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Indian Literature

The growth and evolution of Indian literature has a long and enduring legacy, which dates from the age of the Vedas. The four Vedas --the Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda-- are repositories of great literary and philosophical traditions of India, as are the Vedic texts in prose form -- Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads-- and the two mighty epics -- Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Vedic texts are classified into four groups. They are Samahitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. However, in narrow terms, the term Veda refers to the Samahitas (collection of mantras or chants) associated with the four canonical Vedas. Though the four canonical Vedas contain hymns and chants with religious and ethical overtones, but they have great literary value, apart from fathoming sublime depths of philosophical expressions. Many Indologists believe that the Vedic texts are a part of the oral tradition of ancient Indian literature, known in Sanskrit as shruti.

Ancient Indian Literature

Vedic mantras are still chanted in prayers, religious ceremonies and auspicious occasions of twenty-first century India, which endow them with a perennial character.

Ramayana and Mahabharata still hold enormous influence on our reading habits, and though the hunter-turned-sage Valmiki, and Veda Vyas are credited with their compositions, but in reality these mammoth seminal works were evolved by a series of writers and poets over the course of centuries; whose names are lost in the realms of antiquity. In fact, there is no historicity of Valmiki or Veda Vyas. They constitute the fulcrum of Indian literature. Other forms of ancient Brahmanical literature are the Puranas, which are a collection of fascinating stories infused with the colour of fantasy(which the epics also frequently resorted too, as it was the literary style of that period), which nevertheless reflect the history, culture, philosophy and religious practices of ancient India.

They can be seen as the Indian counterpart of the Arabian Nights series of stories. Another important literary output of the ancient India is Panchatantra, which was written around 200-300 BC by Vishnu Sharma. Apparently, this is a collection of animal fables, where interestingly one story paves way into another. But each of the fables has a deep latent ethical message in it, which can be construed as guides to righteous rule and pragmatic living in ancient India. Many of its messages may hold true even in our contemporary times.

Besides Panchatantra, some of the great secular literature of those times are Kalidasa's immortal plays like Raghuvamsha, Kumarasambhava, Shakuntala and Meghduutam, Mricchakatika by Shudraka, Svapna Vasavadattam by Bhasa, Ratnavali by Harshavardhana(he was a famous King too), Buddhacharita by Asvagosha among others. Kamasutra by Vatsyayana, though more of a scientific researched treatise(perhaps the first of its kind in the world on such a sensitive issue like lovemaking), has lots of literary qualities. In ancient India, the main medium of literary expression was Sanskrit, though Pali, the language of the common men of those times, was also used in a huge body of Buddhist literature, notable among them are the Jataka Tales, Atthakatha and Dhammapada. Besides, some of Haal's famous plays and poetries were written in Prakrit.

Literature in India
The medieval era in India also produced some quality literary works, which included authoritative biographies. Ain-i-Akbari and Akbarnama by Abul Fazal, Baburnama by the Emperor Babur, Tughlaq nama by Amir Khusro deserve special mentions. Amir Khusro was however, much more than a biographer. He was a great thirteenth century poet and ghazal writer, and was associated with the royal courts of the Delhi Sultanate. He wrote mostly in Persian, in which he composed some fascinatingly romantic couplets. Furthermore, the poetries by numerous Sufi saints, which are rich in spiritual content, are also the treasure troves of medieval Indian literature. The names of Khwaja Mohiuddin Chishti and Khwaja Nizamuddin Aulia probably tops the list of Sufi saint-poets, but there were many others who together were instrumental in giving a fillip to the Bhakti Movement in the fifteenth-sixteenth century. The philosophical couplets of Kabir, the works of Guru Nanak, the devotional poetries of Alvar and Nayanar saints of South India are also integral parts of our rich literary heritage.

In fact, the Bhakti Movement, specially in its later stages, led to the mushrooming of regional poetic literature in India, and in this process various vernacular languages of India got enriched. Of course, no reference to medieval Indian literature can be complete without the mention of that great sixteenth century poet named Tulsidas, whose Ramacharitamanasa is still read in millions of Indian households. It is an epic poetry devoted to Rama; the chief protagonist of Ramayana. His is most probably the most read version of Ramayana, which is written in the form of couplets. All total he created twelve literary works, and Vinaya Patrika is his another important work.

However, in most of his works he extolled and idolized Rama. Though we should not grudge him that, for objectivity in literature and sophisticated, nuanced characterization; specially in Indian literature, was by and large an alien phenomenon in those times. However, the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics are exceptions in this regard, which have considerably nuanced characterizations. But the overall literary trend of those times thrived on exaggerated romanticism, elaborate descriptions, overt sentimentality, glorification of war and military valour, blatant eulogizing of the protagonists, and framing of black and white characters, which are shunned literary norms of today's times.

Modern Indian Literature
i. Before Tagore
By the advent of the nineteenth century, western society reached the height of its modern age in true sense, though Indian society and literature were lagging behind. During those times, the emperor-poet Bahadur Shah Zafar, Mirza Ghalib and Zauq created some great Urdu poetries and ghazals, which encapsulated various facets of life with uncommon sensitivity. They helped the Urdu poetry to reach its matured status of today. During those times, the regional languages, through several fusions, had reached their full maturity, which paved in the development of the foundation of modern literature in India, through the creative force of various literary giants. One of such literary giants of modern India was Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya(1838-1891) , who was perhaps the first novelist in the Bengali literature. He, together with Michael Madhusudhan Dutt (1824-1873), developed the edifice of modern Bengali literature as what we see today. Some of the great works of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya are Durgeshnandini, Kapalkundala, Krishnakanter Uil and Devi Chaudirani. His Krishnakanter Uil, published in 1878, came most close to the western novel's format. His foremost political novel was Ananadamath(1882). What Bankim was to the nineteenth century Bengali novel, Michael Madhusudhan Dutt was to the nineteenth century Bengali poetry and drama. He can be called the pioneer of Bengali drama, and he also fathered the sonnet form of poetry in Bengali. Some of his famous works are Meghnadh Bodh Kabya, Tillotama and Sharmistha. Meghnadh Bodh Kabya is a tragic drama written in a ballad form; it was an extremely revolutionary work for those times, both in terms of form and content. With Sharmistha. he wrote poetry in blank verse, which was an unheard of phenomenon in the nineteenth century Indian literature.

ii. Rabindranath Tagore
Any account of Indian literature cannot begin or end without the mention of Rabindranath Tagore(1861-1941), who besides being a versatile literary genius, an educationist and a philosopher, also emerged as an eminent painter in his later years. He was foremost an immensely great and prolific poet(perhaps one of the greatest poets of the world of all times), but besides that his genius was also reflected in short stories, plays, dance-dramas, essays and novels. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913(the first Asian to attain such an honour), for his collection of poems titled Gitanjali, and he was also instrumental in introducing the literary form of short story into the Bengali literature. If his poetries reflect divinity and sublimity and are deeply philosophical, his short stories reflect the entire socio-cultural ethos of a society in transition, and a gamut of complex human emotions with their most subtle nuances.

He had produced an exhaustive body of seminal literary works during his more than six decades of prolific literary career, and besides his poetries, some of his other most famous works are Gora(novel), Ghare-Baire( novel), Shesher Kabita( novel), Chitrangada(dance-drama),Shyama(dance-drama), Chandalika(dance-drama), Raja(play), Dakghar(play) and his three volumes of short stories titled Galpaguchchha. Besides Gitanjali, some of his notable poetic works are Africa, Manasi, Sonar Tori, Balaka, Purabi, which doesn't fail to create an ethereal feeling among the literary connoisseurs, even in this age of post-modernism.

(iii) ...And Other Literary Greats
Tagore inspired a generation or rather generations of literary minds in India and helped to take Indian literature to new heights of excellency. There were many other great writers and poets in Bengali and various other regional languages, who not only took forward his pioneering work, but more importantly, also diverted from his literary styles to create their unique styles of literary expressions; which were more suited to their times. And together, their talents helped in giving modern Indian literature the much-needed fillip to attain an international stature.

Notable among them are Premchand (one of the foremost figures of modern Indian literature, he inducted realism into the Hindi literature and talked about the struggles of the downtrodden classes with rare sensitivity, which was an uncommon thing in the early twentieth century Indian literature), Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Ageyeya, Nirmal Verma, Mahadevi Verma, Sunil Gangopadhyay, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Amrita Pritam, Ismat Chughtai, Kaifi Azmi, R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, OV Vijayan, Indira Goswami, Buddhadeb Basu, etc.

Of course this list is far from exhaustive, as there were/are many others too, who made lasting contributions in further developing and modifying the form, content and style of modern Indian literature. Works of some among them like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Dilip Chitre and Nirmal Verma (one of the founders of Nai Kahani format in Hindi literature), can be more aptly described as post-modernist Indian literature rather than modern Indian literature, since their approach and style were/are markedly different from those of Tagore, Premchand or other literary greats; who nurtured Indian literature through its nascent stages of modernity.

However, though by the second-half of twentieth century Indian literature reached international stature, but an enduring international status long eluded it. Though translated works of Tagore, Nirmal Verma, Amrita Pritam, and some original works of the few eminent Indian writers in English language(R.K. Narayan, Mulak Raj Anand, Ruskin Bond) of those times were being appreciated in the west, but those were random incidents of international fame and glory. Overall, the great body of Indian literature, which has many wonderful works, remained largely unknown to the western society. Probably, one of the reasons for that was because most of the literary giants of India used to write in their mother tongue, which limited their global reach to a great extent. Indian writing in English was still in its formative stage.

Indian English Literature: Booker, Fame and Money
This was the trend three decades ago... but not now. Indian literature started attracting international attention on a sustained basis since the early eighties, and for that Salman Rushdie's magnum opus Midnight's Children must take the credit. It is a major work of post-colonial Indian literature, and perhaps among the best works of fiction produced in India since 1947. The novel was an instant critical success in the west and went on to win the prestigious Booker Prize. In terms of stark novelty of narrative style and word usage, it's a work of a pure genius, where India 's tumultuous journey during the post-independence period is seen through the novel's protagonist and narrator Saleem Sinai, who is a telepath with a nasal defect, and who was shown to be born at precisely the exact moment when India achieved her independence. Saleem Sinai's life parallels the 'life' of the post-independence India in this modern Indian epic, to give readers an enthralling experience; where the entire modern day post-independence India, together with its complex web of culture, values, politics, customs, hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies, seems to speak out from the pages.

Full of allegories and symbolism, the work can be understood and appreciated at many levels. Here Rushdie used the literary technique of magic realism very creatively. Though Rushdie created many other literary works of great imagination and substance, such as Shame, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Moor's Last Sigh, but he would most probably be remembered in literary history for his Midnight's Children.

The work brought not only Rushdie international fame and acclaim, but also spawned a number of Indian writers in English, which in turn exposed the real India to the west, that was far removed from the western cliché of land of sadhus and snake charmers. To Rushdie goes the credit of making Indian writing in English vogue and lucrative. Following Salman Rushdie, many Indian authors have written literature in English language, and many of them such as Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Raj Kamal Jha, Amitabh Ghosh and Jhumpa Lahiri have earned considerable money and international critical acclaim through their writings. Now famous writers living and dying amidst continuous financial struggle and poverty (like the unfortunate cases of Premchand, Manto, Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyaya, Kazi Nazrul Islam and many, many others ), seems like a thing of the distant past.

Now many prominent Indian writers, writing in English language, are coveted by the international publishers, who are competing with each other to grab the publishing rights of their book. These writers are attracting astronomical advances and royalties in the process. The first among them to get a whooping royalty was Arundhati Roy(approximately Rs.3 crore as an advance alone), for her maiden and till now only novel, 'The God of Small Things'. The rights to her novel were sold to several countries. The book is a semi-autobiographical novel with a strong political voice, and resonates with social conscience. At the same time, it is a touching story of the growing up of fraternal twins, their little joys and great tragedies, their observations and reflections, and Rahel's (one of the fraternal twins, the main protagonist of the novel, perhaps she is modeled on the author herself) tumultuous journey from childhood to adulthood. The twins depart in childhood(when they are seven-year-old each) and meet again in Ayemenem, when they are 31-year-old each. Most of the novel is being set in a small town of Ayemenem, in Kerala.

The book went on to win another Booker Prize for India. She, along with Vikram Seth(of 'A Suitable Boy' and 'An Equal Music' fame) and Raj Kamal Jha('The Blue Bedspread') can also be credited with bringing huge money in Indian writing in English, which attracted many talented aspirant writers to explore the field. Besides that, her phenomenal international success further endorsed the fact that India had arrived on the centrestage of world literature. In a very big way. Since then the winning of Booker Prize in 2006, by the Indian-born author Kiran Desai, for her novel 'The Inheritance of Loss', has further helped to consolidate the status of Indian writing in English in the UK and the US markets.


Last Updated On: 2011/07/04