Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at presentation of Jnanpith Literary Award

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Asian Games Village, New Delhi
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Editorial comments: 1730-1915.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 823
Themes: Arts & entertainment, Foreign policy (Asia)

Shrimati Verma, President of Bharatiya Jnanpith, Chairman of the Selection Board, Managing Trustees, distinguished guests.

The Bharatiya Jnanpith Literary Award is without question the finest recognition that an Indian writer can receive. [end p1] I know that in the past you have always invited Indians of great distinction to present the annual award: often either the President or the Prime Minister and on one occasion, and most appropriately, Mahadevi Verma herself.

It is a particular honour that you should have asked me to make the presentation tonight, the first time that anyone other than an [end p2] Indian citizen has done so. It gives me enormous pleasure and will add greatly to my memories of my present visit to India, when for the first time India plays host to the meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government. [end p3]

When your Trust was first established in 1944 it was intended to serve two purposes: —to encourage research into and publication of ancient Indian manuscripts in Sanskrit and the other classical Indian languages —and to give an impetus to contemporary creative writing in modern Indian languages. [end p4]

Bharatiya Jnanpith is like a great tree— —Its roots deeply embedded in the soil of your ancient culture —its branches and leaves symbolising the flourishing living tradition of Indian writers who are creating new works of literature in the languages of today.

India's immense linguistic diversity and the rich traditions conveyed by your languages are [end p5] among the glories of Indian culture. Ever since the translations of the Sanskrit classics reached Europe in the 18th century we in the West have been aware of and inspired by India's superb literary heritage. Since then more and more of your literature, ancient and modern, has taken its rightful place beside our own, broadening our knowledge, deepening [end p6] our understanding and adding to our delight. In this, the poetry of India has occupied a place of particular honour.

The founders of Bharatiya Jnanpith wished their national award to give recognition to creative writing in any of the modern Indian languages. The aim, which has been triumphantly achieved since the award [end p7] was established 18 years ago, has been to encourage an appreciation in India for works of literature which might without it be confined to a regional readership. I am told that previous recipients of the award have written in no fewer than 12 of the great languages of India. In each case the honour has gone, not only to the writer, but to the [end p8] language and to the culture expressed through its medium. This has encouraged people throughout the nation to read books in languages other than their own mother tongue. So Bharatiya Jnanpith has given and continues to give a great national service to India by developing awareness of the many rich cultural traditions which contribute to the [end p9] unity of this great land. Mahadevi Verma whom we honour here today is one of the leading poets of the romantic Chhayavad movement that revolutionised Hindi poetry in the 1920s and 1930s. [end p10] In addition she is a literary theorist, a translator of Sanskrit poetry, a writer of prose sketches and the author of a collection of essays on Indian women that has become an Indian classic. I cannot pretend to any close knowledge of modern Hindi literature. [end p11] Mr Narasimha Rao, who is far better qualified to judge, has already paid tribute to the important place occupied in it by Mahadevi Verma 's writings.

But speaking as a former Minister for Education, I should like to draw particular attention to Mahadevi Verma 's work on behalf of improved education for women. [end p12] Under her direction the Mahila Vidyapith system not only made higher education more accessible to the women of India but offered a course of study which did not upset the accepted social and cultural patterns. As principal of the Mahila Vidyapith College she instilled in the girls studying under her a genuine love of literature. [end p13] She taught them pride and self-respect, and the validity of their own contribution to Indian life. These first steps have paved the way for the subsequent great expansion of women's education in India—an expansion in the number of women in higher education: and an even greater expansion in the number of women [end p14] achieving basic literacy. That is an achievement of which Mahadevi Verma, and India, can be truly proud.

But above all Mahadevi Verma is a poet. An English translation is a poor substitute for the hindi original, but let me end my address to you on this memorable occasion with a [end p15] quotation from a poem which she wrote many years ago entitled “Us par” or “To the Far Bank” . After describing her hesitation to launch herself upon the storms of life she concludes on a note of resolution and courage which says much of her and says much to us:

“Take the boat to midstream; though it sink, you shall get [end p16] across; let dedication be your only helmsman; he will see you through.”