Throughout its history, the literature of the Indian sub-continent has been characterized by anexuberant diversity of languages and has been enriched by ever-shifting dialogues among these languages and the regions and cultures they represent.
The development of modern Indian literature in the second half of the nineteenth century was the result of such dialogues—between the English language, a colonial import that replaced Sanskrit and Persian as the medium of education, and the more than twenty regional languages of India, many with literary traditions stretching back a thousand years or more.
In the nineteenth century, some Indian writers wrote in English, but the majority adapted European genres, such as the novel and the short story, to the “vernacular,” regional languages, writing on modern themes and forging new literary languages and styles.
The second half of the twentieth century saw the adoption of English as a major language for Indian fiction, and from the 1980s onward, Indian and South Asian writers in English have been leading figures on the global literary scene. Modern Indian literature mirrors the diversity and vibrancy of modern India.
From its very beginnings, Indian fiction has offered—often more discerningly and more reliably than documentary sources—imaginative commentary on India’s social and political realities, and on the negotiations of India’s traditional cultures with the West and with the modern world.
The British Colonial Period to 1947
Modernity, the novel, and the nation
The rise of modern Indian literature in the nineteenth century reveals the complexity of India’s encounter with colonialism, and of the country’s entry into modernity. As early as 1835, the British colonial government had introduced English education for upper-class Indians, so that they could serve in the administration of the colony.
With the establishment, in 1857, of universities in the three Presidencies of Madras (Chennai), Bombay (Mumbai), and Calcutta (Kolkata), a significant number of Indians gained access to European thought. The colonists had hoped that an English education would teach their Indian subjects Western values, and would wean them from what they considered pernicious ideas propagated by Indian religious and literary texts.
British condemnation extended to the aesthetic of Indian literature as well. However, the creation of an English-educated upper middle class affected Indian literary production in ways that the colonial government could hardly have anticipated.
The new education had brought with it the nineteenth century European ideals of individualism, progress, and nationalism. Stung by British criticism of Indian society and literature, yet exhilarated by European Orientalist scholars’ celebration of ancient Indian culture, Indians began writing in modern literary forms to represent new realities, but also to reimagine India’s history, and to advocate for social and political change.
And they wrote in the Indian languages, rather than in English. Prose fiction, marked by realism, linear narrative, and a focus on the individual, displaced the earlier Indian literary modes of myth and poetry, with their emphasis on ideal images and social types.
Not surprisingly, the novel, a form whose development in Europe was linked with the rise of the middle class and the concept of the nation, became the principal genre of Indian literature in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
However, from the very beginning, Indian writers shaped the Western literary form to suit Indian linguistic, literary, and cultural sensibilities, drawing eclectically from the diverse literary traditions they had inherited, both classical and popular, in Sanskrit, Persian, and the regional languages.
The “Bengal Renaissance” in Calcutta, the British capital, was at the vanguard of the new literary and cultural movements. The pioneering writer Bankim Chandra Chatterji wrote Bengali novels on social reform and resistance to colonial rule.
In Bisha briksha (1873; translated as The Poison Tree, 1884), Chatterji treated the plight of upper casteHindu widows, who were forbidden to remarry.
His Rājsingha (1881) was a fictional account of the glory of the Rajput chiefs, suggestive of the grandeur of Indian civilization; in Ānanda Math (1882; translated as The Abbey of Bliss, 1906), in the guise of a historical novel about an earlier period, he allegorized the violent overthrow of British rule in India.
By 1885, the date of the founding of the Indian National Congress, an organization dedicated to economic and political reform, the ideals of nationalism and social justice had become the inspiration, not only for political activists, but also for Indian writers.
Many early Indian novelists dealt with social issues, and especially with controversies relating to the treatment of women in Indian society, the object of the most trenchant European criticism, and a sore point with Indians, both reformers and traditionalists.
The early novels focused on the ways in which Indian women of the middle and upper classes were oppressed by the denial of personal freedom, education, and economic autonomy. The writers were also deeply engaged with the question of women’s entry into the modern nation and public life, and the tremendous social upheavals these developments entailed. Chatterji’s Poison Tree,Baba Padmanji’s Yamuna paryatan (Yamuna’s journey, 1857, in Marathi), and Chokher bali (1901, in Bengali; translated as Binodini, 1968) by Rabindranath Tagore, a great humanist and a towering figure in the history of modern Indian writing, were only three among a large number of novels focusing on the condition of widows.
In Indulekhā (1889), the first novel written in Malayalam, Chandu Menon presented his eponymous heroine as the ideal “modern” woman.
In Ghare bāire (1915, in Bengali; translated as Home and the World, 1919) Tagore criticized fanatic nationalism, while sympathetically portraying the dilemmas of women caught in the debate between tradition and modernity.
In the 1880s and 1890s, publishing short stories that sensitively depicted the lives of ordinary villagers in East Bengal, the multifaceted Tagore introduced the short story genre to Bengali (e.g., Chuti, 1892; translated as The Homecoming, 1916) and to Indian literature.
Poetry and other genres
Departing from the archaizing cadences of the Bengali verse of the pioneering poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt (Meghnādbadh, 1861; translated as The Slaying of Meghanada, 2004), Tagore also pioneered a modern poetry for the Bengali language.
In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Gītānjali (Song offering, 1912; translated as Gitanjali, 1916), a collection of his poems that he translated into English at the request of the poet W. B. Yeats. Tagore’s many musical dramas (e.g., Dāk-ghar, 1912; translated as The Post Office, 1914) were performed at Santiniketan, the modern school he founded near Calcutta to nourish Indian culture and arts, and throughout India.
Like her predecessor Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu, a Bengali by birth, wrote poetry in English. While Dutt died at a very young age, Naidu became a celebrated leader of India’s freedom movement and published, in addition to several volumes of poetry on Indian culture and Indian women’s lives (e.g., The Golden Threshold, 1905), speeches and essays in English.
Modern poetry flourished in all the Indian languages, and grew to maturity in the middle years of the twentieth century.
The Tamil writer Subramania Bharati’s passionate poems espousing the cause of freedom from British rule are among the first examples of modern writing in the Tamil language. Other writers, such as the noted Hindi poets Sachidananda H. Vatsyayan (“Agyeya”),Suryakant Tripathi (“Nirala”), and Mahadevi Varma (a woman writer and winner of a major award from the Indian Academy of Letters), wrote poetry of a more introspective, personal character.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women from the rising Indian middle class became authors of fiction as well as non fiction, especially memoirs and works centered on women’s issues and social change.
Celebrated examples include: The High-Caste Hindu Woman (1887, in English), reformist Pandita Ramabai’s book about the condition of Hindu women; Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Bengali writings on the constraints of seclusion (purdah) on Muslim women (e.g., the collection of essays Avarodhbasini [1928–1930; translated as Inside Seclusion, 1981]); and Krupabai Satthianadhan’s autobiographical novel Saguna: A Story of Native Christian Life (1894, in English).
Tarabai Shinde argued for the superiority of women’s character in her Marathi essayStripurush tulna (1882; translated as A Comparison of Men and Women, 1991); in Sultana’s Dream (1905, in English), Rokeya Hossain imagined a utopian world in which women ruled benevolently and ushered in progress through scientific achievement.
Indian writing from World War I to 1947
Two movements influenced and stimulated Indian writing between World War I and II: the nonviolent movement toward freedom for India, led by Mahatma Gandhi, and the international Marxist-socialist movement advocating social justice for laborers, peasants, and the masses.
Two great novels of social realism and critique of injustice were published in 1936: Godān (translated as The Gift of a Cow, 1968), the Hindi writer Premchand’s epic novel of peasant life in North India; and the Bengali novelist Manik Bandyopadhyay’s Putul nācher itikathā (translated as The Puppet’s Tale, 1968), a novel about rural Bengal.
By the 1930s and early 1940s, the short story had become a major genre in Indian literature, and Premchand and other writers of this generation are celebrated for their classic short stories on similar themes. Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee’s Pather pānchālī (1929, in Bengali; translated as Song of the Road, 1968), a classic evocation of a rural childhood, stands out as a novel in the humanistic tradition of Tagore.
The 1930s also saw the rise of the Indian novel in English. Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938) was revolutionary, in terms of both theme (the involvement of Indian villagers in the Gandhian freedom movement) and style.
Rao himself declared that he had written this novel not in the standard language and style of English fiction, but in an English reshaped to reflect the Kannada language speech of women in a South Indian village and the style of storytelling in the Sanskrit Purāṇas (mythological texts) and women’s folktales.
Mulk Raj Anand’s English novels Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936), dealing with the injustice of caste and oppressive labor practices, are representative of the progressive stream in Indian writing in this period. R. K. Narayan, who began a long and illustrious literary career with the novel Swami and His Friends (1935), is an exception among the writers who flourished in the mid-1930s, since his novels focus on character and the flow of human life, rather than on larger social and political issues.
Autobiography as a genre gained in popularity during this period. Mahatma Gandhi’s An Autobiography: Or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth was quickly translated from Gujarati into English (1929). Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s disciple and the future prime minister of India, published his English autobiography in 1936 (An Autobiography). Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951, in English) is second only to Gandhi’s autobiography in fame.
Modern Indian Literature from Independence to the Twenty-first Century
Major themes and trends, 1947–1980s
The year 1947, in which India became free of British colonial rule, marks a watershed in the development of modern Indian literature. Independence impelled writers to grapple with the ideals and realities of post-colonial nationhood. On the one hand, there was the euphoria of freedom.
On the other, the division of the Indian subcontinent into two separate nations, India and Pakistan, and the ensuing violence traumatized the Indian people. Through the years of the freedom movement, Hindus and Muslims had become increasingly divided on the issue of cultural-national identity, and the partition of India was accompanied and followed by great communal violence, especially on the new territorial borders, in the divided territories of Punjab and Bengal and in the disputed area of Kashmir.
The agony of partition became a part of the experience and memory of the people of India and Pakistan, many of whom were uprooted from their home territories or suffered from the division of their families. Indian fiction from 1947 to the present reexamines India’s recent past, both positive and negative aspects, explores the political and social problems and issues that have emerged in independent India, and comments on the changing Indian society in an era of increasing globalization and the migration of South Asians to Western countries.
In the years following independence, the humanistic and progressive trends represented by earlier writers such as Manik Bandyopadhyay and Mulk Raj Anand continued to flourish in fiction from every region in India.
Examples include: U. R. Ananta Murthy’s Kannada novel Saṃskāra (1965; translated as Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man, 1976), a work about the decaying Brahman priestly community in a Karnataka village; the Hindi writer Shrilal Shukla’s Rāg Darbārī (1968; translated as Raag Darbari: A Novel, 1992), a novel about politics in a North Indian provincial town; Chemmeen (Shrimp, 1956), Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s celebrated Malayalam novel about the fate of the individual in a fishing community in Kerala; and Vyankatesh Madgulkar’s Bangarvāḍī (1955; translated as The Village Had No Walls, 1967), a Marathi novel about the shepherds of Maharashtra.
Modern Indian drama often undertakes social and political critique. Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar directs mordant satire at Maharashtrian society in plays such as Shāntatā, kort chālūāhe (1967; translated as Silence! The Court Is in Session, 1978) and Ghāshīrām Kotwāl (Ghashiram the constable, 1972).
Drama has also been the medium for avantgarde and experimental work such as Girish Karnad’s Kannada plays Hayavadana (Horse-head, 1971), a meditation on reality and personal identity through a folktale, and Nāgamandala (1989; translated as Play with a Cobra, 1990) a play that illuminates the power of stories through its evocation of a folk ritual.
From the 1970s onward, activist and feminist women writers have become major voices in Indian fiction. In her Urdu short stories, written between the 1950s and 1970s (e.g., Badan kī khushbū, translated as “Scent of the Body” in 1994), Ismat Chughtai uses bold and direct language and vivid, detailed descriptions to depict the ironies and injustices of women’s lives in Indian society, especially in Muslim circles in India.
Mahasweta Devi, winner of the Indian government’s Jnanpith award, combines social activism among tribals and other marginalized groups in eastern India with an extraordinary writing career. Creating an array of memorable characters in her powerful Bengali short stories and novels (e.g., Stanadāyinī, translated as Breast-Giver, 1988), Devi exposes with devastating clarity the convergences between the exploitation and subordination of women and the lower classes.
Recent anthologies of fiction in translation, such as Women Writing in India (edited by S. Tharu and K. Lalita, 1990–1993), have helped make Indian women writers accessible to a wider audience.
The recent movement of Dalit (“oppressed”) writing, in which men and women of marginalized and low caste communities write poetry and fiction about their own lives, communities, and points of view (e.g., the Marathi poems and essays by Namdeo Dhasal and others, in English translation, in Untouchable!: Voices of the Dalit Liberation Movement, edited by Barbara R. Joshi, 1986), is a significant development in modern Indian literature.
Dalit writers have produced poetry and fiction in all of the Indian languages. Autobiography, with its power to document and bear witness to the struggles of the disenfranchised, is a major genre in Dalit writing (e.g., Vasant Moon, Growing Up Untouchable in India: A Dalit Autobiography, translated from the Marathi in 2000).
The partition of the Indian subcontinent is perhaps the single most persistent theme in Indian and Pakistani fiction since 1947, appearing in writing in English as well as in the regional languages.
Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1956, in English) is one of the earliest novels to evoke the horrors of the violence that accompanied partition, while Saadat Hasan Manto, who lived first in India and then in Pakistan, bears witness in his eloquent Urdu short stories to the personal trauma of divided identities and the societal and national tragedies brought about by partition.
Manto’s most famous story is Tobā Tek Singh (translated in Kingdom’s End and Other Stories, 1987), in which he depicts the dislocation of populations at partition as an absurd event viewed from the perspective of the inmates of a lunatic asylum.
Indian writer Bhisham Sahni’s Hindi novel Tamas (translated as Darkness in 1989), a chronicle of partition, was made into a film for Indian television. In the Pakistani woman writer Bapsi Sidhwa’s gripping English novel Cracking India (published as Ice-Candy Man, 1988), we see the events of 1947 through the eyes of a little girl.
Tamil, the oldest of the Dravidian language group spoken in southern India, has a history dating back to the early centuries before the common era. The earliest Tamil literature to survive is known by later Tamil commentators from the seventh century as the poetry of the Caṅkam or “academy” of Madurai.
This poetry is diverse, and it was organized into anthologies of different sizes some time after their composition. The Caṅkam literature is thematically divided into akam, “interior” love poems with anonymous characters, and puram, “exterior”poetry on war, the praise of kings, and other subjects.
The Caṅkam poetry relies on a complex and highly conventional system of seasons, times, and landscapes to indicate different moods and situations. These conventions are laid out, inter alia, in the earliest grammar of the language, known as the Tolkāppiyam, composed perhaps in the first centuries of the common era.
The Caṅkam age, sometimes characterized as the “heroic” period of incipient state structures, gave way to a more established agrarian society of settled kingdoms, in which longer poems and didactic works were composed, between the third and sixth centuries a.d.
The most famous of these were Iḷaṅkō Aṭikaḷ’s “Tale of an Anklet,” or Cilappatikāram, a long narrative and lyrical poem telling the story of the widow Kaṇṇaki, and the Tirukkural, a collection of gnomic verses on love, politics, and righteousness by Tiruvaḷḷuvar.
Many works of this period were strongly influenced by the religions of Jainism and Buddhism. By the seventh century the Hindu cults of Shaivism and Vaishnavism gained widespread popularity through songs known as the ālvār and nāyanmār, composed by wandering saint devotees.
Though these poems sometimes built on earlier Caṅkam poetic conventions, they tended for the most part to be composed in a simpler and more direct style, in keeping with the message of devotion to the Shiva or Vishnu.
The hymns of the saints were collected and anthologized from the twelfth century, during the apogee of the famous Chola kingdom of Tanjavur (c. a.d. 950–1250). The Chola period saw numerous important literary innovations at court, which were heavily influenced by Sanskrit kāvya.
The courts of the later Chola kings produced some of the most famous poems of the medieval period, like Kampan’s Irāmavatāram (a Tamil version of the Rāmāyaṇa) and the courtly epic Kaliṅkattupparaṇi by Cayaṅkoṇṭar. The Kaliṅkattupparaṇi formed one of a large number of new genres, called as a class prapantam.
The prapantam literature formed the staple of literary accomplishment until as late as the nineteenth century, and acted as the umbrella under which a number of folk and courtly genres met during later medieval times.
From the late Chola period a rich commentarial and scholastic literature also emerged in a number of fields, including grammar, poetics, and theology. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, under the Nāyaka kings of Madurai, Senji, and Tañjavur, northern languages, like Telugu, Marathi, Urdu, and Sanskrit, were often heavily patronized by the elites.
The study of Tamil literature was confined almost entirely to Shaiva monasteries, or maṭhas. European missionary activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to important new developments, chief of which was the proliferation of indigenous printing presses from 1835.
Modern genres like novels, autobiographies, and essays, and newspaper writing became widespread throughout the nineteenth century.
By the first decades of the twentieth century, a number of important writers had sparked a new public interest in Tamil literature and history, which became caught up in the anti-Brahman movement and organized Dravidian nationalism.