A Brief Note
on the Life of Abai Kunanbaev

Iraj Bashiri
Copyright, Bashiri, 2000

[For a complete account of Abai Kunanbaev's life, see Iraj Bashiri's article in "Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century."]

Also known as Ibrahim Kunanbaev, the Kazakh poet, philosopher, composer, and educator was born on 10 August, 1845 in Chingis-Tau (now Karaul) and died on 6 July, 1904, at the same place. The founder of modern Kazakh literature's father, a prominent feudal lord, made sure that his son receieved a proper education, which at that time meant a mektap upbringing at the aul complemented with a Russian education at Semipalatinsk. The latter education was pivotal in Abai's grasp of the dynamics of his time; it enhanced his knowledge which thus far had been confined to the world Firdowsi (935-1020), Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209), Sa'di (1213-1292), and Alisher Navo'i (1441-1501). Indeed, it was not until after becoming familiar with the works of Ivan Andrevich Krilov (1769-1844), Mikhail Urivich Lermontov (1814-1841), and Alexandr Sergevich Pushkin (1799-1837), that Abai became convinced that he could reshaped the views and the lifestyle of his tribe.

One of the early promoters of the Russian language and culture among the Kazakhs, Abai became a favorite of Soviet commentators who found in him the epitome of progress in dismantling the Islamic Shari'a law among the Kazakhs. Abai's "Kulembaiu" (1888), "Luckily, I too Became a Governor" (1889), and "The Bailiff Delights in Authority" (1889) are poignant examples of his stance against oppression and the tyranny of the bais. His treatment of the four seasons of the year: "Spring" (1890), "Summer" (1886), "Fall" (1889), and "Winter" (1888) includes several innovative features.

Abai's literary legacy also includes a number of ballads dedicated to eastern and western themes. Among these fictional pieces like "Mas'ud" (1887) and "Alexander," exploring the eastern and western themes respectively, stand out.

Abai was a musician. He adapted some of his own lyric poetry to music and employed the Kazakh vernacular for the expression of the progressive aspects of the literatures of the East and the West.

Abai's life has been the subject of two major works by Mukhtar Auezov (1897-1961). Entitled "Abai" (1942-47) and "The Path of Abai " (1952-56), they examine Abai's life as well as the history that shaped the lives of Abai's contemporaries. The saga begins with Abai as a boy returning to his aul from Semipalatinsk. There he observes the execution of a man and a woman who had been found guilty by the Shari'a law. He is appalled that his own father should be the instrument of the destruction of the innocents. He decides there and then that the Kazakhs must become civilized.

Abai's education, however, was not sufficient to fathom the depth of the cultures involved. According to Auezov, he joined forces with E. P. Mikhailov, a political exile who familiarized Abai with the plight of the Russians struggling to free themselves from serfdom.

Using his poetic and musical talents, Abai reached the youths of the auls and communicated his message to them. And with their help, he opened the way for a smooth transition for the Kazakhs into a sedentary, law-abiding existence.

Abai Kunanbaev

translated by
Dorian Rottenberg

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