People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 30

July 29, 2007

The War Of Independence And Contemporary Hindi Literature - II


Murli Manohar Prasad Singh


THE transition from an oral tradition of literary composition to the era of publishing literature in printed form immediately resulted in numerous positive as well as negative consequences. The first important consequence was that whereas earlier it was necessary for the author/narrator to take into account the ability of the audience to assimilate, and to be responsive to the social circumstances of those who were physically present, these preconditions were no longer as relevant. Since the printed literary product could now be read individually and privately, therefore the compositions of the colonial era were addressed to an impersonal audience comprising the emerging educated professional middle-class.


The emergence of a critical perspective, based on the linkage between popular memory of the events of the war of independence and the desire for liberation from an oppressive foreign domination, proceeded at a very slow pace. On the other hand in the post-1857 period thousands of folk songs about the Revolt had gained widespread popularity. These spoke of the struggles and sacrifices of the sipahis, the peasants, the rebel rulers, and of participation by women from all social classes. It is unlikely that the literary figures of the Bharatendu circle would have been unacquainted with the deeply felt sentiments of national liberation that announced their fruition in these folk songs. Hindi writers of that era, including those of the Bharatendu circle, invariably belonged to the regions of Avadh, Bundelkhand, Bhojpur, etc. Down to the present day folk songs sung in this region in memory of rebel soldiers, peasants, weavers, artisans who fought along with Rani Lakshmi Bai, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Rana Madhav Singh and Kunwar Singh, acclaim this heroic struggle against colonial rule. What are the implications of this paradox when we view these developments in the context of cultural history? Obviously the literary tradition associated with printed literature got estranged from the everyday concerns of the people, whereas, ironically, the continuing oral tradition gave voice to the aspirations of the common people.




Attempts to overcome this indifference – to make literature more naturalistic, especially by urging upon the need to incorporate the legacy of folk genres in the creative endeavour – are clearly evident in the literature of the Bharatendu era after 1877-78. This period saw the beginnings of these trends. One positive outcome of the new tradition of literature in printed form was that literary creativity was no longer dependent upon the feudal aristocracy. Printing technology provided it with the opportunity to come closer to the lives of the common people, via those social classes that had access to education. The limited audience of oral narration or manuscripts was now replaced by the mass audience created by print technology. This in turn led to the democratisation of literature.


The inspiration to produce popular literature as distinct from the elitist culture of the Scholastic period (ritikal), compelled writers to turn to theatre and drama. Virtually every poet wrote plays as well, with which were integrated folk tunes (together with metres and poetic forms) that had been prevalent among the Hindi-Urdu speaking communities for several centuries. Several playwrights took the initiative to form troupes of theatre artistes which regularly performed at locations such as Banaras, Allahabad, Kanpur, Jhansi, Arrah, Chhapra, Patna and Kolkata. Writers and journalists were responsible for encouraging drama and theatre to reach out to uneducated masses on a large scale.


The historical significance of the post-1868 literature of the Bharatendu era lies in the preliminary move in the direction of situating this worldliness, the sentiments of nationhood, and the anguish of harsh socio-economic realities at the centre of their creative endeavours. The shortcomings of literature of the Bharatendu era with reference to ideological-political issues focussing on martyrs of the Revolt, the barbarities perpetrated by the British, the call for national liberation; as well as the narrow vision reflected in expressing opposition to Urdu in terms of anti-Muslim sentiment — all these shortcomings and limitations are those of the contemporary educated middle-class. On the one hand the class formation of that period promoted the development of capitalism after the European model under colonial domination, while on the other hand indigenous mercantile capital was tied to the interests of the East India Company and the British raj. Besides, the overwhelming majority of the 565 princely states, the feudal and landed elites, and bankers and moneylenders constituted the main support of the colonial state and were in fact instruments of double exploitation. Viewed against this backdrop, we are able to comprehend as to why the Revolt could be defeated. The immediate post-1860 period was one of ruthless colonial oppression. In this period strict restrictions were imposed upon folk theatre in villages and qasbas through the Performance Act.




In the prevailing atmosphere of defeat – and of the euphoria created by British victory – it would be ahistorical to expect cultural workers of the post-1860 period to conform to the political-cultural demands of the twenty-first century. Therefore it would be improper to have a completely negative attitude towards, or be dismissive of, the literary efforts of the Bharatendu era, or towards Hindi-Urdu literature of the post-1860 period. Instead of trying to brush under the carpet the shortcomings of that period we need to critically evaluate this phase of Hindi literature and re-read it in the appropriate context. It would also not be correct to project some writers as heroes, while projecting as villains those who have differing viewpoints on substantial questions. Subjectively declaring one person as the embodiment of all good and another as that of evil, cannot constitute the basis of objective analysis and amounts to looking at history in terms of individuals. We need to understand that during the latter half of the nineteenth century writers, intellectuals, journalists, teachers, Indians who constituted part of colonial officialdom at various levels, commercial groups including petty-traders and shopkeepers, were all torn between obscurantist and feudal socio-religious values on the one hand and values of a modern democratic society on the other. The process of emancipating oneself from inherited beliefs and values was a slow and gradual one, and this internal conflict is reflected in the entire Hindi-Urdu literature of the nineteenth century.


Notwithstanding these limitations, Bharatendu and his contemporaries were acutely aware of the fact that the traditional Indian textile industry, and handicrafts, had been systematically destroyed so that the market could be opened up for the products of Lancashire. Bharatendu had composed a discourse in verse-form on this theme which was published in the June 1877 issue of Hindi Pradip. In this composition he talked about the need to develop industry, science and technology, while at the same time underlining the constraints and dependence of the people of Hindustan. This is one example of the concern he felt about the subjugation of India.


In his speeches and writings Bharatendu constantly referred to the need for unity among Indians, and stressed on the importance of harmony, as being essential for the progress of the nation. However, he invariably equates the nation with ‘Arya Jati’ and speaks of the plight of the ‘Arya Jati’. This is something we also find in the writings of some of his contemporaries such as Pratap Narayan Mishra, Radhacharan Goswami, etc. The well-known 1884 Ballia speech of Bharatendu which is often quoted as an example of his patriotic and nationalist sentiments, actually visualised the industrial development of India on the basis of modern science and technology within the framework of colonial rule. Pratap Narayan Mishra in a poem published in Pratap Lehri praises the compassion of queen Victoria, and appeals to her to put an end to the misfortunes of India. In a similar vein Mishra composed a lengthy poem to welcome the Prince of Wales on his visit to India, in which he urged the royal visitor to free the people of their distress.


The very obvious limitations of the nationalism espoused by the Bharatendu era were essentially the result of the failure to derive any lesson from the unity of the Hindus-Muslims-Sikhs which had constituted the basis of the popular uprising of 1857. This was a nationalism that was conceived of in terms of the aspirations of ‘Hindus’, in which there was no reference to equal citizenship rights for other communities. There is, of course, no call for a mass struggle in order to attain national liberation. But there is also no trace of the conception of an all-inclusive nationalism. The massive and indiscriminate repression let loose by the colonial state created possibilities for an inclusive nationalism; but the hostility of writers of the Bharatendu era towards Urdu and the Muslims, constituted a self-imposed boundary for their outlook.


The significant positive element in the attitude of writers of the Bharatendu era was their awareness of the need for social and religious reform and opposition to obscurantist beliefs. On the other hand, with respect to the major class contradiction, the literature of that era lacked an all-India perspective for the struggle against colonialism — a struggle that would include all religious and linguistic communities. As a matter of fact there is no serious effort to carry forward the Revolt’s legacy of Hindu-Muslim unity. Rather, the writers of the Bharatendu era (as part of the educated middle-class as a whole) reinforced the policy of the colonial state to undermine the ideas that the Revolt had given rise to.


The historical situation created by the comprehensive triumph of British colonialism in India between 1857 and 1870-75 has recently been examined in great detail in the context of Urdu literature by Mohammad Hasan in his article in the 1857 Special Issue of Naya Path (May 2007). Much earlier, a collection of Urdu poems dealing with the Revolt and its brutal suppression had been published by Jan Nisar Akhtar under the title Hindustan Hamara. These poems were composed mainly between 1857 and 1865. We do not get similar compositions in the subsequent period once the Revolt had been crushed.


According to Mohammad Hasan, ‘the breaking of the link between the artiste and the darbar marked the beginning of a new cultural climate. While the princely states of Rampur, Mangrol or Hyderabad might have extended patronage to poets, yet their self-esteem and creativity were no longer at the mercy of the darbars. The reigns of culture were now in the hands of the middle class, and this culture had succeeded in finding an appropriate place for itself in this new dispensation. It is in this manner that new voices were heard in poetry, and the impact of western culture made itself apparent. Hali, Shibli, Sir Sayyid Ahmad, Azad, Nazir Ahmad, Zakaullah were all entirely remote from darbars, and had no attachment whatsoever for the culture and ways of darbars. This transformation in cultural mores became increasingly visible with the passage of time. Emphasis was now placed on education and industry; and there was talk of the new education, and of seeking employment [in professions], in the households of the landed aristocracy. ... After 1857 religion lost its centrality in culture, and other types of knowledge and skills acquired a distinct entity’.




By and large the same political and cultural tendencies prevailed in Hindi literature. Apart from Hindi-Urdu, other Indian languages also witnessed the beginning of a new era. This new era was marked by new achievements, especially the attempt to place realities of existence at the centre of creativity, and a critical view of reality. Nevertheless for a considerable length of time the concept of nationhood revolved around the notion of the well-being of the ‘Arya’ and ‘Hindu’. Denigration of Hindu-Muslim unity of the era of the Revolt was a prominent feature of literature for nearly 20-25 years. In the fiction written during these years Muslim characters were generally depicted as being ignoble, deceitful, villainous and characterless. This trend was openly criticised by Kashi Prasad Jayaswal in an article published in Hindi Pratap in 1889. Jayaswal was just emerging as a distinguished historian, and had read most of the novels that had been published. He was therefore in a position to comment on their content with some authority:


‘Presently there appears to be a glut of novels in Hindi. Most of these are translated from the Bangla language. There are actually few novels which have been written originally in Hindi, in fact it would be correct to say that there is a lack of such novels. Some of these translated novels are so horrible that it might be better to cast them into the Ganga. A novel (or book) cannot be regarded as a ‘Hindi novel’ or ‘Hindi book’ merely because it is written in Devanagari. A handful of Hindi novelists attempt to compete with the learned Reynolds Sahib, and produce large volumes by plagiarising from those books’.


In the subsequent passages Jayaswal refers to the ill-feeling that is symptomatic of novels translated from Bangla, and says: ‘There is one common fault of these novels. That great fault is that Muslims are depicted in such a manner that one would feel that among all human beings they are the most ignoble, wicked and deceitful. The Muslims appear to be incarnations of all that is bad and evil’. All these tendencies are so visibly prevalent in the novels of Kishori Lal Goswami.


The tendency to present Hindu characters as being ideal, in sharp contrast to Muslim characters, remained predominant till about 1900. This was particularly so in the case of novels that could be classified as historical romances — the communal mindset is so distinct in this genre. As a trend in the struggle against British imperialism, Hindu/Muslim/Sikh communalism was to eventually acquire organisational shape in the form of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha, Jamiat-i-Islami, Muslim League, Khalistanland etc., which even today poses a threat to the democratic and inclusive nationalism of independent India. At the same time there is today an urgent need to combat the narrowness of an earlier era in the creative impulses of Hindi-Urdu literature.


It is rather surprising that right until 1957 little attempt was made to utilise unpublished writings, relating to the Revolt, in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi and other Indian languages, and source material pertaining to these available in official reports and military records of the British Indian government, for the purpose of writing the history of the Revolt. It is perhaps for this reason that, for instance, there has been no attempt to distinguish between the prostitutes and courtesans (tawaif) of the Mughal period. Tripurari Sharma has written a play on this theme with Azizun Nisa as the central character, which looks at the public role of the courtesan, a role that does not find a place in the nationalist discourse. The Special Issue of Economic and Political Weekly on 1857 (May 10-16, 2007) carries an important analysis of the role of the courtesan, in the context of Sharma’s play, by Lata Singh.


It needs to be emphasised that the profession of the courtesan was primarily one of dancing and singing. This was a tradition that went back to the time of Chitralekha and Amrapali, and continued later in the figure of the ‘nagarvadhu’. This tradition was patronised by the Mughal emperors, rulers of princely states, and the feudal aristocracy in general.


We have the story of a courtesan of Kanpur who was amorously linked to a Hindu military subedar. When, during the course of the Revolt, the rebel subedar falls to the bullets of the British, the courtesan Azizun Nisa mobilises women to form a band of troops. She leads this band as its military commander and participates in the war of independence with full vigour along with Begam Hazrat Mahal and Tatya Tope. A similar role was played by courtesans in Delhi, Lucknow, Bareilly, Jhansi, etc.


Courtesans were not mere singers and dancers; many among them were capable of gaining widespread popularity for the compositions of poets through their vocal rendering of the poems. As a matter of fact some of these courtesans were themselves accomplished poets. Adequate evidence for these historical facts is provided in Maheshwar Dayal’s book Dilli Jo Ek Shahar Hai. On the active participation, and sacrifices, of Dalits and lower castes in the Revolt, reference may be made to Badri Narayan’s Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India, which throws light on the heroic part played by Balluram Mehtar, Uday Pasi, Jhalkari Bai and Uda Devi in the Revolt.


Notwithstanding this very extensive evidence of widespread popular participation in the Revolt, Hindi-Urdu literature of the nineteenth century produced no short story or novel on the Revolt in a nationalist context. It was only from the third decade of the twentieth century that a number of novels were published which were inspired by popular memory of the Revolt: Rishabhcharan Jain’s Ghadar; Pratap Narayan Srivastava’s Bekasi ka Mazar; Vrindavan Lal Varma’s Jhansi ki Rani; Kamlakant Tripathi’s Pahighar; Rajiv Saxena’s Ramaini; Mohandas Nimesh Rai’s Jhalkari Bai; and Ravindra Varma’s Mein Jhansi Nahin Doongi.


It is only by keeping in view these shortcomings of Hindi-Urdu literature that one can make a meaningful analysis of the diverse rationale of literary traditions. To pass judgement on these traditions without evaluating them dialectically in terms of their contradictions can only have an adverse impact on literary criticism. Meanwhile, there has been a decline in the historical content of criticism. The main reason for this is that since literary critics view the complex challenges of contemporary reality through the prism of hopes generated by the slogan of ‘Shining India’, therefore they would like to be rid of the dialectical view of the past. Serious difficulties confront the study of the literature of the latter half of the nineteenth century, especially since there is little awareness of the need to place the 1857 Revolt at the centre of any such study — particularly because there is great reluctance to derive any lessons from this major historical event.




[Translation by Amar Farooqui]