Many writings about Hindi are ‘breast beating’ in the style of Bharatendu Harishchandra’s ‘Bharat Durdasha’. This article has a positive attitude towards Hindi Literature. The history of literary Hindi is relatively brief, starting only around 1860. Modern literary Hindi has an even shorter history, beginning around 1936 with the death of Premchand. In this short period Hindi has covered some amazing ground and today’s Hindi literature ranks among the best literary traditions of the world.
This article attempts a bird’s eye view of this amazing journey. It is addressed to non specialist general reader.
What is Hindi?
When speaking of the language, the word ‘Hindi’ is used in two senses. In the first case it refers to a group of around 30 languages in the Hindi-speaking region. Kishoridas Bajpai (1898-1981) refers to it as a ‘commonwealth’ of languages and mentions three characteristics: 1. the use of ‘ka’ pratyay (post position) – like ka, ki, ke, ko, etc, 2. Geographical continuity and 3. Use of Devnagari script. The Hindi-speaking region extends from Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the North, Bihar and Chhattisgarh in the East, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in West and South.1In another sense the Hindi region also covers Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, North Karnataka and Telangana, where Hindi is fairly well understood. It is for this reason that government of India sends letters in Hindi to this extended Hindi region.
In the other sense of the word, Hindi refers to a specific language of a particular region. The language is known as ‘Khari Boli’ and the local region is Meerut district in Western U.P. Linguistically, it shares a grammatical structure with Urdu and Dakhni. The latter exists in various forms throughout Western India, including Gujarat, Maharashtra, Northern Karnataka and Telangana.
Hereinafter we will use the word Hindi to mean the literary form of Khari Boli. This Hindi is called a daughter of Urdu and Urdu itself is called a daughter of Dakhni. This needs some explanation.
Dakhni: Mother of Modern Urdu and Hindi
When Wali Dakhni (also known as Wali Aurangabadi and Wali Gujarati), a famous Dakhni poet, visited Delhi in 1700, he astonished the poets of Delhi with his ghazals. He drew wide applause from the Persian-speaking poets, some of whom, after listening to Wali, also adopted the language of the people, Urdu, as the medium of their poetic expressions. Prominent poets—Shah Hatem, Shah Abro and Mir Taqi Mir—were among his admirers.
At that time in Delhi, the court poets were composing in Persian and Arabic. For others, Braj and Awadhi were the languages of literary and religious expressions. The spoken language of all was Khari Boli. When the poets listened to Wali in Dakhni, they were struck by the fact that the spoken language of the people was capable of such rich literary expression (Rektha men bhi itna achcha likha ja sakta hai!).
Wali Dakhni was born in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, as Wali Muhammad (1667-1731/1743) and went to Gujarat in search of a Guru. He became a disciple of Wajihuddin Gujarati and soon became famous. He came back and settled in Aurangabad but travelled twice to Delhi. His first trip produced the dramatic results mentioned above, and made him known as the father of Urdu poetry. He died in Ahmedabad and Hindu fascists razed his tomb to the ground in the aftermath of the Godhra riots. Wali Dakhni composed 473 ghazals, apart from masnawis and qasidas. His ghazals are still sung by several singers, including Abida Parveen.
Thus, in the early eighteenth century, after Wali’s visit, Urdu as a literary language took birth. Both modern Hindi (written in Devnagari script) and Urdu (written in Perso-Arabic or Urdu script) are variants of Khari Boli spoken in the Delhi and Meerut region. Court circles, Persian and Arabic scholars and especially the Muslims of Delhi adapted this language with much eagerness, and from the end of the 18th century the Mughal house turned only to Urdu. For the first 60 years or so the influence of the Dakhni poets, Sufi thinking and an Indianness of diction prevailed over Urdu.
Although Amir Khusro (1253-1325) and Kabir (1398-1448) used Khari Boli in the 14th and the 15th century, ‘Hindi’ became a literary language only in the latter half of the 19th century. Till then the authors were mainly writing in Braj and Awadhi. It was Raja Shiva Prasad ‘Sitare Hind’ (1824-1895) and Bharatendu Harishchandra (1849-1882) who first started writing in Khari Boli in Devnagari script. They were obviously influenced by the popularity of Urdu, which was written in Perso-Arabic or Urdu script. In the beginning the difference was mainly in the script, and the authors knew both the scripts. In fact the famous Hindi author, Premchand (1880-1936) first wrote in Urdu under the name Nawabrai. Thus modern Hindi is only about 150 years old and, like Urdu, has been inspired by Dakhni.
A twentieth-century Hindi scholar from Kerala, Dr. V. P. Muhammad Kunj Mettar (1946- ), established Dakhni as source for modern Hindi. Dr. Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay (1890-1977) also maintained that it was Dakhni that established the use of Khari Boli, replacing Braj in the North. In fact, even the name Hindi for the language originated in the South. In the17th century a Tamilian, Kazi Muhammad Bahari, used the word Hindi for Dakhni in his Sufi poetry collection called Man Lagan.2
The Urdu-Hindi Continuum 1860-1936
When looking at the history of literature, periodisation is always a bit problematic. While the new is being born, the old persists for a very long time. Many authors mature in old age, particularly prose writers. Therefore the years mentioned should be taken only as indicative.
During this period, the content of literature grew from a patriotic tone to the ‘Progressive Writers’ Organisation’ under the influence of the Russian revolution, the workers’ movement during the great depression of 1929 and access to Russian literature (Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekhov) through translations. Premchand was undoubtedly the great author of this period.
This was at the ‘high table’. At the same time, a wider Hindi readership was being created by another continuum of ‘Kissa Hatimtai’ from Urdu sources. This happened through Chandrakanta and Chandrakanta Santati of Devkinandan Khatri (1861-1913), with Hindu kings, queens and their magicians.
The battle for Hindi in Devnagari was also fought in the political arena for creating jobs for Hindus in the courts that were dominated by Muslims because the courts used Urdu script. Vir Bharat Talwar (1947- ) has documented this in his book, Rassakashi .3
The battle for Hindi/Devnagari was won but the Hindi that emerged sounded artificial. The main authors were Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ (1908-1974) in Patna, Makhanlal Chaturvedi (1889-1968) in Khandwa, Maithili Sharan Gupta (1886-1964) in Chirgaon, Jhansi, and Jayashankar Prasad (1889-1937) in Banaras. Makhanlal Chaturvedi’s famous school text ‘Pushpa ki Abhilasha‘ is probably the most popular example of this proto-Hindi. The authors were talented, and influenced by writings in Bengal, but the language was yet too immature.
There are several reasons why these talented authors produced such an artificial language. The richness of a literary language comes from its tradition and from its contact with people’s language. Because of historical reasons they chose to cut off from the tradition of Urdu literature. These centres of the new Hindi were located outside the Khari Boli region: Dinkar in Bhojpur/Magahi, Makhanlal Chaturvedi in Nimar and Maithili Sharan Gupta in Bundelkhand. Finally the Khari Boli lineage which travelled with the Nirguni saints of Western India and developed into literary Dakhni was not accessible to them. In the Hindi region this tradition was looked down upon. It was Acharya Kshitimohan Sen (1880 -1960) who established their importance through his seminal book, ‘Madhya Yuger Sadhana‘. At Shantiniketan Acharya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi (1907-1979) who considered Sen as his Guru, learnt about it and tried to give Kabir his due in the Hindi-speaking region in Banaras. He wrote a brilliant book on Kabir, but he was not well received and was in fact thrown out of Banaras Hindu University.
Because of this the Urdu-Hindi continuum has persisted for a long time. Even today there are votaries of “Hindustani’, and there is a journal from Mumbai devoted to it. This tradition was continued by a group of authors, mainly from the Punjab region, who were concerned about partition and sexuality. They include Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), Krishan Chander (1914-1977), Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991), Yashpal (1903-1976) and Upendranath Sharma ‘Ashk’, (1910-1996). The first three are also considered as Urdu authors, and are extensively published in both scripts. Another important author in this genre was Krishna Baldev Vaid (1927-2020), in particular his Guzra Hua Zamana.
At the popular level, theatre and Bollywood remained in this tradition of Urdu-Hindi continuum till the 70s. Crime stories of Ibne Safi (1928-1980) were published both in Hindi and Urdu in a series called Jasoosi Duniya. Omprakash Sharma (1924-1998), a communist of Punjabi working class origin was another important author in the crime/thriller genre. In his books the Indian Secret Service and KGB combine to thwart the plans of the CIA! This was quite radical in the Cold War period, at a time when the Western thrillers were demonising the Communist menace. He also wrote a very readable autobiography which reveals many details about his times and the prevalent trends in literature. Another communist of working class origin was Shiv Narayan Srivastava (1900-1980), a textile worker in Bombay and Indore. Known as India’s Gorky, his most famous book is Dhuan, Aag aur Insaan. Several popular journals like Shama continue to be published in both the scripts.
The kind of mature Hindi that we know today was begun by the three great poets: Nirala (Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ 1899-1961), Trilochan Shastri (1917-2007) and Shamsher (Shamsher Bahadur Singh, 1911-1993). Agneya (Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan, 1911-1987) was a multi-faceted author and a defining presence of this period. He was poet, novelist, essayist, editor and a great translator. In the short story genre, probably the greatest author was Amarkant (1925-2014). The literary magazine Kalpana from Hyderabad played a big role in bringing out these authors.
A stand-alone author of this period was Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963). A polymath and polyglot, he made significant contributions in the fields of Sociology, History, Indology, Philosophy, Buddhism, Tibetology, Lexicography, Grammar, Textual Editing, Folklore, Science, Drama and Politics. A traveller, a scholar of Sanskrit and Pali, a left-wing activist and finally a Buddhist, he penned about 100 titles in Hindi, including travelogues, left-wing fiction (Volga se Ganga), works meant for the working class (Bhago nahi dunia ko badlo), biographies (Marx and Mao), a treatise on travelling (Ghumakkad Shastra), science fiction and utopian writings, books on Islam, Buddhism and world philosophy. He was widely translated in Indian and foreign languages and influenced and inspired scores of authors and thousands of readers.
Translations played a big role in developing this iteration of Hindi. First there were translations from Bengali. Journals like Maya and Manohar Kahaniya regularly ran works translated from Bengali. Sharat Chandra Chatterjee, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore were translated in a big way. A large number of Hindi authors knew Bengali well, while large numbers of Bengalis living in Patna, Banaras, Allahabad and Agra knew Hindi well. This gave the Hindi language a large tradition to fall back upon.
The other source of enrichment was translations from English and, through English, access to the French, German and Russian literary traditions. Such translations played a big role even when it came to Chinese literature. Translations of Gorky need special mention. Gorky had a working-class background; the translator had to look for similar language and idiom from Indian working-class sources.
The influence of the regional languages of the Hindi region of course played a part. Its most effective writer was Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’ (1921-1977) from the Mithila region. Chandradhar Sharma ‘Guleri’ (1883-1922) in ‘Usne Kaha Tha’ and Rajinder Singh Bedi (1915-1984) in ‘Ek Chadar Maili Si’ used Panjabi very beautifully. Man Mohan Pathak also used Jharkhandi Hindi in his novel, ‘Gagan Ghata Ghaharani’, in a very poetic fashion. Vijaydan Detha (1926 -2013) brought Rajasthani folklore sensibility to Hindi. He published several volumes of folklore (Batanri Phulwari) and wrote short stories in modern Hindi based on them. He sought modern sensibility in folklore. Manohar Shyam Joshi (1933-2006) brought Kumaoni sensibility to Hindi. But, more than that, he comfortably straddled modernity, fantasy and magic realism.
The radical wave of late 1960s and 70s brought a fresh wave of left-influenced literature in Hindi. We have the angry young poet, Sudama Pandey ‘Dhoomil’ (1936-1975), Kashinath Singh (1937- ) who shot into fame with ‘Apna Morcha’, and the poet Alokdhanva (Goli dago poster, Ghar se bhagi hui ladakian).
Popular literature, newspapers (Navbharat Times, Hindusthan, Nai Dunia, and Rajasthan Patrika) and magazines (Dharmayug, Sarika, Sarita, Maya, Manohar Kahaniaya and Dinmaan) also played an important role. Gulshan Nanda (1929-1985) emerged as a major bestseller. Crime stories flourished and several new authors like Surendra Mohan Pathak (1940- ) also developed a large following.
Finally, after independence there was an explosion of what Tolstoy called ‘middle literature’ (that is, neither great nor pulp but highly readable written in refined language). Paperbacks published from Hind Pocket Books, Rajkamal and Rajpal produced affordable books and created a big new readership. Important authors of the era were Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’ (both poetry and prose), Shivani, Vrindavan Lal Varma, Jainendra, Bhisham Sahni, Dharamvir Bharati, Dushyant Kumar, Kamleshwar and scores of others. It should be remembered that there is no water tight compartment between middle and great literature. Many great authors have written middle literature.
Modern Hindi with Modern Sensibility
The modern sensibility in Hindi literature includes feminist and Dalit issues along with class-caste issues of the past. It can also include breaking away from the old forms: what is called the post-Marquezian world of literature.
In poetry this began with Tar Saptak 1 and 2 (1943), with Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh (1917-1964) emerging as one of the most important poets of this sensibility. These Saptaks were edited by Agneya and so far there are a total of four. Some important poets of this trend are Agneya, Bhavani Prasad Mishra (1913-1985), Raghuvir Sahay (1929-1990), Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena (1927-1983), Kedar Nath Singh (1934-2018) Shrikant Verma (1931-1986), Kunwar Narayan (1927-2017), Rajesh Joshi (1946- ) and Arun Kamal (1954- ).
In prose, it is probably Nirmal Varma (1929-2005) who marks this modern sensibility. This opened the way to a new generation of extremely talented authors. For example, we have Vinod Kumar Shukla (1937- ) Uday Prakash (1952- ) Sanajay, Abdul Bismillah (1949- ), Surendra Verma (1941- ) Geetanjalishri (1957- ), Krishna Sobti (1925 -2019), and Alka Saraogi (1960- ). With Alka Saraogi the 21st century begins and we have an entirely different sensibility and radical departure in form. Hindi has indeed arrived!
The popularity and spread of Hindi has led to some problems. In terms of language there is a criticism that this Hindi is beyond the reach of a student or a rickshaw-puller. The clamour for Hindustani comes back. Then there are fears about the influence of English.
Probably the most important problem is the mistaken notion that Hindi is a daughter of Sanskrit. Although scholarship in the last 50 years has completely disproved this thesis,5 it is so deep seated that Hindi authors are still affected by it. It is not that they are not aware of this problem, but this notion has seeped into the very structure of Hindi, with foundations laid by Acharya Ramchandra Shukla, Mahaveer Prasad Dwivedi and the dictionary work of Acharya Raghuvira.
At the level of grammar, the Sanskrit Samas and Sandhi have played havoc. Joining the pratyaya (post position) with the main word using a sandhi is not in the nature of Hindi. In terms of vocabulary, many authors stick to the notion of ‘Shuddha Hindi’. They use ‘Tatsam’ (that is original Sanskrit) words, some of which cannot even be pronounced by much of the Hindi-speaking world. There is a simple law of absorbing foreign (including Sanskrit) words in any language. If the word fits with the genius of the language it will be absorbed. Otherwise it can be modified and absorbed, particularly if no equivalent concept exists in the language. A large number of such words from Sanskrit, Persian and English are absorbed in Hindi. Wherever it is not possible to avoid the tatsam, then it should be in italics as is done with Latin words in English.6
The influence of English is far-reaching and some fear it may sound the death knell for Indian literature. Some of these fears appear well-founded and only time will tell. But there is something that Hindi authors can do about it. To quote a Russian linguist,7 ‘The ‘shuddhatavadi pravrutti’ (the purist trend) encourages retention of English.’ Simply put, the purist trend makes Hindi difficult compared to English.
- Bajpai, Kishoridas: Hindi Shabdanushasan, Varanasi v.s. 2013, Nagari Pracharini Sabha
- T. Vijayendra: Dakhni: The language in which the Composite Culture of India was born, 2009, in ‘The Losers Shall Inherit the World’, 2009, Sangatya Sahitya Bhandar, Nakre, Karkala, Udupi
- Talwar, Vir Bharat: Rassakashi, 2002, New Delhi, Saransh Prakashan Pvt. Ltd.
- Singh, Namwar: Dusri Parampara Ki Khoj Men, New Delhi, Rajkamal Prakashan
- T. Vijayendra: Sanskrit and Indian Language Family, 2015, in ‘Requiem for Our Times’, Sangatya Sahitya Bhandar, Nakre, Karkala, Udupi
- Dharamveer: Hindi Ki Atma, 1987, New Delhi, Samata Prakashan
- Boris I Kluyev: India: National and Language Problem, Sterling Publications Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi
T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: email@example.com