Munshi Premchand: The emperor of novels

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByHT Correspondent
Jul 31, 2019 09:28 AM IST

One of the most accomplished men of letters in Hindi, his works such as Seva Sadan, Nirmala, Bade Ghar Ki Beti, and short stories including Idgah, Kafan and Namak ka Daroga, powerfully depict through words the society as it prevailed during his time.

Born in Lamhi, a village near Varanasi on July 31, 1880, Dhanpat Rai Srivastav went on to become one of India’s greatest literary figures and was popularly known by his pen name Munshi Premchand.

Born as Dhanpat Rai Srivastav, this great author first assumed the pen name Nawab Rai. In 1907, when one of his works was banned by the British rulers, he was prompted to change his pen name to Premchand.(Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)
Born as Dhanpat Rai Srivastav, this great author first assumed the pen name Nawab Rai. In 1907, when one of his works was banned by the British rulers, he was prompted to change his pen name to Premchand.(Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)

Premchand received his early education at a madrasa in Lalpur, where he learnt Urdu and Persian. Later on, he studied at a missionary school where he learnt the English language.

His mother, a homemaker, passed away when he was eight years old. Nine years later, the death of Premchand’s father, who was a postal clerk, interrupted the youngster’s education.

Becoming Self Sufficient

After supporting himself by taking tuitions for a few years, he became an assistant teacher at a government school in Bahraich district in 1900. It was around this time that he also began writing fiction.

Initially, he assumed the pen name Nawab Rai for his first novel Asrar e Ma’abid, which focused on corruption among temple priests and exploitation of poor people.

The novel was serialised in the Varanasi-based Urdu weekly Awaz-e-Khalk from October 1903 to February 1905. He began his literary career in Urdu but eventually switched to writing in Hindi.

Writing for the masses

The author was influenced by the freedom movement and his works not only entertained readers, but also conveyed social messages, and encouraged them to participate in the movement. One such work, Soz-e-Watan, published in 1907, was banned by the British rulers, which prompted him to change his pen name to Premchand.

Meanwhile, he took up the post of an assistant master at the Normal High School, Gorakhpur, in 1916. Continuing to write in his free time,Premchand wrote his first Hindi novel, Seva Sadan, in 1919.

Fighting for Freedom

In 1921, he attended a meeting addressed by Mahatma Gandhi who called on people to resign from government jobs and support the non-cooperation movement.

Even though he had been promoted to the post of Deputy Inspector of Schools, responding to Gandhi’s appeal, he quit his job in support of the non-cooperation movement. After which he shifted to Varanasi and focused on writing. In 1923, he set up the publishing house Saraswati Press. This establishment published the novels Nirmala (1925) and Pratigya (1927), which dealt with the issues of the dowry system and widow remarriage.

In 1930, he also launched the magazine Hans, which did not turn out to be a commercial success. Hence, he took a job as a teacher at the Marwari College in Kanpur in 1931. Later, he quit and became the editor of the Maryada anthology.

Last Few Years

In an effort to shore up his drooping finances, Premchand went to Mumbai in 1934 where he began working on scripts for the film production house Ajanta Cinetone.

He wrote the script for the film Mazdoor which portrayed the plight of labourers. While the film influenced workers in factories to stand up against the owners, Premchand himself disliked conditions in the film industry and left.

Back in Varanasi, he then began writing the novel Godaan. Soon his health deteriorated and the writer breathed his last on October 8, 1936.

Interesting Facts

1. Premchand’s novel Godaan, considered to be one of the greatest Hindi novels, deals with the themes of caste discrimination, exploitation of poor and women; and ill-effects of industrialisation. It was made into a film in 1963.

2. The Sahitya Akademi introduced the Premchand Fellowships in 2005. The award is given to persons of eminence in the field of culture from Saarc countries. Past fellows include Amrita Pritam and Sumitranandan Pant.

3. Premchand had even worked for a while as a sales boy at a bookshop as he thought it would give him a chance to read more books. He wrote over 300 short stories, 14 novels, essays, letters, plays & translations.

4. His children’s books such as Jangal ki Kahaniyan and Ram Charcha are among his renowned works. The first literary work which Premchand composed at Gorakhpur was never published and is now lost.

5. A plaque that commemorates Munshi Premchand was installed at the hut in which he resided in Gorakhpur from 1916 to 1921 . It describes the exceptional man of letters as the ‘Emperor of Novels.’

Sources: Wikipedia,

Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale

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