Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2019 > In the death of Namvar Singh, not only Hindi but the world of all Indian (...)

Mainstream, VOL LVII No 13 New Delhi March 16, 2019

In the death of Namvar Singh, not only Hindi but the world of all Indian Languages lost its Greatest Critic

Sunday 17 March 2019


by ApoorvAnand

A critic is never the central figure in literature but Namvar Singh remained the first citizen of the world of Hindi, in all its aspects for more than sixty years. It amazes one to think that a critic attracted so much attention and also affection of the writers and readers as well for such a long time. He was awe-inspiring but his partiality for the new voices was too apparent. Many of them remember fondly his phone calls or post cards after he had read something from them. Unnecessary for him but so crucial for the young to keep believing in themselves. Thus he created a community.

All poets and writers,young and established, wanted affirmation, or at the very least a recognition, from the giant. It was his word that mattered most in this field.

But the very writers who sought his attention, were intrigued with his changing positions.

Namvar Singh was aware of it and held, like Gandhi and Walt Whitman, that consistency is an obstruction in the quest for truth. The demand for consistency is actually to stop you from looking at the emerging realities and adjust your lenses to be able to see those clearly.

With the death of Namvar Singh, those eyes have closed which practised the art of looking for more than seventy years. Namvar Singh was known as a critic. The primary job of criticism, according to him, was to “look carefully”. And sympathetically. It is the world outside which is important and not your ideas about it. The ability to look at the world, to love it is what we cultivate through arts and more so with literature. For, what is literature if not an endeavour to take us back to the world we think we live in but are generally careless about. It must teach us to love the world, the people.

Literature does it with words. They come first. The patience to stay with a word, to return to it again and again, without the hurry to draw an immediate meaning out of it, is or ought to differentiate a critic from a careless passer-by.

Namvar Singh insisted that the primary task of criticism must be teach the reader how to read. His regular column on short stories is a marvellous example of the art of reading. The columns later turned into a book titled Kahani Nai Kahani which still remains the only enjoyable book on the criticism of fiction in Hindi. Similarly, his first book, written when he was in his early twenties, Chayavad, is held as the most powerful reading of the poetry therein—an important phase of romantic poetry in India.

His wide reading gave his writing a certain depth but his scholarship sat lightly on him. He believed in writing in a language which was accessible to all and not lost in the jungle of jargon.

Namvar Singh wanted to steer clear of the temptation of creating canons but he did canonise poets like Muktibodh and Raghuvir Sahay through his polemical book, Kavita Ke Naye Pratiman.

The act of looking necessarily turns into an act of judgement. But it is also the job to select your location. From where you see is equally important. Some call it ideology. Namvar Singh grappled with this concept all his life. For him a critic is one who can see the eye which sees the world. This double vision is what a critic needs to develop. The outward is always with the inward and the latter keeps putting itself on test while engaging with the outward. But a critic is also one who does not easily give up his vision with the first collision of new or outside. Conservation is also her/his job. So, the outward is also evaluated and not accepted automatically. Criticism should welcome the new but must break through the illusion of the new and reject it.

A a critic is a natural leader. She/he inhabits the world of creation, but reserves the right to criticise it. To do this she creates a distance. It is her/his reading which defines this distance and the value of it. Do you love reading or not is the first question we need to ask when someone claims that we are faced with a critic.

Literature was the home of Namvar Singh, politics his sky. He saw criticism as a political act. It is interesting that in one of his talks titled, “The Democracy of Criticism”, he invokes the principles of freedom/liberty, equality and solidarity which are the bedrock of the act of criticism.

Criticism, according to Namvar Singh, is essentially a personal act and personal response. It requires an acceptance of the right of each individual to approach the poem. A right not bound by any authoritative or ruling meaning. There must be a space for difference in meanings but they need to keep engaging with each other to create a true republic of words.

To ask for tolerance can often be misleading as it can disguise the lack of the will to develop one’s own, individual way of looking. Namvar Singh fought against “easy consensus”. We must be suspicious of all calls to give consent to a popular view. When the clamour for consensus fills the sky, the critic must rise with her voice of dissent.

For Namvar Singh, one must cultivate the art of persuasion but at the same time should have the humility to revise one’s position. Persuasion has to be a two-way process. But the process should be rigorous to be authentic and trustworthy. A person who leaves her position with the first encounter with an unfamiliar is lazy and a coward. A critic is anything but a coward.

Namvar Singh was known as a Marxist critic. But he once said that the prefix Marxist was redundant as the act of criticism in itself was self-sufficient. He held that literature was one of the sources of Marxism. He combated with the orthodoxies of the official Marxism and introduced figures like Raymond Williams, Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin to the readers of Hindi through Alochana. He travelled extensively in the centenary year of the death of Marx and lectured on his different aspects helping the Hindi masses to discover a humanist Marx. The Marx of the manuscripts of 1844 was resurrected by him to enlighten the people about his aesthetic project. He showed that Marx struggled to recover the fullness of the human being who was being robbed of his self by Capital. Marx was not concerned only with the economic aspect of the life of the humans but wanted him to move beyond the confines of economics.

The task of a critic is to create a culture of criticism. To do this he has to necessarily look beyond the world of literature. Namvar Singh commented widely on culture, history and society. He was heard with respect by the scholars of social sciences. His attempt to define tradition and culture through his book Doosri Parampara Ki Khoj should be seen as part of his fight against he ideology of cultural nationalism in India which privileges one single tradition and treats others as intrusion or encroachment on it. His source was Hazari Prasad Dwivedi who in turn was influenced greatly by Rabindranath Tagore.

Namvar Singh, for nearly three quarters of a century, remained a public figure, constantly sought after in all parts of India. He was a captivating orator and people came from far and wide to listen to him. He travelled to all the corners of India as he took his job of public education as seriously as the job of a critic. He practised in the true sense of the term what is now known as public humanties. He was a public educator. He taught people that we must practice the democratic art of thinking to qualify as citizens and seek to achieve sophistication. It is a duty, a right and not a privilege. After him, we would not have a literary critic who was also a thinker of the commoners.

He inhabited the world of all languages with ease and they also treated him as their own. But this public-ness hid the shy interior of the person. He was an intensely lonely person, who loved his solitude, books being his only welcome companion. Whenever one visited him, one realised that there were few who had earned the right to even sit before the mind of this colossus.

His memory had started failing him and his body had become frail in his last days. When it went into flames, the regret which lingered was that with it has gone the treasure of the memory of literature. But very soon I realised that he had transferred nearly all of it in his books and speeches which are now available in published form. While reading them you can almost sense him speaking to you.

The author is a well-known social scientist and a Professor, Department of Hindi, University of Delhi.

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted