Harivansh Rai Bachchan: One of the Greatest Literary Icons and Hindi Poets in India
"Kavita se roti nahi paoge,
Par agar Kavita padhoge toh saleeke se khaoge"
- Harivansh Rai Bachchan
These lines written by acclaimed Hindi poet, Harivansh Rai Bachchan describe how poetry and art might not pay a writer much, but they will provide a reader with clarity of mind and thought. While this couplet might not be his most famous work, the writer has enamoured many with his prose and poetry. Read below about the writer’s early life, his achievements and his literary work.
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Harivansh Rai Bachchan was an Indian literary icon who wrote Hindi prose and poetry during the early 20th century. Born in a simple Kayastha family in pre-independence India, Bachchan became the first Indian to receive a doctorate in English Literature from Cambridge University. Before pursuing a doctorate in England, he received education from municipal schools and Kayastha Paathshaalas in Allahabad. Later, he studied at Allahabad University and Benaras Hindu University. He quickly became interested in India’s Independence movement and its quest for freedom. During this time, he produced one of his most famous works called Madhushalawhich was published in 1935. He even taught English literature at Allahabad University, during which he received an offer to pursue a doctorate. The Hindi poet was always interested in English literature, specifically the work and life of Irish poet W.B. Yeats.
At Cambridge, he was surprised by both the city’s history and modernity which co-existed. Alongside Victorian architecture and old decrepit buildings, he read the progressive and modern works of several English poets such as Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, and William Wordsworth. Hailing from an ordinary family in India, he was fascinated to see the grandeur, glamour, and beauty that life abroad possessed.
After completing his doctoral studies, Bachchan returned to India and began working as a producer for All India Radio. He was briefly involved with campaigns launched by the Ministry of External Affairs of India. One of these campaigns included the promotion of Hindi as the official national language of the country. He was also nominated to become a member of the Upper House in 1966. Despite his overwhelming contributions to the Government of India, Bachchan is most popularly recognized as an Indian poet and literary icon.
Throughout his life, Harivansh Rai Bacchan wrote about 30 volumes of prose and poetry in Hindi. One of his most important works include the translation of Rubaiyat originally written by Persian poet Omar Khayyam. Khayyam used several metaphors to discuss the deep meanings of life, love, death, freedom, and religion. Having read and translated Khayyam’s work, Bachchan was deeply intrigued by one of the poet’s widely used metaphors- drinking.
Harivansh Rai Bacchan saw innumerous possibilities of using drinking as a metaphor for life, love, hatred, and freedom. It is believed that his most celebrated work, Madhushala, derives inspiration from Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. Not only was the poet inspired by the content and metaphor of the book, but he also chose to replicate the structure in which poetry was written. Similar to the Persian poet’s four-line structure, he also wrote in quatrains.
Madhushala describes the trials and tribulations of life and existence using four primary objects namely, wine, cup, bar and a server. This work was considered to be a pioneering work of the Chhayavad movement. Chhayavad movement in Hindi literature was touted to be a Romanticist movement and was marked by the use of romantic themes such as love and nature. It also encouraged radical thought, individualism, and humanitarianism. However, once the Chhayavad movement lost momentum, Bachchan became a forgotten poet. He continued to publish works, but none were as widely recognized, read, and published as Madhushala, which is considered his greatest work.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND AWARDS
Later in his life, Harivansh Rai Bachchan penned his autobiography known as “In the Afternoon of Time”. The book had four volumes, each of which contained a description of a different part of his life. The first section discussed the poet’s humble beginnings- he hailed from an ordinary Kayastha family in Uttar Pradesh. Subsequent volumes dealt with his education, career, his personal life, marriage, heartbreak, his immigration to Cambridge, and the rise of a superstar, his son-Amitabh Bachchan. Harivansh Rai described the death of his first wife as an instrumental event of his journey. After her sudden demise, he was crestfallen and disturbed. However, when his second wife, Teji Suri entered his life, he noticed that his work became happier, sensuous, and more joyous. His autobiography went on to become one of the most widely-read autobiographies in Hindi.
Once Amitabh Bachchan became a famous actor, his father’s works began to be used extensively in Bollywood films and popular culture. In fact, the actor himself recited a few lines from his father’s works in the movie- Agneepath. In 2012, a remake of the movie also used the famous lines from Bachchan’s poetry. His couplet, “Koshish Karne Walon ki Haar Kabhi Nahi Hoti, Lehron Se Darkar Nauka Par nahi hoti” has been used in quite a few Bollywood films and has become a popular adage. Amitabh Bachchan uses his social media platforms to honour his father’s life, work, and legacy. In 1976, Harivansh Rai received a Padma Bhushan in recognition of his magnificent contribution to Hindi literature. In 1991, he received the Saraswati Samman award for his lengthy autobiography.
DEATH AND POSTHOMOUS RECOGNITION
On 18 January 2003, after etching an illustrious career and life, the poet passed away at his Bombay residence. His funeral was attended by several close friends and Bollywood actors. To honour the Hindi poet and cultural icon, the Government of India released a postage stamp with his photo on it. In 2019, Amitabh Bachchan visited Poland to take part in a peaceful gathering held in honour of his father. In 2020, the writer’s poem, Madhushala was recited by students of Poland’s Wroclaw University. Wroclaw was recently declared as the City of Heritage by UNESCO. This feat accurately describes the enormity of Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s contribution to not only Hindi literature, but world heritage and literature as well. He is undoubtedly recognized as one of the greatest Hindi poets and literature icons that India has ever produced.