In the firmament of Hindi literature, Harivansh Rai Bachchan has an image of a permanent star. He would have been equally famous even if he had not been the father of Bollywood’s most distinguished actor. Though Dr Harivansh Rai is predominantly known as a poet, he was equally good as a prose writer.
The four volumes (Need ka nirmaan phir, Kya bhooloon kya yaad karoon, Basere se door and Dashdwaar se sopaan tak) testify to his superlative skills in writing chiselled prose.
What distinguishes Harivansh Rai Bachchan from his coevals is his ability to express life’s simplest aspects in a simple, but effective language. “Kavita likhte samay main shabd dhoondhta nahin hoon, jo uss waqt soojhta hai main likh deta hoon” (I don’t grope for words while writing a poem, I scribble, what strikes me at that point in time). This spontaneity of approach endears Harivansh to his readers. Lush wordiness never appealed to him.
“Shabd patton ki tarah hote hain jo jald hi sookh jaate hain. Isliye main unki taazgi ki bahut zyada parvaah nahin karta” (Words are like leaves, they wither ’ere long. I, therefore, don’t think much about their lasting freshness), he wrote in one of the volumes of his autobiography.
Some critics and detractors call Dr Bachchan, ‘An exponent of escapism’ (Palayanvaad ka pratinidhi) because of hugely famous Madhushala, Madhubala and Madhukalash written in
mid-30s when Dr Bachchan was young. But it wasn’t alcoholic poetry written with a wine-dipped quill. Vyas and Marjori Bolton, the duo who translated ‘adhushala’ into English, are of the opinion that all the quatrains (muktak) in Madhushala have layers of profound philosophy and every quatrain conveys a message that may escape those who read with a preconceived notion.
Though Dr Bachchan himself didn’t accord great importance to Madhushala and its sequels after the advent of experiential maturity, there’s no denying the fact that these quatrains, influenced by Omar Khyyam’s Rubaiyat by Dr Edward Fitzgerald, weren’t penned by a dipsomaniac, indolent lotus-eater of a poet.
Dr Bachchan accepted the monotony of life and its everyday hustle-bustle. He lent a poetic twist to it and wrote one of his most popular poems: Jeevan ki aapadhapi mein (In the hurly-burly of life).
The introspective quality that one gets to see and feel in this poem, pervasively suffuses almost all the poems, written by Dr Bachchan. He urges his readers to forget the past or mishaps that are unalterable. One must read his Jo beet gayee so baat gayee.
A kind of a happy-go-lucky nonchalance is the nature of this famous poem. An agnostic throughout his life, it was Bachchan who forcefully wrote: Mat kar, mat kar, mat kar/ Manuj parajay ke smarak hain ye math, masjid, girjaghar (Don’t, don’t, don’t worship/All these shrines are the monuments to humans’ collective defeat).
Like his contemporary Dr Raghupati Sahay ‘Firaq’ Gorakhpuri at Allahabad University, Dr Bachchan was also a professor of English. He pursued his Doctorate degree on the Irish poet and Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats’ poetry from the University of Cambridge in 1952. Harivansh Rai Bachchan was associated with Aakshvani for a long time and was the country’s Hindi adviser.
Dr Bachchan is credited to have coined the word ‘Doordarshan’. Very few people are aware that Harivansh Rai Bachchan started his education in Urdu as was the trend of that time in UP and Bihar. The Kayasth community (Dr Bachchan was Kayasth: Srivastav) of UP and Bihar studied Urdu as its first language.
Raghupati Sahay ‘Firaq’, Dhanpat Rai (Munshi Premchand), Harivansh Rai, etc. all studied at Urdu medium schools. Bachchan even wrote in Urdu but soon realised that he was more at home with Hindi. Open to receiving bricks and bouquets in the same stride and equal measure, Dr Bachchan welcomed his students’ critical analyses of his works and never harboured any ill-will.
His Patna-based friend and writer ‘Mukt’ji was all praise for Bachchan's openness to criticism. Ek saahityakaar ke jeevan mein phool aur shool ka barabar mahattva hai (Flowers and thorns are equally important in the life of a litterateur), he wrote to his contemporary poet Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’.
What is known in critical parlance as ‘engaging creativity’ is the metier of Dr Bachchan’s craftsmanship. He doesn’t have the ‘fashionable aloofness’ of his fellow poet Sacchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan ‘Agyey’, who, true to his sobriquet, was happily aloof and a little abstruse. Renowned Hindi critic and professor of English at Agra University, Dr Ramvilas Sharma encapsulated Bachchan’s whole oeuvre as Ek prakaar ka aatmeeyatapoorn apnapan (A sort of an accessible cordiality).
This affable bonhomie of Bachchan’s poetry and prose is indeed very endearing as well as enduring. That's the reason, one is never bored with his works, because their day-to-day relevance is perennial and undiminished.
Dr Harivanshrai Bachchan passed away on January 18, 2003