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Posted at: Feb 22, 2019, 7:13 AM; last updated: Feb 22, 2019, 7:13 AM (IST)

Critic par excellence, colossus of Hindi literature

Apoorvanand

Apoorvanand
For nearly three quarters of a century, Namvar Singh remained a public figure, constantly sought after across India. He was a public educator. He taught people that we must practise the democratic art of thinking to qualify as citizens and seek to achieve sophistication. It is a duty and a right, not a privilege. Here was a literary critic who was also a thinker of the masses.
Critic par excellence, colossus of Hindi literature
VISIONARY : According to Namvar Singh, the primary job of a critic was to look carefully and sympathetically. He practised the art of looking for more than 70 years.

Apoorvanand
Professor of Hindi, Delhi University

IN the deaths of Krishna Sobti, Kedarnath Singh and Kunwar Narain, Hindi lost its brightest jewels. With the demise of Namvar Singh, Hindi has been robbed 

of its crown.

It is extraordinary that a critic remained the first citizen of the world of Hindi literature for more than 60 years. “What does Namvarji have to say about…?” was the refrain all these years. All poets and writers, young or established, wanted affirmation, or at least recognition, from the giant. It was his word that mattered.

But the writers who sought his attention were intrigued by his changing positions. Namvar Singh was aware of it and believed, like Mahatma Gandhi and Walt Whitman, that consistency is an obstacle to the quest for truth.

The primary job of a critic, according to him, was to ‘look carefully’. And sympathetically. Namvar Singh practised the art of looking for more than 70 years. It is the world outside which is important, not your ideas about it. The ability to look at the world, to love it is what we cultivate through the arts and more so with literature. For, what is literature if not an endeavour to take us back to the world we think we live in but are generally careless about? It must teach us to love the world and the people. 

Literature does it with words. They come first. The patience to stay with a word, to return to it again and again, without the hurry to draw an immediate meaning out of it, differentiates a critic from a careless passerby. 

The act of looking necessarily turns into an act of judgement. From where you see is equally important. Some call it ideology. Namvar Singh grappled with this concept all his life. For him a critic is the one who can see the eye which sees the world. This double vision is what a critic needs to develop. The inward always keeps putting itself to the test while engaging with the outward. But a critic is also the one who does not easily give up his vision upon the first collision with the new or the outside. Conservation is also his job. So, the outward is also evaluated and not accepted automatically. Criticism should welcome the new but must break through the illusion of the new and reject it. 

A critic is a natural leader. He inhabits the world of creation, but reserves the right to criticise it. To do this, he creates distance. It is his reading which defines this distance and the value of it. Do you love reading or not is the first question we need to ask when someone claims that we are faced with a critic.

Literature was the home of Namvar Singh, politics his sky. He saw criticism as a political act. Interestingly, in one of his talks, titled ‘The Democracy of Criticism’, he invoked the principles of freedom/liberty, equality and solidarity that are the bedrock of criticism.

Criticism, according to Namvar Singh, is essentially a personal act and a personal response. It requires an acceptance of the right of each individual to approach the written work. A right not bound by any authoritative meaning. There must be a space for a difference in meanings, but these need to keep engaging with each other to create a true republic of words.

To ask for tolerance can often be misleading as it can disguise the lack of will to develop one’s own individual way of looking. Namvar Singh fought against ‘easy consensus’. We must be suspicious of all calls to give consent to a popular view. When the clamour for consensus reverberates in the sky, the critic must rise with his voice of dissent.

According to Namvar Singh, one must cultivate the art of persuasion, but at the same time should have the humility to revise one’s position. Persuasion has to be a two-way process. But the process should be rigorous to be authentic and trustworthy. A person who leaves his position after the first encounter with something unfamiliar is lazy and a coward. A critic is anything but a coward.

For nearly three quarters of a century, Namvar Singh remained a public figure, constantly sought after across India. He was a public educator. He taught people that we must practise the democratic art of thinking to qualify as citizens and seek to achieve sophistication. It is a duty and a right, not a privilege. Here was a literary critic who was also a thinker of the masses.

He inhabited the world of all languages with ease and they also treated him as their own. But this public image hid the shy interior of the person. He was an intensely lonely person who loved his solitude, books being his only welcome companion. Whenever one visited him, one realised that there were few who had earned the right to even sit with this colossus.

With his death, we have lost a treasure trove of the memory of literature.

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