His publishers tell you that Kedarnath Singh’s new collection of poetry, a 100-odd page book, will hit the stands anytime. The title is Matdaan Kendra Pe Jhapki (A Snooze At The Polling Booth). Singh here is referring to a voter who does not get to vote. This voter succumbs to a nap under a tree, and as a result, loses his right to vote — ek naagrik ka antim hathiyaar, the citizen’s weapon of last resort.
Singh, who passed away on Monday, hailed from village Chakia in Ballia district in eastern Uttar Pradesh. He studied at Banaras Hindu University, taught Hindi in Gorakhpur for a while and then moved to JNU, where he taught comparative literature. He invoked educationist and former vice president S Radhakrishnan who spoke of not several languages, but “of Indian literature as being one, though, written in different languages”.
He took a very different approach to Hindi or its “preeminence” in India — unlike some who verge on Hindi chauvinism. On being termed jan kavi after being conferred the Jnanpith award in 2013, Singh said that the Constitution terms Hindi as the state language, the raj bhasha. It is not the national language, the rashtra bhasha, that has to be imposed on everyone. In a detailed interview to BBC Hindi, he explained why it was wrong to speak of Hindi as the “badi behen” or the elder sister to other languages. All Indian languages were siblings of equal stature, he maintained — Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati and all other Indian languages.
The brand of progressive values that Singh espoused was not of the flag-waving variety. His student, writer and Hindi journalist Rajinder Sharma calls him the “bridge”. “He bridged political and aesthetic progressivism, rural and urban sensibility and a variety of extremes”. This did not mean an abdication of commitment, but indicated Singh’s creative strength to craft this path. In his poems, Singh spoke of the need for Hindi to stand for more than it did, develop more to become the language of science as well as the language of the people and the bazaar. His lines, though, were very often deceptively simple.
Besides the Jnanpith, Singh was conferred the Sahitya Akademi award for Akaal Mein Saaras (Cranes in the Drought) in 1989. He went onto receive several prestigious awards for his work, the Maithili Sharan Gupt Award, Kumaran Asan Award, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar Award and the Vyas Samman. Till his last, Singh remained a popular teacher to generations of students for whom he set the gold standard as a teacher of poetry. Singh wrote till his last days. His prose includes essays and commentaries that try to make sense of the many phases of India’s polity.
Singh’s fellow-writers recall how he would often say that a writer’s finest attribute was to first “create a murti (an image)”, then to shake it up (jhankjhod dena) and bring it down and then tease the reader to piece back an image in whichever way. Writer Mrinal Pande recalls that Singh thought that “Ghalib had the ability to do this. He saw Ghalib as India’s first great modern poet, who was able to see and write about the break in Indian psyche that was brought out by British rule.” Pande describes him “a very uncomplicated man who expressed the most profound complex thoughts in his work. He was able to stand outside of himself and yet comment on the relation between himself and the times”. This was a quality that Singh attributed to Ghalib.
Singh was proud of his rural origins which provided him language and imagery that he deployed to great effect. His ability to be completely at home with his origins and yet immerse himself in the mahanagar was also special. Several of his contemporaries would refer to rural India with nostalgia or a sense of loss. The sense of being uprooted dominated their references to urban India. But both in his use of language and in his choice of issues, Singh showed that he was at ease with rural India while being empathetic to urban sensibilities.
Banaras, his immensely beautiful poem, conveys the spirit of the city. It is also a fine tribute to Singh’s talent for seeing things for what they are and describing them without hyperbole. Banaras is about a large and capacious city that moves slowly (dheere dheere) — the Ganga flows slowly, the boats are almost always tied to the banks, the dust gathers slowly. It’s this slow pace that keeps the city from losing anything — it keeps everything together. Kedarnath Singh will be missed.
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