(Above): Participants at a University of California at Berkeley symposium to re-evaluate noted Hindu litterateur Agyeya’s life and work, organized by the Magistretty Chair in South Asian Studies, the Center for South Asian Studies, and The Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities.

At a University of California at Berkeley symposium organized by the Magistretty Chair in South Asian Studies, the Center for South Asian Studies and The Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, thanks to the efforts of Professor Vasudha Dalmia, a remarkable gathering of scholars from the U.S., Europe and India assembled to re-evaluate noted Hindu litterateur Agyeya’s life and work, writes Ved Prakash Vatuk.

The year 2011 is the centenary year of several great literary figures in South Asia. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Kedarnath Agrawal, Shamsher Bahadur Singh and Agyeya among others are being celebrated throughout the sub-continent. It was reported that more than sixty events have already been organized in India to celebrate Agyeya’s centenary. And before the year is over, there may be hundreds more events to be held in big and small cities and towns. There has been a massive fort at reprinting Agyeya’s works and several magazines have brought out special issues dedicated to his life and work.

I myself have contributed a piece describing my association of 32 years with Agyeya to a special issue of Hindi Jagat However, the symposium organized by the Magistretty Chair in South Asian Studies, the Center for South Asian Studies, and The Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California at Berkeley was a very unique event. Here through the efforts of Professor Vasudha Dalmia, a remarkable gathering of scholars from the U.S, , Europe and India took place to re-evaluate Agyeya’s life and work.

Berkeley has a special place in Agyeya’s life. Agyeya returned to Berkeley again and again in the 1960s. He was a visiting professor, a Regent’s Professor, and a poet, who also collaborated in translations of Hindi poems. His last visit to Berkeley was in 1984 ,when he came here after receiving an international award in erstwhile Yugoslavia and stayed with me.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): Vasudha Dalmia and Ashok Vajpeyi

Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan “Agyeya” was born on March 11, 1911 at Kushinagar, on the border of Nepal, where his father was carrying out archeological work. As his father’s work took the family throughout the length and breadth of India, young Vatsyayan travelled all the way from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

During the freedom movement he joined the revolutionaries who worked around the celebrated martyr Bhagat Singh. But during the Second World War he joined the British Army as an anti-fascist officer. While in solitary confinement he began to write poems and short stories smuggled out and published in the name of Agyeya (unknown), a name assigned to him by the renowned author Jainendra Kumar. Initially he did not like the pen name, but as he became famous, the name stuck. During the 1940s and 1950s he became the center of great controversies in the Hindi world. He was one of the prominent leader of the pragativadi movements and his editing series of Tar Saptaks — -anthologies of seven poets in each of them — made him the figure of praise and condemnation.

But Agyeya was not merely a poet, He was a unique figure in the Hindi world because he wrote in every genre of literature and he achieved the highest place in each.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): The author with Center for South Asia Studies chair Raka Ray.

The three-day symposium started with a recording of Agyeya himself reciting one of his famous poems. After that the inaugural speech was given by the renowned poet and critic Ashok Vajpeyi, who was one of the bitterest critics of Agyeya in his lifetime, but now a truly remarkable evaluator of Agyeya’s work. He declared that there is not a single writer in Hindi who is as cosmopolitan as Agyeya.

This inaugural speech was followed by the release of a ,book of translation of Agyeya’s poems in German, Der Seiltanzer ge dichte von Ajneya. The translation of Agyeya’s poem was done by Lothar Lutze. Due to his poor health he could not attend the event, It was brought to Berkeley by Barbara Lotz, one of the participants in the symposium from Germany. The first day event ended by the recitation of their poems by Ashok Vajpeyi, Uday Prakash and the author.

The next two days were devoted to the reevaluation of Agyeya’s life and work from many different points of view. After opening remarks by the Center for the South Asian Studies chair Raka Ray and the main organizer of the event Professor Vasudha Dalmia, Ashok Vajpeyi’s lecture described the whole era of several decades of Hindi literary movements and compared Agyeya’s contribution in it with other great writers like Gajanan Muktibodh and Shamsher Bahadur Singh. Renata Czekaiska from Krakow, Poland, spoke on “Matter of Imagination. The Worlds of Tar Saptak Poetry and the Polish Avant-garde.” German scholar Barbara Lotz also spoke on the editor of the Tar Saptak anthologies and his poets. while Greg Goulding of U.C. Berkeley spoke on “Hindi Poetry, Modernism and Aesthetic Models.” Alok Rai from India gave an interesting lecture on the relationship of the trend setting magazines Pratik and Naya Pratik, edited by Agyeya.

Francestca Orasini from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, spoke on Agyeya’s short stories while Uday Prakash from India tried to explain the life of Agyeya, as it can be read by studying his work.

The third day of the symposium was dedicated to Agyeya’s novels. Speaking on his novel Nadi Ke Dvip, Professor Vasudha Dalmia described the sites of communication in the novel where private faces can be observed in public places. Sanjeev Kumar from Delhi University demolished the myth that projected Freud on Jainendra and Agyeya and insisted that the study of great writers should be done objectively before projecting a theory on their work. Nikhil Govind of UC Berkeley also talked about modernism in Hindi novels. The final paper of Simona Sawhney of Univ. of Minnesota dealt with the politics of Agyeya as it can be deduced from reading his novels specially Shekhar Ek Jiwani.

The panel decided that all these papers should be brought out together both in Hindi and English.

Poet folklorist Ved Prakash Vatuk’s many awards include the U.P. government’s Pravasi Bharatiya Hindi Sahitya Bhushan. “Essays in Indian Folk Traditions,” his collected writings, has just been published by the Folklore Institute, Berkeley, Calif.