Apocalypse Songs

Chhayavad poetry’s search for ancestors

Tulika Varma Illustrations by Mohith O
30 June, 2024

THE BIRTH OF POETRY in modern Hindi, also known as Khari Boli, was meant to be both a departure from the past and its renewal. After a protracted struggle that began in the nineteenth century, Khari Boli displaced Brajbhasha—the vernacular of the Vaishnava centres of Western Uttar Pradesh—as the preferred literary language in the Hindi belt. Braj had occupied that position for nearly four hundred years. The conflict between “Hindi” and “Urdu” is well-known and the artificiality of the separation between the two much discussed, but the genesis of modern Hindi was equally shaped by the bitter internal conflict between Braj and Khari Boli, the vernacular of Meerut and surrounding areas, known as the language of the bazaar and the mother tongue of the Agrawal community. The first generation of modern Hindi poets, led by Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi and Bhartendu Harishchandra, had an awkward relationship with this new literary language that was thought by many to be inhospitable to poetry. They wrote in stiff, Sanskritised diction and at times even in Sanskrit metre; the 1963 edition of Hindi Sahitya Kosh describes these poems aptly as “savourless, preachy, matter-of-fact and coarse.”

But the generation after them, known as the Chhayavad generation, took on the problem of giving Khari Boli poetry an emotional, historical resonance. Khari Boli did not connect them directly with any literary tradition. A rupture in language is a tear in the consciousness of those who inherit it—their work is marked by a contradictory and at times desperate search for ancestors, for a history that could place them in the world and move them forward into a modern future.

The four major poets of the Chhayavad period between 1918 and 1938—Jaishankar Prasad, Sumitranandan Pant, Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala” and Mahadevi Varma—did not see themselves as a group united by style or concern until the name Chhayavad, literally translated as “Shadowism,” was given to them by critics who complained about the obscurity of their poems, the open syntax that allowed for multiple referents, the lack of auxiliary verbs, misgendered subjects, and the overall philosophical bent, which was dismissed as a kind of dated imitation of mediaeval spirituality. Nirala in particular attracted harsher detraction from literary and social conservatives, some of whom termed his work “the slaughter of literature.” Unlike the Dwivedi and Harishchandra-era poets, the Chhayavad poets faced significant resistance from the old literary establishment, which saw them as too radical, too sensual, or simply lacking proper training in grammar and prosody or a sense for appropriate poetic subjects.

For the Chhayavad poets, the need for Khari Boli was the need for a language that could pull off the balancing act between the brittle, untenable past and the stormy but brilliant promise of modernity: social justice, democracy, and a spiritual awakening to humanity. They viewed the famed sweetness of Braj and its motifs of Krishna and Brindaban as cloying and sentimental; replete with rhetorical flourish and embellishment, provincial, artificially sensual, Braj felt altogether removed from daily life, a relic of a calcified caste society that was unable to produce poetry that could bear human life and transform it.