Hindi Belt Authors

Rebel with a cause

LITERARY GENIUS Mahadevi Verma  

My one and only meeting with great Hindi poet Mahadevi Verma took place on November 30, 1983 in Delhi’s Civil Lines area where she was staying at a friend’s place. She had come to the Capital to receive the prestigious Jnanpith award from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on November 28 and Vinod Mehta, editor of The Sunday Observer, had commissioned me to do an interview with her. Armed with a borrowed tape recorder, I landed at the house in Civil Lines unannounced and saw that Mahadevi Verma was engrossed in a lively conversation with three Chinese embassy officials who had come to present her with Hindi books printed in China.

Mahadevi, whose pen-portrait of a Chinese peddler titled ‘Pheriwala’ was considered a masterpiece, was telling them how she had sent a painting and a poem done on bhojapatra (palm leaf) to Mao Zedong after the victory of the Chinese Revolution, how overwhelmed she had felt at that time when she learnt that a poet had led a successful revolution in China, and how sore she was at the Sino-Indian war. “Today,” said she, “the big powers have turned smaller countries into a dumping ground for their obsolete weapons. The countries of Asia and Africa should unite in the face of this situation. Only the black and the coloured people can unite. The whites will never be with us.” One could see that even at 76, she remained an anti-colonial freedom fighter.

Speaking her mind

Her comments on the contemporary literary scene too confirmed this. She felt that the writers had lost their way, their bearings. “Earlier,” she said, “they were more free. Today they are not. Earlier, writers and fighters were one and the same. Premchand, Maithili Sharan Gupta, Makhan Lal Chaturvedi, Balkrishna Sharma Navin – all of them were writers but they went to jail so many times during our freedom struggle against the British.” Mahadevi also made a few other remarks that have stayed with me all this while. She said that when the hugely prestigious Mangla Prasad Award was announced for her, she felt utterly miserable because both Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ and Sumitranandan Pant were greater poets than her. And both came running to her house to congratulate her. ‘Nirala’ wrote: “Hindi ke vishal mandir ki Veenavani, Sur si chetna aur rachana ki pratima kalyani” (In the great temple of Hindi, she is like the sweet voice of veena, she is the beneficent image of divine consciousness and creativity). “Does anybody say it like this now? And, about women? Nobody. But Nirala did. Nowadays I hear that one writer sends another writer a bowl of milk on Nagapanchami,” she said.

Mera Parivar

Mera Parivar  

Along with Jaishankar Prasad, Nirala and Pant, she was considered to be one of the four pillars of Chhayavad that had many similarities with the Romantic poetry in English but also had a strong anti-colonial, freedom-seeking, emancipatory aspect to it. Later, some critics tried to categorise her as a poet of Mysticism (Rahasyavad) while some others attempted near-scurrilous Freudian analysis of her poetry, but they were not able to dent her literary image and she continued to remain a towering presence until her death on September 11, 1987 at the age of 80.

Early start

Although Mahadevi had started composing rhymes when she was barely six years old, her childhood efforts were mainly in Brajbhasha. It was Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, another great poet, who encouraged her to write in Khari Boli. When Mahadevi was a student of fifth standard, Subhadra, two years her senior in Allahabad’s Crosthwaite Girls College, played a mischief and, snatching her Mathematics exercise book, announced in the school that she secretly wrote poetry, something that was generally frowned upon those days. Subhadra laughed it off saying, “Why should I suffer alone? Now, both of us are together in this”.

Winning accolades

Literary recognition came to her quite early when her poetry collection Neehar came out in 1930, followed by Rashmi (1932), Neeraja (1934), Sandhyageet (1936) and Deepshikha (1942). Agnirekha was published posthumously in 1990. Besides being a great poet, Mahadevi Verma was also a wonderful essayist. There is a saying in Sanskrit: “Gadyam kavinam nikasham vadanti” (Prose is the touchstone of poets) and Mahadevi tests gold of the purest quality. Her pen-portraits are considered to be masterpieces and her memoirs are in a class of their own. She did not write only about her contemporaries but also about her pets. Ilachandra Joshi, who wrote the preface for Mera Parivar, underlines the fact that perhaps for the first time after Panchatantra, the non-human world has found such a place in high-brow literature.

Born in a cultured family of Farrukhabad on March 26, 1907 and married at a very young age, she rebelled against the institution of marriage and lived away from her husband most of her life. She is perhaps the first Hindi writer who wrote about women’s issues in a systematic manner. As early as in 1935, she wrote an essay “Stree ke arth svatantrya ka prashna” (The Question of Women’s Economic Freedom) on how the economic freedom of women was a fundamental prerequisite for their overall emancipation. Besides her great literary contribution, she will be remembered for initiating an informed discussion on gender issues in Hindi.

The author is a senior literary critic

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