The Literatures of India

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Written by Randeep Singh

Unlike England or China, India has no national language or literature. One cannot speak of a golden age in literature in India as one can speak of the Elizabethan Age or the Tang Dynasty. Instead, there have been different periods of flourishing across India’s many literatures. Here are just five of those periods summarized.

Tamil: The Sangam Age (c. 1st and 2nd century CE)

The Sangam Age was characterized by a secular poetry composed at academies (‘sangam’). The age saw the composition of the five Tamil epics (including the Silappadikaram), eighteen major anthologies of poetry and the Tolkaapiyyam, a treatise on poetics, grammar and rhetoric.

The Sangam poets wrote on love, war and kingship while the aesthetics underlying their poetry tied emotions to particular landscapes, mood and imagery.

In the thicket
Of fresh lotuses rising from the ponds
Caressed by splendid paddy fields
And sugarcane are heard, as on a battlefield
Where two kings fight for victory
Various kinds of clamorous sounds
Made by waterfowls, screaming cranes,
Red-footed swans, green-footed herons,
Wild fowls, cormorants, snipes,
The ural water birds, large herons
And other birds. Buffaloes enter and immerse
Themselves in the soft, unploughed mire
With the hair on their bodies unwashed, eyes
Red, they come and rub
Their itching backs against the unspoilt, straw bins
Thus loosening the twisted strands that hold them
The bins come apart spilling the rich grain
Stored inside with sheaves of excellent paddy
That resemble cowries.
One heard the noise of the loud talk of labourers
With strong arms and farmers standing
In knots. One heard the sound
Of songs in new styles by low born women
Who turned on by strong wine worked in the fields.
Eyes wide like red minnows,
They bandied indecent words and looked
Singularly charming in their clothes splashed
With mud that also glazed their breasts and shoulders
Clasped by armlets. From their hair they picked
The fragrant flowers and thrust seedlings instead.
One heard the ploughmens’ song of praise
As they stood by their ploughs and worshipped
With folded hands. They appeared to break open
The earth radiant with wreaths bound
With shining ears of rice, plaited
With blue lotuses and the thick, vine-like hariali grass

(from Shilappadigaram, tr. R. Parthasarathy).

Sanskrit: The Gupta Dynasty (4th-5th century)

The Gupta Dynasty is the classical age of Sanskrit literature. The plays and poems of Kalidasa blend romance, fairy tale and visions of nature. The epic poems Mahabharata (including the Bhagavad Gita) and the Ramayana were reworked into their final form during this era. Sanskrit fiction also saw the composition of Pancatantra, a collection of animal tales and fables which influenced world storytelling.

In former days we’d both agree
That you were me and I was you
What has now happened to us two
That you are you and I am me
(Bhartrhari, Trans. John Brough)

Blow, wind, to where my loved one is
Touch her, and come and touch me soon
I’ll feel her gentle touch through you
And meet her beauty in the moon.
These things are much for one who loves –
A man can live by them alone
That she and I breathe the same air
And that the earth we tread is one
(Ramayana, Trans. John Brough)

May her path be safe and gracious
As gentle breezes blow,
Pleasant be her way dotted by lakes
Where green lotus-creepers grow;
May the burning rays of the sun
Filter mellowed through thick shade-trees;
Let the pollen of water lillies drift
To lie as softest dust beneath her feet
(Kalidasa, Abhijnanasakuntalam, Trans. Chandra Rajan)

Kannada: The Rashtrakuta and Chalukya Dynasties (9th and 10th century)

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Above: Kannada Inscription (983 CE)

Kannada literature of this period integrated local literary traditions with Sanskritic models and Jain themes. The Vaddaradhane (9th century) is a collection of Jain morality tales and fables and is the earliest prose work in Kannada. The poets Adikavi Pampa and Sri Ponna (c. 950) wrote Jain epics in Adipurana (941) and Santipurana (950) respectively while the court poet Ranna is best remembered for his elegy Sahasa Bhima Vijaya on the battle between Bhima and Duryodhana in the Mahabharata.

Urdu: The Late-Mughal Period (18th and 19th century)

Urdu poetry flourished in the courts and assemblies of Delhi and Lucknow during this time. Its greatest masters were the plaintive Mir (1722-1810) and the philosophical Ghalib (1797-1869). The marsiya (a Shia elegy) flourished in Lucknow under Anis and Dabeer, while Delhi produced poetry at once mystical (Khwaja Mir Dard), satirical (Mirza Sauda) and tragic (Bahadur Shah Zafar).

How long is the life of the rose?
The bud just smiles (Mir Taqi Mir)

The free are not trammeled by any ties
The flower’s fragrance emits itself a thousand ways (Zauq)

I feel as if you are with me
When no one else is around (Momin)

Desire in thousands – each so strong it takes my breath anew
And many longings were fulfilled – many, but even so, too few (Ghalib)

The world goes on changing, Zafar, with the changing times
What sights it then displayed, what now it now provides (Zafar)

Bengali: Colonial and Modern Period (19th and 20th century)

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Above: Fort William College. The Bengali Renaissance witnessed a flowering in arts, culture and science, with its literary branch starting at Fort William College.

Modern Bengali literature adapted the Victorian novel and the English sonnet and epic to Indian themes and realities. Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s (1824-1873) retold the battles of the Ramayana in the style of Paradise Lost in his epic Meghnad Badh Kabya. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) wrote socially realist novels like Ghaire Bhaire and poems like those in Gitanjali exploring love, nature and the divine. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) too wrote realist novels on revolution in Pather Dabi and the experience of women in Srikanta.

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