How has Indian Literature Changed Over the Years?

Indian Literature has different and seemingly contradictory meanings for everyone. It is therefore not easy to define it with a single definition, a single understanding or a single perspective. India, or the ‘Indianness’ which unites us is also an ambiguous term which can’t possibly be understood through a simplistic approach. Indian Literature, in today’s day and age, has changed drastically and the journey from Rabindranath Tagore to Chetan Bhagat is marked by changes in themes and ideas. Yet, all of  literature remains united by the attempt to be relatable.

Indian Literature traces its origins to the Vedic period when the Vedas were written in Sanskrit and probably even before that when the Acta Diurna was declared in the markets or put up for the common public to see. It may not be a very rich text in terms of it’s literary value but there is a wide variety of texts that can be and possibly should be included when the literati talks about Indian Literature. The Vedic tradition evolved orally and has come to gain a lot of importance for its contribution to the literary heritage of the country, or to an extent even the subcontinent. Indian literary heritage has consisted of a multitude of shastras and codes or manuals and the texts possibly had didactic undertones.

Such a uniformity in the text also has a lot to do with the people who wrote these texts in that era. Brahmans were granted the right to educate themselves and be learned scholars of the Vedas and for that era, Indian Literature was whatever people of a particular caste and implied class wanted it to be. There have been cases described in literary scriptures when the Dalits or those belonging to the so called ‘lower’ caste were punished for reading or trying to read. For instance, in Ramayana there is a Dalit man was punished by the pouring of molten wax in his ears as he heard the chants of a Sanskrit text.

After this era, there emerged another significant trend in the Indian Literature. This was basically the development of a system of carefully procuring writers who could write history the way emperors wanted it to be written. This trend had a lot to do with the fact that the politics of power changed drastically from the previous centuries. There was an alternative system that questioned or at least attempted to question the emperor, but the literary texts that criticised cruel kings were possibly undermined or considered an act of treason. Some form of critique in literature of this time has still survived,  but these can be perceived as texts rooted in a sense of xenophobia against foreign rulers. Indo-Aryan literature’s history then, was just as diverse and somewhat ambiguous as the history of the subcontinent during that time.

With gradual development in education and the gaining of literacy, more formal manifestations of literature came onto the forefront, especially post the arrival of the British and the advent of industrialisation and print culture. During this period, there was literature that supported the colonial rulers, but more importantly there was also the flowering of rebellious literature that was used as a medium to voice oppression. The journey from wholly didactic literature to critiques of the existing system spans across centuries for a nation like India, and is somewhat a non-linear progression. Writers like Bankim Chandra and Subramania B. have written very unique novels that have garnered criticism from the government and praise from people who relate to them.

Another extremely interesting aspect of Indian Literature that makes it distinct is that it’s not just the politics of power but also the politics of language. There is a certain hint of language chauvinism in terms of what is perceived as Literature and what is not. Southern languages like Kannada, Tamil and for that matter northern languages like Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi are largely ignored by a large section of the Indian population, while precedence is given to English.

Indian literature means different things to different people but perhaps it should in the recent future be able to cross the hurdles of politics of power, language and post-colonial notions and be accepted by people despite the post colonial notion of English being a superior language.

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