In the historical discourse of modern India, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar remains a contentious figure. In the consciousness of a section of Marathi speakers, however, a reverence for Savarkar is noticeable for his contributions to Marathi literature, language, and for his efforts at social reform. His work as a poet, playwright and short story writer, much of which was written in Marathi, is largely forgotten or remains ignored amidst the more powerful and polarising debates over his political ideologies and the nature of his involvement in the national movement.
“Even those who were ideologically opposed to Savarkar such as S A Dange from the CPI or older generation Congress members such as Vasanth Sathe and Sharad Pawar, perceived him with deep reverence,” says historian Vikram Sampath who authored the book, Savarkar: Echoes from a forgotten past (2019).
However, others, such as literary critic G N Devy, who is best known for the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, says that as a cultural icon, Savarkar was revered only by a small section of Maharashtians, particularly those belonging to the Brahmanical caste.
“Speaking purely on literary terms, while Savarkar was indeed a well-known writer, there were better playwrights during his time, and far more effective poets. However, Savarkar’s life history made his poems and plays look more significant as literature than they were in literary terms,” says Devy. He explains that literary reputation enjoyed by Savarkar during his time underwent a change after the 1970s when a large range of Dalit writers emerged in the Marathi literary scene, who wrote more in the kind of Marathi used in everyday life, rather than the Sanskritised kind that Savarkar wrote in.
Born on May 28, 1883 in Bhagur, a village close to Nashik in Maharashtra, Savarkar began his journey as a Marathi poet from a very young age. He was only 12 when one of his poems was published in the journal, Jagadechhu of Pune.
His biographers, including Sampath and Vaibhav Purandhare note Savarkar’s inclination towards books and religious texts such as the puranas and the epics since he was in class three and four. He also began composing his own poetry at the same time, many of them being about Goddess Durga.
He lost his mother at the age of nine and by the time he was 12, he lost his father as well. “He reacted to the pain and suffering in his personal life by finding solace in poetry,” says Sampath. “By then he had already read a lot of classical Marathi poetry and was familiar with the metre and verses that were common in the genre at that time. He tried to incorporate them in his little attempts,” he adds.
Later in his life too, like when he was imprisoned in the Cellular jail at Andaman and Nicobar Islands or while he was placed in confinement at Ratnagiri, it was poetry in which he found the best expression. While he was in London, for instance, his elder brother was sentenced to imprisonment. Savarkar had penned a poetic letter of consolation to his sister-in-law. The letter titled, saantvan (consolation) is known to be a landmark in Marathi literature. In 1910, after he jumped off a steamship to escape police arrest and was later caught and brought under intense surveillance by the British authorities, he wrote another poem titled, Anadi mi, anant mi. It was directed at the authorities suggesting that physically he might be caught and brought under arrest, but his soul is endless and eternal.
His most popular poem, sagar pran talmala, made more famous by the Mangeshkar family’s rendition of it, was composed in Brighton, England. He wrote it as a conversation with the ocean, narrating to it how tormented he felt being far away from his motherland, and asking what use are the attractions of a foreign country if he is unable to be back where he actually belongs.
Devy explains that Savarkar’s literary reputation had quite a bit to do with the way Brahmin scholars and musicians of the time popularised him. For instance, the Mangeshkars, a prominent musical family in Maharashtra to which Lata Mangeshkar belonged, loved and sang his poems and because of them Savarkar’s name and works reached a wider audience. “They were also included in the school text books of Maharashtra till the 1970s, because they were compiled by the Brahmanical class back then,” Devy says.
Those who see Savarkar as a literary icon suggest that he used his poetry to champion some of the social causes that were close to him since he was a young boy or teenager, such as widow remarriage or the way women were treated in society, and the caste system.
“Savarkar had once said that he was a literary and poet by birth, but the situation around him turned him into a politician,” says Dhanasree Lele, Marathi and Sanskrit literary expert. She mentions that the mammoth scale of work left behind by Savarkar easily amounts to more than 12,000 lines.
Savarkar is known to have been the first to have composed powadas or Marathi ballads in modern times and was the first to use modern imagery in powadas. Some of his earliest poetry that found public recognition were the ones he wrote for Mitra Mela, an underground revolutionary organisation founded by him and his brother Ganesh Savarkar in 1903, which later on became Abhinav Bharat Society in 1906. “These poems dealt with making people aware of the unjust British rule and encouraging them to take part in the freedom movement,” explains Lele. She says that in these poems, Savarkar made use of the style and metre used in Sanskrit poetry.
The other set of poems produced by Savarkar that went on to draw much acclaim among Marathi literary networks are those that he produced while in the cellular jail at Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 1911, where he would write on the walls of the cell with his nails or with charcoal. “Later to fight him, the jailer would come and wash away the walls in front of him. But he had memorised all those poems and close to 4000 or 5000 lines of poetry like ‘kamala’, ‘saptarshi’ were published after he came out of jail,” says Sampath. The poems that he composed while in the cellular jail, explains Lele, do not have a metre.
Lastly, while confined to a jail in Ratnagiri from 1921, he composed poems critiquing the caste system and worked towards the upliftment of the downtrodden castes. “For instance, at a temple opening ceremony in Ratnagiri, Savarakar composed this poem, ‘mala devasa darshan gheyu dha ki’. It means ‘let me enter the temple and see God’. He taught it to the girls from the scavenger caste,” says Lele.
Once he came out of the cellular jail though, he came to be more involved in politics and poetry in some ways took a backseat. But he spent a brief time composing Marathi plays. He wrote four plays, one of which remains unfinished: Ushap (1927), Sanyashth Khadga (1931), Uttarkriya (1933). His ideas on social reforms and political ideologies, which were more defined by now, came alive in his plays as well. In Sanyashtha Khadga, for instance, Lele explains, he was critical of ‘ahimsa’.
It is worth remembering that around the time when Savarkar was writing against social evils like the caste system, there were other prominent figures in Maharashtra who emerged as strong critiques of caste. These included the likes of Jyotirao Phule and B R Ambedkar. “While these other reformers’ critique on caste was based on equality, Savarkar’s ideas were more about Hindu mobilisation,” says Devy.
“Savarkar has not said a word against the British in his writings. He wanted Hindus to come together, acquire masculine character, use violence, and crush Muslims,” adds Devy.
From 1908, as Savarkar got more involved in politics, he started writing in English. Evidently his writings in English, including his most popular work, Essentials of Hindutva that formulated his theory of Hindutva, was produced for a pan-India readership. Being the language of colonial rule, he thought it to be the necessary medium for addressing those in authority as well.
Vinayak Chaturvedi, author and professor of History at the University of California, explains that Savarkar was aware that his reception in Maharashtra was restricted to the Marathi language and he wished to create national awareness about his ideologies and Maratha history, which is why some of his most important works are in English. “Even when he wrote Hindu pad padashahi on the history of the Marathas, he was very concerned that it be published in English as well,” says Chaturvedi.
However, Chaturvedi says, his writings in Marathi carry a literary and aesthetic value that is missing in his English writings. “When he is celebrated in Maharashtra, it is not just for his ideas, but also for the quality of his writings. His writings in English on the other hand are more polemical and do not have the same kind of aesthetic appeal,” he says.
It is also worth noting that while Savarkar is best known for his English language work on Hindutva, he in fact wrote very little in English in comparison to the large volume of work in Marathi that he left behind. Apart from the poems and plays, he wrote two novels, Kale pani (1937) and Mala kay tyache (1973), short stories like Savarkaranchya Goshti-Part one (1948) and part two (1982), Samajchitre (1959), and Andha shraddha Nirmulan Katha (1993), and a vast number of historical works. He was also a journalist and the editor of a Marathi weekly magazine Shraddhanand, and a regular contributor to other newspapers and journals such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Kesari and Kirloskar press.
After his death in 1966, and more so since the 1970s, Savarkar’s reputation as a literary icon underwent a shift. Political changes in the region, including the emergence of the Dalit Panthers in 1972, an Ambedkarite socialist organisation that sought to combat the caste system, was accompanied by a change in the literary tastes of Marathi society. “The emergence of writers like Namdeo Dhasal, Bhalchandra Nemade, Vijay Tendulkar, Arun Kolatkar brought in a new sensibility that did not care much about Sanskritised diction of the kind used by Savarkar. They wrote in Marathi used in everyday life and their works have remained relevant till today,” says Devy.
From the 1920s onwards, Savarkar also became a strong proponent for the purification of the Marathi language, and wrote three books — Marathi Bhasheche Shuddhikaran (1926), Nagri Lipi Shuddhi Andolan (1950) and Bhashashuddi (1958). In his 1926 text, Savarkar urges his readers to read it as a starting point to the language purification drive. “He introduced some 45-50 words to the Marathi language, many of which we use even in Hindi on an everyday basis,” says Amit Shesh, assistant professor of English at Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Technological University.
The list of words coined by Savarkar include ‘mahapaur’ (mayor), ‘dinank’ (date), ‘veshbhusha’ (costume), ‘mahapalika’ (corporation), ‘hutatma’ (martyr), ‘saptahik’ (weekly) and ‘shastra-sandhi’ (ceasefire). “According to Savarkar, we did not have an Indian language substitute for these words and hence the need to coin these in Marathi,” says Shesh.
Savarkar’s concern with language purification is in fact a continuation of the debates around language standardisation that had begun in the 19th century. “Several Brahmin writers such as Dadobha Tarkhadkar, Balshastri Jambhekhar, R B Gunjikar were already trying to use a particular kind of Marathi grammar and debating over what is the purest form of Marathi,” says Surajkumar Thube, a DPhil student in Oxford University who is researching language and culture in 19th century Marathi public sphere. “Savarkar was continuing what was already happening in the 19th century, along with talking about the expulsion of Arabic, Pashto and Farsi words, which he clubbed together as Urdu and emphasising instead on words taken from the Sanskrit vocabulary.”
Sampath says that Savarkar’s language purification was rooted in a much older history of the Marathas and that its origins lie in the reign of Shivaji. “The Maratha empire itself was formed on the basis of the primacy and supremacy of their language and religion,” says Sampath. “Shivaji himself was rather consumed by the need to use a purer form of Marathi, that was free from the intrusion of Persian and Arabic words. He had appointed people in his court specifically for the purpose of purifying the Marathi language,” Sampath adds.
While Shivaji’s effort was to make a more Sanskritised version of Marathi as the language of administration, Savarkar wanted this to be the language of everyday usage. The cover page of his book Bhashashuddi (1958) carried a picture of Shivaji and Savarkar is seen sitting at his desk underneath the picture, the message of Savarkar carrying forward the work started by Shivaji being quite loud and clear.
Thube, however, suggests that this idea of Savarkar carrying forward the work started by Shivaji was more of a political gimmick. “In all possibility, Shivaji and his administrators’ work was being done with a very different purpose from what Savarkar and the other 19th and 20th century social reformers were doing,” he says, adding that one needs to locate Savarkar’s language purification drive as part of his larger project of Hindutva. “His work on the Marathi language contains much of the same ideas on religious and caste identity as we find in his political writings.”
“His emphasis on purity being associated with everything traced to Sanskrit which was spoken only by the higher castes and what he considers impure or foreign is laden with caste dimensions to them,” Thube adds.
In recent years, as Savarkar’s name and historical persona is embroiled in political controversy, Marathi literary experts believe that his cultural contributions have not been given their due. “Only those who are familiar with Marathi literature are aware of his writings. Otherwise he is a neglected personality,” says Shesh.
Sampath says it is only natural for people of Maharashtra to react to his name being dragged into political controversies. “This is why after he died in 1966, Indira Gandhi issued a stamp in his honour, provided money for his memorial from her personal fund and got a film made for him. She understood that regardless of her own personal differences, this was a local hero in Maharashtra,” he says.
Chaturvedi, meanwhile, is of the opinion that Savarkar’s writings have been ignored both by those who are opposed to him and his supporters. “What we instead have are debates on rather mundane issues about his life,” he says. “He has written an enormous amount, and it is important to read his work, more so if one disagrees with him, to understand why we have gotten where we are today.”
Devy, however, believes that while Savarkar indeed wrote beautifully, the thoughts behind his writings is what is being critiqued. “It is for this reason that even in Maharashtra, Savarkar’s name always created fractions.”
He adds that the controversy around Savarkar in recent times is more of a political one rather than literary. “In that sense it matters very little whether or not he was a good writer,” he says.