Children's Literature In Hindi

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FOR TEACHERS AND LIBRARIANS

Children's Literature In Hindi

By : Mrinal Pande  /  Nov 2005

India of the 1950s, where this writer and her siblings lived in many small towns in the Hindi belt, was a veritable heaven for precocious and avid bookworms without much knowledge of English, and/or money. This period saw the idealistic intellectual elite of the Hindi belt, who had participated in the Freedom struggle, turn their energies to writing for children in Hindi. They felt that children’s books mattered and children’s books in their mother tongue mattered even more, because India’s intellectual properties belonged now not to the Angrez or the urban brown Sahibs, but to all Indians. This mindset greatly affected both the shape and thrust of children’s literature and its dissemination. The ethos of the great Azadi Ki Ladai and the austere and sombre lifestyle of its great leaders mattered, but not as an essential gesture. The writers realized that the themes and ideas that had happily peopled the vast storehouse of traditional Indian folklores, had a timeless appeal for the young minds.  All those grandmas’ stories about promiscuous kings who flew into murderous rages, their scheming queens who banished little princes and princesses to forests, all those fearsome withches, wily Brahmins, crafty Banias, regal and supremely autocratic Thakurs, were not gross  symbols of a feudal and autocratic caste bound society, but metaphors for power and powerlessness as a child experiences them. The tellers of the timeless tales from Hatim to Tenaliraman to Birbal, were closer in spirit to sceptics of 4th century BC , who rejected all total explanations or solutions concerning the human situation. Most Hindi writers turned storytellers for children came from humble rural backgrounds and had grown up on a staple diet of folk tales in the dialects of their region. These stories spoke for the common experience of all those who, like children, felt themselves frequently as powerless and insignificant creatures pitted against  the big, the strong and the powerful of the world. When they showed the youngest son or daughter outsmarting the older and wilier siblings, or the humble courtier outwitting the privileged priests and minister in the King’s court, they were upholding the cause of the weak and the marginalized and also slyly teaching them to challenge all knowledge and dismantle all theories before accepting them.

Of course in families like ours, it was felt that children must also read about  contemporary history,  about how India won its freedom, its heroes, about modern science and award winning scientists, and this could best be done by letting them have access to  the biographies of the great sons and daughters of India. A body of biographies thus sprang up, many of them written surprisingly well, and some, of course, dry as dust and subtly biased in favour of Hindus and their pure (read pre-Muslim pre-British) traditions. Subhash Bose’s life by  the veteran freedom fighter  Manmath Nath Gupt, (an accused in the famous anti British Kakori case), Satyakam Vidyalankar’s biography of Sardar Patel, and biographies of Kalidasa, Prithviraj Chauhan and Arjuna, the warrior from Mahabharata by Roop Narayan Pande were popular among children. This was also the era of very readable children’s magazines like Shishu, Chunnu Munnu, Chandamama, Balsakha, Vaanar, Vidyarthi and Khilauna. These magazines were inexpensive and easily available in kiosks and A.H. Wheeler bookstalls all over the Hindi belt. They were printed on litho presses in small towns, were often indifferently illustrated, but were veritable treasure troves of Indian fables, folk lores, nursery rhymes,  poems and  some even serialized children’s novels. 

The magazines were mostly edited by men who may have had little formal education, but knew what the children liked to read. Their linguistic skills and their predilection for verbal horseplay was admirable. Most of them had a no nonsense attitude towards platitudes and supported learning of all kinds. Among them were editors like Thakur Srinath Singh who edited a popular magazine called  Balsakha for many years, and Balashauri Reddy, a Telugu writer with an excellent command over Hindi  who edited  the hugely popular Chandamama for 23 years. These men may not have done their master’s in mass communication from a high sounding university, but they were sensitive and shrewd enough to see that children need more than a steady dose of homilies and ‘character building' exercises of the kind government run schools and school books offered them. They could see that the dark materials of traditional folk tales and fairy tales exercise such a great pull over young minds because  they need to make sense of their own feelings of anger and helplessness in a world under the charge of grownups. Thakur Srinath Singh’s poems like Nani Ka Sandook ( Grandma’s box) gave a hilarious account of a fabled box of a strict grandmother with a huge lock in front and missing hinges at the back. Rameshwar Dube wrote a series of simple tales about great men and women, entitled Ma Yeh Kaun? a girl child’s queries and mother’s patiently delivered information about a veritable who’s who of India’s great Bhakta Poets. Vishnu Prabhakar, well known writer and Gandhian, similarly humanized Gandhi for countless young minds with his Bapu Ki Batein .

Sasta Sahitya Mandal and Arya Book Depot, two publishing houses associated with social service and certain reformist ideologies published simple and inexpensive Hindi versions of the great Indian classics for children, also biographies of well known Indians. I remember seeing them being sold in various fairs and on the premises of major pilgrimage centres around the Hindi belt. Fond grandparents often picked up copies for grandchildren on their way home after their pilgrimage.

Children love verbal horseplay, and it comes naturally to them in their mother tongue. The sheer joy of Tukbandi (rhyming) and the rapper like ecstasy that it can produce, was greatly encouraged in our family. We all took great pride in being able to rattle off poems from Doodh Batasha (Sohanlal Dwivedi), Lalbujhakkad (Vidyabhushan Vibhu)  and even Sumitranandan Pant’s:

Agar kahin main Tota hota,

to kya hota to kya hota

Hota Tota.

( If I were a parrot what would I be?

A parrot silly !)

Rajkamal Prakashan, Rajpal and Sons, Sasta Sahitya Mandal, Sarvoday Prakashan Mandir, I remember our mother sending for their catalogues and then the delicious wait for the books began. I still remember a large wooden box that had back dated issues of all kinds of children’s Hindi magazines stitched together meticulously by our servants with a large needle and strong thread. We carried these for our cousins in the hills when we went vacationing and they, in turn shared with us their copies of similarly preserved magazines. When we felt mean and ganged up against each other, the books and magazines were the first to be embargoed and hidden away. At this point I also remember reading a whole lot of excellent biographies of scientists from Jagdish Chandra Bose to Einstein, Meghnad Saha , Newton and James Watt  published by Gyanbharti Prakashan. Nearly all the great writers in Hindi then wrote for children. In this category I remember Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s Koyal, Sabha Ka Khel, Ramnaresh Tripathi’s Bal Katha Kahani (a ten volume set of tales for children), and Ramvriksha Benipuri’s Bilai Mausi, Bagula Bhagat  and Heeraman Tota. Editors of children’s magazines like Benipuri (ed. Chunnu Munnu and Balak) and Srinath Singh came from rural farming communities and brought with them a virtual treasure trove of folk tales in Hindi and its dialects. In true Hindustani tradition, prose in these stories was liberally interspersed with poetry and couplets. Their most memorable protagonists were timid characters that succeeded nevertheless, with a little help from kind fairies, talking animals and their own wit. Even all those young readers who were not mistreated like those characters, could understand nevertheless, that their problems were not due to lack of anything else except power. And we loved the storyteller for taking the protagonists’ side so nakedly. Going through these stories was not just a pleasure but also a sort of an eccentric privilege we felt.

By the eighties, as the collective anglophilia of the middle class Indians became more pronounced, the middle class in the Hindi belt  began to turn monolingual. Many households that brought up their children on a steady diet of both English and Hindi books and periodicals, stopped subscribing and  as Hindi periodicals began closing down one after another, Enid Blyton and  Amar Chitrakatha (English version)  replaced Parag, Shishu, Balsakha and Chunnu Munnu. The nineties saw the advent of cable TV and a further recession of children’s reading material in Hindi. Of course, official and semi official institutions like the NBT and CBT kept publishing a steady stream of books in Hindi, but most of them were sub-standard, unimaginatively produced and indifferently marketed. Writing for children had never been a financially glorious option, it now trickled to a negligible one-time payment. Royalties for Hindi writers became almost non-existent, even for venerable institutions like the NCERT and CBT. You pay peanuts and you get monkeys, my father used to say. Our publishers mostly pay the barest minimum to writers of childrens’ books, and get garbage in return.

Today many of the old children’s magazines have folded up, only some are still managing to keep their heads above water with an effort. Among them Nandan  (The Hindustan Times Group), Champak (Delhi Press), Chandamama and Balhans (Rajasthan Patrika Group) are very popular. They are  also proof that much of the anti-Madrasi and anti-Hindi feelings that Hindi and Tamil generate, are the creation of our venerable elders. Chandamama is a case in point. Chandamama comes out of Chennai and despite the great linguistic battles between the north and the south, has for decades maintained its great hold over young minds in the Hindi belt. I remember as a child reading serialized versions of the great Tamil classics in Chandamama. Similarly, Nandan that comes out from Delhi, has carried a  hugely popular pictorial series on tales of Tenaliraman. Nandan has also published translated versions of folk tales from nearly every Indian language and also English classics.

Apart from these fortnightly and monthly magazines, of late major Hindi dailies like Punjab Kesri, Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran have begun to cater specifically to children’s tastes by bringing out special weekly supplements to be distributed free with the daily. These are replete with the usual cartoon strips, puzzles, a couple of short stories and do it yourself columns and if the vendors are to be believed, exercise a big pull in the market especially for the young. But compared to the magazines, these supplements are eventually more of a sales gambit than a sensitive and sustained catering to the tastes of the new generation of young readers.

Of late, Hindi translations of western bestsellers for children, have suddenly become visibly popular. In itself this is a good thing to happen, because the debacle of the USSR and the subsequent disappearance of the excellent low priced fairy tales and Russian folk tales for children in Hindi, had created a vacuum that the Harry Potter books can fill. However, the disappearance from our childrens’ mental radars, of those old fairy tales and folk tales from  various corners of India, is to be mourned. As old fashioned grandmothers face a sort of geriatric cleansing from young upwardly mobile and English centric urban households, and rural young migrate to cities in search of work leaving the elderly behind, one feels there is little that stands between the children and the heartless world of grown ups. Their fantasy worlds are no longer peopled by  tales spun by generations of grandmothers, about fairies, gnomes, talking animals, ogres and eccentric kings and queens. Children in our cities are forced to live with and dream of  characters from TV soaps, serials and toons.  The old style children’s tales may have been rooted in palaces and fairy lands, but they addressed the  common experiences of  children, their fears, their sense of powerlessness and wonder. And they spoke for the powerless young against the powerful and big, they supported humour and ironical irreverence against hypocrisy and pontification of the bullies. The violence in those stories is not the mindless violence of TV serials where the violent and the powerful often win the day. Violence there is cathartic and brings a strange calm in its trail, unlike the TV soaps where serialized blood letting and torture stops only to start again.

The composure the old story books radiate is the composure of old women like my grandmother have. It is a mental attitude in which love and anger coexist with hurt and compassion. The last is the distilled essence of all great literature: compassion we must have, because as Joan Baez was to sing years later, life is short and nothing is given to man.

Mrinal Pande is Chief Editor, Hindustan, New Delhi.