Rare Literary Gems: The Works of Kabir and Premchand at CRL

This edition of Focus highlights two prominent literary masters of the Indian tradition: the mystic poet Kabir and the novelist and social activist Premchand. The Center has an extensive collection of material by and about both, including unique holdings from the South Asia Microform Project (SAMP).

Original works by Kabir at the Center include 25 titles in Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, and English, 11 of which are unique holdings on microfilm and part of the South Asian Microform Project (SAMP). SAMP offerings include a 1915 edition of 100 Poems of Kabir, translated by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, as well as an 1872 edition of Kabira Kavya, a selection of Kabir poems, translated into Gujarati. An edition of the Bijak, the complete works of Kabir, is also available in English translation. There are more than 40 additional titles, including biographies and critical interpretations of Kabir, in the Center’s catalog.

The Center offers an impressive array of writing by and on Premchand, with 107 original works in Urdu and Hindi, as well as translations into other Indian languages and English, and more than 90 titles on SAMP microfilm and microfiche. Examples include a 1939 edition of Ghaban in Urdu, a 1939 edition of Nirmala in Gujarati, and a 1938 edition of Karmabhumi in Hindi. There are also collections of his stories in English, and more than 40 biographies and critical interpretations on his life and career.

Kabir: 15th c. Mystic Poet

Kabir (1440–1518) is considered one of the foremost mystic poets in the Indian tradition. Influenced by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike, he espoused an array of their philosophical ideas. He promulgated a oneness with God, embracing the Hindu concept of jivatma (individual soul) as being directly linked to paramatma (universal or supreme soul). Kabir’s idea of loving God with devotion appealed to both Hindu Bhakti as well as Muslim Sufi concepts and practices.

The origins of the poet-saint known as Kabir are shrouded in mystery. Legend says he was born to a Hindu Brahmin widow but was adopted by childless Muslim weavers named Niru and Nimma, who supposedly found him afloat a giant lotus leaf in the Lahara Tala lake, adjacent to the holy city of Varanasi (Das, xvii). Today Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Banaras, is considered one of the oldest cities in the world as well as the world’s oldest continual culture. Fifteenth-century Varanasi bustled with spiritual life, attracting devotees and students of all faiths. Kabir’s Muslim upbringing led him in his youth to explore Hindu Vaishnava and Muslim Sufi traditions, which both center on intense love for the Lord. During that time of considerable debate between orthodox Hindu and Muslim groups, Kabir focused on common fundamentals of organized religion, such as love and devotion, as well as weaknesses. He delivered this message of tolerance and understanding between the faiths through his dohas (couplets) and songs (Das, xviii–xix).

Kabir also reminded us that no human being can escape the clutches of old age, sickness, and death. He believed these uncontrollable aspects of life were not something that we should worry about, since we are all subject to them. He also discusses the figurative death of the mind and its illusory nature as a means of attaining eternal life.

Kabir could not read or write, and he eschewed formal education. He viewed the only meaningful knowledge as that received directly from the divine. His style is spontaneous, powerful, and tender; his words seem to destroy duality instantly and brilliantly. Vaudeville elegantly states that Kabir’s “best utterances are endowed with a diamond-like quality, the transparency, multi-faceted brilliancy and mysterious glow of a pure diamond” (Vaudeville, 130).

The original language of Kabir’s couplets and songs has been a matter of controversy. Most Indian scholars recognize that it borrows from a variety of dialects spoken at that time (Vaudeville, 119). Technically speaking, the “language” of Kabir contains elements of old Avadhi, Braj, and Bhojpuri. He used common language that resonated with all people and transcended social barriers.

While Kabir may have placed no value on books, his legacy is preserved in written form, and his influence and popularity has spread throughout the world. Click on Author Search and Subject Search below for access to a selection of Kabir titles available in the Center’s online catalog.

Premchand: “Emperor of Novels” and Social Activist

Premchand (1880–1936) was born Dhanpat Rai in a village called Pandepur, near Varanasi. Like Kabir, Premchand was a literary figure who transcended the barriers between Hindus and Muslims. Premchand’s mother died when he was a young boy; his father, a postal clerk, died while Premchand was still a student, leaving his stepmother to raise Premchand and his stepsiblings under difficult financial circumstances. Premchand began his career as a school teacher and later worked as a journalist.

Premchand’s novels and short stories often incorporate social themes like poverty, with many set in villages like his own. He also wrote about issues faced by the urban middle class, including exploitation, prostitution, widowhood, and the freedom movement. He portrayed real-life characters in real-life situations and relationships, and he famously included elements of chance in his plots (Urdustan). Premchand became known as a social reformer of his time and used his novels to awaken interest in national and social issues. Mahatma Gandhi was a profound influence—in response to Gandhi’s call for noncooperation with the British, Premchand eventually quit his job and devoted himself full time to writing.

Dhanpat Rai began writing in Urdu under the name of Nawabrai and published his soon-to-be-famous Urdu short stories in the journal Zamana. Controversy came quickly: in 1909, the British government labeled his first collection of short stories, Soz-e-vatan, subversive and immediately censored it. They mandated that all subsequent writings be examined by the government or not published at all. The author steered around this by creating a new pseudonym, Premchand, and continued to publish (Pandey, 15–16).

In 1915 Premchand began to write and publish in Hindi. He started by translating previously published Urdu works into Hindi and later wrote exclusively in Hindi (Pandey, 19). Still, he refused to write in the Sanskritized Hindi of the elite and instead used Hindustani, the colloquial language of much of North India that is in many ways a combination of Hindi and Urdu. He wrote authentically about people in the language that they spoke and understood. By 1930, Hindi speakers considered Premchand the Upanyas Samrat, or “Emperor of Novels” (Pandey, 14). He is also known in Urdu circles as the father of the Urdu short story.

Premchand’s more than 300 short stories include Shatranj ke khiladi (The Chess Players), Budhi Kaki (The Old Aunt), Kafan (The Shroud), and Bade Bhaisahab (The Big Brother). Some of his best-known novels include Gaban (The Embezzlement), Godan (The Gift of a Cow), Nirmala, and Sevasadan. When searching for works by Premchand, be aware that the authority form for his name is “Premacanda, 1881–1936,” or call up a title list from the Center’s online catalog through the following Author Search and Subject Search links.

In addition, the Center’s Digital South Asia Library (see article, page 6) offers a full-text version of A Premchand Reader by Norman H. Zide, which features nine of Premchand’s most famous short stories.

  • Das, G.N., editor. Couplets from Kabir. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1991
  • Pandey, Geetanjali. Between two worlds: an intellectual biography of Premchand. New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1989.
  • Urdustan. Premchand [1880–1936]. http://www.urdustan.com/adeeb/nasr/premchand.htm (April 5, 2005)
  • Vaudville, Charlotte. A Weaver Named Kabir: Selected Verses with a Detailed Biographical and Historical Introduction. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.