Biography of Bachchan: The Great Hindi Poet

“Madhushala” an eternal creation by Shri Harivansh Rai Bachchan was a craze and whenever Mr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan presented it on Stage the audience became so personally involved in it that the entire Hall seemed to be swayed under the influence of the message in it.

Born in a middle-class family at Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh on 27 November 1907, Bachchan graduated from the Allahabad University in 1929, and very soon he was drawn into the vortex of the freedom struggle. Having a short stint as a journalist, he had joined as a teacher in the local Agarwal Vidyalaya. Along with the teaching job he had pursued his studies and obtained both M.A. and B.T.

He joined the Allahabad University as a Research Scholar and later in 1941 a Lecturer in English Literature. Taking a sabbatical from the University, he went to Cambridge University for his doctoral work on “W.B. Yeats and Occultism.” He was the first Indian to acquire a Ph.D. in English Literature from Cambridge. Completing his research he joined to his alma mater and after a short stint, Bachchan joined AIR, Allahabad, as Producer for sometime. At the behest of Jawaharlal Nehru, he joined the Hindi Cell in the Union Ministry of External Affairs as an OSD in 1955 to translate official documents from English into Hindi which he had continued till his retirement.

Harivanshrai Bachchan was a great Hindi poet.

Harivanshrai Bachchan was a great Hindi poet.

Undeterred by criticism and steeled by domestic difficulties like financial worries, loneliness, which was compounded by the untimely death of his first wife Shyama, Harivansh Rai continued to write, combining mature subtlety with discretion. His marriage with Teji Suri changed the course of his life and, by his own admission, his poetry. His creative career, which began in 1932 and continued till 1995, was a 63-year literary journey.

Tera Har was his first collection lyrics. With the publication of Madhushala (House of Mead, 1935), a literary masterpiece of Bachchan, a rhapsody on wine and joy of living, his position as a major Hindi poet was firmly established. He burst upon the horizon of Hindi poetry as a bright star one evening in 1935 with his recitation of Madhushala, a cry straight from the soul of a young man who had suffered much, to a huge audience, unfolding to listeners an enchanting world with rings of Omar Khayyam. Longing for an eternal union with his beautiful beloved, the poem employs a range of symbols, especially that of wine, much as in the tradition of Persian poetry. (The meaning of these symbols of operates at many levels.)

Young Amitabh Bachchan in the arms of Harivanshrai Bachchan.

Young Amitabh Bachchan in the arms of Harivanshrai Bachchan.

His Style

The influence of Omar Khayyam‘s Rubaiyaat and its style he had written two other long poems, completing a trilogy with Madhushala, Madhubala (1936), and Madhukalash (1937).

The underlying message of these three collections was the meaninglessness of the sordid worldly ambitions, greed acquisitiveness, bigotry and intolerance in religion, morality and behavior. In a sad poetic irony, Harivansh Rai boldly challenged sickening conventionalism and moralist and thus, gave to Hindi poetry an entirely new dimension.

The death of Shyama had a profound effect on his psyche, shattering all his hopes and dreams. His feelings of deep grief and pessimism were expressed through Nisha Nimatran (Invitation to Night, 1938), collection of a hundred lyrics. Harivansh had tried to evolve his own version of sonnet and in harmony with its own poetic style. Instead of following the traditional pattern of octave and sextet, his lyrics consisted of 13 lines suited to Hindi language. Beginning with a cry of loneliness and ending with an assurance, the basic imagery of these lyrics were linked with the darkness and the light symbolizing his grief and hope.

The poet had expressed his inner feelings in terms of the outer world, thus creating a universe of symbols. In the words of Mathur, “Nisha Nimatran will remain a highly moving poetic document of tragedy and suffering. In the entire modern Hindi poetry there is no work like Nisha Nimatran, which has portrayed grief or the sense of a tragic void in life so profoundly.”

Harivanshrai Bachchan, Sumitranandan Pant and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar

Harivanshrai Bachchan, Sumitranandan Pant and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar

Ekant Sangeet (Song of Loneliness, 1939), following Nisha Nimatran, was written during the period of 1938-39 when he was passing through a mental crisis. The lyrics reflect his sensitive mood and the grim phase of his life. The collection marks the pinnacle of his poetic power and manifests the destiny of lovelorn grief and the experience of extreme loneliness.

The poet had written that the darkness in which he had entered in Nisha Nimatran had led him to listen to the Ekant Sangeet, the song of solitude, and the music led him to Akul Antara (The Restless Heart, 1943). With the publication of Akul Antara the first phase of his writing had come to a close.

Moved by Bengal Famine

Satrangee (The Rainbow) was published in 1945. The Bengal Famine in 1943 caused Harivansh to move away from his earlier concerns. His new involvement in the human predicament resulted in the collection Bangal ka Kal (The Fate of Bengal, 1946). Bhupendranath Das translated the volume into Bengali in 1948. Aware of human suffering and a sensibility sharpened by private grief, in the same year (1946) he published Halahal.

The Happy Mood

Harivansh Rai expressed a happy mood after a long time, in 1950s, after publishing Milan Yamini (1950) and Pranav Patrika (1955), named after Tulsidas’s Vinay Patrika. The poems of these two volumes had transcended the sensuousness of his early poems. Ghar ke Idhar Udhar (1957) was a work of transition in which the poet was gradually returning to share the glory of his clan and family. In the next collection, Arati Aur Angare (1958), he celebrated his return to one’s own heritage. However, with the publication of these poems his first phase of writing, in real sense, ended.

In his later works he charts his path from loneliness and futility of existence to the emerging joys of life. The element of irony returns in another form in his poems after 1958, the first manifestation being in Buddha aur Nachghar (Buddha and the Dance Hall). In his own opinion Buddha aur Nachghar was the turning point of his poetic career, as he was able to express the seen and anger of the society around him. In Tribhangima, Char Kheme Chaunsath Khoonte, Roop aur Awaz, and Bahut Din Beete he had experimented with the language of folklore. Bachchan moved on to social satire in these volumes. This time he was more concerned with contemporary life, the hollowness and villainy in society and politics. His desire was to live a full-blooded life on this earth, which is quite evident in his poems. This quality of the poet had made his the most liked and loved poet of Hindi.

Harivanshrai Bachchan with his wife Teji Bachchan. Amitabh and Jaya are also in the frame.

Harivanshrai Bachchan with his wife Teji Bachchan. Amitabh and Jaya are also in the frame.

Do Chattanen

Harivansh Rai’s Do Chattanen (Two Rocks, 1965), contains fifty-three poems. Written between 1962-64, this collection of poems received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1968. Along with a number of other poems, the most important is the title poem ‘Do Chattanen or Sisyphus vs Hanuman’. The poet presents two points of view of life by using Sisyphus, the symbolic character from the Greek mythology, and Hanuman as symbols. Both Sisyphus and Hanuman aspire to become immortal, but their means are different. The former symbolizes the faithless western man of 20th century and the latter immortality through devotion, absolute faith and humanity.

Besides this long poem, the poet reacts to so many things during his seventh decade such as the Chinese aggression, Nehru’s death, anger of youth, his old age, contemporary literary scene, academics, etc., in the rest of the work. “For its vigour of expression and maturity of outlook, the book has been hailed as an outstanding contribution to contemporary Hindi literature”, says the Award citation. However, the poems of Do Chattanen represent clarity of meaning and lucidity of expression of Bachchan’s poetry.

All the experimental poems, including 76 poems chosen from a poetic career of 50 years, Kavitai Ki Adhisadi, was published in 1981.

The influence of Mahatma Gandhi on Hindi writers has been distinctly profound during the decades following the Satyagraha (1921) and before the end of the Second World War. And Bachchan too has not escaped from it. He had brought out his collection on Gandhi, called Khadi Ke Phool (1948), in collaboration with Sumitranandan Pant, which contains 93 poems of Bachchan and 15 of Pant. Both the poets had paid homage to Gandhi. Besides, he himself had written a collection of poetic tribute to the Mahatma in Soot ki Mala, mourning the death of Gandhi. Both these books on Gandhian themes are of great poetic value.

However, the poetry of Harivansh Rai had brought range, delicacy of feeling, ruggedness, ease and strength to the romantic lyric. Being born in a family known for its scholarship in Persian and its devotion to Vaishnav faith, his poetry combines the best of Sanskrit and Persio-Arabiv poetic traditions. He had set a model of lyricism in Hindi and his contribution in changing the temper, approach and style of poetry during the 30s has been very significant.

The varied influences of Kabir, Keats, Tagore and Omar Khayyam were evident throughout his poetry, as also a deep appreciation of Shakespeare. He had also translated Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello, sixty-four Russian poems into Hindi entitled Chaunsath Rusi Kavitayen and 101 poems of W.B. Yeats. For his Hindi translation of Russian poems he was honored with Soviet Land Nehru Award in 1966.

Government released a postal stamp in the memory of Harivanshrai Bachchan.

Government released a postal stamp in the memory of Harivanshrai Bachchan.

Bachchan had also translated the Bhagvadgeeta in Awadhi entitled Janageeta (1958) and also in modern Hindi, Nagargeeta (1966). Some of his selected poems have been translated into many Indian and foreign languages. Besides, he had written essays, travelogues, and edited several volumes of his own poetry and that of his contemporaries. He has contributed to the Indian film Industry with his songs ‘Rang barse’ from Yash Chopra’s ‘Silsila’ (1981) and ‘Koi gata main so jata’ for the movie ‘Aalap’ (1977).

The great achievement of Harivansh Rai in prose writing was his autobiography in four volumes Naye Purane Jharokhe (Windows New and Old) beginning with Kya Bhoolon Kya Yaad Karoon (What to Forget and What to Remember). Considered as a seminal work which was to carve out another niche for himself, the work is distinguished by its graceful confession and intimate account of his innermost feelings in situations of great tragic dimensions.

  • Nominated member by the President of India to the Rajya Sabha, 1966
  • Member of the Advisory Board for Hindi, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi (1963-67)
Books of Harivanshrai Bachchan

Poetry Collections

  • Tera Haar (1932)
  • Madhushala (1935)
  • Madhubala (1936)
  • Madhukalash(1937)
  • Nisha Nimantran (1938)
  • Ekant Sangeet (1939)
  • Aakul Antar (1943)
  • Satrangini (1945)
  • Halaahal (1946)
  • Bangal Ka Kaavya (1946)
  • Khadi Ke Phool (1948)
  • Soot Ki Maala (1948)
  • Milan Yamini (1950)
  • Pranay Patrika (1955)
  • Dhaar Ke Idhar Udhar (1957)
  • Aarti Aur Angaare (1958)
  • Buddha Aur Nachghar (1958)
  • Tribhangima (1961)
  • Chaar Kheme Chausath Khoonte (1962)
  • Do Chattane (1965)
  • Bahut Din Beete (1967)
  • Kat-ti PRatimaao Ki Aawaaza (1968)
  • Ubharte Pratimaano Ke Roop (1969)
  • Jaal Sameta (1973)

Prose / Miscellaneous

  • Bachchan Ke Saath Kshan-Bhar (1934)
  • Khaiyyam Ki Madhushala (1938)
  • Sopaan (1953)
  • McBeth (1957)
  • Jangeeta (1958)
  • Othelo (1959)
  • Umar Khaiyyam Ki Rubaiyaan (1959)
  • Kaviyon Ke Saumya Sant: Pant (1960)
  • Aaj Ke Lokpriy Hindi Kavi: Sumitranandan Pant (1960)
  • Adhunik Kavi-7 (1961)
  • Nehru: Raajnaitik Jeevancharit (1961)
  • Naye-Puraane Jharokhe (1962)
  • Abhinav Sopaan (1964)
  • Chausath Roosi Kavitaaein (1964)
  • W.B. Yeats And Occultism (1968)
  • Markat Dweep Ka Swar (1968)
  • Naagar Geeta (1966)
  • Bachchan Ke Lokpriy Geet (1967)
  • Hemlet (1969)
  • Bhaasha Apni Bhaav Paraaye (1970)
  • Pant Ke Sau Patr (1970)
  • Pravaas Ki Diary (1971)
  • King Lear (1972)
  • Tooti-Chhooti Kadiyaan (1973)
  • Meri Kavitaayi Ki Aadhi Sadi (1981)
  • So-ham Hans (1981)
  • Aathve Dashak Ki Pratinidhi Shreshth KAvitaaein (1982)
  • Meri Shreshth Kavitaaein (1984)

Authobiography / Rachnawali

  • Kya Bhulu Kya Yaad Karu (1969)
  • Need Ka Nirmaan (1970)
  • Basere Se Door (1977)
  • Dashdwaar Se Sopaan Tak (1965)
  • Bachchan Rachanavali Ke Nau Khand (1983)

India lost this great poet of the Hindi language on 18th January 2003. He died of respiratory problems at the ripe age of 96. The funeral procession in Bombay was attended by thousands of people, among which many Bollywood stars, top industrialists and politicians, the BBC reports. His eldest son, Amitabh Bachchan, performed the last rites.