Modern Literature of India

Modern Literature of India
Posted on 02-08-2023

Modern Indian Literature

Modern Indian literature has developed with distinct characteristics, some of which are shared with literary movements worldwide. Throughout history, a perpetual conflict has existed between orthodox and unorthodox ideas, which is particularly pronounced in India due to the association of new impulses with alien cultures and foreign dominance. Western thought, emphasizing democracy and self-expression, fueled nationalist sentiments among Indians, leading to a desire for self-respect and pride in their own heritage while resisting foreign impositions.

An exemplary portrayal of this inherent conflict in the Indian renaissance can be found in Rabindranath Tagore's novel "Gora." This clash of loyalties not only influences Indian literature but permeates various aspects of human life.

The dawn of modern Indian literatures can be traced back to 1800 when Fort William College was established in Kolkata, along with The Baptist Mission Press in Serampore, near Kolkata. The primary objective of Fort William College was to provide training to British civil servants in India about local laws, customs, religions, languages, and literatures, to meet the demands of the growing administrative machinery.

During this era, translations of Sanskrit classics and foreign literature were made for reading material, and dictionaries and grammars were compiled. Among the notable figures, William Carey, a co-founder of the Baptist Mission Press, authored a Bengali grammar, an English-Bengali dictionary, and two collections of dialogues and stories.

Overall, modern Indian literature's evolution has been shaped by the conflict between tradition and innovation, influenced by the impact of Western thought and the struggle for self-identity in the face of foreign domination.

In the latter half of the sixteenth century, the printing of books in Tamil and other Dravidian languages began. Foreign missionaries played a significant role in this period, as they took the initiative to learn the local languages. They not only translated the Bible and wrote Christian Puranas but also contributed to the development of these languages by compiling the first modern grammars and dictionaries. However, the impact of Western learning was relatively slow in South India compared to Bengal, where the printing press had been introduced earlier, and the foreign missionary efforts were more extensive and zealous. Consequently, the modern form of literary activity emerged later in South India.

Several important developments further encouraged the growth of modern education and the development of the vernacular languages. The establishment of Hindu College in 1817 and the replacement of Persian with English as the language of the law, along with the increasing use of Bengali, served as significant milestones in this process. Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) played a pivotal role in laying the foundation of modern Bengali prose. His work showcased the rich potential of Bengali prose, which was further explored by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) and Akshay Kumar Datta (1820-1886), both of whom were prominent social reformers and educators. Their writing reflected a serious purpose and focused on conveying their message effectively, without relying on the flamboyance and rhetoric often associated with Sanskrit-derived languages. As a result, they crafted prose that was both refined and robust.

Rather than being purely creative artists, certain influential figures in Indian literature can be considered pathfinders. Among them, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) stands out as the father of the modern novel in India. His masterful use of the medium inspired and standardized the form for future writers. He profoundly impacted his contemporaries and successors in Bengal and across India.

Before Bankim Chandra, Bhudev Mukherji and Peary Chand Mitra had written novels in Bengali, with Mitra's "Alaler Gharer Dulal" being the first specimen of original fiction with social realism and colloquial idiom. However, it was Bankim Chandra who established the novel as a major literary form in India, excelling in both historical and social genres. Although he had his limitations, being overly romantic, effusive, and didactic, he was unmatched by his great Russian contemporaries like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Nevertheless, Bankim Chandra's influence on Indian literature was far-reaching, and subsequent novelists built upon the foundation he laid.

While Bengali prose saw the initial harvest of this cross-fertilization with Western influences, it was in the realm of poetry that the richest fruit was borne. Bengali, with its emotional temperament and lyrical genius, seemed tailor-made for poetry. Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) was a pioneer who ventured away from native traditions, successfully introducing European poetic forms into Bengali. His epic in blank verse, "Meghnadbadh Kabya," based on an unorthodox interpretation of a Ramayana episode, along with his sonnets, showcased his exceptional talent. Though he led the way, he couldn't establish a lasting tradition, as his achievements were a testament to his rare genius.

Rabindranath Tagore played a pivotal role in infusing Indian literature with the essence of Western thought, making it truly modern and mature. Rather than resorting to forced adaptations of foreign models, Tagore creatively responded to the spirit of the age. The seamless blend of influences from the Upanishads, Kalidasa, Vaishnava lyricism, and the rustic vigor of folk idioms with Western inspirations in his poetry has been a subject of ongoing debate among critics. In Tagore, modern Indian literature came of age, not only in poetry but also in prose, with novels, short stories, dramas, essays, and literary criticism all attaining maturity under his pen. While contemporary Indian literature may have moved beyond his influence, Tagore remains the most vital creative force in India's cultural renaissance and represents its finest achievement.

Kolkata, being the first cosmopolitan city to flourish under the new regime in India, naturally became the birthplace of modern drama. The city still boasts a vibrant stage tradition. Interestingly, the first stage-play in Bengali produced in Kolkata was by a Russian adventurer and Indologist named Lebedev in 1795. It was an adaptation of the little-known English comedy, 'The Disguise' by Richard Paul Jodrell.

It took several years before serious efforts were made to establish an authentic stage in India, primarily supported by private patronage. The first original play in Bengali, titled "Kulin Kulasarvasva," was written by Pandit Ramnarayana and served as a social satire against polygamy among Kulin Brahmins. This play inspired Madhusudan Dutt to explore the medium, and he subsequently produced a number of plays, some based on old legends and others focusing on social satire. Dutt's contributions laid the groundwork for modern Indian drama, much like his impact on poetry, even though his achievements in drama did not match those in poetry, and he soon retired from this field.

Dinabandhu Mitra (1829-74) then took the stage, a natural-born dramatist whose first play, "Nil Darpan" (published in 1860), created a literary and political sensation. The play exposed the atrocities of British indigo planters. Mitra went on to write many more plays, followed by other playwrights such as Jyotirindranath Tagore (Rabindranath Tagore's elder brother), Manomohan Basu, Girish Chandra Ghosh, and Dwijendralal Roy. Girish Chandra excelled not only as a playwright but also as an actor and producer, playing a significant role in the development of public theatre in Kolkata.

While Girish Chandra and Dwijendralal achieved immense popularity in their time, their appeal was more rooted in patriotic and melodramatic elements rather than enduring literary merit. On the other hand, Rabindranath Tagore's plays, while marked by originality and profound thought, were often too symbolic or ethereal to resonate with the broader public imagination. Nonetheless, they possessed considerable literary worth.

Overall, the development of Indian drama was shaped by the efforts of these playwrights, each contributing in their unique way, with Rabindranath Tagore standing out for his literary excellence and originality, albeit with a more niche appeal.

Among the multitude of languages in India, Marathi demonstrated a robust response to the spirit of the new age, second only to Bengali. This can be attributed to its strong intellectual tradition and the memories of the glorious Maratha Empire. Mumbai, like Kolkata, provided a cosmopolitan and modern environment that further fostered its literary growth. Key figures like Keshavsut (poet), Hari Narayan Apte (novelist), and Agarkar, Tilak, and Chiplunkar (prose writers) laid the foundation of modern Marathi literature. Apte's novels also influenced the development of the novel in other languages, particularly Kannada. In Gujarati, Narmad's poetry blazed the trail.

Urdu, flourishing under court patronage, made remarkable progress in the 18th century. However, it remained detached from the dynamic currents sweeping the country forward in the 19th century, basking in its own prosperity.

The modern development of Assamese and Oriya, neighboring Bengali, was comparatively late, and Christian missions played a significant role in this progress. The resurgence of literature in Bengal influenced these regions, where pioneers like Lakshmikanta Bezbarua and Padmanath Gohain Barua (Assamese) and Fakirmohan Senapati and Radhanath Ray (Oriya) emerged.

Kashmiri, Punjabi, and Sindhi faced even slower development, partly due to political conditions and the cultural prominence of Urdu in Muslim-dominated regions. Nevertheless, individuals like Mahjur and Master Zinda Kaul (Kashmiri), Sardar Puran Singh and Bhal Vir Singh (Punjabi), and Mirza Kalich Beg and Dewan Kauromal (Sindhi) played crucial roles in promoting their mother tongues.

Surprisingly, the resurgence in the four Dravidian languages was relatively late, despite having a longer and richer literary history compared to the northern languages. Tamil Nadu, in particular, was heavily burdened by its past. However, in due course, the creative spirit in these languages also responded to the modern age, flourishing through notable figures like Puttanna, 'Sri', and Kailasham (Kannada), Kerala Varma and Chandu Menon (Malayalam), Bharati and Kalki (Tamil), and Viresalingam and Guruzada Appa Rao (Telugu). Remarkably, the youngest Dravidian language, Malayalam, embraced the new age more dynamically than the oldest, Tamil, which still holds onto its historical roots.

Over the past century, various significant events that influenced European thought have also left their mark, albeit in a somewhat limited manner, on the intellectual development of modern Bengal. Notable events like the American independence, the French Revolution, the Italian war for independence, historical teachings, the richness of English literature and thought, the intellectual achievements of eighteenth-century France, and the contributions of German philosophy and ancient history have all played a role in shaping the intellect of modern Bengal. Additionally, ideologies such as Positivism, Utilitarianism, and Darwinism have also had their impact.

As the twentieth century unfolded, Indian literature increasingly reflected political aspirations, expressed passionately through the poems and songs of poets like Bharati from Tamil and Kazi Nazrul Islam from Bengal. While Indian poetry had previously achieved a deeply spiritual quality in the medieval Vaishnava outpourings, Tagore's Gitanjali marked a significant shift in literary expression. The devotional themes were gradually replaced by political subjects, and the plaintive tone gave way to challenge and mockery, leading to the dominant note of protest in contemporary Indian literature.

Tagore's influence on Indian literature was more indirect, as it instilled confidence in Indian writers, showing that they could achieve greatness in their mother tongue comparable to what had been accomplished in Sanskrit or European languages. However, Tagore's literary impact was soon overshadowed by the influence of three seemingly disparate figures: Gandhi, Marx, and Freud. Although they were not primarily men of letters, their ideas and philosophies released intellectual and moral passions, introducing new ways of thinking and behaving that profoundly affected young writers across India.

The philosophy of Sri Aurobindo Ghose also left its mark on certain writers, such as Kannada poets Bendre and Puttappa, and Gujarati poets Sundaram and Jayant Parekh. While this influence added a mystical glow to their verse and reinforced their belief in the authenticity of the Indian spiritual experience, it did not lead to a significant new trend or horizon in Indian literature as a whole.

The mixed interaction between Indian and Western influences has brought a much-needed awakening to the traditional attitude prevalent in Indian writing. The smugness of sentimental piety and glorification of the past has been challenged by a literary revolt that began in Bengal. This revolt yielded a rich harvest in both poetry and prose through the works of Jivanananda Das, Premendra Mitra, Buddhadeva Bose, Manek Bandyopadhyay, Subhas Mukhopadhyay, and others. In Bengal, these literary forms matured early, thanks to the contributions of Tagore, and have since made phenomenal progress under his younger contemporaries and successors, including Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, who achieved a popularity equal to, if not surpassing, that of Tagore.

The impact of the English language on Indian writers has been significant. Many eminent thinkers rooted in Indian thought, such as Vivekananda, Ranade, Gokhale, Aurobindo Ghose, and Radhakrishnan, have voluntarily adopted English as their literary medium. From Derozio in the 1820s to R. K. Narayan in the present day, a continuous tradition of gifted Indians writing in English has existed. Several Indian authors who initially experimented with English later realized that they could best create in their native languages. While some of R. K. Narayan's English novels exhibit exceptional literary merit, Indian literature in native languages has produced great writers whose achievements surpass those of Indian writers in English.

Unfortunately, modern Indian literature lacks a balanced and diverse development. Amidst the clamor of various influences, including patriotism, piety, and political biases, good literature continues to be written, sharpening readers' sensibilities. Since Tagore's time, a minority of intelligent critics well-versed in both Indian and Western literary traditions have adopted a more wholesome approach. They are not overwhelmed by the burden of the past nor overawed by the latest trends. This healthy trend in modern Indian literature should gain strength as more individuals recognize the significance of a sensitive and well-trained critical apparatus, crucial for successful literary endeavors.

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