Munshi Premchand was born on 31 July 1880 in Lamhi, a village located near Varanasi (Benares) and was named Dhanpat Rai ("master of wealth"). His ancestors came from a large Kayastha family, which owned six bighas of land. His grandfather, Guru Sahai Rai was a patwari (village land record-keeper), and his father Ajaib Rai was a post office clerk. His mother was Anandi Devi of Karauni village, who could have been the inspiration for the character Anandi in his Bade Ghar Ki Beti. Dhanpat Rai was the fourth child of Ajaib Lal and Anandi; the first two were girls who died as infants, and the third one was a girl named Suggi. His uncle, Mahabir, a rich landowner, nicknamed him "Nawab" ("Prince"). "Nawab Rai" was the first pen name chosen by Dhanpat Rai.
After his father was posted to Jamniya in the mid-1890s, Dhanpat Rai enrolled at the Queen's College at Benares as a day scholar. In 1895, he was married at the age of 15, while still studying in the ninth grade. The match was arranged by his maternal step-grandfather. The girl was from a rich landlord family and was older than Premchand, who found her quarrelsome and not good-looking.
His father died in 1897 after a long illness. He managed to pass the matriculation exam with second division(below 60% marks). However, only the students with first division were given fee concession at the Queen's College. He then sought admission at the Central Hindu College, but was unsuccessful because of his poor arithmetic skills. Thus, he had to discontinue his studies. He then obtained an assignment to coach an advocate's son in Benares at a monthly salary of five rupees. He used to reside in a mud-cell over the advocate's stables, and used to send 60% of his salary back home. Premchand read a lot during these days. After racking up several debts, in 1899, he once went to a book shop to sell one of his collected books. There, he met the headmaster of a missionary school at Chunar, who offered him a job as a Teacher, at a monthly salary of ₹ 18. He also took up the job of tutoring a student at a monthly fees of ₹ 5.
Several of Premchand's stories have been published in a number of collections, including the 8-volume Mansarovar (1900-1936). Some of his stories include:
Dhanpat Rai first wrote under the pseudonym "Nawab Rai". His first short novel was Asrar e Ma'abid ("Secrets of God's Abode", Devasthan Rahasya in Hindi), which explores corruption among the temple Priests and their sexual exploitation of poor women. The novel was published in a series in the Benares-based Urdu weekly Awaz-e-Khalk from 8 October 1903 to February 1905. Literary critic Siegfried Schulz states that "his inexperience is quite evident in his first novel", which is not well-organized, lacks a good plot and features stereotyped characters. Prakash Chandra Gupta calls it an "immature work", which shows a tendency to "see life only white or black".
In 1905, inspired by the nationalist activism, Premchand published an article on the Indian National Congress leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale in Zamana. He criticised Gokhale's methods for achieving political freedom, and instead recommended adoption of more extremist measures adopted by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Premchand's first published story was Duniya Ka Sabse Anmol Ratan ("The Most Precious Jewel in the World"), which appeared in Zamana in 1907. According to this story, the most precious 'jewel' was the last drop of blood necessary to attain independence. Many of Premchand's early short stories had patriotic overtones, influenced by the Indian independence movement.
Premchand visited his village Lamahi during the summer vacation, but did not find the stay enjoyable because of a number of reasons. He did not find the weather of the atmosphere conducive for writing. Plus, he faced domestic trouble due to quarrels between his wife and his step-mother. Premchand angrily scolded his wife, after she unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide by hanging. Dismayed, she went to her father's house, and Premchand displayed no interest in bringing her back. In 1906, Premchand married a child widow, Shivarani Devi, who was the daughter of a landlord from a village near Fatehpur. The step was considered to be revolutionary at that time, and Premchand faced a lot of social opposition. After his death, Shivarani Devi wrote a book on him, titled Premchand Ghar Mein ("Premchand in House").
In 1907, another of Premchand's short novels, Kishna was published by the Medical Hall Press of Benares. This 142-page work, which satirises women's fondness for jewellery, is now lost. Literary critic Nobat Rai criticised the work in Zamana, calling it a mockery of the women's conditions.
In 1909, Premchand was transferred to Mahoba, and later posted to Hamirpur as the Sub-deputy Inspector of Schools. Around this time, Soz-e-Watan was noticed by the British Government officials, who banned it as a seditious work. The British collector of the Hamirpur District ordered a raid on Premchand's house, where around five hundred copies of Soz-e-Watan were burnt. After this, Munshi Daya Narain Nigam, the Editor of the Urdu magazine Zamana, who had published Dhanpat Rai's first story "Duniya Ka Anmol Ratan" advised the pseudonym "Premchand". Dhanpat Rai stopped using the name "Nawab Rai" and became Premchand.
In 1914, Munshi Premchand started writing in Hindi (Hindi and Urdu are considered different registers of a single language Hindustani, with Hindi drawing much of its vocabulary from Sanskrit and Urdu being more influenced by Persian). By this time, he was already reputed as a fiction Writer in Urdu. Sumit Sarkar notes that the switch was prompted by the difficulty of finding publishers in Urdu. His first Hindi story Saut was published in the magazine Saraswati in December 1915, and his first short story collection Sapta Saroj was published in June 1917.
In August 1916, Premchand was transferred to Gorakhpur on a promotion. He became the Assistant Master at the Normal High School, Gorakhpur.
Sevasadanam (first published in 1918) was made into a film with M.S. Subbulakshmi in the lead role. The novel is set in Varanasi, the holy city of Hindus. Sevasadan ("House of Service") is an institute built for the daughters of courtesans. The lead of the novel is a beautiful, intelligent and talented girl called Suman. She belongs to a high caste. She is married to a much older, tyrannical man. She realises that a loveless marriage is just like prostitution except that there is only one client. Bholi, a courtesan, lives opposite Suman. Suman realises that Bholi is "outside purdah", while she is "inside it". Suman leaves her husband and becomes a successful entertainer of gentlemen. But after a brief period of success, she ends up as a victim of a political drama played out by self-righteous Hindu social reformers and moralists.
By 1919, Premchand had published four novels, of about a hundred pages each. In 1919, Premchand's first major novel Seva Sadan was published in Hindi. The novel was originally written in Urdu under the title Bazaar-e-Husn, but was published in Hindi first by a Calcutta-based publisher, who offered Premchand ₹ 450 for his work. The Urdu Publisher of Lahore published the novel later in 1924, paying Premchand ₹ 250. The novel tells the story of an unhappy housewife, who first becomes a courtesan, and then manages an orphanage for the young daughters of the courtesans. It was well received by the critics, and helped Premchand gain wider recognition.
In the 1920s, he was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's non-co-operation movement and the accompanying struggle for social reform. During this period, his works dealt with the social issues such as poverty, zamindari exploitation (Premashram, 1922), dowry system (Nirmala, 1925), educational reform and political oppression (Karmabhumi, 1931). Premchand was focused on the economic liberalisation of the peasantry and the working class, and was opposed to the rapid industrialisation, which he felt would hurt the interests of the peasants and lead to oppression of the workers. This can be seen in works like Rangabhumi (1924).
After quitting his job, Premchand left Gorakhpur for Benares on 18 March 1921, and decided to focus on his literary career . Till his death in 1936, he faced severe financial difficulties and chronic ill health.
In 1923, he established a printing press and publishing house in Benares, christened "Saraswati Press". The year 1924 saw the publication of Premchand's Rangabhumi, which has a blind beggar called Surdas as its tragic hero. Schulz mentions that in Rangabhumi, Premchand comes across as a "superb social chronicler", and although the novel contains some "structural flaws" and "too many authorial explanations", it shows a "marked progress" in Premchand's writing style. According to Schulz, it was in Nirmala (1925) and Pratigya (1927) that Premchand found his way to "a balanced, realistic level" that surpasses his earlier works and manages to "hold his readers in tutelage". Nirmala, a novel dealing with the dowry system in India, was first serialised in the magazine Chand between November 1925 and November 1926, before being published as a novel. Pratigya ("The Vow") dealt with the subject of widow remarriage.
In 1928, Premchand's novel Gaban ("Embezzlement"), focusing on the middle class' greed, was published. In March 1930, Premchand launched a literary-political weekly magazine titled Hans, aimed at inspiring the Indians to mobilise against the British rule. The magazine, noted for its politically provocative views, failed to make a profit. Premchand then took over and edited another magazine called Jagaran, which too ran at a loss.
In 1931, Premchand moved to Kanpur as a Teacher in the Marwari College, but had to leave because of difference with the college administration. He then returned to Benares, and became the Editor of the Maryada magazine. In 1932, he published another novel titled Karmabhumi. He briefly served as the headmaster of the Kashi Vidyapeeth, a local school. After the school's closure, he became the Editor of the Madhuri magazine in Lucknow.
Premchand arrived in Bombay on 31 May 1934 to try his luck in the Hindi film industry. He had accepted a script writing job for the production house Ajanta Cinetone, hoping that the yearly salary of ₹ 8000 would help him overcome his financial troubles. He stayed in Dadar, and wrote the script for the film Mazdoor ("The Labourer"). The film, directed by Mohan Bhawnani, depicted the poor conditions on the labour class. Premchand himself did a cameo as the leader of labourers in the film. Some influential businessmen managed to get a stay on its release in Bombay. The film was released in Lahore and Delhi, but was banned again after it inspired the mill workers to stand up against the owners.
Ironically, the film inspired the workers of his own loss-making press in Benares to launch a strike, after they were not paid their salaries. By 1934–35, Premchand's Saraswati Press was under a heavy debt of ₹ 4000, and Premchand was forced to discontinue the publication of Jagaran. Meanwhile, Premchand was beginning to dislike the non-literary commercial environment of the Bombay film industry, and wanted to return to Benares. However, he had signed a one-year contract with the production house. He ultimately left Bombay on 4 April 1935, before the completion of one year. Himanshu Roy, the founder of Bombay Talkies, tried to convince Premchand to stay back, but did not succeed.
In his last days, he focused on village life as a stage for complex drama, as seen in the novel Godan (1936) and the short-story collection Kafan (1936). Premchand believed that social realism was the way for Hindi literature, as opposed to the "feminine quality", tenderness and emotion of the contemporary Bengali literature.
A film version of Premchand's novel, Gaban, was released in 1966. Sunil Dutt, Sadhana Shivdasani, Kanhaiyalal and Leela Mishra acted in the film and the music was scored by musician duo Shankar Jaikishan.
Oka Oori Katha (English title: A Story of a village; Telugu: ఒక ఊరి కథ) is a 1977 Telugu film directed by Mrinal Sen. It is based on the story Kafan by Munshi Premchand. It is one of the few Art films made in Telugu language.
Premchand's influence on Indian literature cannot be understated. As the late scholar David Rubin wrote in The World of Premchand (Oxford, 2001), "To Premchand belongs the distinction of creating the genre of the serious short story—and the serious novel as well—in both Hindi and Urdu. Virtually single-handed he lifted fiction in these languages from a quagmire of aimless romantic chronicles to a high level of realistic narrative comparable to European fiction of the time; and in both languages, he has, in addition, remained an unsurpassed master."
The Actor Factor Theatre Company, a young Delhi based theatre group, staged Kafan in 2010 in New Delhi. It is an original stage adaptation of Premchand's short story. Kafan is a dark comedy. In the play, puppetry is explored to depict the tussle between two classes and the plight of Budhia, who is caught in the crossfire. Bleakness of hope in the story and awfulness of the father-son duo find a delicate balance. At times the situations break into morbid humour. In the end a wine-house becomes the stage for Ghisu (father) and Madhav's (son) rebellious dance, defying not only the laws of the land but also that of the Gods.
Dramatech, a 28-year-old amateur theatre group in Delhi, staged Premchand: Three Comedies for Families and Children, at Sri Ram Centre, Delhi in August, September and October 2012. The stories by Premchand included Do bailon ki katha; Shatranj ke khiladi; Nimantran. The stories were dramatised and directed by Ravi Raj Sagar.
Satyajit Ray filmed two of Premchand's works– Sadgati and Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Sadgati ("Salvation" or "Deliverance") is a short story revolving around poor Dukhi, who dies of exhaustion while hewing wood for a paltry favour. Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) revolved around the decadence of nawabi Lucknow, where the obsession with a game consumes the players, making them oblivious of their responsibilities in the midst of a crisis.
On 31 July 2016, Google showed a Google doodle in honouring 136th birthday of Premchand.