On 31 July 1880 one of India’s most popular Hindi writers, Premchand was born.
Born as Dhanpat Rai in Lamhi, a small village near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. Premchand lost his mother when he was very young. Premchand’s father was a village accountant. Following his mother's death; he was raised by his grandmother who passed away soon after. Following this, his father remarried. Missing his mother and receiving no affection from his step mother, Premchand grew up as a lonely child and turned to fiction for comfort.
Premchand wrote under the pseudonym Dhanpat Rai in the beginning and his early writings were in Urdu, he later switched to Hindi as a medium for writing. His first short novel published was titled Asrar-e-Ma'abid (The Mystery of God’s Abode), which touched upon the topic of corruption among temple priests and exploitation of the poorer sections of society. His first novel did not receive an enthusiastic response and was termed as “immature work” portraying Premchand’s tendency to “see life only black and white”.
Inspired by nationalism, Premchand wrote an article on Indian National Congress leader Krishna Gokhale in Zamana. He was hugely critical of Gokhale’s outlook to achieving freedom and was supportive of the extreme measures adopted by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The first story Premchand published was titled “Duniya Ka Sabse Anmol Ratan” (The Most Precious Jewel in the World). According to this story, the most precious jewel in this world was the last drop of blood necessary to achieve freedom from colonial rule. Most of Premchand’s early work has hues of patriotism, since he was heavily influenced by the Indian Independence Movement.
Premchand’s second short novel was titled Hamkhurma-o-Hamsavab (Published as “Prema” in Hindi in 1907) and was published under the name Babu Nawab Rai Banarsi. This novel touched upon the social issue of widow remarriage in conservative society. Critics who studied this work of Premchand said that even though this novel portrayed Premchand’s future genius, it was still unimpressive. In the same year, Premchand published another short novel titled “Kishna”, which was a sarcastic take on women’s fondness for jewellery. This piece of work was criticized for being critical of women and their social conditions. Throughout 1907 much of Premchand’s work was published in Zamana, such as Roothi Rani. One of Premchand’s earlier works titled Soz-e-Watan was published too, but was later banned as seditious by the British, because they believed that the story would inspire Indians to rebel against colonial rule.
Following the storm created by Soz-e-Watan, Premchand’s house was raided and five hundred copies of the book were burned. After which he decided to change his pen name from Dhanpat Rai to Premchand. By 1914, Premchand had begun writing in Hindi (it is important to note that Hindi and Urdu are different registers of the same language, Hindustani. Hindi draws heavily from Sanskrit and Urdu from Persian. Both languages also use very different scripts for writing). By this time Premchand was a prolific Urdu fiction writer. In 1915 he published his first Hindi short story titled “Saut” and later in 1917 Premchand went on to publish his first collection of short stories called “Sapta Saroj”.
Premchand continued writing in Hindi and some of his most popular works remain, Vardaan, Seva Sadan, Premashram, Rangbhoomi, Nirmala, Karmabhoomi, Gaban, Saut, Beti Ka Dan, Putra Prem, Kafan, Poos ki Raat, Mantra and Godan (his last work).
Premchand is one of the earliest Hindi writers whose work displays “realism” and were set in the real day to day life of his protagonists. In his novels and stories, Premchand depicted the challenges and trials faced by the poor and urban middle-class. His work is rational and he is honest about how religion was a way through which hypocrites exploited weaker sections of society. He used his writing to draw attention to social evils such as child marriage, prostitution, corruption, feudal system and British colonial oppression. Premchand was also heavily influenced by the social-political conditions of the time and wrote widely about how he though that the Minto-Morley Reforms and the Montage-Chelmsford reforms were insufficient. Much of his early work, such as A Moral Victory and Little Trick are satires on people who supported British rule. Apart from that, Premchand was also influenced by the teachings of Swami Vivekanand.
During the 1920’s, Premchand drew a lot of inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and his Non-Cooperation Movement against the British. It was then that Premchand’s writing dealt with social concerns such as dowry, poverty, education reforms and exploitation by zamindars (land owners). Premchand supported peasants and was against industrialization, which he though would not be helpful for peasants.
Premchand’s last works were set in a village environment, which can be seen in his works like Kafan and Godan. Premchand passed away on 8 October 1936 at the age of 56 following a long illness. Towards the end of his life, Premchand was also the President of the Progressive Writer’s Association, which consisted of writers who aimed at influencing people through their writings on social injustice and ills and opposing social inequality. Throughout his life, Premchand wrote 300 short stories, 14 novels and numerous essays, letters and translations. Much of his work has been translated into English and Russian since his death and is read and enjoyed around the world. Such was the magic he yielded with his words that Premchand was honoured with the title “Upanayas Samrat”, which means “Emperor of the Novel.”
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