Nirala: The dissenter and maverick of Hindi poetry

On January 22, the country marked the arrival of spring with celebrations on Basant Panchami, and with Saraswati puja being held all over. But few, even in the media, remembered the person who famously wrote in the 1960s, “Main hoon basant ka agradoot” (I am the harbinger of spring): The legendary Hindi poet, Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’. This is an era when Valentine’s Day is more readily recalled, and it’s thus unsurprising that Nirala should have gone unremembered when spring was welcomed.

Nirala was no ordinary poet. He was a genius and a maverick who cared little for convention, whether in poetry or his personal conduct. He suffered from schizophrenia in the last years of life but continued to write brilliant material until his death in October 1961. No discussion on Hindi literature is complete without his mention. His boastful outbursts were not just tolerated but also endorsed by many experts. Had these come from lesser writers, they would have been contemptuously dismissed. But when Nirala said that he was the “greatest poet after Tulsidas”, there were many nods in agreement. Even his critics, who do not subscribe to the hyperbolic view, will acknowledge that he was among the tallest Hindi literary titans. (Incidentally, one is reminded of yet another ‘boastful’ remark by an equally maverick poet, Raghupati Sahay, better known as Firaq Gorakhpuri, who, like Nirala, resided in Allahabad. He said that if a visitor to Allahabad returned without meeting him, he had seen nothing of the city! Firaq was a contemporary of Nirala’s and passed away two decades after Nirala died.)

Nirala was by all accounts an impressive personality with long curly hairs and an almost Roman face. Although he was drawn to poetry from an early age, there was nothing to suggest that he would make a mark in Hindi literature. He was born in Bengal, became a student of Bengali, was drawn to the charms of Sanskrit, and immersed himself in studying English literature. As was the custom in those days, he married early. It was only then, at his wife’s insistence that he began to learn and take an interest in Hindi. There is little doubt that the magnetic pull of the marital relationship led him to a language in which he would later excel. Sadly for him, his wife died when he was only 20 years of age. Other tragedies were to soon follow: His daughter Saroj too passed away (which led him to pen the Saroj Smriti — arguably an unparalleled creation in the world of Hindi literature), and he fell into financial hardships and had to take on small jobs to make both ends meet. But his love affair with Hindi survived.

It may have been the personal blows or something else — perhaps the messianic over-zeal with which he immersed himself in writing or his furiously rebellious nature — that resulted in his becoming a psychological wreck in later years. Because he went against established norms, both in his writings and in his personal conduct, Nirala was often the subject of public derision, which must have worsened his condition. Eventually, he had to be admitted to a hospital in Ranchi for psychiatric disorders. He didn’t fully recover but was later sound enough to continue writing. He died in Allahabad, where his bust stands in remembrance today in one of the city’s busier localities.

But none of the criticism or ridicule could kill the genius in him. He was ahead of his time, true, which is why today, the world of Hindi literature — sharply divided as it was during his time on aesthetic and ideological lines — remembers him with near reverence. It does appear that all reservations about his writing disappeared after his demise. Nirala got the stature in death which he didn’t in his lifetime.

He is unquestionably considered one the four pillars of Chayavad (Romanticism) poetry — the other three being Mahadevi Verma, Sumitranandan Pant and Jaishankar Prasad. It symbolised the projection of the self but mixed with humanistic values with a romantic slant; there was a dose of mysticism as well. The Chayavad school in Hindi literature had followers and supporters in the form of big literary names. It might interest many that one of the foremost Hindi poets, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, was an early supporter of Romanticism — his most famous work, Madhushala, remains among the most important works in that genre. But he later moved away from that aesthetic world and became a firm critic of Chayavad.

Nirala the rebel was a natural product of two developments. The first was that the British ruled India and Nirala was in a perpetual struggle to see the bondage break. He was perhaps more forthcoming than many of his peers who were content to stick to literary aesthetics and not wade into ‘politics’. The second was the state of society itself, with its many inequalities. Nirala refused to accept the status quo and employed his poetry to give expressions to his disquiet. His restive mind finds perfect expression in these of his lines:

Geet gane do mujhe toh/ Vedna ko rokne ko…
Kanth rukta jaa raha hai/ Aa raha hai kaal dekho

Nirala’s literature was as vast as his technique. He was not only a foremost poet but also a novelist of consequence. Among his novels, Nirupama, in particular, is especially relevant to the times we live in and in the resurgent narrative of gender equality and women empowerment. It was written sometime in or near about 1935, and it depicts the courage of the female protagonist after whom the novel takes its name, in challenging social norms.

Those were the days when you not only competed against but also supported one another. There are many stories of how Nirala and Mahadevi Verma bonded as rakhi brother and sister. Many commentators have written about small incidents that show up that deep relationship. He must have been a devoted brother to her. One wonders if the following lines by Mahadevi Verma could in some way be a reflection of Nirala’s nature:

Thande paani se nehlati/ Thanda chandan inhe lagati/ Inka bhog hamein de jaati
Phir bhi kabhi na bole hain/ Maa ke thakurji bhole hain 

Perhaps! Who knows? 

(The writer is senior political commentator and public affairs analyst.)