of the Tatar language. The story of his life is worthy of a Dostoyevsky novel.

Posthumous portrait by E. Simbirin, 1976.

Ğabdulla Tuqay was the son of a village mullah. Tuqay's childhood was restless, his parents and his stepmother died, one after another, and Tuqay was sent around from family to family, always forced to find a new place to live because of death, illness or poverty. During his stay with one family, Ğabdulla was sent to the local madrasah (religious school of Islam). He showed promise as a student, but his wandering days were not over. Some relatives in Uralsk (today Oral in Kazakhstan) adopted him. He could attend another madrasah, and in 1896 also a Russian school. There he studied Russian literature and started to write poetry, especially inspired by Pushkin.

Tuqay was uninterested in business, although his stepfather was a merchant and tried to involve him in the trade. When his stepfather died, Tuqay moved into the madrasah and lived a studious but austere life. The year 1902 became a turning point - Ğabdulla suddenly lost interest in religious rote learning. He tasted alcohol, took up smoking, let his hair grow longer and turned to poetry. Earlier he had shown interest in folklore and asked traveling scholars to bring him local songs and tales. His madrasah studies had familiarized him with Old Tatar literature, which was heavily influenced by Arabic, Persian and Turkic. An ambition took root in him to create a new and living Tatar literature closer to the way the common people spoke.

Tuqay was not heroically handsome; he was physically fragile and boyish even in maturity and illness. The pictures in this post show how artists idealized him by focusing on his soulful eyes and intensifying the power of his gaze instead. Here, actor G. Shamukov does his best to emphasize the masculine determination in Tuqay, even on his sickbed. (More photos of Tuqay and actors portraying him)

Tuqay started to work at a secular publishing house in Uralsk. The printed media boomed after the October Manifesto of 1905, which introduced more liberal censorship laws. Previously, it was forbidden to publish newspapers in the Tatar language. By day Tuqay worked as a typesetter and proofreader, by night he wrote verses, articles and short stories and translated Russian texts. He became interested in liberal and social-democratic ideas, which intertwined with a vision of national emancipation. Tuqay wrote, Bezneñ millät, ülgänme, ällä yoqlağan ğınamı? (Is our nation dead, or only sleeping?). He criticised the conservative clergy in clever satires. When ultra-nationalist Russians told Tatars to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire, Tuqay replied with a passionate declaration: Kitmibez! (We don't leave!). For Tuqay, the Tatars were the Russians' brother-nation.

Political and economic pressure increased on the press. While Tuqay's fame allowed him move out of the madrasah and he didn't lack offers of work, the political unrest also led him towards poetry and the development of modern Tatar as a literary language. His first poem was Şüräle, based on a Tatar fairytale. Soon, he was invited to work in Kazan. Ominously, he was exempted of the notoriously brutal military draft due to his poor health. It was a foreboding of the end of his short life, but it freed him to his work. In Kazan, Tuqay was barely 20 and already famous. Fame usually brings romantic attention, too. However, Tuqay apparently avoided women and wrote tender verses to one person alone, his 15-year-old admirer Zäytünä Mäwlüdova.

With his sister Gaziza in Uralsk, by Kh. Yakupov, 1971. (More images of artworks with Tuqay)

In 1909-1910 the prime minister of Russia, Pyotr Stolypin, cracked down on the press and limited the freedoms of 1905. Tuqay was deeply distressed. All the struggle seemed to have been futile. Some of his old friends began to work for conservative papers and responded to Tuqay's criticism by calling him a Russophile. Ironically, the Tsarist secret police suspected that his poetry was Russophobic! While meant as an insult, "Russophile" was closer to the truth. Tuqay mourned Leo Tolstoy's death in 1910. He was inspired by Tolstoy's humanism and concern for the weakest.

Illustration for Tuqay's tales for children, by T. Khaziakhmetov, 1981.

Tuqay and Kumis Therapy

Kumis is fermented mare's milk, a staple drink in the Central Asian countries. In the late 19th century, kumis therapy was a popular health fad in the Russian Empire. Patients travelled to resorts in the southeastern parts of the Empire and enjoyed "suitable light and varied amusement" - and drank large amounts of kumis, which made Anton Chekhov gain 12 pounds in two weeks but did not cure his tuberculosis. Leo Tolstoy described kumis therapy as a treatment for burnout in A Confession: "I fell ill, mentally rather than physically, threw up everything, and went away to the Bashkirs in the steppes, to breathe fresh air, drink kumys, and live a merely animal life."

Like Chekhov, Tuqay suffered from tuberculosis. He realized that he needed all his powers to continue the struggle for national rights and democracy - and he dreamed of writing "the Tatar Eugen Onegin" - but he needed to regain his health. Tuqay travelled from Kazan by the great Volga southwards to Astrakhan, where he experienced kumis therapy. Another trip took him to Ufa and St. Petersburg, where a doctor withheld from him that his illness had reached the final stage. In 1912, he lived among Kazakh nomads, drinking kumiss regularly.

Tuqay in St. Petersburg, by M. Rakhimov, 1975.

Although kumis couldn't cure him, it gave him back his optimism. In the poems of his final year he wrote that the struggle had not been in vain, and focused on social concerns. Many of his verses were banned, and some of them were published only after the October Revolution. One poem unfortunately remembered was his ode to the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. In the 1920s, Tuqay was dismissed as a "Tsarist" because of this poem, which nevertheless ends with a call for internationalism within Russia and praises the eternal friendship between Tatars and Russians.

Bust by Baki Urmanche, who had a son named Ildar - could he be the art director whom I mentioned in the beginning?

On April 15, 1913, Ğabdulla Tuqay died at the age of 27. April 26, his birthday, is celebrated nowadays as the Day of Tatar Language. The Peremech Lounge has a photo of his grave and pictures of an interesting Tuqay pocket reader from the Soviet era. Oh yeah, almost forgot: Here's Tatar boy band Kazan Egetläre giving their version of Tugan tel...

No comments: