Twentieth-Century Hindi Literature

Nandi Bhatia. Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India. Editor: Nalini Natarajan, Greenwood Press, 1996.


One often finds the diverse literatures of India lumped into the unified category of “Indian literature.” Given that India has 17 official languages, each with its own script and body of literature, such a categorization is rather simplistic, erasing, as it does, differences in the various literatures. Each language literature is shaped by its own region, politics, cultural traditions, geography, gender, and class and has its own genealogy. An adequate understanding of an “Indian” literature, therefore, requires us to examine the literatures of India in the context of India’s linguistic diversity and “the highly diverse historical trajectories [which] may simply not be available for generalizing theoretical practices and unified narratives” (Ahmad 1992, 244). Hindi literature, too, is not an undifferentiated phenomenon but is polyvocal in expressing a range of ideas related to the social fabric from which it emerged. Within Hindi literature, there are multiple voices: radical voices that challenge existing power structures and hegemonies, voices of women and minorities who have often been marginalized, and voices from the center of the discipline that serve to erase these radical tendencies and affirm dominant structures. The latter include writings such as those that Aijaz Ahmad describes as “the High textuality of the Brahaminical kind,” albeit writings that have been privileged over other lesser-known works that may be aesthetically or politically important but are excluded from mainstream Hindi literature because of canonical assumptions of “high” literary value (Ahmad 1992, 244). In order to get a glimpse of the multiple voices that constitute Hindi literature, this chapter presents a survey ranging from canonical works to lesser-known works by minority writers that, in spite of their exclusion from the canon, participated in the sociopolitical process and are by no means less significant to Hindi literature.

To understand the multiple strands in Hindi literature, it is necessary to place it against the backdrop of the sociopolitical conditions of Indian society in the twentieth century. The Indian nation witnessed important political changes during the period under consideration: from a colony of the British Empire it became an independent nation in 1947. The violence of colonialism, however, took its toll on the shaping of the nation. The struggle for independence from British colonial rule underwent numerous waves and troughs before the arrival of freedom in 1947. Independence came with a price that was paid by the nation’s division into India and Pakistan. During the period of decolonization since independence, the nation has undergone severe upheavals in the form of external aggressions, such as wars with Pakistan and China, and internal aggressions, a most recent example of which is the communal violence that followed the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalists. Such political ferment, both under British rule and after independence, has played a definite role in the shaping of Hindi literature. We find its manifestation in Hindi literature’s multifaceted character, representing a variety of themes. These include the partition of the subcontinent, freedom from colonial oppression, freedom from internal hegemonies, freedom from the struggles of workers against various forms of exploitation, and feminist challenges to oppressive patriarchal structures and social traditions. These multiple themes and trends have been channeled through movements such as chayavad, or romantic literature; pragativad, or progressive realism; New Criticism; nai kahani or new short story; and feminist literature. Although some of these movements have been influenced by similar trends in the West, they emerged from their specific cultural traditions and sociopolitical milieus. The chapter examines the ways in which these multiple voices and movements both contributed to the process of nation building and addressed, at the same time, the sociopolitical problems within Indian society.

Since the survey traces the thematic trends against the backdrop of socio-historical developments, it is broadly divided into two parts: preindependence and postindependence at 1947, which heralded a new era of national independence as well as the nation’s partition into India and Pakistan, serving as a convenient dividing point for the chapter. Part one examines the emergence of nationalist thought and ideology in literary works of the period before independence. The nationalist politics of this era were accompanied by a controversy over the status of Hindi and Urdu, which created communal dissensions that ultimately jeopardized the possibility of a unified struggle against British imperialism. This linguistic controversy is significant, complicating the nationalist struggle against British imperialism by internal communal politics. Configuration of issues such as the partition, the urge for national unity, democracy and secularism in the 1950s, social issues related to village economies, and continuing problems of peasants, workers, women, and other marginalized groups constitutes, to a large degree, the subject matter of Hindi writings after independence and informs the second half of the chapter.

As a broad survey of Hindi literature, this chapter is bound to suffer from certain shortcomings. The chief drawback arises from an inability to define the precise parameters of Hindi literature because of overlaps between Hindi and Urdu. At present, the linguistic differentiation between these languages is rather unsettled. Despite ongoing attempts to settle the differences between Hindi and Urdu since the second half of the nineteenth century, when the debate over linguistic classification first began, it remains difficult to make clear-cut demarcations. Writers who wrote in either of the languages have been co-opted into their respective literatures for political reasons. For example, Premchand, whose works have acquired a very important place in the canon of Hindi literature, wrote some of his works in Urdu before they were transcribed into Devanagari. The choice of the script was forced on him because of the increasingly difficult task of finding publishers for Urdu at a time when Hindi was being propagated as the national language. For the purposes of this chapter, I discuss primarily literature written in Devanagari. Any important work that is left out is the result of an oversight rather than a deliberate omission. Being an overview, moreover, the chapter precludes detailed analyses of specific texts. For this reason, each text, movement, and author deserves further attention.

Literature and Nationalism: The Preindependence Phase

Hindi literature during the preindependence period may be usefully read as documents that articulated writers’ active political engagement at a time of rising Indian nationalism against British colonialism. We discover, in this period, a unification of culture and politics, in which culture became a site on which was waged the complex struggle for India’s freedom. Writers began to carve out an “imagined” Indian identity, visualizing a nation free of foreign domination and one in which democracy and brotherhood would prevail. Their search manifested itself in numerous ways: patriotic stories that idealized and glorified India’s past, stories urging HinduMuslim unity, and stories that exposed and recognized problems relating, among other things, to the exploitation and abuse of peasants, labor, and other marginalized classes under colonial rule.

HindiUrdu Divide

The literary manifestation of the nationalistic project was seen as early as 1912 in Maithilisharan Gupta’s (18861964) poem “Bharat Bharati” (“The Voice of India,” 1912). Gupta’s poem contains songs that glorify India’s past, deplore contemporary sociopolitical conditions, and suggest a way to a better future on the basis of HinduMuslim amity. Emphasis on HinduMuslim unity through literature came in the wake of rising HinduMuslim animosities around the turn of the century. The communal divide had been set in motion in the nineteenth century, in part, by the debate over the status of Hindi and Urdu as two separate languages. J. B. Gilchrist initiated this separation in the middle of the nineteenth century when he engaged a group of writers at the Fort William College at Calcutta to write Hindustani prose. Hindustani prose was channeled into two distinct styles. One included Hindi without the use of Persianized words, and the other style involved the use of an Urdu that remained as close as possible to Persian (Das Gupta 1970, 52). Such conscious segregation of the two languages made the differences between Urdu and Hindi sharper and became a strong basis for communal divisions between Hindus and Muslims during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As Hindu and Muslim nationalists sought mass support from their respective communities through the propagation of the two languages, the debate intensified. The Hindu leadership stressed the need for popularizing Hindi to serve as a link for interregional communication and rally mass support against imperialism. Efforts to propagate the idea of Hindi as the national language were soon undertaken by organizations such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj, which actively promoted Hindi in North India. Pro-Hindi activism also constituted the introduction of Hindi newspapers in Bengal in the nineteenth century and the introduction of Hindi in law courts and schools in Bihar around 1900 (Das Gupta 1970, 83). Within the Hindi area, many organizations devoted to the cause of Hindi were formed. Of these, the Nagari Prachar Sabha in Benaras in 1893 and the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, founded in Allahabad in 1910, became the most significant organizations for propagating the use of Hindi. These organizations promoted the Devanagari script and advocated a style that incorporated Sanskrit vocabulary while consciously removing Persian and Arabic words. Mahavir Prasad Dvivedi, the chief proponent of Hindi poetry at the turn of the century and editor of Saraswati, encouraged the use of Sanskrit meters in poetry. His own efforts to propagate this style included invitations to poets to write verse in Hindi, which he corrected before publishing in the journal, and he encouraged young poets to imitate his own lyrics published in Saraswati. With the publication of this new style of verse in Saraswati between 1909 and 1910 by scholars such as Kamta Prasad Guru (18751947), author of the first authoritative Hindi grammar, and Ram Chandra Shukla (18841941), professor of Hindi in Benaras and historian of Hindi literature, Hindi poetry received further impetus.

Efforts to establish Hindi as the national language and separate it from Urdu aggravated communal tensions. The Muslim community in India saw the advocacy for Hindi and its replacement of Urdu as an exercise of Hindu hegemony that posed a threat to Muslim interests in the subcontinent. Tensions escalated as Hindu revivalists such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lajpat Rai of the Indian National Congress pressured the congress to emphasize Hinduism and Hindi in order to draw support from the Hindu masses. An example of the consolidation of the HinduMuslim rift is visible in the simultaneous formation of the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha in 1906. This threat of Hindu domination via propagation of Hindi also resulted in the formation of several organizations for the propagation of Urdu. Of these, the Aligarh movement initiated by Syed Ahmed Khan in the late nineteenth century was most vocal about asserting the status of Urdu as a national language.

Nationalism and Revival of Hindi

Emphasis on the revival of a Sanskritized Hindi from the orthodox section of the Hindi revivalists led to the development of a highly literate Hindi at the turn of the century and gave a setback to Khadi boli, Braj Bhasha, and Awadhi dialects of Hindustani. Before the language controversy arose, these forms of Hindi or Hindustani were used by Hindus and Muslims alike. For example, Tulsidas’s works Ramcharit Manas and Kavitavali were composed in Awadhi and Braj Bhasha, respectively. However, after the espousal of Hindi, which initiated the purging of Perso-Arabic words from the language, Braj Bhasha was considered unsuitable for poetry. A revised form of Khadi boli that used Sanskrit instead of Persian vocabulary was employed for Hindi verse. Ayodhya Singh Hariaudh, at this time, wrote his epic poems Priya-pravas and Vaidei Banvas in a Hindi that was highly Sanskritized. Others, such as Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and Shyam Narayan Pandey also utilized Sanskrit meters as opposed to the dohas, padas, and kavittas (poetic forms) of medieval poetry. Thus, by the first decade of the twentieth century, the language politics motivated by nationalist sympathies largely changed the character of Hindi literature from Hindustani, the standard language, to a highly literate and Sanskritized Hindi. During this period, Hindi received further impetus through Saraswati, edited by Shyamsun-der Das, which became the most influential literary journal in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Writings in Hindi were encouraged through competitions for which prizes were awarded. By 1916, the number of journals in Hindi in the Uttar Pradesh region had far surpassed the number in Urdu. Between 1900 and 1910, Hindi became the medium of instruction in schools, where Urdu and English were the chief languages. Publishing in Hindi increased, and it became progressively more difficult to find publishers in Urdu.

Accompanying this change from Hindustani to a literate Hindi was a celebration of the past glory of India, as well as a privileging of Hinduism. Hindu intellectuals who advocated Hindi and believed in the glorious Hindu past argued that “only the reform of Hindu society on the basis of tyag (asceticism) and patriotism could bring about self-government” (Gaeffke 1978, 21). The revival of a Hindu past was linked to the idea of the vedic “golden age,” an idea that had acquired prominence in the late nineteenth century in Bengal as a way of countering British colonialism and had manifested itself in the writings of renowned novelists such as Bankim Chandra (see Chakravarti 1986, 2787; Kaviraj 1993, 139). Evoking images of a “golden Hindu age” was the writers’ way of resisting the colonial threat and reminding themselves and their readers of the need to recover what India had lost to its colonizers. Soon it manifested itself in Hindi literature as well. While preaching the ultimate unity of all religions, intellectuals and proponents of Hindi insisted on the superiority of Hinduism and refused any compromise with Muslims or Christians (Gaeffke 1978, 21). Self-government, or swaraj, meant the rule of a Hindu majority. Hence, a body of literature poured forth evoking the myth of a glorious Indian past dominated by Hindu kings and philosophers, and a Hindu identity was represented as an “Indian” identity. For example, Shyam Narayan Pandey’s epics Haldigh-ati and Jauhar depicted the heroism of Rajputs in resisting the invasions of the Turks and the Moghuls. Stories of the greatness of Hindu gods were evoked through mythological tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Similarly, in Bhagavad Purana, Makhan Lal Chaturvedi attempted to reawaken a similar sense of duty in the Indian public as the characters in the Bhagavad Gita possessed.

In the field of drama, too, this trend became visible, especially in the historical plays of writers such as Jaishankar Prasad, Badrinath Bhatt, Makhan Lal Cha-turvedi, Bechan Sharma Ugra, and Govind Vallabh Pant. Called the most significant playwright of the twentieth century by Dashrath Ojha, Prasad’s historical dramas Ashoka (1912), Ajatshatru (1922), Chandragupta (1931), and Skanda-gupta Vikramaditya (1928) dwell on the courage of Hindu kings from ancient India. Shaym Sunder Suman’s historical plays, such as Chanakya Mohan, Hal-dighati, Padmini, and Kunal, also recuperated themes from history. Plays such as Makhan Lal Chaturvedi’s Krishnarjun Yuddha, Ugra’s Mahatma Isa, Govind Vallabh Pant’s Varmala, and Badrinath Bhatt’s Kuruvan Dahan, Durgavati, and Chandrakala Bhanukar continued to evoke images of a perfect Hindu society.

Hindu texts were also revived by Hindi nataka mandalis (play company) to counter the Urdu movement. For example, “Sri Ramlila Nataka Mandali” presented Madhav Shukla’s Sita Swamvara based on Tulsidas’s Ramcharit Manas, Mahabharata, and Maharana Pratap and plays that satirized Urdu. These performances received immense popularity at the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan conferences at Allahabad and Lucknow (Narayan 1981, 4243).

Writers’ evocation of India’s past inspired by a sense of Hindu nationalism was, however, detrimental to HinduMuslim relations. Images of a glorious Hindu past smoothed over the internal social and religious conflicts in Indian society, reconstructing a national and cultural identity that was based on upper-caste Hindu notions and values.

National Unity and Reform

In 1906, the HinduMuslim conflict culminated in the partition of Bengal. British rulers played up the communal divisions by giving patronage to Hindi and granting in 1909, through the Morley-Minto reforms, separate electorates to Muslims. This phase witnessed the growth of a literature that emphasized HinduMuslim unity and evoked India’s historical past as an example of solidarity against the foreign powers—a trend that continued into the 1930s and 1940s as writers perceived the designs of British divisiveness of Hindus and Muslims in the interest of consolidating imperial rule. Signs of such an awareness became visible in plays like Swapan Bhang and Rakshabandhan, which expressed the theme of HinduMuslim unity. The aftermath of the partition led to the initiation of the Swadeshi movement in Bengal (19058). Swadeshi called for a move toward self-rule and a boycott of foreign goods. The national agitation that initiated the Swadeshi movement after the partition of Bengal spread from Calcutta into rural areas and educational institutions. Poets such as Mahavir Prasad Dvivedi and Lakshmidhar Bajpai articulated their nationalist aspirations by satirizing and ridiculing foreign goods and urging the use of homespun cloth. Their message was that Swadeshi, which aimed at improving the conditions of Indian peasants through the use of indigenous goods, would bring back India’s prosperity.

The sociopolitical message of mass unity intensified as Gandhi, upon his return from South Africa in 1915, launched his anticolonial campaigns for suffering peasants in Champaran, Bihar, in 1917 and against the zamindars in the Kaira district of Gujarat in 1918. A combination of Gandhi’s campaigns and the Swadeshi movement exerted a great influence on Hindi writers and brought forth a new outpouring of nationalistic literature, with Premchand as the most powerful spokesman of freedom. That Gandhi’s influence motivated Premchand’s ideas is evident in the writer’s resignation of his job as inspector of government schools and increased active participation in Gandhi’s movement to teach the villagers how to spin their own yarn and produce indigenous handmade cloth (Gaeffke 1978). The influence of Gandhi’s Salt march (1930) and the second noncooperation movement recast itself in his novel Karmbhumin, which propagates the effectiveness of public demonstrations. An anti-industrial outlook found its way in Premchand’s Rangbhumin (1925). In the novel, Premchand interrogates the effects of Western industrialization through a blind beggar’s struggles against a cigarette factory owner who establishes his factory next to the beggar’s piece of land. Premchand invokes the idea that the consequences of industrialization are brutal: the beggar is killed in his attempts to save his little plot of land that is threatened by the factory. Premchand also expresses the helplessness of the peasants amid rising industrial colonialism by showing the expansion of the factory despite the villagers’ protests.

HinduMuslim dissensions deepened in the 1940s as the movement for a separate Pakistan became stronger. Hence, HinduMuslim unity became a popular theme for writers like Pant, Dvivedi, and Harivansh Rai Bachchan, who lamented the possibility of the subcontinent’s breakup and reconstructed in their poems a nation devoid of religious, class, and caste distinctions.

Progressive Realism

Gandhi also propagated HinduMuslim unity through his support of Hindustani as the national language instead of Hindi or Urdu, which encouraged HinduMuslim separatism and kept the two communities disunited. Gandhi’s contention was that, since Hindustani was spoken by both the Hindu and the Muslim populace, it would prevent dissensions and promote national integration. But while Gandhi emphasized this unity, he made it clear that the script of Hindustani would be Devanagari and not Arabic (Das Gupta 1970). This move caused immense disaffection among progressive intellectuals—both Hindu and Muslim. Disaffection caused by Gandhi’s stance on the issue of Devanagari was compounded by disillusionment with Gandhi’s strategy of “nonviolence.” Even though, largely speaking, Gandhi had, by this time, acquired the image of a mahatma (great soul), for many on the Left, his policy of nonviolence had not shown conclusive results. By the 1930s, the “Congress repeatedly aroused expectations and aspirations which it could not satisfy” (Sarkar 1984). Therefore, a challenge from the Left “through trade unions, Kisan Sabhas, radical student organizations, Congress socialists and communists became an important part of the political developments during the mid-1930s. The disillusionment of the radical middle class with Gandhian constraints” also contributed to the growth of the Left by the end of this period, and “revolutionaries abandoned the path of individual violence” to adopt the path of Marxist mass struggle (Sarkar 1984, 255). The upsurge of anticolonial nationalist ideas, World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and continuing colonial exploitation created a mood of active political engagement. Influenced by Marxist ideas and inspired by the success of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, writers shifted their earlier Gan-dhian stance in favor of a more revolutionary ideology. A number of disillusioned intellectuals and writers initiated the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1936, with Premchand as its pioneering member. Defining the banner of “progressive” as “[a]ll that arouses in us the critical spirit,” writers proposed to turn literature into a weapon in the struggle against colonialism (Pradhan 1979, Vol. 1, 21). The aim of the progressive writers was to portray an “authentic” picture of the problems of marginalized masses through a realistic idiom. This literature was to be expressed in a language easily understood by the masses that initiated a shift from the “high” or Sanskritized Hindi propagated by the orthodox Hindu nationalists to a literature that used Hindustani. A move to realism also established the novel as the chief medium of expressing the political commitment of writers.

In this changing context, Premchand emerged as a key figure in exposing the evils of colonialism through a progressive, realistic style exhibiting the influence of Marxist ideas in stories such as “Katil.” “Katil” reveals an ideological shift from the nonviolent path suggested by Gandhi to a revolutionary one. In the story, Dharamvir tells his mother:

Picketing and squatting crowds do not get us anywhere. You don’t make a country free by singing pious songs and parading streets in non-violent batches … kill a couple of thousand English today, and you have freedom coming to you on a platter. Yes, mother. That’s exactly what happened in Russia, that’s exactly what happened in Ireland, and that’s exactly what is going to happen in India—I hope. (Savin 1967, 151)

Premchand’s novel Premashram (1922) also forced open issues concerning colonial exploitation through long descriptions of forced labor and the molestation of poor peasants and their women at the hands of rich landlords. Premchand’s answer to freedom lay in collective peasant protest and overthrow of the ruling classes. Frustrated with the oppression from landlords and government officials, Balraj tells the villagers: “The letters that I receive say that in Russia it is the peasants who rule. They do what they want. Close to Russia there is a country called Bulgaria. There, recently, the peasants overthrew the king and now the panchayat of peasants and laborers rules” (Premchand 1922, 53; translation mine). Another realistic portrayal of colonial exploitation occurred in Rishab-charan Jain’s Gadar (The Revolution) in 1930 at the height of the nationalist movement. Not surprisingly, the novel was banned by the British government and reprinted only after independence.

The Progressive Writers’ Association also strengthened the Hindi short story, a medium that had already been explored by Premchand and Jaishankar Prasad. As compared to full-length novels, the short story could convey the political message in a shorter space. Seen as a viable means of communicating political messages, some writers, such as Yashpal, adopted this form for expressing their revolutionary views.

While prose remained the dominant form of expression during the 1930s and 1940s, progressive drama, too, played a significant role in attempting to dismantle existing power structures. Upendra Nath Ashk wrote plays such as Chhata Beta, Jai Parajai, Aadi Marg, and Kaid and Udan. Others, such as Pandit Laxmi Narayan Mishra, expressed their sociopolitical disaffection through “problem plays” such as Sanyasis, Rakshas Ka Mandir, Mukti Ka Rahasya, Rajyoga, and Sindoor Ki Holi (Nagendra 1988, 645). Protest against problems of farmers, landlords, police, and intercaste marriage, among others, came from Premchand in plays such as Sangrama and Prem Ki Vedi (1933).

The latter half of the 1920s and the decade of the 1930s saw the proliferation of one-act plays in Hindi, a number of which were also published in various journals, an example of which is Prashad’s Ek Ghunt. Hans, a journal edited by Premchand, published a special number on one-act plays in 1938. The shift from full-length plays to one-act plays was emblematic of a formalistic struggle that progressive playwrights waged against the power structures. On one hand, it represented a break from the classical, full-length Sanskrit dramas that had acquired popularity because of the efforts to produce Sanskritized Hindi dramas by Hindu nationalist writers. Second, the one-act play in Hindi provided a break from the European full-length plays that dominated metropolitan theaters by the twentieth century. The one-act plays also proved immensely useful for propagating sociopolitical messages: they were both entertaining and instructive, they cut down on the details of a full-length production, they came straight to the point, and they were easy to perform in towns and villages that lacked the requisite theatrical facilities. A number of progressive playwrights, such as Bal-raj Sahni, K. A. Abbas, and Rasheed Jehan, channeled their attacks on contemporary problems through the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which was formed on an all-India basis in 1943 to use theater as a vehicle for social change. The IPTA set up a Hindustani squad that performed numerous plays on topics ranging from British imperialism, to fascism in Europe, to landlord problems, to exploitation of workers in factories, to the Bengal famine of 1943 and the cholera epidemic of 1944. Balraj Sahni and K. A. Abbas wrote and produced plays such as Zubeida, Yeh Amrit Hai.

The influence of Marxist ideas on Hindi writing continued into the 1940s. With their progressive outlook, writers such as Sohanlal Dvivedi and Sumitran-anadan Pant, among others, continued to attack capitalist exploitation and the evils of imperialism and landlordism. The most scathing attack was launched on the imperialists after the Bengal famine of 1943, which, as politically com-mited writers believed, was created by the British government after the Quit India movement of 1942. The famine had a crippling effect, and millions of lives were affected. Yashpal dealt with these themes in his novels Dada Comrade, Deshdrohi, Party Comrade, and Manushya Ke Rup.

Chhayavad and Nationalism

Meanwhile, the decades of the 1920s and the 1930s also gave rise to a literature that exhibited a romanticism and mysticism, especially in poetry, a trend that came to be known as Chhayavad. Chhaya, which literally translates as “a reflection, an image in a mirror,” emerged as a revolt against Khadi boli poetry, which had replaced Braj poetry by the beginning of the twentieth century. As mentioned earlier, due to the efforts of orthodox Hindus to propagate the use of Hindi, Khadi boli had experienced a formalistic transformation that imparted a literary character to the language. Poetry born out of Hindu revivalism was replete with images of a lost past. “The ideals of these poets … were communal and revivalistic. … Their strong feelings of patriotism and nationalism were inspired and coloured by the Hindu ideals which did little to encourage secular ideals for the development of a more progressive Indian society” (Pandey 1975, 82). The chhayavadis revolted against this authoritarian control of poetry, which severely curtailed artistic freedom. They propagated the free flow of artistic expression, through which they expressed the problems and disillusionment of the individual in a world gone awry. The shift toward romanticism was also emblematic of writers’ protests against British colonialism. By the end of World War I, British exploitation had reached its peak, and the nationalist struggle was at its height. Romantic writers sought an escape from the dreary conditions of life by creating an imaginary world for themselves. To look for solutions to existing political problems, the chhayavadis turned to an infinite transcendental reality, holding on to a rhetoric of mysticism and spiritualism. The chhayavadi phase emerged from the cultural conditions within Indian society and thus differed from the romantic movement in the West.

The chief proponents of the Chhayavad movement were Jaishankar Prasad, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, Sumitranandan Pant, and Mahadevi Verma. Nirala’s first romantic poem, entitled “Juhi Ki Kali” (The Bud of Jasmine) was published in 1923. Within a short span of time, poets such as Makhan Lal Chatur-vedi, Ram Kumar Verma, Bhagvati Charan Verma, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Narendra Sharma, Uday Shankar Bhatta, and Kedar Nath Bhatta became established as romantic poets. Preoccupied with symbolist experiments, poetic lyricism, and mysticism, the nationalistic themes of the chhayavadi writers became replete with such imagery. Nirala’s Anamika (1937) is the most representative collection of the chhayavadi writers. Others, such as Pant’s collection of poems Vani (1927), Pallava (1928), and Gunjan (1932), express the loneliness of the poet in a world of chaos.

The revolutionary upsurge in literature and the concern with mass nationalist struggle caused a shift from the individualistic struggles undertaken by the romantics to a depiction of the struggles of the masses. Chhayavadi writers such as Jaisankar Prasad, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala (18961961), Sumitra Nandan Pant, and Mahadevi Verma started finding their preoccupations with the lyrical charm and pastoral beauty of poetry limited and moved on to overt social themes. Poems such as Mahadevi Verma’s “Yama” and “Deepshikha” (1940), Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s “Madhushala” (1935), and Pant’s “Yuganta” (1939) and “Gramya” (1940) are reflective of this shift. The poems portray poverty, social inequality, and village life. Surya Kant Nirala’s Kukurmutta (1941) is a powerful attack on the British and Indian ruling classes through the kukurmutta ’s (mushroom’s) chastisement of the rose, which is presented as a metaphor for the capitalistic designs of the rulers.

Gender and Nationalism

Women were always at the center of the nationalist movement, both as historically constituted subjects in the nationalistic schemes of social reformers and political leaders and as constituting their own history through participation in the freedom struggle (see Sangari and Vaid 1986; Chatterjee 1989). Nationalist debates in the nineteenth century on the subjects of sati, child marriage, widow remarriage, and the twentieth-century movement for female enfranchisement were centered around women. Women’s issues propelled the national movement forward as Indian nationalist leaders sought to free women from the double burden of colonial and patriarchal exploitation by initiating social reforms and granting them enfranchisement. In so doing, they could show to their colonial masters that they were moving in the direction of a nation that granted equality to all its citizens (see Jayawardene 1986).

Despite these reforms, the narratives of these writers continued to contain women in conservative hegemonic structures. For example, distinguished nationalist writers such as Lajjaram Mehta (18641931) did not condemn social problems such as child marriage, widow remarriage, purdah, and so on. As a matter of fact, in Adarsh Hindu (The Ideal Hindu, 1915), Mehta celebrated the traditional view that represented an ideal Hindu woman as primarily a mother and a wife who remains dependent on her parents, brother, or husband. Mehta’s views were endorsed by Kishorilal Gosvami (18861932), another respected writer of the age.

Premchand challenged Mehta’s views and attacked the very architecture of the sociocultural system that had negative ramifications on women, through novels such as Nirmala (1927) and Sevasadan. In Sevasadan, Premchand launched an attack on prostitution by exposing the cultural forces that force women into this profession. The principal character, a Hindu lawyer, remains indifferent to the plight of a Brahmin’s wife whose husband, on groundless suspicion, turned her out of his house. Her helplessness forces her into prostitution. Integrating the sociocultural structures of caste, family, and colonialism (the Western-educated lawyer represents colonial authority), Premchand reveals the detrimental impact of these features on the position of women in Indian society. Following Premchand’s example, a number of writers exposed the social conventions that continued to bind women in the shackles of regressive traditions. Pandey Bechan Sharma Ugra’s Chand Hasinon Ke Khutut (1927) shows the consequences of HinduMuslim bigotry on women. Through a collection of letters, he reveals the inability of a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy, both students in Calcutta, to continue their relationship. Seen as an intruder in the Muslim community because of his love for a Muslim girl, the boy is killed by a Muslim mob at the moment when the girl’s father finally agrees to the relationship.

However, even Premchand and his ilk’s sympathies with their female protagonists did little to uplift the image of women. In most novels about female exploitation, women remained victims who were either to be pitied for their misfortune or to be admired for their sacrifices in the face of difficulties. In novels such as Ruthi Rani, Premchand juxtaposes Indian women with Christian women, through which he constitutes Indian women as having a high moral fiber in contrast with the morally weak character of Christian women. Through the figure of the morally superior Rani, who is a Hindu, Premchand asserts nationalistic pride at a period of the heightening freedom struggle. Such an image of Hindu women as being morally superior to Christian women (Christianity being a marker of complicity with the rulers on account of religion) was a nationalistic attempt on writers’ part to show to the West that there were spheres in which India was superior to the West. As Partha Chatterjee argues, the nationalist patriarchy made clear-cut distinctions between spiritual and material spheres, marking the former as Eastern and superior as opposed to Western materialism. It placed women in the spiritual sphere and, in this way, “invested women with the dubious honour of representing a distinctly modern national culture” (Chatterjee 1989, 622). In Rani, we find a woman who upholds traditional Indian values and will thus hold the nation together. Thus, a rather limited portrayal of women emerges in the writings of this period. As in Premc-hand’s Nirmala or Rajender Singh Bedi’s Lajvanti, which deals with the theme of rehabilitation of women abducted during the HinduMuslim riots in 1947, women are articulated either as victims of patriarchy or as embodiments of the “ideal” mother or wife.

However, women writers challenged such conventional portrayals of their roles and presented the literary world with empowering images of figures such as the rani of Jhansi. The progressive environment created by the Progressive Writers’ Association before independence brought forth an outpouring of texts in which women confronted existing power structures and urged the people’s participation in the freedom struggle. Writers such as Subhadra Kumari Chauhan and Mahadevi Verma, among others, spoke openly about the freedom movement in an attempt to solicit the desired nationalist response from their audience. In her poem “Rakhi Ki Chunauti,” Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s protagonist is a woman who inspires her brother on the occasion of “Rakhee” to participate in the civil disobedience movement. In Chauhan’s Vida, a sister joins the disobedience movement herself after learning of her brother’s arrest. Jhansi Ki Rani, Chauhan’s powerful celebration of the queen of Jhansi’s participation in the 1857 mutiny against the British rulers, became an example of empowerment of women everywhere.

After Independence

Literature of Partition

The end of the freedom struggle and India’s independence from colonial rule in 1947 initiated a new chapter in Hindi literature. Independence was accompanied by the tragedy of the subcontinent’s partition into India and Pakistan. Because of the violence that accompanied this geographical division, freedom generated rather mixed feelings. The euphoria of independence soon changed into a mood of gloom as millions of people on both sides of the border were traumatized by the frenzy of communalism, alienation, and despair. Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 dealt a further blow and shattered the confidence of the newly independent nation. The trauma of partition affected writers, who started questioning the idea of a nation that was invoked in earlier Hindi writings. While writers depicted the ramifications of the partition on the masses, they reexamined the implications and limitations of a nationalism that caused untold misery and suffering for the teeming millions whom it sought to liberate from foreign oppression. The partition became the predominant theme in the writings of Munto, Rajender Singh Bedi, Bhisham Sahni, and others. Depressing conditions of Lahore slums and the poverty-stricken areas of Jalandhar were portrayed in Upen-dranath Ashk’s Girti Diwaren (1947). Other stories, such as Mohan Rakesh’s Andhere Band Kamare (1961) and Yashpal’s Jhutha Sach (1960) reevaluated HinduMuslim relations against the backdrop of the partition. Agyeya published a collection of stories and poems about the partition called Sharnarthi (1948). In the preface to the collection, the author addresses the issue of communal violence, the horrors of war, and the perpetuation of communal strife by the ruling bourgeoisie for their own political gains. A number of writers also found refuge in the literary journal Hans (193352) for expressing their ideological concerns about the partition and “to draw attention to … disadvantaged and neglected groups, the … distanced and obscured millions” (Rai 1984, 28).

With escalating communal tensions in India in the decades after independence and the emergence of regional and local nationalisms in different parts of the country, partition narratives continued to be written through the 1980s as a way of conveying the futility of communal dissensions. By depicting the tragedy of the partition, writers such as Bhisham Sahni in recent decades have attempted to enlighten the public about how they are constantly being recast into the ruling class’s scheme of a new nation. In Tamas (1976), Bhisham Sahni narrativizes the history of partition not as a history of communalism but as a problem that tore the moral and religious fabric of the country beyond repair. Sahni juxtaposes ordinary people from different religious groups with political leaders to show the ways in which the leaders schemed against the people for their own party interests. Sahni’s message is that, had the people understood the schemes of the rulers, both British and the Indian elite, they would have never encouraged or participated in the communal violence that ensued. We also find in Tamas the interrogation of nationalism, not as a unified phenomenon but in terms of other groups such as the dalits, peasants, and women.

RuralUrban Transitions

In the years immediately following independence, writers also turned to representations of villages after the breakdown of the old order. Phanishwar Renu’s Maila Aanchal (1954) takes us to a small village in Bihar to show the struggle between a stubborn zamindar and his landless workers. In Rag-Darbari, Srilal Shukla shows how new forms of exploitation replaced old ones in the village. Much to his consternation, the protagonist of the story, a research student, goes on vacation to his uncle’s village and discovers that his uncle’s means of power are money, perjury, and exploitation of the poor. The author lashes out at corrupt politics through the locale of the village, which represents a microcosmic view of the situation at the center. Other stories, such as Nagarjuna’s Balcanma (1952) and Bhagvati Prasad’s Mother Ganges (1953), center their plots around village life and the struggle of labor against zamindars.

Fifties and After

In the 1950s and 1960s, the tendencies of New Criticism and modernism that were dominant in the West in the first half of the century infiltrated the Indian literary scene and had a direct influence on the canon of Hindi literature. These configurations emerged in the Hindi Nai Kahani and the Nai Kavita movements of the 1950s. As literature’s preoccupation with formalism increased, writers adopted the rhetoric of a “universalist” idiom and became predominantly concerned with purely aesthetic criteria (See Tharu and Lalita 1993, 92). Formalism and “universalist claims” of literature became the basis for inclusion of texts into the canon of Hindi literature, resulting in the marginalization of significant writings that came from radical sectors as well as from women.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the results of independence started to become visible. While the metropolis seemed to progress, unemployment remained high, and large sections of the population remained below the poverty line. Such a climate gave rise to various protest movements, such as the antiprice rise agitation of 197273, organized and led primarily by women. The 1970s also saw a vigorous involvement of women in social issues. Several women’s organizations were formed that protested against regressive traditions such as dowry and raised their voices against oppression of women. Feminist journals such as Man-ushi raised their voices against the repression of women. In 1975, the government declared a national emergency in the country, which suspended the fundamental rights of citizens until 1977, when the emergency was lifted. “Slum clearance” programs were initiated by the government, and the police coldbloodedly razed “unsightly” urban settlements, rendering people homeless and helpless “with no legal avenues for appeal or protest” (Tharu and Lalita 1993, 99).

The decade of the 1970s gave birth to a radical new generation of political awareness and engagement. Writers questioned the inadequacies of democracy, which, contrary to its promises, and as the emergency revealed, did not seem to represent the interests of the people. Politically engaged writers made these themes the subjects of their writings, and the protagonists in the writings of the 1970s and 1980s were often lower-class people and women like Basanti, Bhis-ham Sahni’s protagonist in Basanti, a novel about slums and slum dwellers in Delhi. Basanti (1980) shows the impact of the government slum clearance schemes on lower-class people, especially on women like its protagonist. Basanti belongs to a lower-class and caste community that lost its livelihood during the country’s partition and moved to Delhi to revive its lost fortunes. The slum houses in which the community resides are brutally uprooted by police authorities, resulting in the dislocation of its residents without any help or compensation for the loss of their homes. While Sahni’s narrative constitutes an attack on repressive government policies, it is significant in showing the impact of the violence caused by national politics on the private space that Basanti occupies.

The political, capitalistic, and physical violence reduces Basanti to a salable commodity and makes her a victim of rape, which ultimately reduces her status to that of a prostitute. However, Sahni does not dismiss Basanti for her open and active sexuality but represents it as being disruptive of patriarchal control. To highlight class and social differences and the ramifications of social policy for different classes, Sahni juxtaposes Basanti with the upper-class Shyama bibi (mistress of the house), who remains imprisoned in her middle-class respectability. By virtue of her class affiliation, Shyama has to fulfill the role of the “good” wife and mother. Her bourgeois respectability denies her the right to defy the shackles of social convention. Unlike Basanti, Shyama remains submissive to the social order, her husband, and the marriage—a typical model of traditional feminine behavior that is a symbol of governability by a patriarchal colonialist state. Sahni, however, is critical of Shyama for reproducing in her thought the bourgeois ideology that created and now sustains the idea of the “respectable woman.” It is the lower-class Basanti, on the other hand, whose courage resists the totalizing portrayals of the passive female subject who seeks to be saved by her fathers and sons.

Women Writing in Hindi

Because of the euphoria created by India’s newfound freedom in the immediate postindependence period and the emerging problems of the nation, including the wars with bordering countries of China and Pakistan and preoccupation with the internal communal and political dissensions, problems confronting women are often obscured or rendered invisible. The exploitation that women face in all spheres—economic, physical, and psychological—is ignored under the rhetoric of equal fundamental rights for all citizens. The escalating figures of dowry murders since the 1980s are testimony to the horrifying treatment that women receive. Indeed, one finds, even in the 1990s, that reports of dowry deaths, which should constitute news headlines, are relegated to rather inconspicuous columns in leading newspapers. Female infanticide and, more recently, female feticide, ill treatment of widows, whose worst manifestation was seen in the sati of 17-year-old Roop Kanwar in 1987, and discrimination in education are some other ways in which women are regularly put down. Cultural sanctions for the subjugation of females are also provided by government-regulated, televised renditions of Hindu texts such as the Ramayana, which celebrates the most regressive aspects of female subordination through its female protagonist, Sita. Hence, women find themselves caught in a maze of problems stemming from patriarchy, capitalism, tradition, and religion, which, woven around male hierarchies, continue to regulate women’s lives.

Although male writers such as Premchand, Jainendra Kumar, Rajender Singh Bedi, and Bhisham Sahni attempted to deal with problems that women face in Indian society, they accorded women spaces that were conceived according to their own social visions. Hence, what was ascribed to women were spaces designated from a male viewpoint. A study of Hindi literature reveals that women carved out their own spaces in order to address issues such as marriage, divorce, sexuality, and women’s education, that is, issues that directly affect women’s lives. Confronted with such problems, women interrogate in their writings the cultural traditions and the modern uses of patriarchal power in independent India. Many of these women have challenged the power structures that contain them in positions of subordination even while keeping some of the traditions intact. They discuss their frustrations and humiliations stemming from social problems that affect their daily lives. Rajni Pannikar writes:

[As a child] I used to be very unhappy to see the atrocities committed on women. That time itself, I decided in my heart that I should also write something about the condition of women. And when I started writing, all those situations, all those scenes and pathetic images hit my mind again and again. (“Meri Rachna Prakriya,” Gyanoday, October 1968, 101; cited in Asopa 1987, 51; translation mine)

Krishna Sobti also opposes the traditional moral values imposed on women. She vehemently argues that, to assert our own identity, “we have to do something that will be different from the past. Something new” (“Meri Srjan Prakriya,” Gyanoday, November 1968, 55; cited in Asopa 1987, 44; translation mine).

In most of her novels, Shivani opens up numerous windows on the lives of women. She asserts that the tradition-bound, male-dominated system leaves no space for women’s individuality. Shivani contends that a woman may be treated as a goddess or as a “Sati,” but actually her position is no more than that of a servant. Her novels reveal that even in the contemporary milieu, women’s situation is no different from the repressive conditions of the nineteenth century that had urged the need for social reforms. In Chaudah Phere, Shivani, through the colonel, his wife, and their daughter Ahilya, problematizes the social system. She posits that in the male-dominated Indian society, a man assumes the rights to behave with a woman in whichever way he likes. Despite Ahilya’s protests, her father the colonel forces her to marry the man he chooses as her husband. The colonel himself has an affair with Malika Sarkar, depriving his wife of all her rights in the house. In Rativilap, Shivani portrays the difficulties of a widow. In spite of being educated, Mayapuri ’s Shobha finds herself caught in a web of difficulties. Helpless and trapped, she silently suffers when her poverty, class, and caste prevent her from marrying her lover, Satish, who brings the governor’s daughter home as his bride.

Like Mayapuri ’s Shobha, the protagonist in Usha Priyamvada’s Pachpan Khambe Lal Diwaren is prevented from marrying the man she loves because it is socially unacceptable. Burdened by poverty and her family’s financial crisis, she takes up a job as the warden of a hostel and becomes a prisoner in the building with red walls and 55 pillars.

A number of stories written by women foreground the problems pertaining to marriage. The Indian social system allows little choice to women in the matter of selecting their husbands. For the most part, parents make decisions about matrimony and, in accordance with the Shastras, gift the girl to the groom’s family through a ritual called kanyaadan (giving of the bride), accompanied by a dowry that serves as a recompense to her husband’s family. Unfortunately, the practice of giving dowry has resulted in the commodification of women and encourages, at the same time, mismatched marriages because of economic indigence. While rich men claim an untold price for their sons, the poor are forced to sell their daughters to men because of economic helplessness. Rajni Pannikar vilifies this situation in her novels. Because of her family’s inability to give dowry, the heroine of Do Ladkiyan remains unmarried. On the night of her wedding, the vows cannot be taken because the prospective groom and his father angrily disrupt the ceremony upon realizing that no dowry will be provided. Helpless, she takes up a job to solve her family’s financial difficulties. In the meantime, she meets the wealthy Mr. Kanaudia, who wants to make her his private secretary. In exchange, he offers her a car, a bungalow, and other facilities. She accepts his terms only to later realize his sexual intentions toward her. Kanaudia views her as no more than a female body for his sexual exploits. Pannikar’s attempt is to enlighten us about the regressive aspects of a rigidly tradition-bound system.

All too often, the social system ignores women’s needs and desires under the garb of traditional values such as pativrat dharam. It provides practically no freedom of choice to women, who are expected to be “good” wives and overlook the abuses of their husbands. According to Chandrakiran Saunareksa: “Even today the Indian woman has no freedom of marriage. In our society parents arrange the wedding. And if a woman does not want to marry, she gets no cooperation from society because even today the old traditions are strongly prevalent—how will a woman stay without a protector?” ( Dinman, July 6, 1975; cited in Asopa 1987, 38; translation mine). This problem of arranged marriage is manifested in Shivani’s Kainja, whose heroine, Nandi Tiwari, is not allowed to marry the man she chooses, because her father has been told that her horoscope does not predict a happy married future.

The problem of dowry compounded by widowhood is considered in Mrinal Pandey’s short story “Hum Safar.” Through the thoughts of a young widow, Nirmala, traveling in a train compartment, Pandey illuminates the bitter truth about the ways in which her widowhood denies her whatever little she has left to savor. Nirmala recalls that after her husband’s death, her “colored Saris and blouses, her silver anklets and nose ring, all had slowly found their way into her sister-in-law’s boxes. Well, she had only a son to bring up, but her sister-in-law had several daughters to marry off. Wasn’t her need greater than Nir-mala’s?” (Pandey 1993, 549). Pandey here is not merely confirming the present-day experiences of widows but also contesting the social structure that continues to shape the widow’s world.

The train compartment in Pandey’s narrative represents a microscopic version of contemporary India, in which modernization and industrialization attempt to homogenize the social and gendered difference and tend to overlook the complexities of the social structures that continue to confine women to a position of subordination. The train brings “fellow travelers” of both sexes into the space of a common compartment. Despite their inhabiting a common space, the collective “we” (in Hindi, “hum” also translates as “we”) in this space of the nation, that is, the train compartment, is divided along gender lines in which the two male companions clearly feel superior and bully the other passengers in the compartment. The space of the train compartment becomes an artificially created space in which sexuality, widowhood, violence, and technology collide. The train journey becomes an allegory of the exploitation of the female, in its various manifestations, under the garb of equal rights. By bringing the segregated dichotomies into a common space, Pandey draws our attention to the fundamental contradictions that have been leveled into an imagined oneness in the interest of making a nation. The tension in the story serves as a reminder of the failed promises (especially for women) made by the custodians of an independent nation.

To confront the violence committed on women in their daily lives, Pandey introduces a language of violence expressed in Nirmala’s outrageous beating of her son. Through this violent act, Nirmala conveys to the two loafers that she will no longer put up with their harassment. Perhaps Pandey is also saying that a quiet and nonviolent, passive attitude that society expects from a “virtuous” woman is insufficient to confront the violence inflicted on women through maledominated structures.

Stories written by women largely reveal women’s desires to have the choice to shape their lives, especially marriage—something that existing social institutions do not grant. Although Mannu Bhandari sees marriage as a necessity, she recommends the choice of divorce in an unsuccessful marriage (Bhandari 1971a). At the same time, however, she vivifies the social problems attached to the status of being a divorced woman in Ap Ka Banti (1971b).

Most of the stories of Pannikar, Shivani, Mannu Bhandari, and Mrinal Pandey strongly convey the necessity for women’s education for achieving social and economic equality. For this reason, their protagonists are often educated women. The heroine of Do Ladkiyan is professionally sound because of her education. Similarly, Kainja ’s Nandi Tiwari fights the system by obtaining a medical degree, which enables her to become a successful doctor. Her education provides her a self-confidence and economic stability that enable her to face the repressive society.

The stories written by these women are strategies for questioning the complex, heterogeneous forces at work in the configuration of the power structures that subordinate women. They introduce old issues, but with new emphases and new orientations. What we get is a textual sense of the struggles through which women’s subjectivities are being consolidated in contemporary Indian society.


The preceding survey shows the inseparability of literary productions and the lived cultural experiences of society. From the turn of the century until the present, we find, in most texts under consideration, a record of the social milieu that surrounds them. Raymond Williams posits that literary texts are cultural practices that reaffirm the ideologies and experiences of a people (Williams 1990). Therefore, while we may not deny their aesthetic force, it would be unfair to view them only in the light of their aesthetic value and ignore their sociopolitical affiliations. Hindi writings, as we discovered in this chapter, should not merely be read as “spontaneous overflow of feelings and emotions” of writers but should also be interpreted as testimonials of sociocultural experiences, which include the experiences of imperialism, nationalist aspirations, the struggles of the dominated and their attempts to dismantle hegemonies, and the attempts of the dominant to reinforce hegemonies.