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The variety and multiplicity of Indian literature

per Sameer Rawal
Indian literature is as diverse as India is and has been. The geographical zone comprising today's India is home to around 400 languages and almost 1000 dialects; so one can easily imagine the variety and multiplicity of Indian literature.
The literary journey has persisted from ancient times, since the ancient civilizations: it spans, for instance, from hymns of Rigveda written in pre-classical Sanskrit (roughly 1000-2500 B.C.) and nearly 2000 years old Tamil Sangam poetry to the modern Indian English or Hindi literature. Creations such as the Mahabharata , the Ramayana , the Kathasaritsagar have travelled out of India and within India, have been adapted, adopted there and have returned in other forms. Through the eyes of Indian literature, one can perceive a strong, multi-centric pan-Indian culture and identity. Indian literature is witness to socio-cultural history of India, and acts like a reflecting mirror. It also tells us about the levels of imagination, sophistication, practicality and shades of playfulness, authenticity, daring in the minds of Indians. The depth, profundity and the dimensions of Indian civilization/s can be very well measured observing literary forms, traditions, styles and output in India.

There are four main language families in India: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic. All the major languages in these linguistic families have oral or written literary traditions; classical and folklore styles; influences from within India, from other regional languages and influences from languages situated outside the territory of India. The outside languages/cultures started affecting Indian narrative styles when around 10 th century A.D. there were invasions from Central Asian empires towards India. Before this period, Sanskrit works loosely formed the ‘classical' literary sphere, in original language and through translation to other languages. The Ramayana, written originally in Sanskrit has many versions in other Indian vernacular languages, and in many cases, the language version is known by the translator's name, rather than the original writer's name. The interpretation of the main theme, as given in each version, is also not uniform, which shows the malleability of Indian literary forms and narratives.

In Sanskrit we also find writings on the ‘poetics' of literary forms, styles and traditions. All along, Sanskrit had significantly affected the desi or the local literature, which also had an important place amongst the people and significant production level. After the invasions of the Central Asian empires, gradually fading of Sanskrit language and emergence of many regional languages which borrowed styles, lexicon and structure from Sanskrit, Indian literature geared itself for a bigger movement ahead. With the Mughals establishing control on a major part of India, Persian became the language of the court, and more or less it occupied the place Sanskrit had earlier. As a result a good number of literary productions emerged in this language. As a parallel activity, literary output in vernacular languages also increased. As the outside Mughal culture and ideology imposed itself on Indians, the interactions came to be witnessed by the writers of vernacular languages. Islam in India emerged on the screen of vernacular literatures. At one point of time, during the increasingly conflictive situation between the hindus and the muslims, Bhakti ( i.e. devotion) movement, for instance, swept the whole of India, reflected widely in vernacular literatures, and emphasized on the oneness of God, be it the Hindu pantheon or the Islamic Allah.

English language entered India with the British Empire's education policy for the native ‘colonised' Indians, and soon found home here. With the English connection, European culture/literature found way to India too and the Indian literary writers responded adequately. Consequently, for instance, one can find a serialised Urdu novel Fasana-e-Azad influenced by the Spanish novel Don Quixote de la Mancha , an English novel The Pickwick Papers and the great epic romances ( dastan ) of Persian and Urdu, being published between years 1878 and 1885, written by Ratan Nath Sarshar. Curiously, it followed the adventures of the hero through the streets of Lucknow (a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India) to the battlefields of the Turko-Russian War.

English got adopted in India and Indians started writing in English. Starting from essays, philosophy, sociology, and religion many texts began appearing slowly in English in almost all the subjects. In literary fiction, things started gaining form with writers like Nirad Chaudhari, Mulkraj Anand, R.K. Narayan getting published. These writers had what could be called a distinct ‘colonial' link in their writings, discernible through evident/hidden references to the British Empire and culture. The scenario changed with the independence of India, and the emergence of the ‘post-colonial' writing in English re-positioned the broken link with the local languages and cultures. After the independence from the British, India started ‘breathing' on its own, and the vernacular languages also started showing a lot more self-confidence and literary output. With writers like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth Indian English writing found a place of its own in the world and with writers like Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai continues dazzling the world readership through its myriad narrative forms and styles.

The vernacular languages, on the other hand have also shown remarkable growth and sturdiness. With the establishment of state institutions favouring the mobility of all regional Indian literatures and an ever increasing confidence index amongst native speakers of these languages the upward swing was bound to happen. At present with the literacy rates that India has, there is a limitless scope of literary production and things are moving faster than one can imagine. Each day there are more editions in all regional languages which narrate the ever-changing socio-cultural fabric of India with so many variations due to ever-increasing cultural-linguistic interaction with the rest of the world. There is more translation within Indian languages, richer literary production and augmented reader population. The presence of Internet as a medium has also helped a lot to bridge literary gaps and favour new expression styles.

And Indian literature continues being a reflecting mirror of a country which has more than a billion persons who speak in more than a thousand manners, who have culturally lived since more than 5000 years, who have seen the outer world through their languages and cultures, who have adapted themselves to external influences, and shown resilience, flexibility, and who have expressed themselves and the situations they have lived through with the help of words, written and oral, for the others.

It is like reading life itself.

Isabel Banal: Llapis trobats, sèrie iniciada el 1999.

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