11 May 2007

The Indian novel

As it happened in England, in India, too, the novel as a genre began in mid-nineteenth century. What was before the novel is difficult to classify, but somehow, not long after the Industrial Revolution, literature blossomed across the world, introducing readers to the long story in the form of the novel.

As a Bengali – i.e. a person from the state of West Bengal in Eastern India – and a student of storytelling, I find this intriguing. It’s baffling to learn that, in Bengali literature, there was no such thing as a novel prior to 1850.

Then suddenly, as if the literary dam had burst, a legion of novelists emerged in Bengal: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sonjib Chandra Chattopadhyay, Taraknath Gangopadhyay, Ramesh Chandra Dutta, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay… and others.

Although the first Bengali novel is supposed to be ‘Alaler Ghorer Dulal’ (the author’s name escapes me now), most likely published in 1857, the year of the Sepoy Mutiny, the novel which is remembered most is ‘Durgesh Nondini’ written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1865, the first of his 14 novels. This set the words flowing and the next 70 years were probably the most creative years in Bengali literature.

The Indian novel, in fact, developed all across India with Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai’s ‘Prathapa Mudaliar Charithram’ written in Tamil in 1879, and O Chandumenon’s ‘Indulekha’ written in Malayalam in 1889 declared as two of the greatest novels from South India at that time.

The reasons for the beginning and the development of the Indian novel at this time are numerous. They include British influence and westernisation of India, the emergence of a middle class and a new Indian sensibility, a scientific temper which instigated improvements in various aspects of Indian life, and the fact that English novels were available in India. All, leading to a comment that the novel as a genre may have been imported into India, thanks to the British.

However, there is a claim staked by several literary historians that a work in Persian, ‘Nashtar’ by Hasan Shah, purported to have been written in 1790, is the first Indian novel in any Indian language. Apparently, it had remained unknown until an Urdu translation was published in 1893.


Madhuri said...

1850? Seriously? That's shocking!

runawaysun said...

@ Madhuri

Yes, 1850 looks to be true. In fact, I just received some info from a trusted Bengali friend of mine. I may have erred a little on stating the facts on the Bengali novel.

'Alaler Ghorer Dulal', the first Bengali novel on record was written in 1848 (and not in 1857). Its author was Pyari Chand Mitra who had written this novel under a pen name, Tek Chand Thakur.

Looks like the Europeans were way ahead of us.