British Colonialism Contributed to the Growth of Indian Literature in English

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How did the British rule in India contribute to the growth of Indian Literature in English? Basudeb probes into history and finds answers, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

The image of one India before the British rule was an alien concept. The fact is, there are many Indias in one India even today and it would be so in the centuries to come. Previous to the colonial rule, India was divided into many kingdoms, small and big. Lack of cultural, linguistic, religious and administrative homogeneity was an important mark of this Indian sub-continent. A careful study of the ‘essentials of Indianness’ as something homogenous may not be even a subject matter of any debate today. It may provoke one to discard the view that India is indivisible, unitary and single in its culture and civilisation. The comment made by Aijaz Ahmad, a Marxist critic, in this context is relevant, “One of the difficulties with the theoretical category of ‘Third World Literature’, it should be clear enough, is its rather cavalier way with history; its homogenisation of a prolix and variegated archive which is little understood and then hurriedly categorised; it’s equally homogenising impulse to slot very diverse kinds of public aspirations under the unitary insignia of ‘nationalism’ and then to designate this nationalism as the determinate and epochal ideology for cultural production in non-Western societies; its more recent propensity to inflate the choice of immigration  into a rhetoric of exile, and then to contrive  this inflation as the mediating  term between Third World and the First.”

India is a multicultural, multi-religious and multilingual country. Pluralism is the kernel feature of this land. It is also a fact that a well-orchestrated attempt has been made to construct the only one and the single narrativisation of by the privileged and the major Brahminical cult of Hindu religion. The concept of the Indian nationalism was practically born after the British colonisation in the nineteenth century. And the essence of this Indian nationalism stands on the solid foundation of pluralism and heterogeneity. Nothing pejorative is in this comment.  The establishment of the colonial rule in India brought about an administrative cohesion among the various regions of this vast sub-continent. To run this complex and difficult administration of a vast region of India, the colonial rulers tried to create an English knowing class of people. And for this purpose, the British colonisers in the early period of their rule tried to unite the heterogeneous groups of people living sparingly in different parts of this land by passing the Charter Act in 1813 producing “two major changes in Britain’s relationship with her colony….” One was the assumption of a new responsibility toward native education, and the other was a of controls over missionary activity in India. The most important aspect of this Charter Act “renewing the ’s charter for a twenty-year period” was that it enabled the colonial Masters to homogenise people belonging to different cultures into a class of people who are Indians in but Europeans in taste and culture. A remark made by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, in 1872, ‘in the introductory article of the first issue of the magazine, Bangadarshan’ is interesting in this context. “There is one outstanding barrier to the writing of Bengali by educated Bengalis. Educated people do not read Bengali, and what educated people will not read educated people do not wish to write”.
This was the of the newly born western educated people in India to the English culture. With the consolidation of the British rule all over India in the course of time, this newly born educated Indians who went through the western system of education became also aware of the cross-currents of western philosophical thoughts, democratic taking place in Europe, for democratic rights and for woman’s empowerment. People of this class read the European Classics in English translation. The consequences were obvious. The English rulers brought every remotest part of the Indian sub-continent under one administrative umbrella, the headquarter of which they established in Calcutta, the capital of early British India. But at the same time, the anti-thesis of this event was that a particular section of this English educated Indians harvested the concept of Indian nationalism and Indian nationhood. The phrase, “The Sepoy Mutiny” (1857) was coined by colonial rulers. It was the First Indian Freedom Movement against the colonial rule in India. Some historians tried to downplay the significance of this freedom struggle by addressing it as “Mutiny”.

My purpose of referring to this point is to underline that the attempt to write fiction in English helped Indians grow a spirit of colonial nationalism against the Imperial rule in India. The spirit of Indian nationalism was in the air and different Indian writers wrote on this growing concept of Indian nationalism in their vernacular languages. But as a translation of those literary works into different Indian languages was not easy and popular at that time, the novels written in English by those nationalist writers like Bankim Chatterjee, Ramesh Dutta, and others were accessible to non-Bengali Indians living in different parts of the country.  One of the major contributions of English is that it helps India to be one nation. The concept of the Indian nationhood was born after the consolidation of the British rule in India. And one of the reasons of this consolidation of administration was due to the English language, which was the language of the colonial administration as well as the language of the inter-region communication among different communities of people. English, thus, unites diverse regions of this land into one indivisible country. With the concurrence of the Queen of the British Empire, the colonial; masters introduced English as the medium of teaching at all levels of education in India. In this context Lord R.K Agnihotri and A.L. Khanna comment on Macaulay’s Educational reforms (1835), “Macaulay was convinced that there was no intrinsic merit in Indian history, culture, literature or science and that Indian people could be educated only through the medium of English. Macaulay’s aims deviated significantly from the religious preoccupations of the missionaries wanted to create a class of persons, ‘Indian in blood and colour, but English in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’ and this group was not only to act as interpreter between the rulers and the ruled but also to be responsible for rejuvenating and modernising Indian languages and dialects…. By the middle of the nineteenth century, English had replaced Persian as the court language and introduced a vertical split in a society which we witness even today: upper-class elite associated with English and lower class poor associated with Indian languages.”

Thus, Macaulay’s Educational Reform, in 1835, created an elitist class of people, who were exposed to the West through the English language. And the colonial rulers perhaps could not anticipate that their attempt to ‘civilise’ by the western values of life inculcated love for freedom into the minds of the colonised Indians.

Epics, dramas, lyrics, fables – all are found in Indian tradition. The concept of ‘tragedy’ is not in conformity with the Indian literary tradition before the British colonisation of India. Literature in this subcontinent was primarily based on the Brahminical cult of Hinduism and Hinduism does not endorse that life is pessimistic. A Hindu believes in the life hereafter. The soul is indestructible. Kalidas’sSakuntala is not pessimistic. Neither Raghuvansa nor Kumarasambhava ends in pessimism. Everything in life is governed by Hindu philosophy which is Hinduism.

The novel as a literary genre remains unknown to Indians. Indians educated in the western system of education during the colonial rule become familiar with the novel as a separate genre through their knowledge of English. People like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Toru Dutta, Raj Lakshmi Devi and others were inspired to experiment writing novels in English. One important fall out of this literary exercise was that throughout India these novels were intelligible to Indians living in different parts of the country. If we accept that Bengal during this time is the maternity centre for the 19th century Indian Renaissance, we will find that writers in Bengal like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Ramesh Dutta, and others wrote many novels in Bengali taking the freedom movement as the theme of their narratives. The meta-theme of Annandmath, a novel written in Bengali by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, is the revolt of Sannyasis (seers) against the foreign rulers in India. Ramesh Dutta’s Rajput Jiban Sandhya,   and Magarastra Jiban Probhat are the two novels written in Bengali that aim at inspiring Indian nationalism.

Literature in different Indian languages before and after the British rule in this country was rich. The phrase, Indian literature before and after the Indian meant Bengali, Tamil, Marathi, Punjabi, Assamese works of literature and so on. But the literature written in English even long before the Indian is known as Indian literature in English. Nobody says Indian literature in Bengali or Indian literature in Tamil or Indian literature in Marathi and so on.

The purpose of referring to this historical fact is to show that the ethos of Indianness as something indivisible, unitary and single has found its expression in Indian literature in English. English united various cultural groups in India. Creative writers living in geographically, culturally and linguistically different regions of this vast land realised the importance of the concept of Indian nationalism which the English language intensified. This is one of the major reasons for the beginning and the growth of Indian literature in English.

©Basudeb Chakraborti

Photos from the internet.

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Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy's View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of Tagore's Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.
Basudeb Chakraborti