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Uttar Pradesh had a thriving literary culture in the 1980s, but proximity to Delhi killed it

Uttar Pradesh's proximity to New Delhi and the elevation of Hindi as an official language killed its literary culture but the sun is yet to set on its revival.

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In the small towns of Uttar Pradesh, one remembers walking back home in the late 1980s and early 1990s from akhand paths of Ramacharitmanas, Bhagavat discourses, kavi sammelans and mushairas with elders passionately debating alternative interpretations of a chaupai here and a sher there.

Indeed, the memories of our childhood in Uttar Pradesh invariably feature literature. Those who could afford it maintained a collection of books in addition to the mandatory Ramacharitmanas and Gita. Everyday discussions were interlaced with citations from Khusro, Kabir, Tulsi, Rahim, Bharatendu, Bankim, Tagore, the Dwivedis, Jaishankar, Premchand, Dinkar, Mahadevi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, and Rahi Masoom Raza. One occasionally also encountered the likes of Mahasweta Devi.

There was something that could be identified as a (literary) culture that stretched across the wide flood plains of the Ganga and its tributaries, dotted by a few formidable, even if already declining, centres of higher learning – from Varanasi and Allahabad (present Prayagraj) in the east to Agra and Aligarh in the west. Lecturers in local colleges cultivated a fine taste in literature and presented their compositions in kavi sammelans and mushairas. Sunday supplements of some of the leading Hindi dailies were eagerly awaited for their delightful short stories and poems.


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The decline of the literary zeitgeist

This culture began to fall apart in the late 1980s amidst immense socio-political churning that left behind a vacuum, which was filled with new dreams purveyed by markets. The liberalisation of the economy, in fact, compounded the crisis. Hindi was no longer compatible with the new dreams. When we were at the IITs many of the top rankers used to come from Hindi (and other Indian-language) medium schools. But by the mid-1990s, the aspirational classes had begun to abandon these schools for untested angrezi-medium schools that had mushroomed across the state.

The sudden shift spelled doom for Hindi medium schools. Parents began to take pride conversing in broken English with their children and were delighted that their kids went to schools where Hindi was actively discouraged. Once the demand for good quality Hindi schools collapsed, it was only a matter of time before the market for Hindi literature was affected. Many in our generation returned to Hindi literature after settling down in professional careers and lament that their next-generation lacks an organic bond with their mother tongue.

In hindsight, it seems the decline of Hindi had begun much earlier due to its elevation as the official language at the national level, its emergence as the preferred language of the film industry based in Bombay (present Mumbai), and Uttar Pradesh’s proximity to Delhi.

The “national” status meant that the language began to be used in official correspondence but that did not compensate for its growing neglect as a medium of intellectual exchange. In fact, it made Hindi complacent and arrogant amidst a steady decline. It became less open to the influence of other Indian languages, and even English, with which it fought false battles for parity. This is in stark contrast with the history of Hindi and its tributaries, which are dotted with milestones of “outside” influence.


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The fluidity of Hindi

The flow of personalities and ideas that marked the Bhakti and Sufi traditions and medieval empires defined this literary world. Cities like Agra, Varanasi, and Mathura attracted people from across the subcontinent and even beyond. During the colonial period, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Mahatma Gandhi were among the most influential champions of Hindi/Hindustani. Neither was a native speaker of Hindi. Hindi cinema’s authentic voices and faces too were from Punjab, Maharashtra, and Bengal. But gone are the days when ideas, literary forms, and grammatical norms from languages such as Bengali, Marathi, and English enriched Hindi.

Not only did Hindi and Uttar Pradesh shut out the rest of the world, they even failed to nurture their rich internal diversity. The diverse cultural and linguistic identities that constitute Uttar Pradesh were difficult to subsume under a new politico-territorial identity. The state consists of Braj, Awadhi, Bundeli, Bhojpuri, and Khadi Boli areas, each with its rich history and preeminent urban centres, whose self-image does not allow precedence to other centres of power. The regional cultures lost vitality in their struggle with the new political capital, which, however, failed to fill the vacuum with a pan-Uttar Pradesh Hindi identity.

But this competition does not entirely explain the failure of the new elite in Lucknow to put together a syncretic culture using, say, the city’s Nawabi culture as a point of departure. The state’s proximity to New Delhi and its importance in national politics played spoilsport. Uttar Pradesh was too big to be left alone. So, New Delhi exploited various faultlines to keep local satraps in check and did not allow the rise of a Biju Patnaik or an Annadurai in Uttar Pradesh. The state also did not have an overarching cultural or literary organisation. So, no one could attend to the emerging void.

The proximity to New Delhi proved fatal in other ways. Most of the major cities of Uttar Pradesh are well-connected with New Delhi. The elite can stay in the national capital and yet be available in their constituencies when required. New Delhi offers them all that they need – libraries, galleries, theatres, museums, etc. Lucknow is therefore not like Chennai, Trivandrum, or Bengaluru, where the state’s elite had to necessarily stay, at least until the advent of good flight connectivity. This was compounded by the steady economic decline of Uttar Pradesh that pushed its educated class to metropolitan cities elsewhere. In contrast, a sizable chunk of the native educated class of economically dynamic states such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra stay in their state capital.


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Charting a revival of Hindi culture

The centrality of the revival of Hindi as a receptive member of the family of modern Indian languages and (economic and) cultural renewal of the stagnating urban centres, and the adjoining qasbas that are at the heart of the regional cultures, to any attempt to revive Uttar Pradesh cannot be overemphasised. The new identity of Uttar Pradesh has to be enriched like Ganga by a multitude of tributaries including regional cultures and languages as well as newer streams such as Dalit and feminist literatures.

As a first step, the state government might want to encourage the implementation of the three-language formula, at least, in a few schools in every district. This might involve inviting teachers on deputation from non-Hindi-speaking states. Reviving language departments in universities in different regions of the state is important as they will help support both academic and popular literary journals and children’s magazines in Braj, Awadhi, etc.

At another level, the government could invest in building and maintaining essential public cultural infrastructure such as auditoria, galleries, museums, memorials celebrating cultural personalities, etc and allow open access to these. Local communities and local bodies will have to step up, though, to own and enliven this infrastructure that would be necessary to support literary festivals and prizes that showcase local cultural output and also host cultural guests. This infrastructure can in turn be connected by literary tourist circuits.

At yet another level, the state government could offer grants to Hindi publishers based in the state, buy the copyright of landmarks of Hindi literature to make them open access, and promote translations to and from other Indian languages. Economic revival is key to supporting this ecosystem both in terms of philanthropic support and the ability of aam aadmi to buy the cultural output generated by the literary revival. But that is a story for another day.

Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and is co-author of ‘Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government Statistics’ (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Alok Tiwari is the District Magistrate of Kanpur. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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