Munshi Premchand (Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava)

“लिखते तो वह लोग हैं, जिनके अंदर कुछ दर्द है, अनुराग है, लगन है, विचार है। जिन्होंने धन और भोग-विलास को जीवन का लक्ष्य बना लिया, वह क्या लिखेंगे?

― प्रेमचंद, गोदान

One of the most celebrated writers of the Indian subcontinent, Munshi Premchand is regarded as the foremost hindi writers of the twentieth century. His real name was Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava (31st July 1880 – 8th October 1936) who began writing under the pen name of “Nawab Rai”, but subsequently switched to “Premchand”,  Munshi being an honorary prefix.

A novel writer, story writer and dramatist, he has been referred to as the “Upanyas Samrat” (“Emperor among Novelists”) by writers. His works include more than a dozen novels, around 300 short stories, several essays and translations of a number of foreign literary works into Hindi. Godaan, Bazaar-e-Husn, Karmbhoomi, Shatranj ke khiladi, Gaban, Mansarovar, Idgah are considered to be some of his notable works.

Premchand was born to Kayastha parents in a village called Lamahi, on the outskirts of Benaras. His mother passed away when he was eight years old and his father, a postal clerk, remarried soon after. He first went to school in Gorakhpur where his father was posted. Born Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava, Premchand was fondly called Nawab and therefore published his early writings under the name ‘Nawab Rai’. After passing his class 10 examinations in 1898, Premchand began a long career as a teacher and school administrator, during which he passed as a non-formal candidate in the class 12 examination. This was in 1916. Three years later, he did a BA with English literature, Persian and history as his subjects.

He published his first collection of five short stories in 1908 in a book called Soz-e Watan. The stories were all patriotic and the British government interpreted these as seditious. He had to appear before the district magistrate who told him to burn all copies and never write anything like it again. This incident gave birth to the new pen name Premchand. It was only the first of Premchand’s many brushes with authority though and he was required to deposit a security of Rs 1000 many times in the 1930’s.

Indian history and mythology, Indo-Muslim cultural history, contemporary society and his own wide readings of literature from across the world influenced Premchand’s work. He was the first Hindi and Urdu writer to write in depth of the lives of the deprived sections of society. As a rule, he wrote on contemporary themes of immediate social and political relevance, after experimenting with a few short stories set in the historical past. His work became a vehicle for his socially engaged agenda of social reform. In 1918, Gandhi had declared Hindi to be the national language and Premchand had, between 1915 and 1924 begun to write in Hindi instead of Urdu.

In 1921 he resigned government service at the call of Gandhi during the Non-Cooperation Movement. He bought a press in 1923 and started the publishing house Saraswati Press. Due to low income, he also worked as the editor of the Hindi journal Madhuri in Lucknow in 1924-25 and again from 1927-32. In 1930 he started a journal called Hans and two years later, took over another journal called Jagaran.

Premchand died on 8 October 1936, at the age of fifty-six. He had returned to Benares four years before, and lived in Lamahi in a bigger pukka house that he had built, which still stands.

Some adaptations of Premchand’s works-

  • In 1977, Satyajit Ray made a film based on Premchand’s short story Shatranj ke Khiladi, also titled Shatranj Ke Khilari, which won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. 
  • Sevasadanam (first published in 1918) was made into a film with M.S. Subbulakshmi in the lead role. The novel is set in Varanasi, the holy city of Hindus. Sevasadan (“House of Service”) is an institute built for the daughters of courtesans. 
  • The Actor Factor Theatre Company, a young Delhi based theatre group, staged Kafan in 2010 in New Delhi. It is an original stage adaptation of Premchand’s short story.
  • Oka Oori Katha is a 1977 Telugu film. It is based on the story Kafan by Munshi Premchand. It is one of the few Art films made in Telugu language.
  • A film version of Premchand’s novel, Gaban, was released in 1966. 

There are several other short films and shows which were created and aired based on his writings.

Text and concept by- Satyam Srivastava

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