Cambridge & diversity

Harivansh Rai Bachchan: a poet and a scholar

Harivansh Rai BachchanHarivansh Rai Bachchan is one of the most celebrated Hindi poets, honoured for his immense contribution to Hindi literature. Bachchan spent two years at St Catharine's College (1952–54) and is often credited as the first Indian to get his doctorate in English literature from the University, although at the time of his studies, Bachchan cites Dr B Rajan as the only other Indian to have a Cambridge PhD in English.

Born in Allahabad, Harivansh Rai Bachchan received his formal schooling in a municipal school and followed the family tradition of attending Kayasth Paathshaalas. He later studied at the Allahabad University and Banaras Hindu University, where he was influenced by the independence movement, then under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

In 1941 Bachchan began teaching English at Allahabad University, some ten years later an opportunity arose to apply for study in England. Although the principal objective was to study English-teaching methodology, Bachchan saw it as an opportunity to complete his previous studies on the Irish poet WB Yeats. His acceptance at Cambridge may well have rested more on his popular acclaim rather than his academic studies, but whilst at Cambridge he excelled, achieving his doctorate in English Literature for his work on Yeats.

Bachchan was a student of the renowned English literature don, Thomas Rice Henn. In June 1954 Henn wrote a reference for Bachchan describing his thesis as a:

... genuine contribution to our knowledge, [that] will be of great assistance to future students of the work of WB Yeats … [Bachchan] has a tremendous enthusiasm for his subject, and an unusual sensibility to English poetry and its background in religion, philosophy and social history. He also has the outstanding advantage of being a poet in his own right.

Bachchan and Henn built a close relationship during his time at Cambridge and remained in touch on his return to India. Eleven years after leaving the University Bachchan's thesis was published to coincide with the Yeats centenary; Dr Henn wrote the preface.

In his autobiography, Bachchan describes his first impressions of the city:

Cambridge enchanted me from very first glimpse: the banks of the slowly-flowing Cam, flanked by rows of centuries-old buildings and crossed by bridges of various designs … Even slight knowledge of history would project the faces of Newton, Bacon, Darwin, Spenser, Cromwell and Milton onto the scene—and of Marlowe, Gray, Thackeray, Wordsworth, Byron and Tennyson; and from my own country, Ramanujam, Aurobindo, Iqbal, Subhas Bose and Jawaharlal. I saw Cambridge in both its contemporary and its historical dimension, and if I were to describe my first reactions, I would have to say I was overwhelmed: entranced by its cultivated beauty, humbled by its extraordinary gifts to the world.

Bachchan was awarded his doctorate after two years at Cambridge: the significance of this achievement should not be underestimated. He had left his wife and two children in India whilst he studied; he and his family endured financial hardship and the trials of a long separation, including malicious rumours levelled against him and his family. Achieving his doctorate was vindication of the sacrifices they had made and meant that ‘his honour was saved’. His wife had the news of his success printed in the local papers.

After returning to India, Bachchan taught briefly and then worked as a producer for All India Radio in Allahabad. In 1955, he moved to Delhi to join the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India and was closely involved with the evolution of Hindi as the country's official language.

Bachchan published about 30 volumes of poetry throughout his lifetime and translated several English works into Hindi. He is best known for his early lyric poem Madhushala (The House of Wine) which was inspired by Edward Fitzgerald's translation The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; first published in 1935 it brought him instant fame and his recitals were met with wild enthusiasm from the huge audiences he attracted. The poem has been choreographed and performed on stage, and set to music. Madhushala is one of the most enduring works of Hindi literature and has been translated into English and many regional Indian languages.

Bachchan was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, in 1966 and received many honours for his contribution to Hindi and Asian literature. In 2003, an Indian postage stamp was released in his memory. The enduring popularity and influence of Bachchan was evident at his funeral in January 2003. Thousands of people attended his funeral procession, and tributes were paid by politicians, industrialists and Bollywood stars. His son, Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, visited St Catharine's in 2007 and spoke movingly of his father's time at the College.

Further reading

  • Harivansh Rai Bachchan, In the Afternoon of Time: An Autobiography, edited and translated from the Hindi by Rupert Snell, Viking (1998)