No land on earth has such a long cultural continuity as India. The cultural quality and temper of a nation can be best gauged to a great extent by its literature. We have at least 22 literatures, which are held by a common thread.
In India, the stage was set by two great literatures, namely Sanskrit and Tamil. Indian culture has an organic unity and Sanskrit language and its literature have been mainly responsible for building up and maintaining this unity. The great works of Ramayana and the Mahabharata have moulded the life and literature of India and constitute the greatest literary heritage of the country. The cultural unity of India, ancient, medieval and modern has been primarily nurtured through them.
The other great literary works of India include, works like Uttararama Charita by Bhavabhuti, Marghadutam and Sakuntalam by Kalidasa, Gita Govinda by Jeyadeva, Katha Sarit Sagaram by Somadeva Bhatta, Rajatarangini by Kalhana and Swapna Vasavadatta by Bhasa. These works have inspired many literary writers of many modern Indian languages in the present millennium. Sanskrit literature is at least 3000 years old and its role in maintaining the unity and culture of India can be seen from the various periods of literature including the Vedas and the classicals. Among the major Dravidian languages, only Tamil claims at least 2100 years of literary history. Sanskrit influenced the Sangam literature and the early Grammar "Tulkappiam" though they have their own identity.
If language is a plant, literature is its flower. The color and flavor of a language find best expression in its literature because it has an aesthetic appeal. We have great literary contributors like Sankara Deva in Assamese, Chandi Das in Bengali, Narasimha Mehta in Gujarathi, Mirabai in Braja hasa, Namder and Tukaram in Marathi, Vidyapatiin Maithili, Saraladas in Odisha, Potana and Tyagaraja in Telugu, Ezhuthachan in MalayalamTulsidas in Hindi, Manikkavasagar and Kambar in Tamil and Basawevara in Kannada. We also have Kabir in a mixed form of Urdu and Bhojpuri and also Guru Nanak in Punjabi who developed their own brand of devotional poetry.
The 19th and the 20th centuries are very important in the literary history India as massive changes took place. The interaction with the British culture produced a Renaissance in literature. The West revitalized our poetry and revealed the potential of our prose. Indian literature is richer today in volume, range and variety. It is sure to progress in the same direction in the present millennium too.
In 1813, the complete Bible was translated into Assamese. The leaders of the Assamese renaissance in literature are Chandrakumar Agarwala (1858-1938) and then Lakshminath Bezbarua (1867-1938) and Hemachandra Goswamy (1872-1928). They founded the famous monthly Janaki. The most important contemporary fiction writers are Syed Abdul Malik, Jogesh Das and Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya. Bhattacharya's novel Mritunjaya received the Jnanpith Award. He was also President of the Sahitya Akademi.
The post-Tagore period in Bengali literature is also very rich. Tarashankar, Manik and Bibhutibhushan are outstanding novelists of the 20th century. Then we have Jidananda Das and Bishu De in poetry, Dianbandhu Mitra and Dwijendralal Roy in the field of drama. Bibhuti Bhushan's Aranyak and Pather Panchali and Tara Shankar's Gana Devata and Arogya Niketan are well-known novels translated into many Indian languages.
Prose in Oriya was really born in the British period. It developed rapidly through a steady flow of novels and short stories. An outstanding name is Fakir Mohan Senapathi (1843-1918). He was a poet, novelist, businessman and social reformer all rolled into one. He translated the Ramayana and the Mahabharata into Oriya though he had only four years of formal education. In the contemporary period, we have Sitakant Mohapatra, an IAS officer whose poetry has won him the famed Jnanpith Award.
Kabir was the most important poet of the Nirguna period. He preached the Universal religion of man, transcending Hindu and Muslim orthodoxy. The great Champion of Rama poetry is Tulsidas (1543- 1623) whose Ramacharitha Manas is still accepted as an immortal classic by all Hindi literature lovers. He was an expert in narration, epic and logical form.
The modern period of Hindi literature commences with the second half of the 19th century with Bharatendu Harischandra (1850- 84) as the pioneer.
In the field of fiction, the great stalwart is of course Prem Chand. His Godan is translated into almost all of the major Indian languages. Prem Chand raised Hindi Literature from entertainment to realism.
Other important fiction writers of the contemporary period are Jainendra Kumar, Phaniswar Nath Renu, and Satchidananda Vatsyayan. New trends in the 50's and 60' s elevated the Hindi short story scene to a very high level. Literary criticism also revived and Dr. Nagendra and Dr. Namwar Singh need special mention in this field.
During 1855-1907, Govardhanram Tripathi penned the celebrated novel Saraswathi Chandra. This great work of modern India is a love story with social and spiritual relevance. A towering figure of the modern period is none other than K.M.Munshi (1887- 1971), the founder of the Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan and a great promoter of Indian culture. Munshi entered Gujarati literature with a bang and continued to dominate it for along time. His first novel was Varulata. Four of his historical novels were instant successes.
Though Mahatma is not a Gujarathi writer, his influence on Gujarati literature is beyond question. So the period between 1925- 1950 is called the Gandhian period. Some modern poets include Sundaram, Umashankar, and D.B. Kalelkar and in drama, Jayanthi Lal needs special mentioning.
The Golden period of Punjabi literature is undoubtedly the period of the Sikh gurus beginning with Guru Nanak and continuing till the passing away of the Guru Gobind Singh. Most of the religious and often mystic poetry of the period has been preserved in the Adi Granth, which is a great anthology of Bhakthi poems. It is the scripture of the Sikhs, but it is also a literature of high quality. During 1600-1800, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads were created in Punjabi.
In 1850, the Ludhiana Chrisitan mission was formed and they brought out a Punjabi translation of the Bible in 1852 and a Punjabi dictionary in 1854. A very important personality of the time was Bhai Vir Singh (18720 1957), who wrote religious epics, lyrics and nature poetry. Great writers like Gurumukh Singh Musafir, Hira Singh Dard, Mohan Singh and Amritha Pritam inspired the nationalist movements.
Amrita Pritam is well known throughout India as a great poetess, novelist and winner of the Jnanpith Award. Some famous fiction writers include Guruakash Singh Preet Lari, Harcharan singh, Sant Singh Sekhon and Gurudial Singh, etc.
The contribution of Christian Missionaries took place during the17th and the 18 th centuries. Christapurana on the model of Jnanaeswari was composed by Father Stephens and was accepted as a masterpiece in Marathi language. Then came Tukaram (1608- 49), the greatest saint poet of the language. Devotional poetry flowed from his pen. He wrote 3000 abhangas. Krishna Dayarnava and Sridhar were the leading poets during the 18 th century. Kesava Sut, the father of modern Marathi poetry published his first work in 1885.
Vijay Tendulkar and C.T. Dhanolkar have written plays that have won recognition beyond the borders of Maharastra. It can be said that Marathi has a contemporary literature that is flowing.
Two writers who popularized early writing in Urdu known as Deccani Urdu were Sahik Ganjalim and Kwaja Bendas Nawaz (1320-1422). Mulla Wajhi was a great literary figure of the 17th century. His "masnavi" and prose compositions are rated among the best of their kind. Ghazal had many devoted practitioners.
Amir Khusrou and Qutab Shah gave it a new dimension. The Lucknow school of poets led by Syed Ahmed Khan also made significant contributions. Sarshar, Nazir Ahmed and Sharar are great novelists of Urdu though the greatest and most celebrated work of this genre is "Umrao Jan Ada" (1899) by Ruswa. Premchand wrote not only in Hindi but in Urdu as well.
Modern Urdu literature has different phases, romanticism, progressivism and various kinds of post-modernism. Imtias Hussain is a real force in modern fiction. Qurrantulain Haidra, winner of the Jnanpith Award is known for her magnum opus "Aga Ka Darya" that deals with the horrors of partition.
Kashmiri prose is very recent. Actually fiction originated with the Progressive Movement in the forties. Important writers like Aktar Mohi-Ud-din, Mohamed Amin Kamil and Ali Muhammad Lone are men who switched over form Urdu to Kashmiri.
The Christian influence began with the Portuguese and continued with the Danes, the Dutch and then with the French and the British. Berchi composed Tembavani (the insatiable beauty) on the life of Joseph, the father of Jesus Christ. Vedanayagam Pillai and Krishna Pillai were really Christian poets.
The 20 th century has seen an explosion of talent. The greatest of them all was of course Subramania Bharathi. His patritiotic songs inspired thousands of Tamilians. Kuyilpattu, Kannanpattu and Panchali Sapatham are notable among them.
The first standard grammar on Kannada language, Sabdamani Darpana was written by Kesi Raja. The great literary milestone of the time was Basaveswara of the 12 th century whose Vachana style of writing has no equal in any other language. With vachana, Basaveswara caused a social revolution.
The modern period has many important writes like B.M.Srikantiah, K.V.Puttapa and D.R.Bendre. Outstanding among the fictionists are Masti Venkatesh Iyengar and Shivarama Karanth. Karanth's Chomana Dudi and Marali Mannige have been translated into almost all of modern Indian languages. T.P.Kailasam and Adya Rangacharya are well known names in Kannada drama.
The Golden period of Telugu literature was during the 15 th century and 16 th century with writers like Krishna Deva Raya and Reddanna. Then followed the western influenced Renaissance. All branches of literature; the novel, short stories, prose, drama, essay and literary criticism all flourished during this period.
The father of common deluge literature is Veerasalingam Pantulu (1848- 1919) who wrote Rajasekhara Chaitramu inspired by the Vicar of Wakefield. To him literature was an instrument to fight social evils. A wonderful team of Rayaprolu Subba Rao, Gurupada appa Rao, Viswanatha Satyanarayana, followed him. Telugu is also known for its experiments in the field of poetry and drama. Digambara Kavita is only one example of such an experiment.
The 15 th century saw the rise of the big name in Malayalam literature- Cherrusseri Namboodiri with his famous poem Krishna Gatha. Then came the greatest figure of them all, Thunchathu Ezhuthachan in the 16 th century. His Adhyatma Ramayanam, Bharatham and Bhagawatam are the greatest classics in Malayalam.
Attakatha is the literary script for Kathakali and Unnayi Varier excelled in it. Malayalam can claim a fairly long history of prose writings from Arthasastra in the 13 th century to Varthamanapustakam, a travelogue by Paremekkal thoma Kathanar. In the 19th century lexicographers and grammarians like Baily Gundert and Rajaraja Varma produced seminal works. Two great novelists, Chandu Menon and C.V. Raman Pillai also produced classics during this period. The 20 th century saw the reign of a triumvirate- Kumaran Asan, Ulloor Parameswara Iyer and Vallathol Narayan Menon. They were outstanding poets and Ulloor being an outstanding historian of literature.
Tagore, Sorojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were all great English writers. A handful of Indians today dominate the scene as the most successful writers in English.
The average standard of writing in English is higher than the average standard of writing in an other Indian language.