premchand-bio-wikiThe second half of the twentieth century witnessed a flowering of Hindi literature celebrated for its psychological subtlety and satirical brilliance. The movement is associated with distinguished voices such as Shrilal Shukla, Mohan Rakesh and Nirmal Verma, to name just three. But according to David Rubin, this wave of literary art would be unthinkable without the early twentieth-century outpouring of novels and short stories by Premchand (1880—1936).

He was born in the village of Lamhi, near Varanasi, “in humble circumstances but with access to a good education in Persian and Urdu letters,” David writes. His name, at birth, was Dhanpat Rai, but he was known as  Premchand from 1910 onwards. When his work was first published, around 1905, “fiction in Hindi and Urdu consisted  primarily of romantic chronicles of a historical or fantastic nature, or didactic tales,” David writes in the introduction to The World of Premchand, a 1969 collection of short stories he translated from Hindi.  By the time Premchand’s last stories and novels appeared, in the 1930s, “the realistic psychological novel had been firmly established in these languages and set the standard as well as the social themes and character studies that typified the accomplished fiction by the younger writers who followed.” 

In uncompromising brush strokes, Premchand’s novels paint the struggles of poor villagers and middle-class families in North India. “Influenced by Dickens, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Marx, Premchand very early directed his fiction toward social reform,” David writes. “The inhumanity of caste hierarchies and the plight of women stirred his indignation and remained constant themes throughout his work.”  The recurring strands in the fabric of Premchand’s writing include: “the overwhelming desire for sons to carry on the family and perform the rituals; the terror at the possibility of disgrace, loss of face and ostracism; the shame of widowhood [and] the proverbial conservatism and cunning of the peasant.” To read more, please click here.

Film & Theater Adaptations

Premchand’s writing became a wellspring of themes and images for Indian cinema and theater. Celebrated director Satyajit Ray turned two of Premchand’s socially-inspired works—Sadgati, about a poor worker who dies of exhaustion, and Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players), the story of decadence in Lucknow—into films. For a fine discussion of the literary artistry behind this story, please see Frances W. Pritchett’s essay “The Chess Players: From Premchand to Satyajit Ray” here.

Premchand’s Sevasadan (House of Service) featured M.S. Subbulakshmi, one of the greatest singers in the South Indian Classical idiom, and a personal favorite of Mahatma Gandhi. The novel told the story of a high caste woman, Suman, who is married off to an older, tyrannical man. She soon realizes that this institution is no better than prostitution and eventually acts on this insight by opening up her own ‘house of service.’ Suman becomes involved in a political drama launched by self-righteous Hindu reformers.

Oka Oori Katha (The Marginal Ones) was turned into a Telegu film in 1977 by Mrinal Sen, a winner of multiple National Film Awards. The movie is based on Premchand’s short story, “Kafan.”

Kafan was turned into a stage piece by the Actor Factor Theater Company. The young Delhi-based troupe used puppetry to highlight class struggles in this dark comedy.

Another Delhi theater group, Dramatech, staged Premchand: Three Comedies for Families and Children in August-October 2012. Directed by Ravi Raj Sagar, it included the three stories Do bailon ki katha, Shatranj ke khiladi and Nimantran.

For more information on Premchand click here.

David’s Published Works on Premchand

(A Novel by Premchand, Translated by David Rubin)
Vision Books Private Ltd, 1988
Reprinted by Orient Paperbacks as The Second Wife in 2006

Widows, Wives and Other Heroines
(Twelve Stories by Premchand, Translated from Hindi by David Rubin)
Oxford University Press, 1998

The World of Premchand
(Selected Short Stories, Translated from Hindi by David Rubin)
Oxford University Press, 2001

The Illustrated Premchand
(Selected Short Stories, Translated from Hindi by David Rubin)
Oxford University Press, 2006