There were a number of disillusioned intellectuals and writers who initiated the formation of the Progressive Writers' Association in 1936, with Munshi Premchand as its pioneering member. Defining the banner of "progressive" as "all that arouses in us the critical spirit," writers proposed to turn literature into a weapon in the struggle against colonialism. The aim of the progressive writers was to portray an authentic picture of the problems of the marginalized masses through a realistic expression. This literature was to be expressed in a language easily understood by the masses. This brought about a shift from the "high" or Sanskritized Hindi propagated by the orthodox Hindu nationalists to a literature that used Hindustani. A move to realism also established the novel as the chief medium of expressing the political commitment of writers.
In this changing context, Premchand emerged as a key figure in exposing the evils of colonialism through a progressive, realistic style exhibiting the influence of Marxist ideas in stories such as Katil. Katil reveals an ideological shift from the non-violent path suggested by Gandhi to a revolutionary one. Premchand's novel Premashram (1922) also focused upon issues concerning colonial exploitation through long descriptions of forced labor and the exploitation and use of poor peasants and their women at the hands of rich landlords. Premchand's answer to freedom lay in collective peasant protests and the overthrowing of the ruling classes. Another realistic portrayal of colonial exploitation occurred in Rishabcharan Jain's Gadar (The Revolution) in 1930 at the height of the nationalist movement. Not surprisingly, the novel was banned by the British government and reprinted only after Indian Independence from British rule.
The Progressive Writers' Association also strengthened the Hindi short story, a medium that had already been explored by Premchand and Jaishankar Prasad. As compared to full-length novels, the short story could convey the political message in a shorter space. Seen as a feasible means of communicating political messages, some writers, such as Yashpal, adopted this form for expressing their revolutionary views.
While prose remained the dominant form of expression during the 1930s and 1940s, progressive drama, too, played a significant role in attempting to dismantle existing power structures. Upendra Nath Ashok wrote plays such as Chhata Beta, Jai Parajai, Aadi and Marg. Others, such as Pandit Laxmi Narayan Mishra, expressed their socio-political estrangement through "problem plays" such as Sanyasis, Rakshas Ka Mandir, Mukti Ka Rahasya, Rajyoga, and Sindoor Ki Holi (Nagendra 1988, 645). Protest against problems of farmers, landlords, police, and inter-caste marriage, among others, came from Premchand in plays such as Sangrama and Prem Ki Vedi (1933).
The latter half of the 1920s and the decade of the 1930s saw the proliferation of one-act plays in Hindi, a number of which were also published in various journals, an example of which is Prashad's Ek Ghunt. Hans, a journal edited by Premchand, published a special number on one-act plays in 1938. The shift from full-length plays to one-act plays was symbolic of a formalistic struggle that progressive playwrights waged against the power structures. On the one hand, it represented a break from the classical, full-length Sanskrit dramas that had acquired popularity because of the efforts to produce Sanskritized Hindi dramas by Hindu nationalist writers. Second, the one-act play in Hindi provided a break from the European full-length plays that used to dominate the theatres in the metropolitan during the twentieth century.
The one-act plays also proved immensely useful for propagating socio-political messages. Thus they were extremely advantageous as they were both entertaining and instructive, they cut down on the details of a full-length production, they came straight to the point, and they were easy to perform in towns and villages that lacked the requisite theatrical facilities. A number of progressive playwrights, such as Balraj Sahni, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, and Rasheed Jehan, channeled their attacks on contemporary problems through the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), which was formed on an all-India basis in 1943 to use theater as a vehicle for social change. The IPTA set up a Hindustani squad that performed numerous plays on topics ranging from British imperialism, to fascism in Europe, to landlord problems, to exploitation of workers in factories, to the Bengal famine of 1943 and the cholera epidemic of 1944. Balraj Sahni and K. A. Abbas wrote and produced plays such as Zubeida, Yeh Amrit Hai etc.
The influence of Marxist ideas on Hindi writing continued into the 1940s. With their progressive outlook, writers such as Sohanlal Dvivedi and Sumitrananadan Pant, among others, continued to attack capitalist exploitation and the evils of imperialism and landlordism. The most scathing attack was launched on the imperialists after the Bengal famine of 1943, which, as politically committed writers believed, was created by the British government after the Quit India Movement of 1942. The famine had a crippling effect, and millions of lives were affected. Yashpal dealt with these themes in his novels Dada Comrade, Deshdrohi, Party Comrade, and Manushya Ke Rup.
Thus Progressive Realism in Hindi Literature was a rather revolutionary step and marked a distinct switch from the literary styles of the earlier ages.
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