"A body of clay, a mind full of play, a moment's life - that is me". That is how one of the doyens of Hindi literature, Harivansh Rai Bachchan described himself. And indeed, reading his poems, one feels a sense of life and playfulness, the two aspects which would become the hallmark of his poetry. In a career that spanned for about 60 years, he was the torch bearer of the Chhayavaad or Romantic upsurge literary movement.
Born in a Srivastava Kayastha family, in Allahabad while his ancestors belonged to the village of Babupatti in the district of Pratapgarh, U.P. near Allahabad in the United Provinces (modern Uttar Pradesh) he was the eldest son of Pratap Narayan Shrivastav and Saraswati Devi. He was called bachchan (meaning Kid at home). He received his formal schooling in a municipal school and followed the family tradition of attending Kayastha Paathshaalas to learn Urdu as the first step to a career in law.
Harivansh Rai Bachchan started his education from a municipal school. It was the same time that he also started learning Urdu from Kayasth Paathshaalas.
He pursued his higher education from Allahabad University and Banaras Hindu University. In 1941 he joined the English department of Allahabad University as a faculty and taught there till 1952. He then went to Cambridge for two years to do his doctoral thesis on W.B Yeats and occultism, becoming the second Indian to get a Ph. D. in English Literature from this university.
In 1941 Bachchan began teaching English at Allahabad University, some ten years later an opportunity arose to apply for study in England. Although the principal objective was to study English-teaching methodology, Bachchan saw it as an opportunity to complete his previous studies on the Irish poet WB Yeats. His acceptance at Cambridge may well have rested more on his popular acclaim rather than his academic studies, but whilst at Cambridge he excelled, achieving his doctorate in English Literature for his work on Yeats. After returning to India, Bachchan taught briefly and then worked as a producer for All India Radio in Allahabad. In 1955, he moved to Delhi to join the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India and was closely involved with the evolution of Hindi as the country's official language.
Bachchan published about 30 volumes of poetry throughout his lifetime and translated several English works into Hindi. He is best known for his early lyric poem Madhushala (The House of Wine) which was inspired by Edward Fitzgerald's translation The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; first published in 1935 it brought him instant fame and his recitals were met with wild enthusiasm from the huge audiences he attracted. The poem has been choreographed and performed on stage, and set to music. Madhushala is one of the most enduring works of Hindi literature and has been translated into English and many regional Indian languages.