A tribute to a master

Published : Dec 31, 2004 00:00 IST

SAHMAT brings out a calendar of paintings by eminent artists based on Munshi Premchand's works to celebrate the great writer's 125th birth anniversary.

in New Delhi

Paintings in the calendar by Nand Katyal (left) and Veer Munshi.

COME 2005 and the nation will observe the 125th birth anniversary of Munshi Premchand, one of the subcontinent's best-loved writers of the past one century. Born Dhanpat Rai in Lamhai near Benaras (Varanasi) in 1880, Premchand is widely regarded as the father of the modern Urdu/Hindi novel.

Unfortunately, much of his work lies obscured and ignored. The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) plans to bring out a calendar of paintings by eminent artists based on Premchand's works, to celebrate the anniversary and also to mark the 16th Safdar Memorial, on January 1, 2005. Formed in 1989, after the murder of the actor-playwright-poet Safdar Hashmi, the collective of artists, writers, theatre persons and film-makers, has worked tirelessly towards keeping alive the secular, pro-people artistic traditions of the country. Safdar Hashmi founded Jan Natya Manch, also known as Janam, in 1973. The group focusses on street plays, delving into the theatre of protest to address issues of people's concern through satire, song and dance. In fact, Safdar Hashmi was enacting a street play called "Halla Bol", based on workers' rights, when he was fatally attacked.

Every year, SAHMAT also organises conventions on economic and other issues of concern to the people on April 12, which is Safdar Hashmi's birthday and observed as National Street Theatre day. In previous years, homage was paid to Safdar Hashmi in various ways. Rajendra Prasad of SAHMAT says: "The Indian creative endeavour has mostly held up the values of secularism and pluralism. To highlight this, we organised a Sufi-Bhakti programme in 1993."

Rajendra Prasad says: "Artists have been getting into text, which is a rare thing in art. Some are portraits and a few are graphic designs. The calendar will be out by the end of this year and an exhibition of all these works, by at least 20 different artists, will be displayed on January 1. As part of the events, we are also inviting artists, theatre persons, academicians and film-makers to read from Premchand's work. Jan Natya Manch will perform a play based on one of his short stories."

SAHMAT chose to focus on Premchand since he is one of the few writers in India whose work shows great empathy for the poor and the oppressed. Premchand, who wrote in both Hindi and Urdu, was also a great secular icon. In fact, he mostly wrote in Urdu and condemned any attempt to divide people in the name of religion. He wrote on subjects such as widowhood (the short story titled "Bewaa"), exploitation of peasants ("Godan") and the freedom movement ("Shatranj Ke Khiladi").

The SAHMAT calendar will have works by eminent artists from across the country such as Ghulam Sheikh, Veer Munshi, Arpana Caur, Shamshad Husain, Gopi Gajwani, Haku Shah, Ram Rahman, Parthiv Shah, Eleena Banik, Nand Katyal, Rajinder Arora, Jahangir Jani, Hem Jyotika and Saba Hasan.

Artist Gopi Gajwani, a veteran with more than four decades' work, and a graduate from the Delhi School of Art, describes himself as an abstract painter. But he has done away with abstractions in his representation of Premchand. "I have done a charcoal drawing, a life-sized portrait. I haven't tried to illustrate the text as such, or dramatise any particular story. With a light touch of green in the background, I have emphasised the landscape of his work - the rural-pastoral," he said. He added that he had read a lot of Premchand's works but was disappointed by the fact that most youngsters were not familiar with them. Gajwani said: "I once asked a convent-educated young man what he thought of Premchand and he asked me, `Who is Premchand?' Premchand is India. He is evergreen. If you haven't read Premchand, you've missed out on a lot. His role is immense, especially in depicting the life of the common man."

Ghulam Sheikh, an artist and art historian based in Vadodara, has also contributed to the cause. "I have made two posters. One is borrowed from a street scene in one of his [Premchand's] stories. And the other is a digital collage, made with material and images drawn from different sources. I put it in two mirrors, one side is Premchand in Hindi and the other side is Premchand in Urdu. This is a recognition of the fact that Premchand wrote in both Hindi and Urdu. But the deeper interpretation is his secularism."

A sad fact is that this great writer does not even have an archive or a library dedicated to him. Rajendra Prasad points out: "There is no archive of Premchand's work so far, which is so surprising. Thousands of dissertations have been written about Premchand - as the father of the modern Hindi short story and novel. But there is no one place where they have been housed, or even indexed. Mushir-ul Hasan, the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia (Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi), is setting up an archive now. The university represents the same composite culture that Premchand came from. In fact, he wrote one of his best-known short stories, "Kafan", while living at Jamia. Land has been earmarked for the archive and we are waiting for the Ministry of Culture to respond and lend support to the project. We hope that this exhibition will be the inaugural activity of the proposed archive."

Meanwhile, other relics associated with Premchand are fading away. The house he was born in has already been demolished. The house he lived in is in a bad shape. Premchand's grandson, Anil Rai, told Frontline: "The roof is practically falling down. The government needs to do something. Some things have been done but not enough. There are lots of translations (of his work) in English and other foreign languages as well as in Indian languages. Some films have been made. But we need a national archive for his work. We would like a memorial library, ideally."

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