On the sidelines of the Sahitya Akademi’s “Festival of Letters” in February, we managed to pin down the somewhat reclusive Marathi novelist Bhalchandra Nemade, the exceptionally erudite winner of the Bharatiya Jnanpith award, and engage him in a bookish conversation. While, earlier, we’d had occasion to argue with him on the role and relevance of English in the linguistic ecosystem of India, and whether or not a writer must write in their mother tongue to unlock their true artistic potential, this conversation was almost entirely around books, well-loved books, books one grew up on, as well as over-rated books one read in one’s teens and outgrew instantly.
The idea was to eventually end up with a list of must-read Marathi classics for all of us to read (and encourage translations of) – and we did.
While the books one read as a child are important for everyone, for a writer they assume almost a mythic proportion in later years. Isn’t that right?
Oh absolutely. That’s what I think. When we were children, there was a Gandhian freedom fighter, Sane Guruji (Pandurang Sadashiv Sane), who would translate one classic from world literature into Marathi every year. He had devoted his life to the upliftment of Dalits and women. He was a great lover of children too. Like many others who devoted their life to the independence movement, he spent long years in jail. That is when he had the time for these translations.
I still remember his 10-volume translated classics. They formed my first introduction to world literature. I was very fortunate that each of these books would reach my village very soon after publication, and I would get to read them.
I grew up in a small village called Sangavi in north Maharashtra. It was an isolated hamlet in the mountains, but Sane Guruji’s books managed to reach us. There was no other means of communication with the rest of the world. Even newspapers rarely reached.
The other major literary influence in my childhood was Bhakti poetry. Saint poetry, which was sung by locals, and orally transmitted through generations. There were followers of, primarily, five sects in our village – Varkharis, Mahanubhavas, Krishna panthis, Kabir panthis, and Swaminarayans – and then, of course, there were Muslims in our village too, and through them we were introduced to stories from the Koran, Sufi narratives and the rituals of Muharram. This constituted the second form of exposure to literature.
Later, I found that this was not simply rural or isolated – but part of world literature as it were. This fact, I discovered, to my delight, in later years when in university we were required to analyse these verses in the classrooms.
In my teens, I started reading what popular Marathi literature was, at the time, available in school libraries. I picked these out at random, not without much thought. Khandekar and Phadke – they were very popular. But, unfortunately, we never liked their work. Love and marriage were their favoured themes, and for us, these were alien subjects! Marriage happens in one day, we used to think – why so much obsession about it?
Wait, so were these writers again?
Vishnu Sakharam Khandekar, the first Jnanpith award winner in Marathi. He was a famous novelist, widely read. Narayan Sitaram Phadke too. He wrote around a hundred novels!
So, later on, you would have read Khandekar and Phadke again?
Oh yes, I had to teach them too. And even then, I found that there was no substance in them!
Which is Khandekar’s most famous book?
That would be Yayati. It’s read everywhere, of course. For college, I went to Poona, Fergusson College. That’s where I was introduced to a vast library, a veritable treasure trove, and great deal of discussions on art and literature.
Right. In the Hool tetralogy, in fact, when you write about your literary other, Chagdeo Patil, it is in college that his worldview truly expands. He reacts to the popular literature of the time, publishes an edgy little magazine, and so on.
In college, we were finally introduced to the best Marathi literature.
And that is what we would like you to share with our readers. Thirteen must-read Marathi classics. Which ones would you choose?
I was a student of Marathi literature. Marathi was my main subject; English was the subsidiary subject. And, of course, as I discovered, not all classics which deserve to be read, not only in Maharashtra but across the country, were included in the curriculum. Let’s consider a roughly chronological list:
Leela Charitra: Life in Deeds
Leela Charitra is about the life of Shri Chakradhara (Sarvadnya Shri Chakradhar Swami), a thirteenth century Vaishnava mystic. A bulky book, about five hundred pages or so, Leela Charitra was composed by his disciple Mhaimbhatta. The original text was completed in 1270 or thereabouts – basically, in the thirteenth century, in Marathi. The author details each episode of his guru’s life in beautiful colloquial Marathi; short sentences; very readable.
Mhaimbhatta’s manuscript was lost when Alauddin Khilji attacked Devagiri (whose Yadava rulers were great patrons of Marathi) and destruction followed in his wake. Later, it was recited from memory by a devotee with a remarkable memory, one Hiraisa, and thus recreated from scratch. In post-independence India, an edited volume of the text was published by the great scholar VB Kolte, a great pioneer in the field of Mahanubhava literature, after years of meticulous research. He is said to have looked at 200 recensions of the manuscript from all over the sub-continent, from as far away as Kabul, and produced a very authentic edition. This was published by the Government of Maharashtra.
Now, the story is that Shri Chakradhara was a radical reformer, who wanted to liberate women and the oppressed castes, and so the Brahmanical order turned on him. Himself a Gujarati Brahmin from what is now Bharuch, one of the charges brought against him was that he used the language of the lower classes, and fraternised with the oppressed. The Devagiri kings tried him, and he was later executed by a Matanga. (The Matangas were basically a community who specialized in capital punishment.) The original narrative ended with this.
But this enraged the fanatics of his sect. “He’s our god. How could he have been hanged?” This was the sum of their argument. So they brought upon a ban on the contemporary scholarly edition.
Leela Charitra, then, was lost and recovered – and, in a manner of speaking, lost again.
The poetry of Namdeva and his devotee-servant, the saint Janabai, is unique. The “abhanga” meter is believed to have been invented by Namdeva, inspired by the rhythm of women grinding the wheel to thresh wheat, and it evolved into a specific form of devotional poetry. Later, about fifty abhangas were included by Guru Gobind Singh in the Guru Granth Sahib, emphasising the deep circularity of the Bhakti movement.
The prose account of life in a monastery in the fourteenth century, primarily the life of Nagadeva, a disciple of Shri Chakradhara, Smritisthala was composed by two authors: Narendra and Parasharam. It is a remarkable late fourteenth-century text. I strongly feel this should be translated. I don’t think any good translation exists of this work.
Eknathi Bhagavata and Bhavarth Ramayan
Eknath’s commentary on the Bhagvad and his retelling of the Ramayana are definitely Marathi classics from the sixteenth century. Eknath, a tremendous writer with prodigious output, was not only a contemporary of Tulsidas, but also his “classmate” and possibly even “roommate” at Banaras as it were. They studied under the same guru, and their retellings of the Ramayana are thus contemporaneous.
Though many prefer Tulsidas’s retelling of Rama’s story, Eknath’s too is stamped with his genius. His is a matter-of-fact retelling. In general, Eknath pioneered the use of folk forms in his writings. In bharood – a folk form invented by Eknath – contemporary sins are criticised. A Deshastha Brahmin himself, he was a great progressive and constantly upheld a mirror to the crimes and hypocrisies of other Brahmins. He came from Paithan, near Aurangabad, a great site of learning and culture on the Godavari.
The writings of Tukaram, and of his disciple, Bahinabai
While the seventeenth-century mystic Tukaram is known as one of the greatest Bhakti saint-poets whose verses are still sung in most Marathi households, the lesser known Bahinabai was one of those pioneering women saints who came from Kolhapur to be Tukaram’s devotee. Bahinabai was from a Brahmin household while Tukaram was from the Kunbi caste, traditionally labourers and tillers. This led to some controversy in the early days and angered the Brahmins of Tukaram’s village. Bahinabai spoke out in favour of women’s voices. While Tukaram’s poetry (translated best by Dilip Chitre) changed the grammar of Bhakti literature, Bahinabai’s Bahinabai cha Atmakatha is considered the first piece of autobiographical narrative in Marathi in verse.
“Bhausaheb” was Sadashiva Rao, the bhau or cousin of Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao “Nana Saheb”, the de facto commander of the Maratha army at Panipat in 1761. He undertook a great expedition to fight Abdali. The bakhar, a Persian prose form that is used to relate eye-witness accounts, is an important primary source in Maratha history. This eye-witness account of Baji Rao’s brother’s foray in Panipat tells a tragic tale of war, and makes for compelling reading.
A fabulous book, perhaps the first travelogue to be written in India, Majha Pravas was authored by Vishnubhatt Godse, a poor priest who travelled on foot from his native Alibaug to Bundelkhand, especially to Rani Lakshmibai’s Jhansi. Sometime later, as the events of 1857 unfolded, Godse and his uncle had hair-raising adventures in north and central India, finally returning home penniless but with their lives. This eye-witness account of 1857, when the British, among other atrocities, burnt the Jhansi library, is a remarkable book. Majha Pravas has been translated, if not brilliantly, at least competently, although it deserves a far greater readership.
Shetkaryaca Asud or The Whipchord of the Cultivators by Jyotirao Phule, published in the late-nineteenth century, is a Marathi classic, along with his other works, most of which have been translated recently. Phule was a great reformer and activist and his works are now considered to be some of the powerful manifestoes for the oppressed.
Pan Lakshat Kon Gheto
Translated as But Who Cares by Santosh Bhoomkar for the Sahitya Akademi, Pan Lakshat Kon Gheto by HN Apte, a major novelist of the early 20th century, is considered a feminist classic. Apte has written about twenty novels but this is the most acclaimed. A follower of the social reformer Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Apte displayed a reformist zeal in both his life and writings that was relevant in his times, although they may appear a bit stilted now.
The works of Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre
In my opinion, in modern times, we have had only two great Marathi poets: Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre, both of whom wrote in both Marathi and English.
Arun Kolatkar chi Kavita is his important collection. It is a wonderful book, not very long; remarkable. He wrote one or two volumes of poetry in English too, notably, Jejuri. Must-reads for Dilip Chitre are the two collections: Kavita (1960) and Kavitenantar chi Kavita (Poetry Beyond Poetry), which was published by our little magazine’s publication division in 1977.
Translated as The Battleground, Ranangan (1939) by Vishram Bedekar is set against the backdrop of the Second World War. Chakradhar, a young Indian boy who is returning home from England on a ship falls in love with young Herta, a Jewish refugee fleeing persecution in Germany and en route to Hong Kong.
The short stories of Venkatesh Madgulkar, Mandeshi Manse or Men from Mandeshi, completely changed the grammar of Marathi literature. Until then, Marathi literature was very metropolitan, somewhat upper class, and necessarily spoke to – and of – the limited concerns of a limited readership. For the first time, urgent rural voices were heard in these sketches, and the twenty-two-year-old author became a household name.
Vibhavari Shirurkar’s Bali, the story of “criminal” tribes (the “criminal” appellate was obviously a gift of the British) and their days and nights, is a pathbreaking book. Shirurkar was the pseudonym of the pioneering writer Malati Bedekar, who married writer Vishram Bedekar after she was widowed at an early age, and her early books were so refreshingly bold that she received several death threats. Fortunately, her real identity was cleverly concealed. Bali is often considered her finest novel.
(Bhalchandra Nemade is too polite to include his own first novel, Kosla, translated as The Coccoon by Sudhakar Marathe, in this list of must-read Marathi classics. But it certainly belongs here.)