1950's: The Nehruvian Glow

For many of us, our sense of the world – a heady mixture of reality and dream, sensitivity to others and a belief in the possibility of change – took root in the 1950s

The fifties were the first decade of a free India. It was also the beginning of India as a democratic republic. It was a recently free India but also a partitioned India – the wounds were still fresh. And yet it was a decade of hope and aspiration. Some of us, who were in their teens, found our feet in the socio-political milieu, enough to feel confident and inspired to forge ahead.

Ashok vajpeyi is an author, former bureaucrat, a Hindi poet, critic and art lover

The towns, big and small, in the north and central India had refugees from the newly created Pakistan. The joke used to be: if you met someone in Delhi or Sagar (a central Indian town where I lived and grew up) and asked him in which direction the sun rose he was likely to say that he was new in the town, he didn’t exactly know! Significantly, these refugees, mostly Sindhis and Punjabis, established themselves as bold entrepreneurs. They did not add to the already large begging brigades in north Indian towns.

The fifties saw the emergence of IITs and public sector plants called ‘new temples’ by Nehru, whose vision and plans were shaping the new India. It is quite fashionable these days to find fault with the Nehruvian vision and planning. We invariably and conveniently forget that a lot of currently admirable economic growth can be traced to the foundations that were laid in the Fifties. For many of us, our sense of the world, a heady mixture of reality and dream, sensitivity to others, belief in the possibility of change took root in the Fifties.

Forging ahead: The first IIT is established in Kharagpur, West Bengal in 1951. IIT Delhi (above)

I distinctly and gratefully recall my class teacher in Sagar encouraging me to write poetry in Hindi and opening my mind to new developments in literature and Hindustani classical music. An ordinary BA-degree holder, the same teacher, while departing on transfer, told me that since I belonged to a family of administrators, I must try to get into IAS but ‘die as a poet’. No one would have given a boy of 14 such imprudent advice, except in the Fifties!

The decade saw the emergence of new movements in poetry and fiction in many Indian languages and just as there was a new India being dreamt and built, these movements were labelled new, such as Nayi Kavita and Nayi Kahani etc. In many literatures, a new camaraderie developed, sometimes on grounds of ideology, largely on new initiatives and experiments. The decade saw a series of patriotic films such as Shaheed and Jagriti, but also the new realism as well as deep romanticism best exemplified with Raj Kapoor’s Jagte Raho and Dilip Kumar’s Devdas. My boyhood obsession with the music of KL Saigal and Lata Mangeshkar made way for the enduring classical vocalism of Krishna Rao Shankar Pandit and Hirabai Barodekar. The Progressive Artists Group consisting of Husain, Raza and Souza primarily had all of them moving in different directions. Souza making a name in London, Raza in Paris (later to discover the Indian bindu) and Husain painting the great epics Ramayan and Mahabharat in Hyderabad.

While Nehru remained a popular figure, a stringent critic of his policies emerged in Ram Manohar Lohia. Some of the Lok Sabha debates and particularly sharp-edged speeches of Lohia are outstanding examples of prose in the service of public causes. One important institutional initiative was the establishment of national academies that encouraged the arts, namely the Sahitya, Lalit Kala and Sangeet Natak Akademi. India began asserting its presence not only in the international arena of diplomacy and foreign relations but also in popular culture. A debate about tradition and modernity became furious in the Fifties and continues to the rounds till today.

The radio became a powerful medium of communication and indeed contributed much towards the preservation of Indian classical music by employing a large number of musicians as well as providing prominent slots for classical music, particularly after royal patronage waned with the merger of many Indian states into the Union of India.

Indian literature had already attained freedom much before we came to be politically free. The first decade of freedom expanded the geography of creative imagination but also made literature more interrogative, deeply self-critical and gradually full-blast anti-establishment. The establishment included not only the State, political power but dominant morality, social norms etc. By the end of the Fifties, a lot of disillusionment had set in. The Nehruvian glow started fading and we started moving towards self-disappointment. From radiant hope to slightly dark despair, from self-confidence to self-doubt, the Fifties contained all the essential ingredients of what made the 20th century for us. From such ingredients our dreams, our creativity, our imagination have been weaving a human map a tragicomic tale of our being.


The Constitution comes into force on 26 January, the same day India makes its first declaration of independence in 1930
The Planning Commission is set up with Prime Minister  Nehru as the chairman
The Election Commission is set up to administer all electoral processes

The first Five-Year Plan is launched. Dam-building,  irrigation are top of the list
India participates in and hosts the first ever Asian Games. Ranks second with 15 gold medals
First Amendment of Constitution allows the state to make special provisions for advancement of backward classes
The first general elections to the Lok Sabha are held. Indian National Congress headed by Jawaharlal Nehru sweeps into power

Former French colonies Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam merge into India

The Non Alignment Movement originates at the Asian-African Conference, in Indonesia. 29 states discuss the role of the Third World in the Cold War

The States Reorganisation Act redraws the boundaries of India’s states and territories along linguistic lines

Ashok Vajpeyi is an author, former bureaucrat, a Hindi poet, critic and art lover

The views expressed by the author are personal

Next week, The Forties by Khurshed Alam Khan

From HT Brunch, August 5
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