From Premchand to the Progressive Writers, from political poets to film lyricists, they all wrote about farmers once. Not anymore.
The present apathy towards those who, quite literally, give us our daily bread seems strange given India’s ethos and civilisation, that has traditionally celebrated, even valorised, the tiller of the land. Today when most mainstream newspapers either relegate the news of the largest gathering of farmers in Delhi in recent times or disregard it altogether, we are reminded of a time when we as a people were less blithe and our writers, thinkers, poets less fearful at best and less blasé, at worst.
From culture and literature to fairs and festivals, the farmer has held pride of place in the popular imagination. Across the length and breadth of India, many of our festivals have their origins in older, agricultural rites and rituals. Given that we are a largely agrarian society depending on seasonal monsoon rains for irrigation, the land and those who till it to fill our food baskets have always featured in the Indian literatures from the various bhashas. And be it folk song or high literature, the farmer has never been as beyond the pale as now, nor so pushed to the margins of our collective consciousness as at present.
Writing the hinterland
In the early Twentieth Century, with large-scale land reforms taking place in different parts of the world and the Russian Revolution opening a window into a world of immense possibilities, Hindi and Urdu writers, led by Premchand, began to write robust socially purposive literature located in India’s vast hinterland. Village tales such as Sadgati (Salvation), Poos ki Raat (A Winter’s Tale), Do Bailon ki Katha (The Story of Two Oxen), Sawa Ser Gehuun (A Quarter and One Ser of Wheat), and Kafan (The Shroud), among others, feature arrogant Thakurs, bhang-drinking pundits, and hardworking but often landless labourer, portraying a world of stark poverty and inequality. But the villains, and there are plenty in Premchand’s ouvre, are usually products of a rigid social order and caste inequalities in most of these stories.
It was not till the spectacular flowering of the literary grouping known as the Progressive Writers’ Movement from the 1930s onwards that the focus shifted to government policies, the need for land reform, and urgent redressal of the genuine problems of peasants. Till this point, writers and poets were content to draw attention to agrarian distress without linking it specifically to policies at the apex that would trickle down to the farmer at the lowest rung of the food pyramid.
Some, such as the poet Iqbal were content to write rousing, even inflammatory poems, addressing the peasants struggling under the yoke of imperialism in Punjab ke Dehqaan ke Naam (To the Farmers of the Punjab):
Butan-e-shaub-o-qabail ko torh Rasoom-e-kuhan ke salasil ko torh Yehi deen-e-mohkam, yehi fateh-e-baab Ke duniya mein touheed ho be-hijab
Break all the idols of tribe and caste
Break the old customs that fetter men fast!
Here is true victory, here is faith’s crown –
One creed and one world, division thrown down!
And more famously, in Farman-e Khuda: Farishton Se (God’s Command To His Angels):
Jis khet se dahqaan ko mayassar nahin rozi Us khet ke har ḳhosha-e-gandum ko jala do
The field that does not yield bread for its farmer
Burn every ripening ear of wheat which grows in that field
Enter the Progressive Writers
It was the progressive writers, and the poets in particular, who took up the cause of the farmers and brought the villages, where Gandhi said the real India lived, close to the cities. Urdu shed its cosmopolitanism and began to speak for rural India like never before.
In June 1938, a most unusual conference took place in Faridabad. Organised by Syed Muttalebi Faridabadi, this was a gathering of poets from the rural areas surrounding Delhi who wrote in Brajbhasha or Haryanavi or the countless other dialects that broadly came under the category of “Hindustani”. Faridabadi had been active with the peasants and workers in the Gurgaon, Alwar, Bharatpur, and Rohtak regions, and was convinced that big literary events in big cities did not address the needs of people closer to the soil and that the continuing distinction between “high” and “low” culture meant that the urban was necessarily high and the rural (which included the folk) was always low.
Faridabadi had written a work of verse drama, Kisan Rut, in a style redolent of the sights and smells of the countryside, but using a pleasing mixture of Urdu and Haryanvi. His derelict haveli in Faridabad became the venue for a large gathering of rural poets. Peasants squatted on the ground while on a makeshift dais sat Faridabadi, along wit heavyweights such as Ahmed Ali and Sajjad Zaheer, representing the central committee of the PWA. A sprinkling of teachers and students from the Jamia Millia Islamia, and some political workers from Delhi and its neighbourhood listened to the peasant poets who sang their compositions to the beat of folk instruments. While the subjects were topical – even overtly social and political – the style was the time honoured bara masa.
Independence and afterwards
Over the next three decades, the PWA became a self-appointed custodian of peasants’ and workers’ rights and vast amounts of poetry and fiction came to be written on the dehqaan (peasant) and mazdoor (labourer). A great deal was expected from the coming of independence, not the least being the safeguarding of farmer’s rights. While zamindari abolition and land reform was put into effect almost immediately by the Nehru government, the rosy future predicted by some failed to materialise. Josh Malihabadi, for instance, had hoped:
The farmer and labourer will create a new world
Together they will decorate the People’s Assembly
Here’s Faiz Ahmad Faiz in his iconic Intesaab (Dedication), dedicated to peasants who are the most marginalised, the least empowered:
Dahqaanb ke naam Jis ke dhoron ko zalim hanka le gaye Jis ki beti ko daaku utha le gaye Haath bhar khet se ek angusht patwar ne kaat lii hai Doosri maaliye ke bahaane se sarkar ne kaat lii hai Jis ki pag zor walon ke paao taley Dhajjiyan ho gaii hai
To the peasant
Whose cattle has been driven off by the tyrants
Whose daughter has been abducted by the robbers
From his hands-width of a farm, a finger’s width has been cut by the revenue officer
The rest deducted by the government under some pretext
Whose turban has been torn to shreds
Under the feet of the oppressors
And here’s Sahir Ludhianvi ruing the fate of the farmer who feeds others only to go hungry himself, in a poem entitled Mujhe Sochne Do (Let Me Think):
Lahlahaate hue kheton pe javaanii kaa samaan Aur dahqaan ke chhappar mein na battii na dhuaan
All the ingredients of fulsomeness are bedecked on lush green fields
While there is neither light under the farmer’s shed nor fire in his hearth
In a similar vein, Kaifi Azmi writes in Kisan:
Chiir ke saal mein do baar zamin ka siina Dafn ho jaata huun…
Piercing the breast of the earth twice a year
I am buried…
Rhyming with distress
But it was Makhdoom Mohiuddun, the poet from Hyderabad who, for all his romantic and poignant ghazal writing, was the first to draw attention to the great agrarian distress in Telangana, a situation that lead more than 70 years later to the creation of an independent state, where ironically enough, the problems of the farmers have still not found complete redress:
Look, the red dawn is coming, the red dawn of independence
Singing the red anthem of liberty, freedom and independence
Look, the flag is waving, of liberty, freedom and independence
By 1946, the CPI had set up communes and Left poets were holding up Telangana as a model for revolutionary uprisings in other parts of the country. Another poet, Zahir Kashmiri, exhorted the Telangana Model thus:
Today, communes are sprouting from the land of Telangana
Today, the scorched earth is bearing varieties of beautiful life
Today, men of Telangana are spreading the glad tidings of conquering love,
Today, men of Telangana are giving the blessed news of the renaissance of East
Today, men of Telangana have joined in the struggle of Java and Greece
It is another matter that the CPI, after having fostered armed insurrection against the state did not achieve the success it had hoped for. The point, however, remains that there was a time when the poet and the writer came together with the political thinker and activist and was willing to engage with the crucial issues of the time. That engagement seems to have tapered off as some occupy islands of privilege while others are cast adrift in a sea of distress.
The film lyricists in the Bombay film industry, many of whom were either inspired by the Progressive Movement or were full-time members of the PWA, too were watchful of the interests of the farmers and agricultural labour. As late as the 1960s, when India found itself facing acute food shortages, mainstream masala movies of the Manoj “Bharat” Kumar brand such as Upkar interpreted Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan of Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’with songs such as Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle ugle hire moti… The motif of the farmer and the labourer was taken up all through the 1980s in films such as Mazdoor:
Hum mehnatkash iss duniya se Jab apna hissa mangengey Ek bagh nahii ek khet nahii Hum saari duniya mangengey
When labourers such as us
Ask for our share of the world
We will not ask for an orchard or a field
We will ask for the entire world
Regrettably, even the Hindi film industry, ostensibly with its finger on the pulse of the nation, while churning out films on small-town India such as Gangs of Wasseypur or the Netflix series Mirzapur, has turned its gaze away from rural India. Is it because rural India is neither hip nor cool? Or because it’s an unseemly blot on shining India? Or because it flies in the face of the narrative of development and progress?