Munshi Premchand’s Hori was not very different from Mariya Barela, a 50-year-old farmer from Madhya Pradesh. Hori, the peasant protagonist from the Hindi writer’s widely read novel ‘Godaan’, died grappling under a burden of debt, like the MP farmer, who took his life last month besieged by loans he could not repay. On the occasion of the much-loved author’s 137th birth anniversary tomorrow, Premchand aficionados recall how the themes of his work, as traditional as they were contemporary, continue to resonate 80 years after his death. “Premchand will be relevant as long as human attitude, which is universal, remains the same,” said Jameel Gulrays, founder of Katha Kathan, an initiative that seeks to celebrate regional literature. To mark the anniversary, the organisation will host dramatised readings of his works here.
One of the foremost Hindustani writers of the early 20th century, Premchand authored over 300 short stories, 14 novels and several essays, letters and plays. Highly influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, who underscored the common man, Premchand took the tradition forward by turning what could have been supporting characters into heroes. Every story that he wrote was a reflection of society, and researchers hold that his characters were all based on people he had met. His stories – such as ‘Bair ka Anth’, ‘Sadgati’ and ‘Bade Ghar ki Beti’ — explored subjects such as family disputes, relationships and the deeply entrenched caste system, issues that are as relevant today as they were when the works were penned. Not surprisingly, director-actor M K Raina called Premchand an “Alive writer”.
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While his style of writing belonged to an earlier era, his themes were much ahead of his time, Raina said. “His analysis of situations was almost as if a humanist and political scientist combined into one was looking at the situation in rural India,” he told PTI. Hori is considered one of the best literary representations of rural India, a recurrent theme in the writings of Premchand, whose real name was Dhanpat Rai. “The sad part is that rural India is where it was,” the theatre director said. “What has the Indian peasant got after Independence? Nothing. Farmers are still dying, committing suicide,” he said.
Raina, who had previously adapted Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ for a play, is currently working on a production where he is “juicing together” the much acclaimed story with a Kashmiri work, ‘Kafan Chor’, to create a “human predicament and experience”. But Mujeeb Khan of the Mumbai-based theatre group Ideal Drama and Entertainment Academy (IDEA) rues the popular practice of limiting the “Upanyas Samrat” — or Novel King — to a handful of his better known writings. “We know him as a dark writer, a rural writer. But little do people know that he talked about cleanliness in ‘Updesh’ long before the government came up with its Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. He was the one who preached that cleanliness should begin at home,” Khan said.
He was also known for his comedy. “His ‘Rasik Sampadak’ is hilarious. So it is unfair to call Premchand an orthodox or a sad writer,” Khan added. Stories such as “Miss Padma” discussed live-in relationships, an issue that is still frowned upon in modern times. ‘Jwalamukhi’, written in 1914, introduced zombies to the Indian reader, years before Hollywood made its first film on the living dead in the 1950s. “Had our filmmakers read Premchand, we would have probably been the first ones to make something on zombies,” Khan added. Khan and his theatre group have adapted 313 of Premchand’s 315 short stories.
Besides his contribution to Hindi and Urdu literature, Raina also recalled the author’s role in the Progressive Writers’ Association. A speech in 1936, he said, marked a “poignant moment in India’s literary history”. “What one must remember today is his message to keep the intellectual integrity of the creative class – writers and artists – together. When we are threatened, we must not cow down. Premchand was the bearer of that message,” he said.