Awakening the aesthete within the reader

Munshi Premchand, whose 135th birth anniversary was on July 31, aimed to take the average middle-class reader from a state of ennui and indifference to a state of enlightenment

August 01, 2015 04:30 pm | Updated March 29, 2016 12:34 pm IST

Munshi Premchand. Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Munshi Premchand. Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Upanyas samrat (master novelist) — that’s how Munshi Premchand, whose 135th birth anniversary was on July 31, is known in modern Hindi literature. His patois consisted of a delicious combination of Urdu and Hindi (Urdu- mishrit -Hindi, as critics call it), expressed in a form that even an unlettered person could easily relate to. A socialist, feminist, progressive intellectual much before these terms acquired their modern definitions, Premchand believed in championing the cause of the marginalised — like peasants, widows, prostitutes — through his writing. His oeuvre —14 novels and 300 short stories — established his reputation as a genius. His reflections in the form of numerous essays provide a glimpse into the mind of the master-wordsmith.

Since his rather premature death at 56, Premchand’s work has acquired greater significance. His novels like Godan and Gaban have achieved cult status and his short stories like ‘ Iddgah ’, ‘ Do Bailon ki Katha ’ and ‘ Shatranj ke Khiladi ’ are an essential part of curriculum in schools and colleges. Much of it has been read, admired and appreciated even by those who have only a cursory interest in Hindi literature. His works have been adapted for screen, including by Satyajit Ray. What has, perhaps, not found as much appreciation is his disquisitions, especially the ones in which he explains his art, his philosophy, his weltanschauung .

Active in the early decades of the 20th century, when India was a nation-in-the-making and literature was oriented more toward political reform, Premchand sought to emphasise social reform through his writing. Once a member of the Indian National Congress, he was a proponent of the right to equality much before the fundamental rights were adopted by the Karachi Resolution in 1931. His desire to act as a catalyst in ridding the society of religious and casteist dogma, his commitment to making society reflect on its unfair attitude towards women and his belief in literature being not just a tool of journalism but also one of self-introspection are visible even in his essays.

So how did the upanyaas samrat define his literature? In a speech to the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1936 — Saahitya ka uddheshya (Purpose of literature) — he made it clear that he did not subscribe to the “art for art’s sake” school of thought. Reading this speech as a standalone, the reader may come to the facile conclusion that he believed in being a pamphleteer for a cause. However, in other articles, his language was more of an aesthete than that of an ideologue. His essays — ‘ Saahitya ka aadhaar ’ (Foundation for literature), ‘ Saahitya ki pragati ’ (Evolution of literature) and ‘ Saahitya aur manovigyaan ’ (Literature and its relation to philosophy) — express the restlessness of an artist, not the certitude of a propagandist.

More surprisingly, they show that he wanted to use his art as a vehicle to bring alive the aesthete in the reader. This is reflected especially in his short stories for children. Capable of creating enchantment through even quotidian motifs like an Indian farmer’s attachment to his cattle, his understanding of child psychology was, perhaps, what made various school boards to include his short stories in textbooks.

His essays also explain that, despite belonging to the realist school of literature, he defined it not merely as a conduit for political thought but as a critique of human life as a whole. His definition of literature was sahitya jeevan ki aalochana hai (literature is a device to examine human life). This had to involve, just like any serious work of creative expression, a constant search for truth and a perpetual battle between truth and untruth. The tool he believed in using was not the sledgehammer of propaganda but the scalpel of artistry. Here, his views were not dissimilar to those of George Orwell when the latter wrote “Why I write”. Orwell had listed aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose as the motives of his writing.

Premchand felt that the prime difference between literature and propaganda was that literature not just enlightens but also elevates and enthralls. While literature believed in bringing about gradual reform in the existing structure, propaganda was more oriented toward uprooting it, often through violent means.

His essays also bring out his belief that literature could add not just value but also beauty to the world. Just like Keats, he believed that truth and beauty are inseparable. Empathy and aesthetic sense, for him, were conjoined twins. Appreciation of truth engendered empathy; appreciation of beauty brought about aesthetic sense. One without the other made a piece of literature mere reportage. Here, he agreed with his contemporary Rabindranath Tagore, who also believed that the more evolved a human being’s aesthetic sense, the more independent, egalitarian and emancipated his thinking becomes.

When one examines Premchand’s critique of literature as an art-form, one senses a romantic desire to coax the reader to a path of informed empathy that would make him appreciate a civilisation of not just cities but also villages. At a time when 90 per cent of what was then faintly visible as India could not read and write, he wanted those who could read to not just see the exploitation suffered by the dispossessed but also enliven them to the aestheticism inherent in their lives. His appeal was more to the heart than to the mind. And he aimed to take the average middle-class reader from a state of ennui and indifference to a state of enlightenment.

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