ASHEESH MAMGAIN | 6 MARCH, 2019
Namvar Singh, Ever-Shining Polestar of Hindi Literature (1927–2019)
He was always confident that Hindi was doing well and was unthreatened
The doyen of Hindi literary criticism, a most sought-after personality for book releases and for writing forewords, with a rockstarlike fan following in the Hindi literary world, it is clear that there will never be another Namvar Singh.
Dr Namvar Singh, who passed away recently at the age of 92, was a central figure in Hindi literature in the latter half of the twentieth century. He was a true public intellectual, a role he played well for a very long time.
Much of his status, people point out, was due to his dazzling oratory. Till old age forced him to retire from public life some five years ago, it was routine for auditoriums or lecture rooms to be overflowing with people, for the simple reason that Namvar Singh was on the dais and speaking. The presence of his thin frame dressed in a white kurta and dhoti was enough to guarantee the success of a literary programme.
“He was a walking encyclopaedia of literature. Also, he always came well prepared for his lectures. To top it all he had a natural flair for public speaking which left the audience spellbound and asking for more,” says Rajendra Mishra, one of his students from JNU days.
Namvar Singh was a strong believer in the social and political commitment of literature. That is why he was not too great a fan of the poetry of Agyeya or Sumitra Nandan Pant, stalwarts of Hindi poetry in their own right. It is said that he worked successfully to erect the poetry of Sudama Pandey ‘Dhoomil’ as a counter to Agyeya. In the poetry of Dhoomil, social and political thought and commitment are at the fore.
He was a strong proponent of the thought that poets, writers, artists, filmmakers must play a role in politics, not necessarily by fighting elections but through their work. They should use their art and literature to give the right direction to the politics of the nation.
Singh spoke from experience as he himself fought an election once. He was a member of the Communist Party of India and fought a Lok Sabha election from Chandauli in 1959 on a CPI ticket. He lost, “but our main aim of defeating the Congress was achieved”, is what he once said about this election contest. Later he would talk about the unity of different factions of communist parties in India and worked towards this aim.
Born in Varanasi in July 1926, Namvar Singh earned an MA and PhD in Hindi literature from the Banaras Hindu University and later taught there. He considered the novelist Hazari Prasad Dwivedi as his guru.
He came to Delhi in 1965 and after some years spent in joblessness, joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1971, founding the Centre of Indian Languages there.
Literary critical work
Singh’s first major work was his monograph on the Prithviraj Raso. He started out as a poet but then turned to literary criticism. He would often say that he had come to the temple of Goddess Saraswati to worship, but then when he saw the garbage strewn all around, he picked up a broom and set about cleaning the place up.
Kavita ke naye pratiman, Chhayavaad, Dosari parampara ki khoj and Vad vivad samvad are some of his notable works. He received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award for Kavita ke naye pratiman in 1971.
A great admirer of Premchand, and the chhayavaadi (sometimes called neo-romantic) movement in Hindi literature which ended in 1936 with Jaishankar Prasad’s Kamayani, he would mention Vinod Kumar Shukla, Kedar Nath Singh and Arun Kamal as the top contemporary poets in Hindi.
People often talk about the low standards of Hindi literature and the threat to Hindi’s survival, but Namvar Singh thought differently. He was always confident that Hindi is doing well and there is no threat to its existence.
A controversial figure too
In over five decades of public life Singh attracted a fair bit of controversy. One charge on him was that he talked a lot but wrote much less. But his was a logical, analytical and a loaded way of saying things, instrumental in giving new directions to Hindi literature in those five decades.
He was often also accused of picking up new poets and announcing their work as the highest form of literature. On the other hand, the considerably diminished importance he gave to Muktibodh, a poet and literary giant, in his book Kavita ke naye pratiman, was objected to by many.
It is also said that he was partial to politically or socially oriented literature. He was also accused of supporting clichés or slogans as poetry just because they belonged to an ideology he approved off. But it is also very clear that he never found right-wing literature acceptable.
He was also accused of prominent Left leanings in his literary criticism, and some even held the view that he owed much of his success to the presence of a very strong Left lobby in Hindi literature.
But then what can explain the overflowing mass of people who always collected whereever and whenever Namvar Singh stood up to speak, no matter what the platform?
In his absence, those platforms will now look pretty empty.
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