The earliest works of Indian literature were orally transmitted. Sanskrit literature begins with the oral literature of the Rig Veda a collection of sacred hymns dating to the period 1500–1200 BCE. The Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata appeared towards the end of the first millennium BCE.
Classical Sanskrit literature developed rapidly during the first few centuries of the first millennium BCE, as did the Tamil Sangam literature, and the Pāli Canon. In the medieval period, literature in Kannada and Telugu appeared in the 9th and 11th centuries respectively.
Later, literature in Marathi, Odia and Bengali appeared. Thereafter literature in various dialects of Hindi, Persian and Urdu began to appear as well. Early in the 20th century, Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore became India’s first Nobel laureate. In contemporary Indian literature, there are two major literary awards; these are the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship and the Jnanpith Award. Eight Jnanpith Awards each have been awarded in Hindi and Kannada, followed by five in Bengali and Malayalam, four in Odia, three in Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu and Urdu, two each in Assamese and Tamil, and one in Sanskrit.
Indian literature is generally believed to be the oldest in the world. With vast cultural diversities, there are around two dozen officially recognized languages in India. Over thousands of years, huge literature has been produced in various languages in India. It is to be noted that a large part of Indian literature revolves around devotion, drama, poetry and songs. Sanskrit language dominated the early Indian literary scene whereas languages like Prakrit and Pali too had fair share as they were the languages of the common people.
It is interesting to note that the Hindu literary traditions have dominated a large part of Indian culture. These traditions are well reflected in great works like Vedas and epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. Treatises like Vaastu Shastra (architecture), Arthashastra (political science) and Kamsutra are true reflection of the Indian literary excellence.
Early Hindi literature, in dialects like Avadhi and Brai, began around religious and philosophical poetry in medieval period. Sant Kabir and Tulsidas were the greatest exponents of the Hindi literature during this period. With the passage of time, the Khadi boli (dialect) became more prominent and saw a great upsurge, which continues to this day.
During the medieval period, Muslim literary traditions dominated a large part of Indian literature and saw flourishing of Muslim literature. Muslim rule during the medieval times saw rapid growth and development of Persian and Urdu literature in India. A huge variety of literature spanning across history, culture and politics was written in this period.
With the coming of the British in India, works started to be written in English language. As more and more Indians became well versed with the English language, the number of works in English literature began to grow. During the contemporary times, numerous Indian authors have made their mark on the world English literature scene. Some of the most noted Indian born or Indian writers are R. K. Narayan, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai and Jhumpa Lahiri.
English is a foreign language but since the British came to India the language has had an impact on several fields—in education, literary effort and as a medium of communication. Pioneers of this literature were Raja Rammohan, Henry Vivian Derozio, Madhusudan Dutt, Aru and Toru Dutt, and Manmohan Ghose. Indian literature in English actually dates back to the 1830s to Kashiprasad Ghosh, who is considered the first Indian poet write in English.
Sochee Chunder Dutt was the first writer of fiction. An outstanding Indo-Anglian writer was Aurobindo Ghose whose poetic magnum opus is Savitri an epic. In prose his most effective work is The Life Divine outlining his metaphysics in a rich language. Some of Rabindranath Tagore’s works were originally written in English. Yet another Indian writer in English was Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India’, who rendered familiar things with an essence of colour and romance. The Golden Threshold, The Bird of Time and The Broken Wing are her important works. Jawaharlal Nehru’s prose works, The Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History, are famous.
In the genre of novel, three early writers made a mark. Mulik Raj Anand’s Coolie, Untouchable, The Big Heart and other novels are about the underprivileged in India. R.K. Narayan has become famous for creating the imaginary ‘Malgudi’ as the locale for most of his novels. He has a humorous manner and an eye for the comic in the world around him. His works include Swami and his Friends.
The Dark Room, the Guide, Waiting for the Mahatma and The Man Eater of Malgudi Raja Rao is a good short story writer and has written only four novels but they are significant. They include Kanthapura, The Serpent and the Rope, and The Cat and Shakespeare. Besides the legendary and hugely venerated Indian English literary personalities like Rabindranath Tagore or R K Narayan, later novelists like Kamala Markandaya (Nectar in a Sieve, Some Inner Fury A Silence of Desire, Two Virgins), Manohar Malgaonkar (Distant
Drum, Combat of Shadows, The Princes, A Bend in the Ganges and The Devil’s Wind), Anita Desai (Clear Light of Day, The Accompanist, Fire on the Mountain, Games at Twilight) and Nayantara Sehgal, have ceaselessly captured the spirit of an independent India struggling to break away from the British and establish a distinct identity. Khushwant Singh (Train to Pakistan), Bhabani Bhattacharya (So Many Hungers, He Who Rides Tiger, Music for Mohini) are other Indian novelists famous for their writing in English.
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize and became an international best-seller overnight. Rohinton Mistry, Firdaus Kanga, Kiran Desai (Strange Happenings in the Guava Orchard), Sudhir Kakar (The Ascetic of Desire), Ardeshir Vakil (Beach Boy) and Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies) are some other renowned writers of Indian origin. Satish Gujral’s A Brush with Life, R.K. Laxman’s The Tunnel of Time, Prof. Bipin Chandra’s India after Independence, Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, J.N. Dixit’s Fifty Years of India’s Foreign Policy, Yogesh Chadha’s Rediscovering Gandhi and Pavan K.Varma’s The Great Indian Middle Class, are also some notable works of recent times.
For more than two hundred years now, literate Western society has chosen to express its truths and realities in the form of the novel, and it is upon that particular form that the following brief survey of the literature of the Raj will focus.
One extraordinary exception to the many Indian novels consigned to limbo by the intellectual tenor of the times is E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, which, to judge by the proclamations of many critics, is the only English novel ever written on the subject. Such evaluations would seem to be the product of the kind of literary philistinism that dismisses science-fiction as a literary genre, but condescends to acknowledge the third-rate SF novels of such second-rate ‘serious’ writers as Aldous Huxley. Whatever the purely literary merits of A Passage to India, it stands condemned by both Indian and British writers for its inaccurate portrayals of both communities. Forster spent a total of twelve months in India, and it is perhaps unfair to criticize the validity of the personal impressions he gained during this short time. The fact remains, however, that the critical acceptance of A Passage to India has served to draw the attention of educated readers away from other, more authentic novels.
The twenty years after the end of the Second World War were dominated by the novels of John Masters. When an aspiring writer called Molly (M. M.) Kaye tried to interest a publisher in her first novel on the Indian Mutiny, she was told that it had no hope of success, as ‘Jack’ Masters had already cornered the market for that kind of book.
Born to a German mother and Bengali father, Desai grew up speaking German, Hindi, and English. She received a B.A. in English from the University of Delhi in 1957. The suppression and oppression of Indian women were the subjects of her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), and a later novel, Where Shall We Go This Summer? (1975). Fire on the Mountain (1977) was criticized as relying too heavily on imagery at the expense of plot and characterization, but it was praised for its poetic symbolism and use of sounds. Clear Light of Day (1980), considered the author’s most successful work, is praised for its highly evocativeportrait of two sisters caught in the lassitude of Indian life. Its characters are revealed not only through imagery but through gesture, dialogue, and reflection. As do most of her works, the novel reflects Desai’s essentially tragic view of life. Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988) explores German and Jewish identity in the context of a chaotic contemporary India.
Salman Rushdie is the author of twelve novels: Grimus, Midnight’s Children(which was awarded the Booker Prize in 1981), Shame, The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury, Shalimar the Clown and The Enchantress of Florence, Luka and the Fire of Life, and most recently Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.
Rushdie is also the author of a book of stories, East, West, and four works of non-fiction – Joseph Anton – A Memoir, Imaginary Homelands, The Jaguar Smile, and Step Across This Line. He is the co-editor of Mirrorwork, an anthology of contemporary Indian writing, and of the 2008 Best American Short Storiesanthology.
The son of a judge and a businessman, Seth was raised in London and India. He attended exclusive Indian schools and then graduated from Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
Although Seth’s first volume of poetry, Mappings, was published in 1980, he did not attract critical attention until the publication of his humorous travelogue From Heaven Lake (1983), the story of his journey hitchhiking from Nanking to New Delhi via Tibet. The poetic craft of The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985) foreshadows the polish of The Golden Gate, a novel of the popular culture of California’s Silicon Valley, written entirely in metred, rhyming 14-line stanzas and based on Charles Johnston’s translation of Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Seth continued to use controlled poetic form in his 1990 collection All You Who Sleep Tonight, and he also wrote the 10 stories of Beastly Tales from Here and There (1992) in tetrametre couplets.
A collection entitled The Poems, 1981–1994 was published in 1995. He turned to prose, however, in A Suitable Boy, which depicts relations between four Indian families. The book’s compelling narrative and great length invited critical comparisons to Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Honoré de Balzac, and Charles Dickens. His next novel, An Equal Music (1999), is a love story set in the world of professional musicians
Khushwant Singh, one of the best -known Indian writers of all times, was born in 1915 in Hadali (now in Pakistan). He was educated at the Government College, Lahore and at King’s College, Cambridge University, and the Inner Temple in London. He practiced law at the Lahore High Court for several years before joining the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in 1947. He began a distinguished career as a journalist with the All India Radio in 1951.
Since then he had been founder-editor of Yojana (1951-1953), editor of the Illustrated weekly of India (1979-1980), chief editor of New Delhi (1979-1980), and editor of the Hindustan times (1980-1983). His Saturday column “With Malice Towards One and All” in the Hindustan times is by far one of the most popular columns of the day.
Khushwant Singh’s name is bound to go down in Indian literary history as one of the finest historians and novelists, a forthright political commentator, and an outstanding observer and social critic. In July 2000, he was conferred the “Honest Man of the Year Award” by the Sulabh International Social Service Organization for his courage and honesty in his “brilliant incisive writing.” At the award ceremony, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh described him as a “humourous writer and incorrigible believer in human goodness with a devil-may-care attitude and a courageous mind.” The Indian external affairs minister said that the secret of Khushwant Singh’s success lay in his learning and discipline behind the “veneer of superficiality.”
Among the several works he published are a classic two-volume history of the Sikhs, several novels (the best known of which are Delhi, Train to Pakistan, and The company of women), and a number of translations and non-fiction books on Delhi, nature and current affairs. The Library of Congress has ninety-nine works on and by Khushwant Singh.
Beginning with her memoir Prison and Chocolate Cake, which was published in 1954, Sahgal authored other political writings – The Freedom Movement in India and Indira Gandhi, Her Road to Power – along with a collection of essays, Point of view: a personal response to life, literature and politics.
Novels bring out Nayantara Sahgal as a writer with feminist concerns seeking independent existence of women. She sees women as victims of conventional Indian society engaged in their quest for identity. In her last novel Mistaken Identity her concept of emancipation reaches its pinnacle where her female character is an out-and-out rebel.
She received the Sinclair Prize (Britain) for fiction in 1985, Sahitya Akademi Award in 1986, and Commonwealth Writers Award (Eurasia) in 1987. She was also a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington from 1981 to 1982.The Library of Congress has twenty-four works by her.