Munshi Premchand, the author of the famous books Godan and Kafan passed away on October 8, 1936. In the memory of this prolific writer, many literary societies and associations will celebrate the 84 death anniversary of the literary master on October 8, 2021.
A literary giant of Hindi-Urdu literature, he is recognized in India as the foremost Hindi-Urdu writer of the early 20th century. He is a novel writer, a story writer and a dramatist. He is also famously known as the Upanyas Samrat which means a great emperor among novel writers.
Early Life of Premchand
Munshi Prem Chand was born as Dhanpat Rai on July 31, 1880 in a village called Lamhi in Varanasi. His early education was at a local madrasa under a maulvi, where he studied Urdu. After his parents’ death he was responsible for his step mother and his step-siblings. With no means to support himself, he intermittently abandoned his studies and took up a job as a teacher in Chunar, near Varanasi. He completed his Bachelor’s of Arts while being employed as a teacher and resigned from his services in 1921 on the call of Mahatma Gandhi.
He was married once at the age of 14 to a girl from a neighboring village but she soon returned back to her village when he left in 1889. In 1909, he remarried a widow Shivarani Devi in spite of the opposition faced by the society for this revolutionary step.
When Mahatma Gandhi asked people to resign from government jobs in a seminar held in Gorakhpur, Premchand took his advice and quit his job as a school teacher. Thereafter, to serve the cause of Independence, he tried writing for columns of Urdu dailies of Gorakhpur Tehqeeq and Swadesh but could not keep up the job. He then returned to work as a teacher for Marwari Vidyalaya but again left it to take the responsibility of editing the magazine Maryada. Later he became a principal at a school in Varanasi.
Dhanpat Rai first wrote under the pseudonym “Nawab Rai.” Nawad (Prince) was a name given to him by his uncle. In 1907, after the publishing of his controversial Soz a watan – a short story collection which contained four stories that inspired the Indians to strive for the freedom of the country – was banned, his house in Hamirpur was raided and five hundred copies of his book were burnt, he secretly changed his pseudonym from Nawab Rai to Premchand. His earlier works are produced in Urdu. It was only in 1914, that he started writing in Hindi.
In his ambitious career, he tried running a printing press, he became editor of the journal Madhuri, started a weekly called Hans, then another weekly called Jagran. His last two ventures left him in debt which made him take up a job as a script writer for Ajanta Cinetone in Mumbai. He wrote for the film Mazdoor and did many other translations and novels.
Major Works and Achievements of Premchand
Premchand is regarded as one of the important Hindu authors whose writings prominently featured realism. His stories and novels focus on the sorry plight of the urban middle class and the poor. With a strong rationalistic outlook, his works view religious values as a weapon used by the powerful hypocrites to subjugate the weak. He used the pen and the paper as a medium to arouse social, political and national consciousness among the people of India. Writing in both Hindi and Urdu gave him access to both the Hindu and the Muslim population of India.
It would not be wrong to say that Premchand was really the Father of Urdu short- stories. Short stories or Afsanas were first started by Premchand in Urdu. Just like his novels, his Afsanas also mirror the society he lived in; with the perfect blend of satire and humor. His famous Afsanas include Qaatil Ki Maan, Zewar Ka Dibba, Gilli Danda, Eidgah, Namak Ka Daroga and Kafan. His collected stories have been published under the names of Prem Pachisi, Prem Battisi, Wardaat and Zaad-e-Raah.
His early works, A Little Trick and A Moral Victory were a satire on Indians who cooperated with the British Government. During the 1920s, inspired by the Gandhi’s Non Cooperation Movement and the struggle for social reform, he wrote extensively on social issues such as poverty, the zamindari system and its exploitation (Premashram, 1922), dowry system (Nirmala, 1925) educational reform and political oppression (Karmabhumi, 1931)
In his last days, he focused on the portrayal of village life as in his outstanding work Godan (The gift of a cow in 1936) and the short story collection Kafan ( Shroud in 1936). He thoroughly believed that social realism was the best way for Hindi Literature.
In his literary career, he authored over 300 short stories, novels and several essays, letters and plays. Much of Premchand’s best works can be found among his 250 or so short stories, collected in Hindi under the title Manasarovar and available in eight parts. Many of his works have been translated to English and other foreign and national languages. Some have been adopted in films as well. His first novel Godan remains as one of the best written novels of its times and remains so even today. Gaban, Kafan Poos ki Raat, Idgah, and Bade Ghar ki Beti are his other notable works which made him a legend. Some novels like Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Seva Sadan were adapted into films by Satyajit Ray.
Premchand also translated a number of non-Hindi works into Hindi. These included the writings of Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Sadi, Guy de Maupassant, etc. His famous plays include Karbala, Prem ki Vadi and Sangram. He also tried his hand at a few children’s books. Among these, Jangal ki Kahaniya and Manmodak are still popular.
There have been numerous adaptations of Premchand’s work. Sevasadan, Sadgati and Shatranj ke Khiladi which were adopted by Satyajit ray for films by the same name. A film called Oka Oori Katha in Telugu directed by Mrinal Sen is based on the story Kafan by Premchand.
Death and Commemoration of Premchand
In 1934, Premchand came to Mumbai and got his first assignment as a scriptwriter for the film Mazdoor. However, he did not like the non literary commercial outlook of the Bombay Film Industry and therefore decided to leave the city before his annual contract came to an end. Himanshu Roy, the founder of the Bombay Talkies persuaded him to stay but to no avail.
Thereafter, he moved to Benaras where he remained ill for a long time. Even in his last days, he chaired the first All-India conference of Indian Progressive Writers Association in 1936. However, he was still struggling to make ends meet in his personal life. He suffered from health problems, particularly abdominal ailments.
Despite his health and financial problems, he embarked on the task to complete his last novel Mangalsutra which he did not manage to complete as he finally breathed his last on October 8, 1936 after several days of sickness. Premchand’s last published short story was Cricket Match which appeared in the magazine Zamana in 1937. His second wife Shivarani Devi wrote a book titled Premchand Ghar Mein after his death.
Theater and literary events are held on his birth/death anniversary. In one such event commemorating the great master of words, it was said that Hindi literature cannot be discussed without mentioning Munshi Premchand and his literary masterpieces. He was probably one of the few writers whose stories in Hindi textbooks we, as school students, would be delighted to read and study. The simplicity of his characters, poignant plots and the moral of the story in the end taught us lessons of respect, empathy and love.
The Delhi-based theater group, Actor Factor, staged Kafan in New Delhi in 2010 on the occasion of his death anniversary. Another theater group by the name of Dramatic staged Premchand: Three Comedies for Families and Children, at the Shri Ram Center, Delhi in months of August, September and October 2012. The stories included Do bailon ki katha; Shatranj ke Khiladi; Nimantran. All three plays were dramatized and directed by Ravi Raj Sagar.
A literary foundation in Bombay has also undertaken the Herculean task of translating all his works into as many national and international languages as possible in 2012 on his death anniversary. Since his works deeply reflect the socioeconomic and political scenario of his era, it is regarded as an indispensable source of knowledge for studying history and literature.
Doordarshan also features a televised show based on the short stories of Munshi Premchand. Set up against the background of poverty stricken India before independence, it is a reminder of his elaborate sense of observation, humor and satire.
In Varanasi, at the place of his birth and eventual death, a Premchand Memorial and Research Center (Premchand Smarak and Premchand Shodh Evam Adhyayan Sansthan) is being set up.
Premchand’s invaluable contribution to Hindi literature makes him one of the most revered and studied literary writers in India as well as abroad.