Negative Capability

Munshi Premchand's hidden gifts

01 July 2018

MAXIM GORKY, one of Soviet Russia’s most influential writers, and a champion of the “socialist realist” school of art, delivered a rousing speech from the stage of the Soviet Writers’ Congress in Moscow in August 1934, a couple of years before his death. His subject was the future of Russian literature and Europe’s degenerate past. European writers—from Shakespeare to Fielding, Molière to Maupassant—had a history, Gorky said, of pandering to the bourgeoisie. They made loving portraits of feudal lords, knights and monarchs, and glamourised “rogues, thieves, assassins and agents of the criminal police” in their books. Rather than grappling with real problems of the real world, these writers preferred shutting themselves “in the solitude of their soul” to pursue a kind of anarchic individualism.

In Gorky’s analysis, Russian bourgeois literature had been subject to the West’s pernicious influence, and had spawned a profusion of “superfluous” literary types —the “playboy,” the “contrite noble,” the “crank and cross-headed person.” Against this, it was the Russian writer’s responsibility to depict “our heroes of labour, who represent the flower of the working class.”

These ideas were hugely influential at the time, and their impact was felt beyond the Soviet Union. Distinct echoes of Gorky’s anti-Europe tirade can be heard, for instance, in Munshi Premchand’s famous address, delivered in April 1936 at the inaugural meet of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow. The AIPWA was set up by the Urdu writer and Marxist ideologue Syed Sajjad Zaheer, and its manifesto of progressive literary ideals—aiming to popularise anti-imperialist and democratic values through literature—was supported by such luminaries as Mulk Raj Anand and Ahmed Ali, for whom Premchand was a guiding light.

Entitled “Sahitya Ka Uddeshya”—“The Purpose of Literature”—Premchand’s speech was a Gorky-esque appeal, urging Indian writers to wake up from their romantic slumber, stop thinking of themselves as mere entertainers and assume a more socially responsible position. The writer’s job, Premchand declared, was nothing less than to reinvent literature and rethink beauty.

We need a new touchstone of beauty. Until now this touchstone was de- termined by wealth and debauchery. Our artist always hung on to the coattails of the rich, his identity de- pended on their appreciation and the objective of his art was the depiction of their sorrows and joys, their hopes and regrets ... His gaze was directed at harems and bungalows. Shanties and ruins were not deserving of his attention. He considered these out- side the purview of humanity.

Vineet Gill is a Delhi-based journalist currently working with the Sunday Guardian. His writings have appeared in Guernica, Himal Southasian, Open and the Hindu Business Line, among other publications.

Keywords: literature ethics