A Brief History of Indian Literature

A Brief History of Indian Literature

A Brief History of Indian Literature


In spite of having an uninterrupted history of 200 years, Indian Literature, written in 22 officially recognized major languages, countless tribal languages and in foreign languages like Persian, English, French and Portuguese, the many-faceted literary output of India constitutes one of the richest achievements of mankind in the world. A huge body of written literature is complimented by a huger body of oral texts still being produced in tribal languages of the sub-continent. Indian writings in every genre of creative writing are flourishing and making new breakthroughs.


It was during the anti-colonial struggle that modern Indian literature came of age. Indians then started looking at themselves and the rest of the world with their eyes chastened by colonial education. In order to keep pace with the other developed literature of the world and to enrich our literary scene with Western influences, they created new genres of literature unknown to the past. Fiction, essay, lyrical poetry, drama, criticism, literary history: these forms, though borrowed from West, were refashioned to suit Indian needs.


Apart from revolution in forms, the substance of writings underwent a sea-change. The increasing pace of industrialization and urbanization exposed literary imagination to city experiences. The impact of science and rationalism invited writers to critique institutions and practices that would not stand up to rational scrutiny. Conventions became targets of attack. The other worldly concerns of pre-modern literature gave way an increasing inquisitiveness about the actual world around. Apart from pulling down the old gods, Indian creativity invented new gods, the chief of whom was man in society and nature.


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Some of the above values had already entered literary imagination in the precursors of modernity like the great Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, who personified the angst of a modern artist not any more at home with religion or happy with the state. Neither co uld he find any still centre in his own self.


“This world is a child’s play in front of me –

The same farce, day and night, in front of me


Suleiman’s throne is an empty show

Jesus’ feats are just buzz, I can see


The world is just a name, no form

All objects are make-believe, I can see


The desert hides in its sand dunes

The river bows down to dust seeing me


What illusion! Look words bloom!

Just place some red wine in front of me”


The other side of this despondency was hope which became manifest in the great writers of Indian Renaissance during the colonial period. Dismantling the old order and building the new order also became a major preoccupation.


Tagore, the arch-writer of modern India, represents in his many-faceted oeuvre represents the power to rise to the challenges of his era. Though deeply interested in traditions, he was not a traditionalist. Though fascinated by West and the rest of the world, he was not a blind modernist. In plays like ‘Bisorjon’ he dramatized his rejection of outmoded conventions. At the same time, in Muktadhara he critiqued the blind pursuit of modernization without unmindful of human beings and nature.


The same can be said of his fiction. His poetry is a world apart. It recreated in matchless idioms solitude and communion, despondency and hope: ‘Even at the cost of renouncing my life, let me light this lamp of love,’ says a crucial line in Gitanjali The hope is not just individual. Tagore calls upon the whole nation to rise:


“Rise up slowly, O my heart,

From the holy waters

On the shore of the ocean of India

Teaming with noble humans”


Elsewhere said Tagore: ‘God may forget vast empires, but not tiny flowers.’ His imagination captured also fleeting human moments as he does in his poignant short storyKabuliwallah.


The greatest figure of early 20th century writing typifies many other of his great contemporaries writing in other languages like Subrahmanya Bharatiyar in Tamil, Kuvempu in Kannada or Jaishankar Prasad in Hindi or Sri Sri in Telugu, who said: ‘Another world, another world, another world is cvalling you / Surge onwards, surge onwards, let us rise further and further above.’


This mood of millennial hope changed after Independence. The axis of self and that of the world never converge in reality as they do in imagination. Though the fruit of freedom from the yoke of foreign rule descended into the hands of Indians, violence broke out at the new dawn. Massacres that took a heavy toll of life and property during Hindu-Muslim riots, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, the division of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan ushered in an era of disenchantment. ‘This is a false dawn. Caravan, move on,’ said the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.


The response to disenchantment was two-fold: the first was the tragic hope of rebuilding the world gone awry; the second, to engage in a clinical diagnosis of the disorder. The first led to Progressive Writers’ Movement wedded to the ideal of ending inequality and exploitation; the second, to an introspective modernism. Novels like Bhisham Sahani’s Tamas (Hindi) and Kalki’s Alai Osai (Tamil) carried out a healthy diagnosis of communal frenzy and appealed to the deepest wellsprings of humanismNabanna, the Bengal dramatic classic by Bijon Bhattacharya bemoaned the starvation of massesduring the artificial famine in Bengal.


The introverted withdrawal into the individual space, on the other hand, is discernible in the works of writers like the Bengali poet Jibanandadas or the Gujarati poet Raoji Patel, who said: ‘When did I become an alien, tell me, in your house?’ At times, the two responses of hope and despair coalesce in the works of great writers of the period like the Hindi poet Muktibodh.


The works the progressive group tended towards socialist realism of Soviet kind whereas the introverts became influenced by Western modernism. This was reflected in the changing literary forms. Fiction said goodbye to linear narrative, poetry to metre and drama, to plot in modernist experiments. The French school of existentialist philosophy found particular favour with modernist writers in 60’s and 70’s. The alienation of the author from his own self and milieu was dramatized, for instance, Ashadh Ka Ek Din by Mohan Rakesh (Hindi) and in Yayati by Khandekar (Marathi).


The angst and ennui of modernists and futuristic comforts of progressives both came under critical scrutiny in the literature produced in India after the mid-70’s. This period saw not just the declaration of Emergency, bu the rise of hitherto discriminated and non-literate sections of marginalized India: dalits, tribals and women, who began to perceive the self and the world in a light different than those of their ancestors.


Dalit writers first in Maharashtra and then in other regions began to shake the whole edifice of Indian values with implements borrowed from the teachings of the first great modern Dalit leader Ambedkar. They not only castigated the foundations of caste society like the Marathi poet Namdev Dhasal in his fiery poems but also challenged the same society to rebirth: ‘We have to change even the sun above,’ said another Marathi dalit poet Arjun Dangle. Dalit sensibility in different languages revived the form of autobiography in a new way. Even the plain narration of their life-stories was a rude shock to respectable society.


The best of Dalit writers not only brought a new content but a revolutionary new idiom drawing images and metaphors from areas of life unfamiliar to the non-Dalit world. They also created glorious heroes from among the common Dalit men and women. Sakavva, the protagonist of Kannada dalit novel by Devanuru Mahadeva boasts that she is not afraid of death-god Yama because he cannot devise greater sufferings for her than what she has already weathered.


There had always been great woman writers in India since the beginning of the first millennium, some of whom excel their male counterparts in creative genius. However, the woman writing that appeared after 70s shows a novel kind of engagement with the world. Refusing to look at the world from male bifocals, they began to celebrate their woman-specific perceptions. The novels of senior accomplished woman writers like Mahashweta Devi (Bengali) and Sugathakumari (Malayalam) had blazed the path.


The rise of feminist movements has given a fillip to woman writer’s defiant idiom founded on the rejection of male idiom like in the powerful expressions of Meena Kandasami, the first dalit English woman poet. In one of the poems of the Naga writer writing in English, Temsula Ao, the woman-speaker rejects as silly the exploits of her valorous head-hunting husband.


Like Dalits and women, tribals and other marginalized writers are adding to the riches of contemporary Indian literatures.


Since the mid-70s the many-tongued Indian literature has entered a contemporary phase which is very hard to generalize or denominate. So many voices, so many possibilities, so many promises, so many disappointments, so many triumphs make it very difficult to sum up or generalize. New experiential worlds are opening up.Though Indian English literature has sufficiently drawn the attention of the world, the best works of major Indian languages opened their treasures only to their language communities which are now threatened by the rising popularity and spread of English, the chief instrument of globalization. But because the poetry of earth never dies, literary creativity in India’s rich languages is raging against the dying of light.


Award-giving institutions like Jnanpeeth and Saraswati Samman, academies established at centre and in states and sizable sections of willing readers are still making the labour of writers worth its while. The creative expression in literature in India is now ripe for another major transformation with the advent of e-books, the opening up of the internet space and the resultant new modes of electronic reproduction.


Development of Indian English Literature in India gathered momentum with the consolidation of British imperialism in India. There is a variety of opinion about the first definitive Indian text in English, although critics agree that Indian literature in English dates back to at least the early nineteenth century. Its beginnings receive their impetus from three sources – the British government’s educational reforms, the work of missionaries, and the reception of English language and literature by upper-class Indians.


First, there are the educational reforms called for by both the Charter Act of 1813 and the 1835 English Education Act of William Bentinck. In an effort to redress some of the greedy practices of the British East India Company servants, the English Parliament approved the Charter Act, which made England responsible for the educational improvement of the natives. The subsequent English Education Act, prompted by Macaulay’s famous minute on Indian education, made English the medium of Indian education and English literature a disciplinary subject in Indian educational institutions.


It may be noted here that even before Bentinck’s 1835 English Education Act, instruction in English existed in Indian colleges. In the early 1800s, English was taught side by side with Oriental studies, its teaching marked by the sort of classical approach taken to Latin and Greek in British colleges. However, with the withdrawal of funds to Oriental studies, the secular character of such instruction was to give way to an increasingly Christian inflection.


Missionary activity, the second aspect contributing to the origin of Indian literature in English, profited directly from this shift in emphasis. The 1813 Charter Act had opened India to the missionaries, but it posed no serious threat to the Orientalists. With the passing of the 1835 English Education Act, Orientalism received its most severe blow, and, most satisfyingly to the missionaries, English emerged as the sole bearer of morality.


However, above and beyond the educational reforms and the missionary activities, it was the vested interests on part of the higher class Indians to receive the benefits arising out of English education that assured the place of English language and literature in the stream of Indian education. Hence, the third impetus to the beginnings of Indian writing in English would have to engage this reception.


All of this is to suggest that the reception of English in India, or the third impetus to early Indian writing in English, needs to be understood as radical and history-changing, yet subject to mixed-feelings, negotiation and rebellious appropriation on the part of Indians themselves. Thus the development of English Literature in India was a result of the inter-mingling of the social codes of the British and the Indians. There was a definite change in the mindset of the people as well a greater reception of English language in the country which prompted many writers to take up English as the medium of instruction and expression, and thus English literature gradually developed.

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