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The romantic rebel

Print edition : Feb 14, 2003 T+T-
Harivanshrai Bachchan with his son Amitabh Bachchan.-KUNDAN GOSWAMY

Harivanshrai Bachchan with his son Amitabh Bachchan.-KUNDAN GOSWAMY

Harivanshrai Bachchan, 1907-2003.

mere adharon par ho antim, vastu na tulsidal pyaalaa

meri jiwha par ho antim, vastu na gangaajal haalaa

mere shav ke peechhe chalne waalo, yaad ise rakhnaa

Ram naam hai satya na kehnaa, kehnaa sachchee Madhushaala

[The last thing on my lips should not be the basil leaf but the cup/ The last thing on my tongue should not be holy water from the Ganga but wine/ Those who join my funeral procession, must remember not to say `Ram is the truth'/ since truth is in the tavern]

mere shav par vah roae ho, jiske aansoo mein haalaa

aah bhare voh ho jo surbhit, madiraa pee kar matwaalaa

daen mujhko ve kandha jinke, pag-mag-dag-mag hoate hoan

aur jaloon us thaur jahan par, kabhi rahi ho Madhushaala

[Only he/she must weep over my corpse, whose tears are full of wine/ Only he/she must sigh, who is intoxicated with drink/ Only they must lay shoulder to me whose legs jerk and quiver/ And I should be cremated at a site where once stood a tavern.]

A GREAT romantic voice of Hindi poetry that penned such rebellious lines of rejection of tradition went silently into the night on January 18, 2003.

Harivanshrai Bachchan, known to his numerous admirers as Dr. Bachchan, or simply Bachchanji, had been suffering from serious respiratory ailments for some time. In a strange coincidence, suffused with poetic significance, the end came at midnight, the time of day that always drew his poetic attention as a transitional - almost mystical - moment, specially chosen by nature for major happenings.

The second volume of Bachchan's celebrated autobiography Need Ka Nirman Phir (Building a new nest), contains a brilliant piece on "Midnight", which constitutes the backdrop to the description of the death of his first wife, Shyama. With a hint of prophesy, he wrote: "There is much that has happened in my case at midnight times - even in the material sense." Midnight was also to spell the final stop to this fulfilling life of 96 years, which in the poet's estimation, was little else than a kshan-bhar jivan (a moment's life).

The metaphor of midnight is helpful in appreciating Bachchan's place in Hindi writing, especially poetry. Harivanshrai Bachchan must have published some 30 collections of his poetry. Yet he is known mostly for his poetic trilogy of Madhushaala, Madhubaala and Madhukalash, and more so for the first of these. Published in 1935, Madhushaala did not just bring Bachchan instant fame. Rendered by the poet at various kavi sammelans, it literally became a craze. The poet's cinema-star son Amitabh Bachchan was not very far off the mark when he said that the kind of stardom he enjoyed today, had come his father's way a long time back.

Harivanshrai Bachchan's stardom, unique in Hindi literature, was mostly the gift of Madhushaala. It is undoubtedly one of the most enduring works of modern Hindi literature. It has been translated into English and regional Indian languages such as Bengali, Marathi and Malayalam. It has been choreographed, and performed on stage. It was also one the first pieces of Hindi poetry that was set to music, with its best-selling cassettes and CDs attracting generations of listeners.

This amazing popularity of Madhushaala can be understood only by placing it in the socio-political and literary context in which it was written. It is a significant coincidence, perhaps not entirely one, that the year 1935 also saw the appearance of Jaishankar Prasad's Kaamayani, another milestone in Hindi poetry. The next year saw the publication of Premchand's last complete novel, Godaan. While Premchand's realism pointed towards the aesthetics of the future, Kaamayani, written in the form of a Prabandh Kavya (classic) represented the strengths and limitations of the urge for freedom as represented by Hindi Chaayavaadi (romantic) poetry, of which he was one of the main exponents.

The Chaayavaadi school represented the advance from theological and mythological motifs and to the placing of the modern man at the centre of the universe, a great leap in cultural understanding that engendered a particular style of lyricism. But the romanticism of this school had not quite broken out of the web of the mystical. Its imagery was remote and the language had the polished glitter of artificiality. It is precisely here that Madhushaala's unfettered and sensuous romanticism challenged Chaayavaad's diction and imagery, and almost instantly won the endorsement of the literary public.

It is important to note that Harivanshrai Bachchan, born in an ordinary Kaayasth family in a small town near Allahabad and schooled in municipal and Kaayasth Paathshaalas, gave up his university education to participate in the great upsurge of nationalism that began in 1930. Realising after not very long that this was not the path he wanted to follow, he went back to university. His sensibilities nevertheless continued to be influenced and moulded by the freedom movement. Through his translations of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat, that famous celebration of Bacchanalia, Bachchan realised the possibilities of using drinking as a poetic metaphor for freedom. And this was a freedom that no doubt had more to do with man's inner spaces. It had to be a celebration of the individual, his freedoms and his self-assertion. This was an affirmation of the individual that broke all social, religious and moral barriers in its radical assertion of the equality of men. This is what made Bachchan write: dharm granth sab jalaa chuki hei, jiske bheetar ki jwalaa mandir, masjid, girje sab kuchh, toad chuka jo matwaalaa pandit, momin, padariyon ke, phandon ko jo kaat chuka kar sakti hai aaj usi ka, swaagat meri Madhushaala [One whose inner fire has burnt all holy books/ One who has demolished all religious places - temple, mosque or church/ One who has cut himself free of the clutches of the pandit, imam and priest/ He alone is today welcome in my Madhushaala.]

The radical critique of institutional religion is carried further in the following passage:Musalmaan aur Hindu do hain, ek magar un ka piala, Ek magar un ka madiralay, ek magar unki hala, Douno rahte ek na jab tak Mandir-Masjid main jate, Mandir-Masjid bair karate, meil karati Madhushaala. [The Muslim and the Hindu are different, but they drink out of the same cup/ They drink at the same tavern, their wine is also the same/ They remain together so long as they stay away from the temple or mosque/ The temple and the mosque divide but the tavern only unites.]

Expanding the idiom of expression beyond the Chaayavaadi mainstream, Bachchan brought to his poetic affirmation of the urge for freedom the sensuousness of the common man's everyday diction and sensuousness to Hindi poetry. Little wonder then that he got a rousing reception and became a literary superstar of his time. But despite his great popularity (or perhaps because of it), his initial breakthrough did not lead to the sustained growth of Bachchan as a poet. Alongside the literary revolution that Madhushaala brought about, a strong stream of radical poetry was also emerging, breaking free of the limitations of the Chaayaavadi concept of freedom and its sensibilities. This process fed diverse streams of Nai Kavita (new poetry) which finally broke the integument of romanticism. But Bachchan stuck to his romantic idiom and continued to run as a parallel stream. Like a seasonal rivulet it was quick to rise and still quicker to empty itself out. Post-independence, as Nai Kavita was like a river in spate, Bachchan was reduced to an isolated island - a popular poet from a bygone era. Although he continued to write and publish, he was still considered the poet who had had one great idea in the distant past and never quite managed to reproduce that inspiration. For the last three decades or more of his life, he was not an active presence in the field of poetry.

The only thing of real significance to come from Bachchan's pen at a later stage was his autobiography in four volumes, now considered one of the landmarks in the evolution of the genre in the Hindi language. This work has reached the English language readership through a knowledgeable and sensitive translation and abridgment by Rupert Snell, entitled In the Afternoon of Time: An Autobiography.

Bachchan of course had much of interest to write about since his had been an extremely eventful life, from humble and obscure beginnings to literary cult status, and much later, a cine superstar's father. He taught at the English Department in Allahabad University from 1941 to 1952, and spent the following two years at Cambridge University doing his doctoral thesis on W.B. Yeats. Back from Cambridge, he again took to teaching and also served at All India Radio, Allahabad. In 1955, Bachchan shifted to Delhi to join the External Affairs Ministry as a Special Officer for Hindi. Here he is credited with important contributions towards saving official Hindi from the course of total divorce from ordinary spoken language that the ultra-nationalists had set it on. He also enriched Hindi through his translations of major writings. Besides Rubaiyat, he will also be remembered for his Hindi translations of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Othello and also the Bhagvad Gita.

Bachchan was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1966 and received the Sahitya Akademi award three years later. In 1976 he was honoured with the Padma Bhushan for his immense contribution to Hindi literature. He was also honoured with the Saraswati Samman, the Sovietland Nehru Award and the Lotus Award of the Afro-Asian writers conference, for his unique contribution to the world of letters. But if ever asked to introduce himself, he had a simple introduction: Mitti ka tan, masti ka man, kshan-bhar jivan -- mera parichay. (A body of clay, a mind full of play, a moment's life - that is me.) Truly a man of erudition and zest.

Rajendra Sharma is a Hindi writer and journalist based in Delhi.