The modern novel form developed in India in the nineteenth century, once the Western novels were introduced in India. Many Indian authors initially tried to translate the English novels but they apparently did not enjoy doing that. Later many of them decided to write novels in their own language and on their own social background.
Some of the earliest novels in India were written in Bengali and Marathi. Baba Padmanji’s Yamuna Paryatan (1857) was the earliest Marathi novel. This was followed by Muktamala by Lakshman Moreshar Halbe (1861).
Leading novelists of the nineteenth century wrote to develop a modern literature of the country. They wanted to produce a sense of national belonging and cultural equality with their colonial masters.
Bharatendu Harishchandra was the pioneer of modern Hindi literature. He encouraged many members of his circle of poets and writers to recreate and translate novels from other languages. The first proper novel in Hindi was written by Srinivas Das of Delhi. It was titled Pariksha Guru and was published in 1882. This novel highlights the pitfalls of blind copying of the western culture and advocates preserving the traditional Indian culture. The characters in this novel attempt to bridge the western and the eastern world and try to make a balance between the two cultures.
The writings of Devaki Nandan Khatri created a novel-reading public in Hindi. Chandralekha was his best-seller. This novel is believed to have immensely contributed in popularizing the Hindi language and the Nagari script among the educated classes of that time.
The Hindi novel achieved excellence with the writing of Premchand. He began to write in Urdu and later shifted to Hindi. He took a leaf from the traditional art of kissa-goi (storytelling). Simple language was the hallmark of his writings. Moreover, he portrayed people from all sections of the society. In many of his writings, the main character belonged to oppressed classes.
Many Bengali writers excelled in writing on historical topics, while many other writers focused on contemporary themes. The new bhadralok enjoyed the private world of reading novels. Durgeshnandini (1865) was written by Bankim and this novel was much appreciated for its literary excellence.
The initial Bengali novels used a colloquial style associated with urban life. Meyeli, the language associated with women’s lingo was also used in those novels. But Bankim’s prose was Sanskritised and contained a more vernacular style.
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) became the most popular novelist in Bengal and probably in the rest of India because of his expertise in storytelling in simple language.
Uses of Novel: For the colonial administrators, novels provided a good source to understand about the life and social hierarchy in India. They could understand different aspects of the Indian society through novels. Some of the novels were translated into English; by British administrators or Christian missionaries.
Many novels highlighted the social ills and suggested remedies. Many novels told stories about the past so that people could establish a relationship with the past.
People from all walks of life could read novels. This helped in creating a sense of collective identity on the basis of one’s language. Novels also helped people to understand about the culture of other parts of the country.
Novels became a popular medium of entertainment among the middle class. Detective and mystery novels often had be sent for reprints to meet the demand of readers. Many novels were printed as many as twenty two times.
The novel also helped in spreading the silent reading. As late as the nineteenth century and probably in the early twentieth century, people often read out a text for several people to hear. But gradually, people adapted to read in silence.
Novels were viewed as having negative impact on people’s mind. Women and children were often prohibited from reading novels. Some parents kept novels at secret places so that children could not lay their hands on novels. Young people had to read them in secret. Older women took the services of their grandchildren to enjoy listening to a novel.
However, many women turned into writers and wrote poetry, essays and autobiographies. In the early decades of the twentieth century, women in India also began to write novels and short stories. Many women writers had to write the novel in secret because the society did not permit it.
Many authors began to highlight the plight of lower caste people in their novel. In some of the novels, conflicts arising out of marriage between a lower caste and an upper caste were highlighted. Some people from the lower caste also became authors; like Potheri Kunjambu from Kerala. Many communities got space in the literary scene through novels.
In Bengal, many historical novels were about Marathas and Rajputs. These novels portrayed the nation to be full of adventure, heroism romance and sacrifice. The novel thus allowed the colonized subjects to give shape to their desires. Bhudeb Mukhopadhyat’s Anguriya Binimoy (1857) is about Shivaji’s adventures against Aurangzeb.
Bankim’s Anandamath (1882) is a novel about secret Hindu militia which fights Muslims to establish a Hindu kingdom. This novel inspired many kinds of freedom fighters.
Many of these novels also reveal the problems associated with thinking about the nation. We know that India cannot be a nation of only a single religious community.
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