With the death of Namvar Singh, 92, an era of Hindi literature has come to an end. It is an understatement that he was a great critic, for his contribution goes much further. He may well be considered as one of the architects of the modern Hindi sensibility. For almost seven decades, Singh’s charismatic presence had a great influence on the Hindi literary and intellectual sphere. He gave new meanings to the old forms of writing, and he liberated the Hindi mindset from the shackles of tradition.
It was not an easy journey. Born in a middle class rural family in Jeeyanpur village of Benaras, Singh went to school in his own village. In 1947 he completed his Intermediate course and went on to get a Master’s degree from Banaras Hindu University (BHU) before earning his PhD in the early 1950s. His formative years gave him a deep insight into the challenges a newborn nation was facing. Marxism attracted him as an ideology, and soon he became a communist, joining the Communist Party of India and even standing in the elections, though unsuccessfully, in 1959 from Chandauli in Uttar Pradesh.
Politics’s loss was literature’s gain
Perhaps life had different plans for Singh. He used to write poetry earlier, but gradually developed as a literary critic. His work on Apbhransh (an old form of the language) and the poetic idiom of Prithwiraj Raso (considered the first poetic work in Hindi) got him great acclaim. His rural Indian sensibility, blended with a Marxist approach, helped him develop his own tools of criticism and view the earlier works of Hindi literature in a new light. His books Chhayavaad, Kavita Ke Naye Pratiman and Doosri Parampara Ki Khoj established him as a scholar critic.
Singh kept on experimenting. At the different Indian universities where he taught – BHU, Sagar University, Jodhpur University, and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) – he shaped young minds with his teaching acumen. He introduced new courses and modernised the course structure of language and literature in JNU, and his popularity as a unique teacher kept growing.
Becoming a public intellectual
But teaching was only one of the vast and varied roles Singh played in the Hindi public sphere. He was a rare scholar with a command over four languages – Hindi, English, Sanskrit and Urdu. He was well acquainted with traditional and classical Indian literature, as well as with contemporary western literature and political philosophies. He was cautious of the dangers of nationalism and communalism. He was aware how fascism entered Germany through the gates of democracy.
But Singh was not a scholar tied with his table. He was a man of public appearance, which he enjoyed greatly. In the later stage of his life, he wrote less and spoke more. And because he was a brilliant speaker, his popularity touched new heights. Every author wanted him to speak on their book, with his sanction was considered the last word.
Every new thought needed Singh’s approval. He was everywhere – in literary organisations, on the selection committees of universities, on the award committees of different foundations and trusts. He was the perennial chief guest or chairman of book launches, seminars and other literary events. He did weekly book reviews on Doordarshan, he was the editor of the literary magazine Alochana, and he was a larger than life figure.
False steps, but lasting influence
Undoubtedly this came as a great service to the world of Hindi culture. Singh was like a river that kept on watering Hindi fields and helped them conserve their fertility. In an era when we enjoy the services of the internet, it is hard to imagine a time when the remote areas of the country had no access to new magazines, new books and new knowledge. The people of that period and those areas still vividly recall how a single speech of Singh’s could change their thinking.
But all this took a toll on Singh, and at times he was reduced to being an average speaker who was speaking to please his hosts. Sometimes he showered on undeserving books.
But despite these lapses, there is no question that Singh developed the culture of debate, discussion and dialogue around Hindi literature. He was perhaps the first Hindi critic who was invited to speak across the country, even on forums for other Indian languages, including English. In a way he was the brand ambassador of Hindi.
All this came with a price, however. Singh always had his fair share of critics and criticism. He was often accused of being close to power structures, even hobnobbing with them. He was attacked for creating factionalism in Hindi. He was criticised for caste favouritism. When he joined Sahara Samay – the publishing ventures of the infamous Sahara group – as group editor, he faced several and severe attacks. This move was certainly ill-planned.
Still, for good or for bad, there was undoubtedly a Namvar Singh era of Hindi literature. However, it was on the decline in recent years, for two reasons. Singh was a critic deeply rooted in the sensibility of modernism. To some extent, post-modernism perplexed him. He was well-versed in the idioms of cold war era. But he was not comfortable with the identity politics of postmodern structures. Dalit and feminist voices of Hindi literature did not receive a proper welcome in his house of criticism, whereas his friend and contemporary Rajendra Yadav fiercely – and correctly – supported such voices.
Second, with advancing years, Singh appeared to make some poor choices in terms of the platforms he appeared on. Still, for sixty long years, Singh virtually dictated the terms and conditions of being a successful Hindi writer. As the scholar Harish Trivedi once put it, there were only two kinds of literary seminars in Hindi, those with Namvar Singh and those without Namvar Singh.
Now, all seminars will take place without Namvar Singh. But he will be remembered with great respect and honour as a great critic, a wonderful teacher, and a democratic public intellectual who supported the idea of the literature for a cause. If Hindi literature is in some parts a literature of protest today, Singh is responsible for it in no small measure.