Remembering Bharatendu Harishchandra on Hindi Divas, a man whose work fortified the language

  • Bharatendu Harishchandra was born in 1850 in Varanasi.

  • In 1868, Harishchandra made his acting debut in the role of Lakshmana, and published Vidyasundar, which was a translation from Bengali.

  • He wasn't terribly keen on an overtly Sanskritised Hindi, though he did, on occasion, pass cutting remarks about Urdu.

In 1641, Shah Shuja, Shah Jahan’s second son, moved to Bengal as its governor (subedar). Among those who moved with him was one Balakrishna, an Aggarwal financier who saw opportunity in this move. Balakrishna’s grandson was the wealthy Aminchand or Omichund, as the British called him, who gained notoriety when he conspired with Clive to defeat the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, in the Battle of Plassey, and paved the way for British rule. Aminchand was later betrayed, and died a broken man, prompting two of his sons to move to Varanasi. In Varanasi, they became financiers to its Maharaja, earned a big fortune, and despite Aminchand’s unfortunate experience, they, along with their successors, maintained close ties with the British.

It was into this fabulously wealthy home that Bharatendu Harishchandra was born in 1850. The household was a strange mixture of hedonism and fervent pursuit of cultural quests, something that was to manifest in Harishchandra too, in due course. Gopal Chandra, his father, was a poet and dramatist who is credited with composing the first modern drama in Hindi, Nahushnatak. But he was also addicted to opium, and that led to his early death in 1861. Harishchandra’s mother had died earlier and so, the young lad was now in the custody of his stepmother, who wasn’t too keen on looking after him.

At the age of five, as an indication of things to come, Harishchandra explained certain verses in Brajbhasha, revealing traces of the genius that was about to light up the Varanasi skies. Soon, the precocious child’s education was kick-started with lessons in Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit. Among his teachers was Raja Shivprasad, who was to later feature prominently in Harishchandra’s life and works.

Between 1862 and 1865, he also intermittently attended the Queen’s College in Varanasi, where he learned some English. During this period, he made a long pilgrimage to Puri, which is in modern day Odisha, in the company of his brother and stepmother. A detour through Calcutta during this trip gave him the opportunity to see his first Bengali play, and also prompted him to learn Bengali, adding a further layer of influence to his literary persona.

Besides these formal educational endeavours, there was also the matter of his dalliance with many of Varanasi’s tawaifs, some of whom moved him enough to make him burst into poetry. They also made him something of a connoisseur of the arts. In later years, his association with a specific tawaif, Mallika — a Bengali child-widow — was to influence his literary life as well. A poet herself, Mallika anonymously contributed to Harishchandra’s journals and also edited and translated Bengali writings.

 Remembering Bharatendu Harishchandra on Hindi Divas, a man whose work fortified the language

Bharatendu Harishchandra, known as the 'Father of modern Hindi literature'. Illustration by Sharath Ravishankar.

In 1868, Harishchandra made his acting debut in the role of Lakshmana, and published Vidyasundar, which was a translation from Bengali. In the same year, he also founded Kavivachansudha, a literary journal. He was now coming into his own.

By 1870, Harishchandra had acquired his share of property, and was now an independent man about town, free to act on his impulses and passions. His ties with the English meant that he was influential enough to be appointed Honorary Magistrate and Municipal Commissioner.

During this time, the NWP&O (North-West Province and Oudh, roughly today’s UP) was in the throes of a debate about Hindi and Urdu. The controversy had begun in 1800 at Fort William College in Calcutta, when JB Gilchrist, the language teacher, and another scholar, Lallooji Lal, had posited the existence of a Sanskritised Hindi, shorn of Persian influence, before the advent of Islamic rule. They believed that this was the original tongue that had since morphed into the then-extant Hindustani, which was deeply influenced by Persian, owing to centuries of Islamic rule. That dodgy hypothesis had since developed a life of its own, and NWP&O had, for decades, witnessed a battle between Hindi and Urdu proponents on matters of script and language.

Should Hindi look to Sanskrit for its expressions, or should it be catholic in its view and look to Persian as well? Should the tongue be written only in the Nagari script, or could it be written in the Urdu script as well? Should the tongue written in Nagari be Sanskrit-heavy? Should it begin to distance itself thus (through its reliance on Sanskrit) from its sibling, Urdu? These were the questions that were debated fervently in literary journals, administrative circles, and among the city’s intelligentsia.

Contrary to popular belief, the Hindi-Urdu battle wasn’t entirely a communal one. Many Kayasthas — a Hindu scribe caste — were on the side of Urdu. Raja Shivprasad, Harishchandra’s old teacher, was all for a Persianised Hindi, but preferred the Nagari script to the Urdu one. Then there were others who took the side of a Sanskritised Hindi or a Persianised Urdu. The choices were bewildering.

There was also the matter of Hindi itself, which many contended, was not a fully developed language. The fact that Brajbhasha and Awadhi were the preferred languages in literature undoubtedly prompted this view. Where was Hindi’s own literary canon, many wondered?

Wading into such a state of affairs was Harishchandra.

He wasn’t terribly keen on an overtly Sanskritised Hindi, though he did, on occasion, pass cutting remarks about Urdu. But he also couldn’t brook Raja Shivprasad’s Persian-heavy Hindi, leading to an argument between the teacher and the student over the matter. He was for moderation, favouring a Hindi bhasha with simple Sanskrit words, without disregarding the limited Persian words that had come into the language.

And it was in establishing this tongue that his biggest contribution lay. Much of the prose that Harishchandra wrote to establish this language was done in the Kavivachansudha and Harishchandra Magazine (later renamed Sriharishchandrachandrika), which was another journal he founded in 1873. In these journals, he turned out a variety of essays on literary, scientific, political and religious subjects, besides also publishing a great deal of humour and satire. As Vasudha Dalmia notes in her book, The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions, this enabled the expansion of "the expressive capacity of the language in all directions." In essence, it resulted in the birth of what came to be called ‘Harishchandra Hindi’, the tongue that is widely used today. In later years, this period in history would go on to get christened the ‘Bharatendu Yug’, after the title bestowed on him in 1880.

He also gathered around him a number of young men, like Pratapnarayan Mishra, Balakrishna Bhatt and Srinivas Das, all of whom would contribute to the further advancement of Hindi. Srinivas Das, in 1882, wrote Pariksha Guru, Hindi’s first novel. Pratapnarayan Mishra, among other things, coined the slogan ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’, which was used to devastating effects as the Hindi-Urdu battle heated up in the last two decades of the 19th century. Harishchandra’s own contribution to this debate was when in 1882, he deposed in favour of Hindi, and argued against the undue preference given to Urdu in government affairs in front of the Hunter Commission that had been created to review the progress of education in India. He also made significant contributions to push Hindi’s claim to being the ‘national language’.

Harishchandra, the dramatist, did much to further the cause of Hindi theatre even as he cleverly used the medium to take gentle jibes at the British rule, sometimes to catastrophic effect, as is evident in the famous play, Andher Nagari. This reveals another aspect of his persona. On the face of it, he professed loyalty to the British Raj, but took potshots at it through his writings and plays, so much so that he was forced to forego his honorary positions when he refused to apologise for his literary barbs.

Bharatendu Harishchandra died in early 1885. His fortune was much reduced, owing to his overtly generous nature, passion for collecting curios and objects that caught his fancy, and his habit of supporting many questionable ventures with large sums of money. However, within his short life, he had cemented his reputation as modern Hindi’s first champion.

Updated Date: Sep 16, 2019 12:31:03 IST