Harivansh Rai “Bachchan” Shrivastav was born on November 27, 1907 in U.P. near Allahabad in the United Provinces (modern Uttar Pradesh) & died on January 18, 2003 in Mumbai, India, was a distinguished Hindi poet of Chhayavaad literary movement (romantic upsurge) of early 20th century Hindi literature. He was also a famous poet of Hindi Kavi Sammelan. He is best known for his early work Madhushala. He is also the father of Bollywood megastar, Amitabh Bachchan.
Born in a Kayastha family, in the village of Babupatti (Raniganj) in the district of Pratapgarh, U.P. He was the eldest son of Pratap Narayan Shrivastav and Saraswati Devi. He was called bachchan (meaning ‘child-like’) at home. He received his formal schooling in a municipal school and followed the family tradition of attending KayasthaPaathshaalas to learn Urdu as the first step to a career in law. He later studied at the Allahabad University and Banaras Hindu University. In this period, he came under the influence of the independence movement, then under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.
Realizing that this was not the path he wanted to follow, he went back to the university. However from 1941 to 1952 he taught in the English Department at the Allahabad University and after that he spent the next two years at Cambridge University doing his doctoral thesis on W.B. Yeats. It was then, that he used ‘Bachchan’ as his last name instead of Srivastava. Harivanshrai’s thesis got him his PhD at Cambridge. He is the second Indian to get his doctorate in English literature from Cambridge. After returning to India he again took to teaching and also served at All India Radio, Allahabad.
In 1926, at the age of 19, Bachchan married his first wife, Shyama, who was then 14 years old. However she died ten years later in 1936 after a long spell of TB at just 24 years of age. Bachchan again married, Teji Suri, a Sikh, in 1941. They had two sons, Amitabh and Ajitabh.
In 1955, Harivanshrai shifted to Delhi to join the External Affairs Ministry as an officer on Special duty and during the period of 10 years that he served he was also associated with the evolution of Hindi as the official language. He also enriched Hindi through his translations of major writings. As a poet is famous for his poem Madhushala (a bar selling alcoholic drinks). Besides Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, he will also be remembered for his Hindi translations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello and also the Bhagvad Gita. However in Nov 1984 he wrote his last poem ‘Ek November1984’ on Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
Harivanshrai was nominated to the Indian Rajya Sabha in 1966 and received the Sahitya Akademi award three years later. In 1976 he was honoured with the Padma Bhushan for his immense contribution to Hindi literature. He was also honoured with the Saraswati Samman, the Sovietland Nehru Award and the Lotus Award of the Afro-Asian writers’ conference, for his unique contribution to the world of letters. But if ever asked to introduce himself, he had a simple introduction: Mitti ka tan, masti ka man, kshan-bhar jivan — mera parichay. (A body of clay, a mind full of play, a moment’s life – that is me.).
Bachchan died on January 18, 2003, at the age of 95, as a result of various respiratory ailments. His wife Teji Bachchan died four years later in 2007, at the age of 93.
From 1941 to 1952 he taught English at Allahabad University and then spent two years at Cambridge University, at St Catharine’s College. There he studied with the famous English literature don, Thomas Rice Henn, and received a doctorate in English Literature for his work on the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and Occultism. It was there that he used Bachchan as his last name instead of ‘srivastava. He was the second Indian to get his doctorate in English literature from Cambridge University.
After returning to India, he taught briefly and then worked as a producer for All India Radio, Allahabad. In 1955, he moved to Delhi to join the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India and there he was closely involved with the evolution of Hindi as the official language of India.
One of his inspirational poems, Agneepath (“Path of fire”), was used as the theme (and its title as the title) for the 1991 blockbuster movie featuring his actor son Amitabh Bachchan, as a ruthless mafia don. This movie was a massive success earning Amitabh Bachchan a National Award for his performance. You can see Amitabh narrating the poem through out the movie.