Literary Shelf

Indian English Poetry - Beginning and Growth

Continued to "Poetic Scenario in Early Years"

Indian English Literature is a reality. Many native authors write in English, and are quite conscious of local surroundings and consciousness. Initially, authors well conversant in English, mostly belonging to the elite of society, began writing in English, for they had the advantage of higher Education in England and thus, imbibed certain characteristics of English people, and disseminated a few unique and non-contentious features of English culture, idiom and lifestyles among Indians. Missionaries also played a noteworthy role in certain regions of the country for obvious reasons. It is not the intention to go into missionaries’ functions (mostly religious and social) in India, for they clearly enjoyed cosseted patronage of rulers.

However, social, economic, political, psychological and historical perspectives without ignoring cultural heritage outline the range of brief inquiry with bearing on creativity especially poetry. Slowly, English made impression on the social, economic and political life. Indian people inculcated a few attributes of white man and confirmed interest in culture, lifestyles and English language. The English also asserted authority effectively but warily. In the beginning, East India Company consolidated its hold in Karnatic and Bengal, and the regional rulers played safe, and were subservient to the British. The English knew how to explore, expand and exploit the subjects and land. Gradually, they gained influence all over India, and avariciousness increased with each minor victory in battles. North India could not withstand ever-increasing advance of the white man. Jats undoubtedly made Muslim rulers uneasy but failed to put up a brave fight before the British. Rajputs were also not very successful in resisting the advance of the white man. Degeneration and disintegration of nationalistic forces had begun. In Punjab, the Sikhs, a disunited community, could not give a collective fight. With each step, the white man strengthened his position in the country. If Marathas stood strong, Nizam of Hyderabad was a weak ruler.

Indian people did not have a comfortable time after 1760, for the English, with power and authority registered its presence, and people understood expanding ambitions as the strategy of ‘divide and rule’ began to demonstrate its real objective. The English defeated Marathas and the British defeated Shah Alam. Pondicherry collapsed before the British whereas after chilling fights for supremacy in Gujarat, traumatic situation worsened. Various outfits of Jats, Bundelas and Rajputs were in shambles. The Mughals were unable to keep Hindus on their side and it proved suicidal. Tragic and anarchic situation it was and no native ruler could claim authority, and in due course of time, succumbed to the pressure of the British.

Early Literary Scenario, Religious Movements and Nationalism

To live contentedly and quietly in volatile and unstable situation is impossible. In fact, entire social fabric looked fragile as insecurity and uncertainty disturbed people. In a distressed society, nobody grows and progresses as inner darkness (of despair and cynicism) slowly overshadows flickers of hope and light. Therefore, psychological torture languished in memories of people for years and in unsteady and worrying ambiance, artists cannot stand as silent onlookers.

Therefore, in chaotic and indefinite conditions, creative artists look around and perceptively observe happenings, and with an atypical compassion try to depict crisis-ridden situation truthfully. People expected local rulers to exhibit solidarity and put up a united front, and maintain integrity of the country but selfish motives and self-interests of local rulers brought disunity and mutual bitterness leading to catastrophic consequences. Living in disintegrated conditions was unfortunately an inherited characteristic and therefore, literature suffered as foreign thought and psyche invaded Indian authors of various genres.

Poetic instincts are natural whether a man expresses or not. Lyrics determine psyche of man and so, literary output continued to depict social, economic, political, religious and intellectual anxieties of people while airing anxiety for freedom. Nationalistic feelings filled people but disunity and panic proved lethal, because India, a vast country created genuine difficulties for patriotic people to continue struggle towards freedom. However, imperceptible efforts were persistent. To look into the objective and growth of different literary trends in various genres of literature during the foreign rule is also not purpose. However, developments influence mind, intellect and life in totality and as such, society and country assimilate changes and discerning minds cannot ignore visible and invisible changes in society. However, an attempt to trace the beginning and expansion of Indian English poetry is the subject of present discourse. Literary scenario is equally relevant to various genres of literature one ought to understand. A few scholars tried to document poetic development chronologically but lack of authentic historical support created legitimate difficulties.

Poetic output and for that matter, the entire literary scenario of this crucial age is a reflection of restrained expression of hopes and aspirations of people. They were conscious of social, economic, political and religious uncertain conditions but observed self-discipline and intoned feelings and thoughts of freedom. English worked subtly as missionaries expanded welfare-cum-educational activities while the ruling class patronized the elite of society, particularly the upper middle class and to some degree the middle class. These two segments displayed keen interest in whatever was foreign. Therefore, art, language, architecture and culture of the white man made entry into the lives of the privileged segments of society. Privileged and the wealthy class influenced various Indian sections and strengthened implicitly the English cause and so, the white man was able to perpetuate control over the country. One must understand that these particular segments of elites were not only educated and knew English language but also confirmed deep-rooted interest in trade, industry, commerce, political and social life of people. On the other hand, the four classes (varnas) benefitted the English as they pursued policy of aggrandizement. The English knew that Hindu society was complex, a composition of diverse mass of people with startling unity in multiplicity and inequality in life’s interactions in entirety and therefore, it was quite realistic to govern the country as the white man adhered to the policy of ‘divide and rule’.

Various religions, regions, castes, languages, dialects, rituals, customs and traditions constitute involvedness of aesthetic, cultural, sociological, economic and intellectual life of people, and eventually silhouette political spectrum indirectly and influence people’s approach to society. Different trends determined literary scene, and lyrics of poets delineated the social and political scene of the age truly, vigorously and authentically. Scriptures of India inspired people at this critical moment of history. Ideals and principles of great and immortal heroes like Rama and Krishna infused faith and confidence. Religious movement of Ramanujacharya attracted people and in later years, Tulsidas’s immortal Ramachritmanas stirred minds and hearts of people. It was a period of history when belief and faith in gods and goddesses strengthened cohesion among people. Saints and sages provided requisite confidence and conviction to people feeling insecure under constant foreign invasions. Saints like Kabir, Nanak, Ravidas, Chaitanya and many holy souls occupied not only religious life but were effective voices in changing the mental outlook of people.

Many religious movements continued to determine the psychological and philosophical inclination of people while overseeing the social, economic and political development. In fact, various groups and sects, castes and creeds proved lethal for the unity of nation even as some saner elements in the society tried to unify the spirit of universal unity and secular thinking of Indian people and thus, conveyed the eternal message of holy books, the Vedas and the Upanishads, Puranas and Itihasas.

In disturbed times, Muslims, Sikhs, Sufis and many religious gurus worked hard to instill confidence and faith with a perennial message of love, harmony, peace, unity and respect. They preached non-violence and love for humankind. Naturally, teachings of saints underlined significance of man as man without any caste or creed, and spread solemn message of catholic and secular thoughts. Teachings of different religions infused goodwill and peace among various castes and classes of society, and tried to integrate humanistic teaching of all religions. Various religious gurus, seers and saints from the beginning of tenth century continued to spread worldwide message of compassion and unity. This period saw many noble souls like Kabir, Guru Nanak, Chaitanya and Tulsidas, who understood true meaning of life and existence and advised man to work for the happiness of humanity.

Different sections of society like petty kings and rajas, feudal lords, zamidars, property owners, big farmers, businesspersons, religious men, castes and classes were humoured, inveigled with sweet tongue and lure of status brought dissection and disintegration among the people. The poor, the farmers and people of nationalistic feelings suffered. When the white traders became rulers, situation changed as foreign language and culture began to influence social, intellectual and political life, and caused irreparable and tiresome disorientation in the society and made it difficult for Indian society to move smoothly as it felt stressed under foreign domination. A great historian Tara Chand observes:

All avenues to fame, wealth or power were closed to Indians. no opportunities were left for public service, or the performance of the citizen’s duties, to defend the country or to advance its prosperity. Munro had forecast that such exclusion would foment a spirit of discontent or opposition, and if id did not do so, then the people would sink in character…and would degenerate into an indolent and abject race, incapable of any higher pursuit that the mere gratification of their appetites.” Such were the conditions and one can understand the movement of society and its life. (History of the Freedom Movement in India (Volume I, Publication Division, Govt. Of India1965 P163)

Despite contrary influences, Indians evinced fascination for habits, attitudes and life-styles of white man and at the same time, English people began learning and inculcating peculiar characteristics of Indianness. Many English authors began to study Indian Literature concentrating mainly on religious literature, and slowly and systematically, brought out books that appealed to the sensibilities of Indians and the white men equally. Englishmen worked hard to keep intact interests of elites of India chiefly the kings, the feudal lords, the rich farmers and the wealthy and gradually, it led to growth of bourgeoisie mentality. They worked stealthily and attacked cultural roots, and the fissures became obvious, and helped the English to govern freely without visible resistance.

Anxieties and Drifts in Thoughts

The scope, limit and depth of receptivity, internal and external disquiet in society and changing thoughts in anarchic times call for a fresh look. An overall analysis of situation reveals that the age imbued with passive temper in view of restrained and malicious attitude of rulers scarcely carried any love for the people. The white man selectively made concerted efforts to show sincerity and honesty to the people and land, and tried to befriend the upper middle class, some prominent sector of middle class, the elite, the rulers and the big farmers and zamidars, who readily exemplified eagerness to adopt alien habits, life-styles, language and cultural attitudes. Hindus witnessed many upheavals, disturbing and nerve-racking situations for ages but exercised ability little by little to inculcate virtues and humanitarian thoughts of various religions, and consequently, distinctive spirit of universal love and secular attitude survived.

Indians had learnt to live with Muslims for centuries and suffered immensely despite claims of goodwill and fraternal fellow feelings. After collapse of the Muslim empire, the white man began governing shrewdly but with a strong hand. Hindus and Muslims, who at times, fought together against the British, failed to carry the struggle, and surrendered. However, efforts of saner elements to enrich art, culture and heritage continued and thus, religious movements of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries continued to gain vigour and energy. Universal love and peace, humanism and secularism were the most significant contributions of religious movements of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as saints like Kabir, Surdas, Chaitanaya, Bihari and many others infused love for humankind, an eternal wide-ranging secular and universal love. Wise religious men did not forget teachings of Ramanuja, Tulsidas and many righteous souls. Akbar the Great spread message of Asoka and Buddha with genuine eagerness and fervour. Akbar was an able administrator, a lover of art, architecture, painting, music and literature. He brought visible changes, carried out reformatory and development works for the benefit of people and upheld social and religious values. Music and poetry flourished during the rule. Now, the white man entered with authority but native artists and writers constantly enriched regional languages, art and culture in respective areas. Whatever artists, writers, intellectuals, religious people and men of substance created, it portrayed social, economic, political, religious and philosophical life and thought but never for a moment thought to weaken secularity and universality.

Notwithstanding surfacing of reformation and logical temper, the poor, the peasantry and the deprived suffered. Ironically, the reformation was merely a façade to perpetuate primacy and authority of upper class and caste, elite and the rich, and it continues in a democratic setup. Democracy has deteriorated and thus, the erosion helps a few clever, crude and unprincipled men, who work like gangsters and gun-wielding men in connivance with authority. Exceptions remain invisible or ineffective because noise, sloganeering, publicity and empty words govern the minds of the rulers now.

As one evaluates the age, creativity and social spectrum as a whole, one must weigh up certain harsh truths and at the same time, fully appreciate notable contribution of Ram Mohan Ray and Braham Samaj, Radicals of Bengal Movement, a revolutionary group and the emerging modernity with the establishment of Hindu College. Social reforms of Gopal Hari Deshmukh of Maharashtra, Arya Samaj and Swami Dayanand Sarswati, Ramakrishna Mission and Swami Vivekananda and Theosophical Society significantly influenced the social, political and economic life. All noble people, creative artists, religious and political leaders, intellectuals and elites of the society were conscious of the fast emerging situation, and wanted to contribute effectively so that it strengthens value system.

If one examines genuine anxieties of ingenious artists and intellectuals and the roles they play in changing society one understands historical and societal reasons. Only then, one realizes irrefutable disquiet and anxiety of man together with man’s sufferings, agonies, psychological anguish and philosophical thoughts, and the causes of melancholy. Non-availability of authentic material with regard to English writing in India since the beginning of nineteenth century creates real and rational difficulties but efforts to co-relate available meaningful information in respect of thought-currents, social, economic, political, philosophical, ethical and religious characteristics of age will give appropriate analysis.

Influence on Society, Changes in Literature especially in Poetry, and Industrial Impact

Undoubtedly, Henry Vivian Louise Derozio is the father of Indian English poetry. Poetic and intellectual range of poets of the age appeared mature and in the proximity of nature, they loved to express deep romantic, patriotic and nationalistic feelings and thoughts with certain refrain. Patriotism flowed in lyrics in an inconspicuous style and spoke of poets’ mellowness. One should grasp the social and political temper of eighteenth century and then, come to nineteenth century, and it would help in understanding poetic thought encompassing fears and uncertainty of the age when white man expanded its sphere of control and began governing with a strong hand. Interest of reasonably rich Indian people grew in English language, lifestyle and habits and it proved beneficial to the rulers. Needless to mention that the English confronted difficulties but the society underwent a huge change attesting advantages to the white regime though people suffered.

Poetry of early 19th century is poetry of restrained vigour, passion and patriotic sentiments and does not reveal intents clearly or at times, vaguely exhibits feelings of revolt against the white men. Lyrics try to conceal hurt psychosis and still express feelings with a definite condor and so, do not irritate or hurt anyone, particularly the English rulers. Nature, love, patriotic feelings, quest for adventure and romance constitute the subject of verses reflecting Indian consciousness emblematically. Poets show signs of care, prudence and refinement of Indian psyche without irritating the rulers but underneath, continue to instill feelings of freedom and social uplift.

Creative writings of this age reflect people’s social, economic and political aspirations with full understanding of the psychological, religious and philosophical desires. At the intellectual level, probing continues and within, inquiry into the mystery of life disturbs and provokes. Metaphysical questions arise, annoy and defy possible answers. However, creative artists stimulate feelings of love for humanity and project Vedic truth of humanism, secularism and universality. If creative artists and poets face genuine problems of times under the control of white man, writers of regional languages and various dialects also strengthen nationalistic sentiments and make signs of growth obvious. Integration of untried languages rather indistinctly spreads unique feeling of harmony and goodwill. Blending and fusion of linguistics and phonetics of languages instill beauty and effectiveness to the explication of thought, and thus, Indian consciousness puts up integral psyche.

Henry L. Derozio, a Eurasian citizen worked in Hindu College and modestly gave expression to patriotic sentiments in verses “The Harp of India” “Chorus of Brahmins” and “Song of the Hindustanee Minstrel”. Nature attracted Kasiprasad and feelings of love and patriotism flowed like a clear stream in verses. Anguish and sufferings of people disturbed him. Gooroo Churn Dutt was also a poet of substance. Ghoses, Dutts, Tagores, and Naidus wrote profusely with zeal and meaning and did not hesitate to imbibe spirit of language and culture. They spoke eloquently of love, dreams, legends, fairies and nature. Many poets spoke evocatively of glory and magnificence. Nostalgic rhymes charmed but bad rule of the white man hurt lyricists. Micheal Madhusudan Dutt, a poet of love and romance, created legendary tales of love, adventure, heroism, chivalry and sacrifice. In truth, romantic adventure appeared quite safe for verses. Not many poets exercised authority of poetic splendeur and power and in certain cases, poetry appeared an immature imitation because lyrics lacked in apt use of idiom and cadence. However, flaws, immaturity and rawness in poetry did not undermine the sincerity of the poets.

As years rolled on, poets began to assert authority over the language more confidently. Social consciousness and poetic aptitude caused stir and enlisted noticeable presence. At this time of history, industrial mood also gained power, and machines arrived affecting the social and economic life of people. Poets imbued with a spirit of love, patriotism and genuine love for people exhibited immense ethical commitment to society. Social worries and anxieties perturbed, and so they became participants in the struggle for freedom. Injustice and suppression agitated poetic minds as people suffered. Many poets belonging to the elite and educated class, who knew English and loved English lifestyle, also realized sufferings of the deprived people, and ventilated feelings quite often in a subdued and restrained temper. Creative artists and poets articulated social and economic issues and raised voices obliquely against discriminatory attitude of the white man. In fact, authors and poets became conscious of various movements of social reformers, religious gurus, social activists and political people and therefore, chose to become participants in such movements but preferred to stay back.

Status of women and children, social evils, feelings of caste etc. constituted a tenuous framework of social, economic and political movement, and religious gurus embraced, and campaigned for the cause of the suffering. As industrialization took roots, many problems cropped up. If machines made life easy, these also caused various social and economic ailments leading to exploitation and unhygienic living conditions. However, the rich became richer and the tilt of patronage and support remained with people aligned to the rulers. It brought unique change in the mindset of people. If people evinced interest in religious affairs, social miseries also increased.

If machines affected lives, continued hunger for money and material comforts drove people to different economic activities so that they earn more, and in the process, lost instinctive warmth and it led to insipidness and monotony in social and individual life. Efforts to earn more and live a trouble-free life induced a spirit of competition. People had little time to sit back, think and live in warmth of relations and it was cause of anxieties. A blind race began to work and yearning to earn more made lives uneasy inside, for peace and harmony disappeared from social life as economic considerations overwhelmed whilst political issues created cruel, depressing and unfair conditions amidst patriotic zeal but careful writers kept analytical eye on the situation. Poets saw, sighed, thought deeply, lamented but demonstrated unity of expression as patriotic sentiments inspired.

Materialistic tendencies gained momentum but moral values degenerated, for love, honesty, truth, warmth and grace in relations began to erode, making life self-centered and selfish. Unhygienic working conditions and increasing appetite for material luxuries did not make life happy but it brought sickening dichotomy in family and social relations and undermined the status of women and children. Poets after 1850-60 demonstrated these characteristics and at the same time, unmeasured anguish of society perturbed.

If one goes back, one knows that the English began to strengthen hold on the country from the beginning of the nineteenth century as observed earlier. Local rulers did not help people but tried to secure benefits from the white man with a few exceptions. If writers and poets were little reticent and reserved in the beginning, they began to open up after 1850-60. Many intellectuals and social reformers raised voices against injustice, exploitation, social and economic issues of people. Prominent poets namely Henry Derozio, Ghose, M. M. Dutt, Ram Sharma, Ramesh Chander Dutt, Toru Dutt, Man Mohan Ghose, Tagore, Vivekanand, Aurobindo, Dwijendra Lal Roy Furtado, Joseph Furtado A.F. Khabardar, and Kaikhushru M. Cooper determined the emotional and the intellectual range and depth of a crucial age. Poets spoke of the mental and psychological, social and philosophical, economic and religious aspirations of people and instilled patriotic feelings. At the same time, love for nature and humanity formed the framework of sensitive minds.

Undoubtedly, creative artists in English did not demonstrate control over language and maturity of expression but hints of growing interest in inventing fresh and innovative idiom and phrase steeped in Indianness bit by bit become transparent as creative artists ventilate vague and at times, understandable feelings and thoughts of patriotic fervour. It reveals evolution of a unique poetic approach and phrase. Nature, romance, adventure and love for humanity stay as overriding themes of poetry with a kind of rhetoric approach, and it inspire poets to probe the inner and the outer world. If they speak of the world, they also go beyond. Metaphysical deliberations, thoughts on life and death and vital questions of existence figure out scope of this poetry, and as questioning continues, more facts and truths will become obvious.

Continued to “Towards Realization”


More by :  P C K Prem

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Views: 3570      Comments: 3

Comment PCK Prem is an Indian English writer with profound historical and cultural knowledge imbibed with his vast reading of English as well as Hindi literature. He is equally well-versed in
the literature of these both languages.
This article is of great help to those Indian English poets who have been writing without knowing the background of Indian English Writing right from its beginning to the beginning of the 19th century. To me the article is not only informative but also instructive in disguise and helps the younger writers, who have just started writing. I hope it fulfills its objective.

DC Chambial

DC Chambial
10-Mar-2016 02:25 AM

Comment Thanks Sir. You inspire.


29-Feb-2016 04:34 AM

Comment this article is a much needed one for our young, budding poets and all library enthusiasts
thanks premji, for this work which gives the real background of the earlier
imaginative penmen

v v b rama rao
28-Feb-2016 07:00 AM

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