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Narendra Kohli: Representing an Era

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VoW 2021: Nineteen weeks to go!

By DR SANJEEV CHOPRA

As mentioned in an earlier column on the PN Pannikar Reading /Digital Reading Month, the next edition of Afternoons with an Author (Sunday, 11 July) will feature a tribute to Narendra Kohli by two well-known scholars and writers in different genres of Hindi: Laxmi Shankar Bajpai and Gaurav Krishna Bansal.

Bajpai’s voice is perhaps more familiar than his face – for he has been AIR’s commentator for the Republic and Independence Day events. But he is also a poet, translator and a writer of repute, and a member of the Board of Valley of Words! Gaurav is a civil servant, singer, artist, sportsman, musician, motivational speaker and a trilingual writer – Urdu, Hindi, and English. His recitations are legion and, as an avid reader of Narendra Kohli, his probing questions on Kohli will make this one of the most interesting discussions in our forum. While their conversation will be broadcast over YouTube on Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m., (and archived forever), let me offer my tribute to him. Let me also mention that his latest offering, ‘Shikhandi’, was nominated for the VoW Awards this year, and Gaurav is proposing to ask some leading questions on the narrative around Shikhandi as well – for he was, in Kohli’s assessment, not just a subplot but a central theme in the Mahabharat narrative.

More than two decades ago, when I was a Deputy Director at the Academy, one of the participants accosted me and asked if I had spent any time on reading contemporary authors in Hindi. I drew a blank, but in the same breath I asked him for some suggestions. He asked me to read Narendra Kohli for the Pauranic and the historical, and Yashpal on the Partition and its aftermath. He suggested that I start with Maha Samar – the transcreation of the Mahabharat in nine volumes. It looked formidable, but after I got into the reading of this epic – it began to make more and more sense, and although it took me six months to complete the set, it was well worth it. The series starts with Bandhan – which talks of the covenant of lifelong celibacy by Santanu; Adhikar – which is about the ecosystem of power in Hastinapur; Karm – which is about Yudhishthira and his ideals; and Dharma is a treatise on managing a state. The fifth book, Antral, is the story of Kunti, Gandhari and Draupadi – in many ways it is a feminist discourse by and on the women of Mahabharat. Prachhann, the sixth book, tells us of the world views of Yudhishthira and Duryodhan. Pratyaksh is about the Great War – and about Krishna’s interpretation of Dharma in the context of war and the imperative of victory. The eighth book is Nirbandh – the narrative from the Dron Parva to the Shanti Parva – in which Bheeshma gives the discourse on Raj Dharma. The last book -Anushanghik – is about understanding the context of the Mahabharat. In this Kohli tries to answer all the questions that he faced while writing his magnum opus.

I was totally enamoured, both, of the style and substance of his writing. Later, one also went through Todo, Kara Todo is a novel based on the life of Swami Vivekananda. Kohli is credited with reinventing the ancient form of epic writing in modern prose. He is also regarded as a trendsetter in the sense that he pioneered the creation of literary works based on the Puranas. Because of the large impact of his body of work on Hindi literature, this era of contemporary modern Hindi literature, since about 1975, is sometimes referred to as the Kohli Era.

Narendra Kohli is no more. May his works live on forever!

(Sanjeev Chopra is a historian, public policy analyst and the Festival Director of Valley of Words, an
International Literature and Arts festival based out of
Dehradun. He was a member of the IAS, and superannuated as the Director of the LBS National Academy of Administration).