The history of Hindi poetry in the 20th Century is a history of its growing distance from the masses. Over the decades, a neat division among poets has come about. There are ‘high brow’ poets whose poetry is read and appreciated by a small number of poetry lovers, and there are ‘low brow’ poets whose poetry is heard and admired by thousands of people in kavi sammelans. Thus, poetry that can offer aesthetic pleasure and intellectual nourishment remains confined to a limited number of people while poetry that aims at providing momentary thrill and pedestrian entertainment manages to reach a very wide audience. Gone are the days of Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’ or Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ who could sway the audiences with their poetry without making any compromises with its literary quality.
However, there was one notable exception to this rule – Nagarjun, the people’s poet whose 106th birth anniversary has just passed us by on June 30.
Like Rahul Sankrityayana, Nagarjun too was a phenomenon. While Rahul was an intellectual colossus, Nagarjun was a literary giant. Born as Vaidyanath Mishra in the Mithila region of Bihar, he too went to Tibet and Sri Lanka and became a Buddhist monk. Like Rahul, he too was an indefatigable traveller who could not stay at one place for long and had travelled the length and breadth of India as well as some other countries. And, like Rahul, he too remained a lifelong communist but never allowed the communist parties to overwhelm him or force him to follow their discipline or diktats. Conscious of his unique status, he wrote: “Main jankavi hoon, kyon haklaaun?” (I am a people’s poet; why should I stammer?). And he never stammered, not even in Sanskrit and Bangla, which he could read, write and speak like his mother tongue Maithili.
Top Hindi critics Ramvilas Sharma and Namwar Singh, who did not see eye to eye on many things, were unanimous in their assessment of Nagarjun. While Sharma opined that “very few poets – not only in Hindi but even in other languages – have been able to achieve the success that Nagarjun has achieved in resolving the problem of how to strike a balance between artistic beauty and popular appeal”, Namwar Singh described him as the greatest Hindi satirist after Kabir and the only poet after Tulsidas whose poetry was equally appreciated in village chaupals as well as among cognoscenti.
Nagarjun joined the Communist Party of India in 1946 when its membership meant that one was in for a lot of trouble. Along with Rahul Sankrityayana, he was jailed for participating in the peasant movement in Champaran. As a nationalist, he was not comfortable with the Nehruvian position regarding India’s membership of the Commonwealth and wrote a poem on the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to India. “Aao rani, ham dhoenge palaki, yahi huee hai raay Jawaharlal ki” (Welcome, Queen. We will carry your palanquin because this is what Jawaharlal wants). This poem became very famous as was the ones he wrote on Indira Gandhi during the JP movement. “Devi tum to kale dhan ki baisaakhi par tiki huee ho” (O goddess, you are standing on the crutches of black money) and “Induji, Induji, kya hua aapko, bhool gayeen baap ko” (Induji, what’s has happened to you? Have you forgotten all about your father?).
As Indira Gandhi was becoming more and more authoritarian, Nagarjun was arrested in March 1975, more than three months before the Emergency was imposed, and was released after spending considerable time in jail. After his release, he became critical of the JP movement and, much to the chagrin of JP’s followers, described it as “khichdi ka viplav” (A medley insurrection).
As noted by Namwar Singh, Nagarjun was completely untouched by western influences and his literary work was firmly rooted in the Indian soil. When New Poetry movement led by Agyeya was credited with experimenting with various forms, it was indeed Nagarjun who experimented the most and left his impact on everything he tried. He wrote many short novels like “Balchanma”, “Baba Batesarnath”, “Varun ke Bete” (Sons of Varun) and “Ratinath ki Chachi” (Ratinath’s Aunt), and innumerable poems in Hindi. He also wrote in Maithili, Sanskrit and Bangla. In fact, Sahitya Akademi honoured him with its prestigious award in 1969 for his book of Maithili poetry titled “Patraheen Nagna Gaachh”. Nagarjun wrote in Maithili under the pen name of Yatri. He enjoyed the unique distinction of being one of the top poets in two languages – Hindi and Maithili.
Some of his poems like “Kalidas ke Prati” (To Kalidasa), “Badal ko Ghirte Dekha Hai” (I have seen clouds gathering) and “Akal ke Baad” (After the Famine) have acquired iconic status in the annals of modern Hindi literature. Despite being a great literary figure, Nagarjun led an extraordinarily ordinary life and looked like a village bumpkin.
He lived among common people and had intimate knowledge and understanding of their lives. That’s why, as Ramvilas Sharma has perceptively noted, his satirical writings were imbued with great sensitivity and compassion. He could dazzle the literati with his aesthetically elegant poetry in a small literary soiree. And from the stage of a kavi sammelan, he could hypnotise an audience of thousands of people like a virtuoso ventriloquist. There was no one like him.