The Saptarshi of Bihar’s literary firmament

Priya Darshan

Works as diverse as Kautilya’s “Arthashastra”, belonging to the ancient times, and Vidyapati’s romantic poems, composed in the mediaeval era, have spawned the contemporary literatury and cultural landscape of Bihar wherein can be seen a rich blend of the folk and the classical. The land gave birth to a bard like Bhikhari Thakur who presented mundane concerns with a sublimity that shall remain etched in people’s memories for centuries.
Few people may be aware that one of the most popular Hindi novelists Devakinandan Khatri too belonged to Bihar. It is said that in his times people often learned Hindi only to relish his “Chandrakanta” and “Chandrakanta Santati” series. Devakinandan Khatri’s tales of mystery date back to the last phase of 19th century when the syntax of Hindi was still a work in progress. For long, literary critics have been ignoring his works on the ground that these lacked realism. We can hope for a fresh look on his works now, when even realism has started giving way to hyper-realistic experimental styles.

Speaking of the post-Independence period, Phanishwar Nath Renu can be credited with having produced at least two novels which have been Bihar’s major contribution to not just Hindi but world literature. Mithalanchal region of Bihar   comes alive through the pages of “Maila Aanchal” and “Parti Parikatha”. The strong local flavor in these two works, set against the backdrop of Purnea district, has been overemphasized. But it can be said that the history of Hindi novel can not be complete without the mention of these two. He was one of the first writers to have captured the decadence that beset the political legacy of Indian national movement. On the other hand, he also comes across as having immense faith in the Nehruvian model of development. Besides, he underscores the importance of a cultural consciousness, which has the potential for becoming a vehicle for political change and in which he sees the way to emancipation and progress of Bihar’s villages.

Some memorable writers and works which have enriched Bihar’s treasure trove of classical Hindi prose are Shivpujan Sahay (Ve Din Ve Log, Kahani Ka Plot), Ramvriksh Benipuri (Mashaal, Genhu Aur Gulab, Patiton Ke Desh Mein) and Raja Radhikaraman Prasad Singh (Daridranarayan). Speaking of their distinct characteristics, Benipuri imparts a distinctness to even his use of punctuation marks. Raja Radhikaraman Prasad Singh’s works present a poetic blend of Urdu and Hindi. The texture of Shivpujan Sahay’s writings have an intimate feel which has been captivating readers.

As far as modern poetry is concerned, one of the most popular poets of Hindi ever, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, too was from Bihar. Despite having a thoughtful treatise like “Sanskriti Ke Char Adhyay” to his credit, he is better-known for epics like “Rashmirathi”, “Kurukshetra” and “Urvashi”. Many dismiss him as a balladeer of valour, perhaps unmindful of the fact that after Dushyant Kumar and Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Dinkar continues to be the most widely-read Hindi poet till date.

Predating Dinkar, a poet whose name resonates across the world of Hindi poetry is that of Bettiah-born Gopal Singh Nepali who penned many unforgettable songs. His poems like “Mera Dhan Swadheen Kalam” and “Bhai Bahan”are known to many by heart.

Muzaffarpur-based Janakivallabh Shastri left an indelible mark on the Hindi literary world by virtue of works like “Meghgeet”. Lines like “Janata Dharti Par Baithi Hai, Nabh Mein Manch Gada Hai/Jo Jitna Hai Door Mahi Se Utna Vahi Bada Hai” (the public sits on the ground, while the stage has been erected in the sky/one’s greatness is just as much as one’s distance from the ground) stand the test of time These lines are recited by poetry lovers quite often and, unfortunately, appear all too precise in the context of contemporary politics.

However, the true splendor of Bihar’s poetic tradition reveals itself in Baba Nagarjun. Originally a Maithili writer, Vaidyanath Mishra aka Nagarjun earned acclaim as a leading Hindi poet by virtue of his being a chronicler of the grand Indiannness which encompasses both folk and classicism. In terms of variety, he is second only to poets like Nirala and Agyey. Many may say that he had even surpassed them. Poems composed by Nagarjun are as varied as the sublime “Amal Dhaval Giri Ke Shikharon Par Badal Ko Ghirte Dekha Hai” on the one hand and pronouncedly political verses on the other. There are hundreds of his poems which give voice to our times with intensity and in which depictions of both the commoners and the privileged can be found.

In reality, the literary firmament of Bihar is vast enough to deserve a complete book, but if we were to earmark its Saptarshi, or its seven luminaries, then the names of Babu Devakinandan Khatri, Phanishwarnath Renu, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Shivpujan Sahay, Janakivallabh Shastri, Ramvriksh Benipuri and Nagarjun come to mind.

(Priyadarshan is a senior TV journalist with NDTV and a noted writer.)