People's Democracy

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


No. 29

July 22, 2007

The War Of Independence And Contemporary Hindi Literature


Murli Manohar Prasad Singh


EVEN though the printing and publication of Hindi newspapers and religious books in the Devanagari script commenced around 1802, yet it was not until after 1868 that Hindi literary compositions began to be published. Initially these were published in the journal Kavi Vachan Sudha edited by Bharatendu Harishchandra (1849-1882). On the other hand, modern literary compositions in Urdu – or Khari Boli, Dakhani, Hindvi, Hindustani, and Rekhta – were being published from the first half of the eighteenth century (here ‘modern’ implies prose and poetry which is ‘this-worldly’). Whereas the tradition of printing Hindi prose in the Devanagari script began during the early decades of the nineteenth century, and was associated with the beginnings of Hindi journalism, the tradition of published Urdu, Dakhani and Rekhta prose dates back to the sixteenth century.


Given this historical background it is hardly surprising that the politics and sentiments that gave rise to and inspired the Great Revolt – the politics and sentiments that animated the rebel sipahis and common people – do not find a reflection in Hindi writings of the four years from 1857 to 1860 and even beyond. While several journalists associated with Urdu newspapers and periodicals were being executed by the British during these four years, we do not generally come across instances of Hindi journalists being treated in a similar brutal manner. The main reason for this was that quite a large number of Urdu journalists as well as poets had been publishing reports, or composing poems, in support of the Revolt and depicting the barbarity of the British (for example, Munir Shikohabadi, who was sentenced to transportation to the Andamans for publishing poems in support of the Revolt). These journalists and poets were infused with the desire to overthrow the Company’s rule; they were often active participants in the struggle and were willing to make sacrifices for the success of the Revolt.


It needs to be emphasised that printed material in the Devanagari script pertaining to the period 1857-1868 has not yet been comprehensively surveyed and researched. Therefore it would be premature to make oversimplified statements, since these could be inaccurate. In the post-1860 period it was not merely Hindi-Urdu journalists, but writers, educated middle-class professionals, and traders who as a whole were optimistic about a promising future following Victoria’s proclamation announcing the end of the East India Company’s rule and the assumption of the governance of India directly by the British crown. These social groups were willing to echo the triumphal sounds of the British rulers, and by denouncing the rebels as mutineers and trouble-makers they reinforced the propaganda of the colonial state against the Revolt. At the same time it was a historical necessity that these classes could not ignore the atrocities being perpetrated by colonial rule — massacres, hanging of people on a mass-scale, imprisonment, transportation, draconian laws, and devastation caused by ruthless suppression of the Revolt. For how long could they have tolerated of the realities of famine, epidemics, oppressive taxation, and the continuous onslaught on the shared cultural traditions of the people? For how long could they have remained part of the ‘darbari’ culture of the British empire by joining in the chorus of praise for queen Victoria or viceroy Mayo? For how long could they have remained oblivious of the loot and plunder of India and the transfer of its wealth to Britain in the form of tribute? For how long could they have evaded the question of liberating Hindi literature from the centrality of other-worldliness, or the sensuousness imposed by the feudal aristocracy, in compositions of the Devotional period (bhaktikal) or the Scholastic period (ritikal)?




Indeed the middle-class was confronted with a peculiar dilemma that had its roots in contemporary class society. This dilemma was the outcome of the predicament whether loyalty to state power should get precedence over loyalty to the nation, as well as of the mental state produced by a historical phase of transition, and the impact that these conditions had on literary creativity. Instead of analysing contemporary literature and ideas in this context, literary critics right from Acharya Ramchandra Shukla to more recent critics have ignored the contradictions that marked the creativity of writers during this period. After all what was the reason for Hindi writers to begin paying attention to contemporary realities, especially the miserable conditions of the common people, and sentiments of nationhood, in drama, essay, and poetry in the same manner as Urdu writers such as Jafar Zatalli, Mir, Nazir Akbarabadi, Ghalib, Sauda, Zauq, Zafar, Munir Shikohabadi, Hali, etc.? These issues had a profound impact upon Hindi writers and came to be placed at the centre of their writings.


Jaishankar Prasad confronting this question for the first time in his essay entitled ‘Yatharthavad aur Chhayavad’ (1934), observed that since the feudal aristocracy was unable to provide leadership to the 1857 Revolt – in fact, most of this class actually betrayed the people’s struggle – therefore, ‘those whom the ordinary people earlier regarded as being above desire and ambition, began to now appear great in their pettiness! Literature that is touched by such melancholic humanism, tends to be marked by realism. Such realism bears the imprint of feelings of loss, erosion and sorrow in great abundance’.




It is significant that in the 1872 issue of Kavi Vachan Sudha, Bharatendu had condemned the vengeful action of the Sher Ali in assassinating the then governor-general Lord Mayo at Viper Island in the Andaman Penal Settlement (1872). Not only did Bharatendu and his literary associates denounce this act of Sher Ali, who was serving a sentence in the Andamans, but also hailed Mayo as being an enlightened administrator and a well-wisher of India. Further, in his comments in this context, Bharatendu overlooked the cruel and exploitative face of the British colonial state and wrote, ‘What a sad thing it is that we are today writing about the circumstances of the death of a person under the shadow of whose power all the subjects [of the Indian empire] passed their time in happiness and one who was in every way our well-wisher’.


Writing about the action of Sher Ali, whose killing of Mayo was prompted by his anger against the British authorities and the horrible conditions in the Andaman Penal Settlement, Bharatendu declared in the same issue of Kavi Vachan Sudha:


We are in full agreement with what the editor of Friend of India has said about that chandal, evil, killer named Sher Ali. Giving the death sentence to him undoubtedly amounted to granting to him his very own wish, because had he been afraid of death he would not have done such a deed. The editor [of Friend of India] writes that these evil people hold their honour and religion dearer than life; what is required is to inflict punishment that would injure their religion and sense of honour. The editor states (and very correctly so—perhaps even in greater measure than what he says), that his [Sher Ali’s] life should not be taken immediately; rather, that he should be given food that is regarded as harám, and that he should be made to wear clothing, i.e., kurta and cap, made of pig’s skin. All possible indignity and pain should be inflicted upon him. Even the most merciless treatment meted out to him would not be adequate [punishment] for such a low-born person, and in such cases we need to ignore the law and inflict the maximum amount of pain on him.


Bharatendu then goes on to provide justification for the British executioners. According to him, had Sher Ali not been carrying out a premeditated plan to assassinate Lord Mayo, ‘he would not have hidden himself in such a desolate spot, carrying a knife. Further, the utterance of another prisoner (the utterance made after he had been seized by a kshatriya named Arjun Singh), makes this quite clear. He belonged to that class which fully believes that the government is ‘kafir’, and therefore that killing its high officials is a sacred duty (‘saváb’). Sher Ali should be hanged only after all these issues have been emphatically noted’. It is thus clear that Bharatendu viewed the fight of orthodox Muslims against the firangi, the kafir, and the colonial state, as well as the struggle of rebel Hindu soldiers – as also the lakhs of Hindus who participated in the Revolt to defend ‘Din, Iman, Dharma’–, from the viewpoint of a supporter of British rule.


This kind of a communal mindset and pro-British ideological tendency was not confined to Bharatendu alone. Pratap Narayan Mishra was playing a similar role through the journal Brahmana. Radhacharan Goswami exhibited a similar mentality. Not surprisingly, all of them were of the opinion that the use of Khari Boli instead of Braja Bhasha for poetic compositions would tend to strengthen Urdu, Persian and Arabic literary traditions in Hindi writing. Shridhar Pathak, Ayodhya Prasad Khatri and Balmukund Gupta were the only writers who were conscious of the implications that the British policy of ‘divide and rule’ had for culture, and adopted a healthy progressive and nationalist outlook.


Bharatendu himself admitted that, ‘the kind of grief that intellectuals have felt at the death of the late Lord Mayo, is not to be found among the commoners. There can be no doubt that anyone hearing this news [of Mayo’s assassination] was immediately alarmed, but ordinary people were not struck by grief. The main reason for this is that there is a lack of devotion to the ruler (‘rajbhakti’) among the people. Certainly there was a time when there was such devotion among the people of Hindustan, and when they worshipped their ruler as being god-incarnate, but this sentiment departed from among the Hindus due to the atrocities of the Muslims. It is not just ‘rajbhakti’, but everything has been lost due to these evil people.




The entire circle of writers associated with Bharatendu was being relentlessly driven in the direction of hatred for Urdu, due to their anti-Muslim stance and their negative attitude towards the Revolt. This was particularly because some of the prominent Urdu newspapers and periodicals were fiercely critical of the political, economic and cultural policies of the Victorian colonial state. For these journals opposition to British rule was a legacy of the Revolt. Consequently, prompted by the British, the campaign for enhancing the status of Devnagari and Hindi was initiated in a situation of deep-seated hatred for Urdu. To demand the use of Hindi or Devanagari for purposes of administration and education is one thing, but to express this demand in terms of hatred for Urdu, means that this is no longer just a question confined to language. The following lines of Bharatendu, published in the June 1874 issue of Harishchandra Chandrika hailed the demise of Urdu:


‘Down with Urdu, Down with Urdu; Whence has it departed

Whence has it departed; Cry, cry for the Munshi and the Mulla’

(he he Urdu hai hai; kahan sidhari hai hai

kahan sidhari hai hai; munshi mulla hai hai)


Underlying the desire for the death of Urdu, was the colonial policy of poisoning the mutual sentiments of communal harmony that marked the relations between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, and this policy was being openly used by numerous Hindi-Urdu intellectuals as an innocent instrument in their campaign. In view of the unified front that the people had presented in their struggle against the British during the period 1857-1860, destroying this unity was a matter of priority in the agenda of the colonial state.


However, despite these efforts of the colonial rulers, throughout the liberation struggle Hindustani remained in focus. The tendency to foment hatred against Urdu was continuously denounced, and communal harmony formed the basis of the conception of a secular nation-state. Even during this period, writers such as Shivprasad “Sitarehind”, Altaf Hussain Hali, Sauda, Zauq, Azimullah Khan, etc., were conscious of how very detrimental communal attitudes could be for the nation. It was this very tradition that was carried forward to new heights by Premchand and Sudarshan. In the context of the controversy referred to above, Premchand wrote a letter to Banarsi Das Chaturvedi in 1934, in which he stated Hindi will become destitute the day it is deprived of the cultural traditions of Urdu, Persian and Arabic.




All these limitations and class prejudices notwithstanding, the demands of contemporary reality became the cause of strengthening nationalist sentiments in the creative writings of the Bharatendu circle. There was a constant decline in the fascination for British rule, and the plight of the nation began to echo in many of the writings of those who were associated with this circle. It took just three years for Bharatendu to get disillusioned by the Victorian colonial state. Absolutely contrary to the viewpoint of the abovementioned essay of 1872, Bharatendu wrote a play entitled Bharat Durdasha, in 1875, which even today appears to be a literary piece of classical importance. This is a brief play, divided into six parts. Several scenes of the play are intended to target those who worship British rule in the form of an idol of prosperity. The ‘Bharat Durdaiv’ of this play is not a ‘devta’ but a ‘rakshasa’, whose sinister face and deceitful ways have been depicted by the author. ‘Bharat Durdaiv’ is in fact a villain and symbolises British rule — ‘Fauji Subedar’, ‘Rog’ (disease), ‘Andhkar’ (darkness), ‘Madira’ (wine), ‘Alasya’ (laziness), ‘Satyanashi Faujdar’ (destructive faujdar), ‘Nirlajjata’ (shamelessness), etc., are some of the characters that, in serving the evil British rule, are destroying India. Emerging on the stage from a military cantonment, ‘Bharat Durdaiv’ declares:


‘Know that I am a rakshasa

I deprive all of even their meagre belongings

I extract even starving lives from bodies

That is my true regime ...’


Whereas there is a genuine attempt to unmask the brutal face of British rule, at the same time in equating British rule with Muslim governance, it is obvious that Bharatendu has not yet shed his communal outlook. In proclaiming the glorious past of India, there is no mention of Shaka, Huna, Turk, Mughal, or Pathan rulers; even Sher Shah, Akbar, Bahadur Shah Zafar have been completely excluded. This colonial-Hinduvadi view of Indian history is the most prominent weakness of the Hindi writers of that era. Nevertheless, Bharatendu did not hesitate to depict in a forthright manner the ruthless and brutal face of British rule. He portrays British rule in the following manner in one of his stotras:


‘Hé Angrez! Customs and police are your arms; ... darkness is your sheet of paper; income is your heart. Therefore, Hé Angrez! We salute you. Treasure is your stomach; greed is your hunger; armed forces are your feet; titles of honour are your prasada. Therefore O Colossal Edifice, Angrez, We salute thee’.


There is a composition by Radha Charan Goswami on phag, in which the miserable condition of the ordinary people of India is presented in folk-rhyme. This composition speaks of how people have forgotten the colours of Holi, as they are without grain, and the country is enveloped by epidemics. All this is the outcome of British rule.


Similarly, contemporary reality is sharply delineated in the poetry of Premdhan, especially in his true-to-life portrayals of the colonial officialdom and underlings. The poem (‘prabandh kavya’) entitled Jirn Janapad, composed by Badri Narayan Chaudhri Premdhan, is a veritable album of such pen-portraits. As a matter of fact Bharatendu too, while composing in this tradition, was making use of a literary form that went back to the time of Amir Khusro.


The literary histories of Hindi have not till now managed to evolve a tradition of looking at the contribution of the circle of Bharatendu’s circle from the perspective of a specific historical process, or comprehending the worldviews of diverse classes dialectically. There has been little attempt to grasp the class position of the literary figures of the Bharatendu circle, and how this is reflected in the dilemma they faced in dealing with colonial oppression in their writings. In the words of the French historian Marc Bloch, the events of an era of rebellion ‘are embedded in the swift flow of historical processes like plasma’, and therefore the shifts of various social classes ‘are not located at any single bend’. Those who ignore this approach tend, at one extreme, to be those who glorify the Bharatendu circle, or, at the other extreme, those who often deny the entire literary legacy of that era.


It would be necessary to ponder over some fresh questions against this historical backdrop. And these fresh questions can be relevant only when we view the creation of drama and experiments in theatre, in the context of the echoes of popular rebellion and the popular perception of modernity in India as are to be found in folk songs and folk epics.


(To be continued)

[Translation: Amar Farooqui]