Harivansh Rai Bachchan

Hindi poet whose 1935 poem 'Madhushala' - 'The House of Wine' - drove audiences wild

Tuesday 21 January 2003 01:00
Harivansh Rai (Harivansh Rai Bachchan), poet: born Allahabad, India 27 November 1907; married 1927 Shyama (died 1936), 1942 Teji Suri (two sons); died Bombay 18 January 2003.

In 1935, a young Hindi poet from Allahabad published a long lyric poem called Madhushala, inspired by Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyám's Rubáiyát. The runaway success of Madhushala, whose title means "The House of Wine", made its teetotal author, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the toast of northern India; he was in constant demand at the large-scale public poetry readings called "kavi sammelan", and his poem became the hymn of the age – its sweetly rhymed cadences still echo in people's memories today. More than mere literary success, this was stardom, and the poet's performances drew wild enthusiasm from his huge audiences.

Harivansh Rai, the son of a family from a modest United Provinces background, was born in 1907 in Allahabad, where his father was a clerk in the office of the Pioneer newspaper. The birth of a boy seemed a miracle to the sonless parents, and they named him after the Harivansha Purana, the Sanskrit text to whose devout recitation the happy event was attributed. The young boy seemed to have books in his blood, for he read voraciously during long childhood hours spent in Allahabad's libraries.

In adolescence, the early deaths of some intimate friends, including a boy named Karkal and Karkal's wife Champa, brought an acquaintance with grief that primed the nascent poet's verse with a bittersweet mood. Meanwhile the tide of politics ebbed and flowed: Mahatma Gandhi visited Allahabad, as did Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and a relative was witness to the 1919 massacre at Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar. Harivansh Rai's inner life echoed the vacillations of these outer events.

At the age of 18, he was married to a girl called Shyama, some three years his junior. Their sweet relationship provided the background to his student career and to his involvement in Gandhi's Satyagraha movement; but Shyama's fluctuating health was a constant worry, and she died within a few short years.

Deeply grieved, Harivansh Rai followed a series of uninspiring jobs, until at last a change of fortunes brought him a lectureship in the renowned English Department of Allahabad University. He thrived on this new work, whose unchallenging schedules allowed him ample time to develop his poetic persona; teaching English and writing Hindi became the two strings to his bow, and, if his heart-on-sleeve poetry did not always please the austere Hindi critics, his public popularity knew no bounds. The conventional need for a nom de plume had already been filled by his family pet name, "Bachchan", which means simply "child" or "little boy"; and the poetry kept coming, even if it was Madhushala that the rapturous audiences always demanded.

In 1942 Bachchan met and married Teji Suri, from a Punjabi family, and their life-affirming domestic harmony was soon underwritten by the birth of two sons, Amitabh and Ajitabh; Amitabh's registration at school was the first occasion on which the name "Bachchan" became confirmed as a family surname. In the early 1950s Bachchan took an unusual opportunity to study in St Catherine's College, Cambridge, where he worked on W.B. Yeats under the supervision of T.R. Henn, learning also the art of living on a few shillings in student digs, and noting, in this linguistically novel environment, that those shillings were called "bob", not "bobs".

Yeats's widow received him most graciously when he made a research trip to Ireland; and, although problems and distractions abounded, he became one of the first Indian students to complete a literature PhD at Cambridge. On his going back to Allahabad, however, the "England-returned" scholar was cold-shouldered by his jealous colleagues, and he soon left academia to work as a radio producer, then as a "Hindi Officer" in Jawaharlal Nehru's Ministry of External Affairs.

While living in Allahabad, Teji Bachchan had became a close friend of Nehru's daughter Indira. This family connection was maintained after the Bachchans moved to Delhi, where Teji blossomed socially, acting in Shakespeare plays translated into Hindi by her husband. Bachchan himself looked on his ministry work askance, realising that the establishment of a separate Hindi section in the ministry was a mere sop to the movement that sought to promote Hindi as a true national language.

Meanwhile the growing Bachchan boys found great success in their chosen careers: Amitabh became the very archetype of the Hindi film actor, while Ajitabh went into business. Gradually Bachchan himself became part of the cultural establishment, representing his country on numerous tours to foreign capitals, and receiving many honours including appointment as a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament.

His writing continued unabated – always in Hindi, except for the English dissertation from Cambridge (published as W.B. Yeats and Occultism, 1965). From the Sixties onwards he began writing a serial autobiography, the first of whose four volumes, Kya bhulum, kya yada karum ("What Should I Forget and What Should I Remember", 1969), was quickly seen to be a modern classic, a sublime invocation of his family background and of the emotional turbulence of his early years. An English translation of Madhushala appeared in 1950 (The House of Wine, from the Fortune Press) and an abridgement of his autobiography in 1998 (In the Afternoon of Time, from Penguin Books India).

In retirement, often in indifferent health, Bachchan and Teji began to live under the long protective shadow of Amitabh in Bombay, amidst the supportive cast of an adoring family.

Harviansh Rai Bachchan leaves nine volumes of "collected works", including a legacy of accessible Hindi verse hardly to be matched by any 20th-century author.

Rupert Snell

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