5 things to know about Abai

The city of Abai in Kazakhstan is named after Abai Qunanbayuli (1845-1904), a great thinker, writer and cultural reformer lauded as the country’s most famous poet. So influential are his works that he has been compared to literary greats like William Shakespeare and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Here are 5 things to know about Abai.

He translated famous works

Abai, who was born in a wealthy Muslim family, reportedly spoke eight languages. Much of his legacy included his translations of various famous Russian and European literary works into Kazakh. These included poetry by great Russian writers and poets such as Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Ivan Krylov, which later became the cultural patrimony of Kazakhstan. He also translated works from German writers Friedrich Schiller and Goethe, as well as those by the English peer and poet, Lord Byron.

Kazakhstan commemorates him

The country has been paying tribute every year to its favourite son, who left an indelible mark on its history and culture. Year-long celebrations had been planned for 2020, which marks the 175th anniversary of his birth. They kicked off on 21 January 2020 at the Astana Opera Theatre. But other events, such as readings of his works, have unfortunately been affected by the Covid-19 outbreak.

His poetry inspired the nation

Before Abai, Kazakh literature – comprising mostly epics and songs about nomadic life in the steppes – used to be passed down orally. Through his study of the cultures and philosophies of Russia as well as of the West and Asia, Abai distilled a new Kazakh literature in written form. His poetry and writings melded patriotism with humanism and modern thinking at a time when Kazakhstan was undergoing major socio-political and economic shifts. His works went on to inspire and influence the Kazakhs, and are studied in school.

Streets and buildings have been named after him

Aside from the city of Abai, other parts of Kazakhstan have named various buildings after him. For example, the Abai State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Almaty was named after him in 1945. In India, you can also find a street called Abai Marg in New Delhi. The street symbolises the close relationship between Kazakhstan and India, which also featured Abai on commemorative postage stamps issued in 1996.

His most famous work can be found on Instagram
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A post shared by Didar KM (@abaicartoons)

Widely regarded as Abai’s most famous work, The Book of Words, is a collection of poems and texts on philosophy. Through the book, he hoped to encourage Kazakhs to embrace education, literacy and good moral character to overcome poverty, enslavement and corruption. His wisdom and vision have endured till today. In 2015, an anonymous artist known as Didar KM sparked fresh interest in Abai’s work when he illustrated some quotes from the book and translated them to English on Instagram. The account, which began as a hobby for the artist, has amassed close to 8,000 followers!