Written by Randeep Singh
India is a land of literary diversity underlined by cultural unity. From Sanskrit, India derived much of its epic and mythological literature. From Tamil love poetry came the inspiration for the bhakti movement which shaped the literatures of medieval India. From Persia, India inherited the ghazal while the English novel shaped its modern literature.
The Sangam Age (c. 1st and 2nd century CE)
Tamil is one of the two classical languages of India. It is a Dravidian language with the oldest continuous language of any Indian literature. The earliest Tamil literature was written in what is known as the Sangam Age, the classical age of Tamil poetry.
The poets of the Sangam Age composed epic and lyric poetry on love, war and kingship in the assemblies or “sangam” of the ancient Tamil kingdoms. Tamil epics told tales of duty, virtue and revenge while Tamil lyric poetry mused on love and separation in the midst of the lush hills, white waterfalls and jasmine blossoms of the Tamil country.
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)
Sanskrit is a classical language of India and the language of the earliest Indian literature. From the Vedas to the poetics of the Natya Shashtra to the tales of the Kathasaritasagara, Sanskrit boasts a rich literary, scientific and religious tradition.
The golden age of Sanskrit literature was the Gupta era. Its authors wrote poetry, drama and prose including fables, fairy tales and adventure stories. The Panchatantra is a book of animal parables which instructs kings on how to rule. The celebrated Kalidasa composed poems and dramas like Sakunata blending romance, fantasy and superb natural imagery.
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)
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)
Kannada is a Dravidian language with a literature going back to the fifth century. It was designated a classical language of India in 2011.
During the 9th and 10th century, royal patronage and the literacy and learning fostered by the Jain religion usher in the classical age of Canarese literature. The Vaddaradhane is a collection of Jain stories told by Jain elders on the sufferings of mortals like merchants, courtesans and kings and the way to liberation rhrough humility and self-denial. The era also saw the first great epics on the lives of the Jain saviours by Sri Ponna and the Adikavi Pampa.
Urdu: The Late-Mughal Period (18th and 19th century)
The Urdu language is a north Indian language written in the Persian script and drawing its literary vocabulary and form from Persian.
During the 18th and 19th century, Urdu emerged in north India as a literary language. Its greatest poets like Mir (1722-1810) and Ghalib (1797-1869) crafted verses on love, passion and loss through the rose, nightingale and spring. In the courts, assemblies and bazaars of Delhi and Lucknow, poets like Dard, Sauda and Zafar mused on the mystery of God, the hypocrisy of sheikhs and the loss of one’s kingdom.
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)
If someone has not seen you here on earth
It makes no difference if he sees the world or not (Khwaja Mir Dard)
Desire in thousands – each so strong it takes my breath anew
And many longings were fulfilled – many, but even so, too few (Ghalib)
Night has arrived; again the stars tumble forth
A stream rich as wealth from a temple (Ghalib)
Bengali: Colonial and Modern Period (19th and 20th century)
Above: Fort William College, a center of the 19th century Bengali Renaissance .
Bengali is a north Indian language. It ranks as one of the most spoken languages in the world with over 220 million speakers.
In the 19th century, the Bengal experienced a cultural renaissance which brought English literature and the Enlightenment to Bengal. Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) pioneered the Bengali sonnet and an epic poetry blending the best of Indic and English traditions. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) meanwhile created socially realist prose and lyrically magical poetry making Bengali literature known as far as Moscow, Beijing and Paris.
Civilization: Past and Present (Vol. 1), Robert R. Edgar et al (2002), 294