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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 12 New Delhi March 9, 2019

Imparting Creative Dimension to Marxist Criticism: The Role of Namvar Singh

Monday 11 March 2019


by Prem Singh

Professor Namvar Singh is no more. After battling with a prolonged illness, he drew his last breath on February 19 at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi. In the tributes which immediately followed his demise, it was rightly noted that his death has brought an era to an end. His absence has generated an irreplaceable void in the literary world from which it will never recover. Namvar Singh was a tall figure in the world of Hindi literature and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was an institution in himself. His impeccable writing style and the debates which ensued wherefrom kept the critical and creative landscape of Hindi alive for six decades. His profound interest in language was not restricted to Hindi but extended to all Indian languages. Along with Hindi, he was also proficient in Sanskrit, Apabhransh, Urdu, Bengali, English language and its literature.

Namvar Singh was an eloquent rhetorician and this quality received the praise of even Mrs Indira Gandhi at an event. He enriched the literary traditions of scholarship in inimitable ways and such was his impact that his lectures have occupied an exhaustive literary space and continue to be debated in literary circles. Ashok Vajpayee has been quite apt in his tribute for Namvar Singh by describing him as a high ranking public intellectual. Namvar Singh’s status can very well be attributed to his perseverant learning, profound understanding of the subjects and unique skill of oration which secured him invitations from important gatherings all over the country. Once, Prof Harish Trivedi candidly remarked that there are two types of seminars in Hindi—one in which Namvar Singh is present and the other in which Namvar Singh is not present. However, in the later days, his attention shifted from critical writing to the art of speech. He was often accused of changing his stance on an issue from one lecture to another. But despite such criticism the allure of his presence in the gatherings remained undiminished.

Such personalities make rare appearance in the literary world. He continuously wrestled on literary beliefs/values/canons with the most prominent figure of the modernist school, Agyeya. Namvar Singh was the only critic from the progressive camp who, when it comes to the establishment of personality cult, gave a tough fight to Agyeya. Agyeya has written commentaries on the phenomenon of personality, particularly the uniqueness of literary personality. He gave enough self-expressions too. Agyeya was particularly cautious of the cult of literary personality. Namvar Singh was not seen as making conscious efforts in such a direction. In reality he never gave into self-expression. Despite such immense popularity, intimacies and high public attendances, he maintained a distinct, neutral and objective personality which struck a chord with the people. Krishna Sobti has written about his personality in the following words, “in the personality of Namvar Singh a reflection of both—the protagonist and the antagonist can be seen. It is not that he is oblivious of the significance of being Namvar but what is worth noting is that he preserved his persona not with pride, rather with grace and dignity. In his context, self-glorification was unheard of.” (‘Ham Hashmat’—2) As a teacher myself, while teaching his critiques in the classroom, I have found that the students in addition to his body of critiques also display curiosity in his graceful personality.

In the words of his own students, Namvar Singh was an exemplary teacher. His efficacy in text-editing, knowledge of languages, curriculum designing, research-supervision, journal-editing and other such academic works was of extraordinary proportions. The domain of critical work generated by Namvar Singh is wide. In books such as Chhayawad (1955), Itihas aur Alochna (1957) Kahani-Nayi Kahani (1964), Nayi Kavita Ke Pratimaan (1968), Doosri Parampara Ki Khoj (1982) Vaad, Vivaad, Samvaad (1989), and other such books of criticism, including the journal titled Alochna, eight edited books, his periodic interviews, lectures, bear witness to his range and profound depth. In criticism he is known for Vaad Shaily (argumentative style). He himself gave endorsement to this fact. He created many controversies about literary values and beliefs. He also gave rise to controversies about his predecessors and contemporary authors and critics. Many a time, controversies have arisen over his own role in different fields. However, this is not the place for delineation of those disputes. It is also true that the controversy-loving Namvar Singh at times used to refrain himself from attracting certain controversies. For instance, when the Hindi literary world was taken by a storm due to the works of the renowned Dalit critic Dr Dharmveer, Namvar Singh refused to partake in the controversy citing that opposing Dharmveer would further strengthen Brahmanism. He took this stance when some of the Marxist critics were proclaiming Dr Dharmveer to be fascist.

The figure of Namvar Singh has been controversial. On the occasion of his 89th birthday in 2016 Namvar Singh attended a programme, organised in his honour, by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) even in the regime of the present BJP Government. He was ostracized from the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA) for this act. In the wake of the authors’ decision to return the awards as a protest against the increasing intolerance in the society, Namvar Singh once again kept himself at bay by describing it as not the proper way of protest by writers. Some Marxist scholars even described these two incidents as the culmination of Namvar Singh’s journey from Red to Saffron! In fact the same allegation was leveled about 15 years ago in an editorial of Alochna by Namvar Singh against Ram Vilas Sharma based on the latter’s writings.

Nonetheless, Namvar Singh as a critic is important. Attendance in a particular event or friendship with a particular person can’t be the basis of any scholar’s assessment. The body of criticism produced by Namvar Singh will be the basis of his evaluation and vision. Namvar Singh has made an important contribution in the era of post-Ramchandra Shukla criticism, which has been accepted in many ways by his later critics. He played a consistent and important role in curbing the Communist culmination of the Hindi Marxist criticism. For this he has been accused of being formalist-impressionist. But he courageously employed meaningful aspects/insights available in the formalist-impressionist criticism to loosen the knot of Marxist criticism. That’s why he would be known for imbuing a creative dimension to the Marxist criticism in Hindi.

After reading his body of criticism, it feels that he is not just a charioteer illuminating new paths of literature, he is also a reader, the sahriday, a kindred term found in Sanskrit poetics. Such people seek and attain the depth of life before engaging in a formal study of literature. This is the main foundation of Namvar Singh’s body of criticism. It can also be due to the effect of his Guru, Hazariprasad Dwivedi, on his being as well of his beloved poet Muktibodh, who has said, ‘Critics should not take their eyes off the life.’ Namvar Singh’s own poet-heart has also played a role in the formulation of his position as a critic. Perhaps it is a critic like him who can say that the criticism is equal to the composition.

Namvar Singh’s identification and contri-bution as a scholar was not restricted to the world of Hindi. In addition to literary criticism, he undertook serious study of disciplines of social sciences. From Marx to Gandhi and Lenin to Lohia he engaged in a serious reading/learning of modern political thinkers. That is why he gained respect of the scholars of other disciplines and he used to get invitations as a speaker. Senior Hindi journalist Prabhash Joshi organised a series of talks/symposiums called ‘Namvar Ke Nimitt’ (in lieu of Namvar Singh) to mark his 75th birthday on an all-India basis. It received audience in large numbers and also saw scholarly lectures on many subjects.

Here I would like to make a fond recollection. On completion of the eighty years of Namvar Singh, a two-day seminar was organised in his honour in DAV Girls College, Yamuna Nagar, Haryana. Professor Bhim Singh Dahiya, the former Vice-Chancellor of Kurukshetra University and the Principal of the College, Dr Sushma Arya, had made all arrangements. Namvar Singh attended the programme but expressed his wish to not make a speech. However, at the end of the last session, teachers of both Hindi and English—who were in attendance in large numbers—requested him to address them. And when Namvar Singh began his oration it was like a downpour of words and he addressed them for a long time. That long speech was unforgettable much like many of his previous speeches. On that occasion, I wished him that may his good health and life endure much like his words.

Namvar Singh lived a long life and paid his dues. In 1959, he contested for the Lok Sabha from the Chandauli constituency as the candidate of the Communist Party of India (CPI). It is learnt that his last wish was that his mortal remains be kept in the premises of Ajoy Bhavan for some time after his death. It goes without saying that Namvar Singh owed allegiance to the principles of socialism, secularism and democracy as a citizen and as a scholar. His writings will carry further these principles. A solemn tribute to the stalwart of Hindi criticism!

The author, a former Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, teaches Hindi at Delhi University and is the President of the Socialist Party (India).

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