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The enduring ‘Kahani’ of Sripat Rai

Multi-faceted personality: Sripat Rai  

This month on August 18 fell the 103rd birth anniversary of Sripat Rai, eldest son of Premchand, who made a name for himself as a path-breaking publisher, gifted painter, perceptive literary critic, discerning editor of “Kahani” and a great supporter of new literary talents. As is the world’s wont, the Hindi literary world has mostly forgotten him and his extraordinary contribution.

Last year, when Hindi journal “Lamahi” (Lamahi is the name of the ancestral village of Premchand and his family) came out with its special number focusing on Sripat Rai, it created a few small waves but the Hindi literary world remained more or less indifferent towards his memory. I came to know Sripat Rai in the early 1980s although I had been going to his house in South Delhi’s Hauz Khas since the early 1970s with my friends like Ravi Srivastava who knew the family well.

Family ties

The enduring ‘Kahani’ of Sripat Rai

I had acquainted his younger son Anil Rai who was studying economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University where I was studying ancient Indian history. Later, I also became friends with his youngest daughter Sara Rai, who has emerged as a significant Hindi fiction writer and translator. I also knew his younger brother and well known writer-translator Amrit Rai, author of the best known biography of his father Premchand titled “Kalam Ka Sipahi”, and his son Alok Rai separately.

A man of few words, Sripat Rai, for some reason, took a great liking to me and, in moments when he felt particularly affectionate, would call me paaji (scoundrel). If it was Jainendra Kumar who recognised the talent of Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayana ‘Agyeya’ and recommended his short stories to Premchand for publication in Hindi weekly Jagaran, it was Sripat Rai who published most of Agyeya’s early writings including the celebrated two-part novel “Shekhar: Ek Jeevani” under the banner of his Saraswati Press.

Motivating force

He encouraged and promoted a host of emerging writers as he had great respect for those who could create. Little wonder that besides Agyeya, Nirmal Verma, Raghuvir Sahay, Prayag Shukla, Nasira Sharma, Bhairav Prasad Gupta and other such well known writers, painters like M. F. Husain, Ram Kumar, D. D. Patnaik, V. S. Gaitonde and others were also part of his circle of close friends.

The fact that he himself painted rather well also helped. Had he shown abiding interest in painting, he could have emerged as one of the front-ranking abstract painters of the country. There was a time when his paintings were exhibited in shows held in Paris. When Premchand died in 1936, Sripat Rai was only 20 and Amrit Rai a mere lad of 15. So, the responsibility to take care of the family fell on his shoulders. He had to quit his studies and look after the business of publication as well as the editing of Hans, a monthly magazine that Premchand had started, after its interim editor Jainendra Kumar left for Delhi.

Within a short time, he learnt the ropes and established the business on a firm footing. After a year, he founded “Kahani”, a journal solely focused on short story. As Trilochan Shastri, who along with poet Shamsher Bahadur Singh had worked in the editorial board of the magazine, recalled in a tribute published in a special number of “Kahani” in 1994 after Sripat Rai’s death on July 9 in the same year, this was the only magazine of its kind.

“Maya”, published by Mitra Prakashan in Allahabad, was the other magazine that devoted special attention to short story but it focused more on translations from Bengali and other languages rather than on original stories written in Hindi. Sripat Rai’s editorials in Kahani, later compiled in a book titled “Kahani Ki Baat”, were full of insightful comments that also indicated the direction Hindi short story should take.

Devendra Satyarthi, who earned fame as a collector of folk songs besides being a notable short story writer, compared his editorials with Ustad Bade Ghulam Khan’s thumris as they too were full of rasa and rhythm. Namwar Singh, who was widely acclaimed as the top literary critic, said in a conversation with Anurag Atoria that “Kahani” was the most talked about magazine in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s as short story had emerged as the central genre, replacing poetry. It also played a role in his becoming primarily a critic of the short story.

Kamaleshwar called Sripat Rai the “weighing balance” of Hindi literature whose critical assessments were hardly ever wide off the mark.

Sripat Rai spoke Bengali fluently as he had spent some time in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Shantiniketan. For a while, he was also a member of Uday Shankar’s troupe in Almora where he became friends with Zohra Sehgal whose son Pavan later married his elder daughter Seema.

Authentic versions

Sripat Rai married Zahra, who belonged to an aristocratic Muslim Shia family of Banaras and wrote some very good short stories, and bequeathed the best secular traditions of the Ganga-Jamuni culture to his children. When Premchand died, his books were with various publishers. It was Sripat Rai, who, despite his young age, managed to regain the rights of all these books and brought out their authentic versions in the form of better produced books. His multi-faceted personality was immensely fascinating and attracted many aspiring writers to him. One hopes for a day when his contribution will be evaluated in a wholesome manner by the Hindi world.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 8:14:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/the-enduring-kahani-of-sripat-rai/article29287669.ece

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