The new era of modern Indian literatures may be said to begin in 1800, when Fort William College was established in Kolkata and The Baptist Mission Press in Serampore, near Kolkata. The college was founded by the East India Company to provide instruction to British civil servants in the laws, customs, religions, languages, and literatures of India in order to cope with the increasing demands of fast-growing administrative machinery. Reading material, during this time, was translated from the Sanskrit classics as well as from foreign literature, and dictionaries and grammars were compiled. William Carey, who was also one of the founders of the Baptist Mission Press, himself wrote a Bengali grammar and compiled an English-Bengali dictionary as well as two selections of dialogues and stories.
Later in the second half of the sixteenth century, books in Tamil and other Dravidian languages began to be printed. Many foreign missionaries learnt the languages of the people. They not only translated the Bible and wrote Christian Puranas but also rendered considerable service to the languages by compiling the first modern grammars and dictionaries. Although the printing-press came to south India much earlier and the foreign missionary enterprise functioned much longer and more zealously than in Bengal, the impact of Western learning as such was comparatively slow and the resurgence of literary activity bore fruit in its modern form much later than in Bengal.
The establishment of Hindu College in 1817 and the replacing of Persian by English as the language of the law and the increasing use of Bengali were other landmarks which encouraged the introduction of modern education and the development of the language of the people. It was, Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) who laid the real foundation of modern Bengali prose. The form which he gave to Bengali prose revealed its rich potentiality in the hands of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) and Akshay Kumar Datta (1820-1886), both of whom were primarily social reformers and educationists. Because they were men of serious purpose who had much to say, they had little use for the flamboyance and rhetoric natural to a language derived from Sanskrit, and they chiselled a prose that was both chaste and vigorous.
Pathfinders rather than creative artists, they standardized the medium which their younger contemporary, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94), turned with superb gusto and skill into a creative tool for his novels and stories. He is known as the father of the modern novel in India and his influence on his contemporaries and successors, in Bengal and other parts of India, was profound and extensive. Novels, both historical and social, the two forms in which he excelled, had been written before him in Bengali by Bhudev Mukherji and Peary Chand Mitra. Mitra's 'Alaler Gharer Dulal' was the first specimen of original fiction of social realism with free use of the colloquial idiom, and anticipated, however crudely, the later development of the novel. But it was Bankim Chandra who established the novel as a major literary form in India. He had his limitations, he was too romantic, effusive, and didactic, and was in no sense a peer of his Great Russian contemporaries, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. There have been better novelists in India since his day, but they all stand on his shoulders.
Though the first harvest was reaped in Bengali prose, it was in the soil of poetry that this cross-fertilization with the West bore its richest fruit. With the emotional temperament and lyrical genius, the Bengali language is supple and musical, as though fashioned for poetry. Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) was the pioneer who, turning his back on the native tradition, made the first conscious and successful experiment to naturalize the European forms into Bengali poetry by his epic in blank verse, 'Meghnadbadh Kabya', based on a Ramayana episode unorthodoxly interpreted, as well as by a number of sonnets. He led the way but could not establish a vital tradition, for his own success was a tour de force of a rare genius.
It was Rabindranath Tagore who naturalized the Western spirit into Indian literature and thereby made it truly modern in an adult sense. He did this not by any conscious or forced adaptation of foreign models but by his creative response to the impulse of the age, with the result that the Upanishads and Kalidasa, Vaishnava lyricism, and the rustic vigour of the folk idiom, are so well blended with Western influences in his poetry that generations of critics will continue to wrangle over his specific debt to each of them. In him modern Indian literature came of age, not only in poetry but in prose as well. Novel, short story, drama, essay, and literary criticism, they all attained maturity in his hands. Though Indian literature in its latest phase has outgrown his influence, as indeed it should, Tagore was the most vital creative force in the cultural renaissance of India and represents its finest achievement.
Kolkata being the first cosmopolitan city in India to grow under the new regime, it was natural that it should witness the birth of the modern drama. It has still a lively stage tradition. Curiously enough, the first stage-play in Bengali produced in Kolkata was by a Russian adventurer-cum-Indologist, Lebedev, in 1795. It was an adaptation of a little-known English comedy, 'The Disguise' by Richard Paul Jodrell.
Many years passed before a serious attempt was made to build an authentic stage, mainly under private patronage. The first original play in Bengali was Kulin Kulasarvasva, a social satire against the practice of polygamy among Kulin brahmans, written by Pandit Ramnarayana. Ramnarayana's second play, Ratnavali, based on a Sanskrit classic, provoked Madhusudan Dutt to try his hand at this medium. His impetuous genius turned out a number of plays in quick succession, some based on old legends and some social satires. He may thus be said to have laid the foundation of modern Indian drama, as he did of poetry, although his achievement in this form did not equal his performance in poetry and he soon retired from the field.
His place was taken by Dinabandhu Mitra (1829-74), a born dramatist whose very first play, 'Nil Darpan' (published in 1860), exposing the atrocities of the British indigo planters, created a sensation, both literary and political. Dinabandhu wrote many more plays and was followed by a succession of playwrights among whom were Rabindranath Tagore's elder brother Jyotirindranath Tagore, Manomohan Basu, and later, the more famous Girish Chandra Ghosh and Dwijendralal Roy. Girish Chandra was actor, producer, and playwright, and it is to his indefatigable zeal that the public theatre in Kolkata is largely indebted. But though both he and Dwijendralal achieved phenomenal popularity in their day, their popular appeal was due more to the patriotic and melodramatic elements in their plays than to any abiding literary merit. On the other hand, Rabindranath Tagore's plays, though they had considerable literary merit and were marked by originality and depth of thought, were too symbolic or ethereal to catch the popular imagination.
Of the numerous languages of India perhaps Marathi was, after Bengali, the most vigorous in its response to the spirit of the new age. This is because of its robust intellectual tradition, reinforced by memories of the erstwhile glory of the Maratha Empire, and partly because Mumbai, like Kolkata, provided a cosmopolitan modern environment. Among the stalwarts who laid the foundation of its modern literature may be mentioned the poet Keshavsut, the novelist Hari Narayan Apte, and Agarkar, Tilak, and Chiplunkar as the builders of prose. Apte's novels stimulated the development of the novel in some other languages too, particularly in the neighbouring Kannada. Narmad's poetry blazed the trail in Gujarati.
Flourishing under court patronage, Urdu had made phenomenal progress and was the most important Indian language to prosper in the eighteenth century. But it luxuriated in its own affluence and remained aloof from the vital currents that were sweeping the country forward in the nineteenth century.
The development of modern Assamese and Oriya, the two eastern neighbours of Bengali, was also late in coming and was preceded by valuable spade-work done by the Christian missions. Orissa too had recovered its homogeneous integrity and the intelligentsia in the regions was educated in Kolkata and carried back with them the impact of the literary resurgence in Bengal. Lakshmikanta Bezbarua and Padmanath Gohain Barua in Assamese, and Fakirmohan Senapati and Radhanath Ray in Oriya were the early pioneers in their respective fields. Kashmiri, Punjabi, and Sindhi had an even more retarded development, partly on account of the political conditions and partly because of the cultural glamour of Urdu in regions predominantly Muslim. All the more credit to the pioneers who held aloft the banner of their mother tongue is Mahjur and Master Zinda Kaul in Kashmiri, Sardar Puran Singh and Bhal Vir Singh in Punjabi, and Mirza Kalich Beg and Dewan Kauromal in Sindhi.
What is surprising is the rather late and tardy resurgence in the four Dravidian languages, which had had a longer and a richer literary past than the northern languages. The past has weighed more heavily on the south than on the north in India and nowhere more heavily than on Tamil Nadu. However, in course of time the creative spirit in these languages too responded to the impulse of the age, in as rich a flowering as in the other languages of India, led by Puttanna, 'Sri', and Kailasham in Kannada, by Kerala Varma and Chandu Menon in Malayalam, by Bharati and Kalki in Tamil, and Viresalingam and Guruzada Appa Rao in Telugu. It is worth observing that the youngest of the Dravidian languages, Malayalam, has responded to the new age more dynamically than the oldest, Tamil, which even now looks too wistfully to the past.
All the great events which have influenced European thought within the last one hundred years have also told, however feeble their effect may be, on the formation of the intellect of modern Bengal. The independence of America, the French Revolution, the war of Italian independence, the teachings of history, the vigour and freedom of English literature and English thought, the great effort of the French intellect in the eighteenth century, the results of German labour in the field of philosophy and ancient history; Positivism, Utilitarianism, Darwinism, all these have influenced and shaped the intellect of modern Bengal.
From the beginning of the twentieth century Indian literature was increasingly coloured by political aspirations, passionately voiced in the songs and poems of the Tamil poet Bharati and the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. The spiritual note of Indian poetry had attained a poignant and rapturous pitch in the medieval Vaishnava outpourings. Tagore's Gitanjali is the swan song of this great tradition. The devotional content of poetry was henceforth increasingly replaced by the political, the ethical bias by the ideological, the plaintive tone by that of challenge and mockery, until the dominant note of Indian literature today is that of protest.
Tagore's main impact was, however, indirect, inasmuch as it gave confidence to Indian writers that they could achieve in their mother tongue what had been achieved in Sanskrit or European languages. But Tagore's influence in literature was soon overshadowed by the impact of Gandhi, Marx, and Freud, a strange trinity. Though none of these three was a man of letters proper, they released intellectual and moral passions and introduced new techniques of thought and behaviour which had a profound effect on young writers all over India. The influence of the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo Ghose is also noticeable among some writers, like the Kannada poets, Bendre and Puttappa, and the Gujarati poets, Sundaram and Jayant Parekh, but beyond imparting a certain mystic glow to their verse and confirming their faith in the reality of the Indian spiritual experience, it has not given any new trend or horizon to Indian literature in general.
On the whole, the impact on Indian writing of the mixed interaction has given a much-needed jolt to the smugness of the traditional attitude, with its age-old tendency to sentimental piety and glorification of the past. The revolt began in Bengal, yielded a rich harvest, in both poetry and prose, in the work of Jivanananda Das, Premendra Mitra, Buddhadeva Bose, Manek Bandyopadhyay, Subhas Mukhopadhyay et al. In Bengal both these forms attained an early maturity in the hands of Tagore and have since made phenomenal progress under his younger contemporaries and successors namely Sarat Chandra Chatterjee achieved a popularity, both in Bengal and outside, which equalled, if not surpassed, that of Tagore.
Moreover, English language had a great impact on the Indians and apart from its utilitarian value as a language of higher education in the sciences and as a 'link language', a fair number of Indian writers, including such eminent thinkers steeped in Indian thought as Vivekananda, Ranade, Gokhale, Aurobindo Ghose and Radhakrishnan, have voluntarily adopted it as their literary medium. There has been, from Derozio in the 1820s to R. K. Narayan today, an unbroken tradition of some gifted Indians choosing to write in English. Many of them, like the Dutt sisters, Toru and Aru, their versatile uncle Romesh Chunder, Manomohan Ghosh, Sarojini Naidu, and, among contemporaries, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, Bhabani Bhattacharya, and many others, have achieved distinction.
Some early pioneers in the Indian languages were also tempted at the threshold of their career to adopt English for their creative writing, partly because they owed their inspiration to English literature and partly because they hoped thereby to reach a wider audience. Madhusudan Dutt's first narrative poem, "The Captive Ladie", and Bankim Chandra's early novel "Rajmohan's Wife", are classic examples. Wisely they discovered in time that they could create best in their own language. Some English novels of R. K. Narayan, a born story-teller with any eye for observation and the gift of gentle irony, are superior in intrinsic literary merit to a great deal of mediocre stuff that passes for literature in some Indian languages. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that, as far as creative writing is concerned, no Indian writer in English has reached anywhere near the heights attained by some of the great writers in the Indian languages. What modern Indian literature sadly lacks is a well-proportioned and many-sided development.
The modern Indian literature is the representation of each aspect of modern life. Happily, despite this clamour of sophistry, patriotic piety, and political bias, good literature continues to be written and, as it justifies itself, it helps to sharpen the reader's sensibility. Since the time of Tagore a growing minority of intelligent critics well versed in the literary traditions of their own country and of the West have bravely maintained a more wholesome approach that is neither overwhelmed by the burden of the past nor overawed by the glamour of the latest fashion. This healthy trend of the modern Indian literature should gain in strength with a growing realization that, in the republic of letters as in that of men, a sensitive and well-trained critical apparatus and its judicious and fearless exercise are a prerequisite of happy results.