Modern Hindi Poetry: Its Evolution



(Lecturer, Andhra University)


To pass any verdict on contemporary literature would be involving oneself in controversy. Much of the present endeavour in letter has to stand the test of time till it is added on to our store of permanent literature. But in the meanwhile we need not be different to the various ideas and ideals, and hopes and aspirations of our country that invariably find their expression in the visions of our bards and story-tellers. When their achievement is coordinated and further helped by new creative activity, it might flower into richness of life and bring forth a happier understanding of its abiding values. Disillusioned critics often tell us stories of doom and disaster and bemoan the desecration of a golden heritage by the modern poets. But in their work, whatever professional aesthetes might have to say, we can clearly visualise a golden Renaissance and a brilliant future for Indian literature.


What Spenser was to English literature so has been Rabindranath Tagore to modern Indian literature: be has been the poets’ poet. Western education broadened the horizon of Indian experience awakening the country’s sleeping soul to the enchantment of sudden life and manifold striving. The spell of age-long indolence was broken and, at last, the nation found herself endowed with mighty and puissant wings. Almost inevitably, every new idea that entered the country due to the impact of the West gained currency through Bengal and Bengali. With their trembling awareness to novelties and their shifting sensibility for realities, the Bengalees have contributed a lion’s share to the social ferment that took place in the early decades of the century. The modern Renaissance in our art and literature may be attributed to the pioneering work done by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Maharshi Devendra Nath Tagore, Iswara Chandra Vidyasagar, Chitta Ranjan Das, Aurobindo, Dwijendra Lal Roy, Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Rabindranath Tagore and other stalwart in their own way. Rabindranath Tagore presented in his poetry a synthesis of the past and the present, embellished by a glorious vision for the future. He stands in the direct line of ancient Hindu culture. He is of the brotherhood of Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti and Jayadev. Yet he is unique in having combined the great heritage with a wider and more comprehensive and universal sympathy for the burning problems of present-day life. He explored new possibilities in rhythm and expression and showed that the Indian poet lacks neither imagination nor invention. A more popular medium of communication than in the past was sought to be employed by all those who versified under his inspiration. The movement for the use of the ‘spoken language’ for literary purposes gained momentum everywhere and resulted in the recognition of ‘Khadi Boli’ for Hindi poetry and ‘Sishta Vyavaharika’ for Telugu prose. In yet another direction, Tagore’s influence released a strong lyrical impulse throughout the country. His dreams, his twilight memories, his crystal verses of fancy brimming with somnolent visions, his pictorial effects and his lyric dramas set a new fashion for writers who filled the Indian air with stars and melodies.


Gently, o! gently, the Koil

Of Poesy should sing forth

From her ambush of gentle leaves!


Thus Sri Gurajada Apparao exhorted his fellow poets, and a whole corpus of imaginative literature was produced under the name of ‘Bhava Kavitvam’ in Telugu. In Hindi, there arose a group of poets who gave a new colour to the mysticism of the old Sufis and to the devotional poetry of the ‘Rama’ and ‘Krishna’ cults. Thus they could have claimed to continue the tradition of poetry hallowed by Kabir, Mira, Tulsi, Sur, Bihari and Dev. After the First War, India advanced further in the arduous task of self-realisation and, long before the Second War, her vast potentialities were realised and recorded in every realm of her resurgent life. The literature produced between the two World Wars in the several Indian languages has all the merits and, perhaps, a few drawbacks too, that naturally belong to a transition age. But we can say with some certainty that the poetic soul–the Sleeping Beauty–has been fully liberated from the past trends of decadence and is bound to knock at the gates of success and positive achievement. Modern Hindi literature is a good example to illustrate this march of Indian literatures which show many common features,–great imaginative wealth, abundant lyricism and growing awareness of the problems of life.


Modern Hindi had to fight many odds before it could discover its own poetic soul. In the Age of the Stylists (Riti-Kal) and Rhetoricians there was a wide dissociation between life and letters and, in the quest for the subtleties of form, poetry was degraded to mere versification; individuality was tormented on the Procrustean bed of convention and conformity; and true and sincere feeling was abandoned in the weary manipulation of tropes and figures, of sentiment and sophistry. The pure flame of passion and poetry that gleamed through the immortal works of Tulsi and Surdas was choked by grammatical rule and rhetorical illustration. The heart–the real seat of genuine poetic feeling–became a void; or, if it had any semblance of life, it was filled with ghosts of the past that troubled the joy of glad creation. The modern poet had, therefore, to emancipate himself from a conservative style on one hand, and an unhealthy tradition of depicting sensual life on the other.


A reaction set in, naturally, as one would expect; but, in its empirical stages, Hindi poetry was faced with the question of a standard medium of expression. ‘Braj-Bhasha’ was the literary dialect in the past and still held its sway over the poets, though, as a spoken type, it was much changed and was replaced by ‘Khadi Boli’, the variety of Hindi spoken in Delhi, the seat of Mughal power and centre of Indian culture during their rule. Due to various causes, social, political and economic, the Delhi dialect assumed the nature of standard Hindi and it was only a fact of historical necessity that the growing need for a common medium of literature had to be met by it. There was a movement for ‘Khadi Boli’ and many writers gave up the outmoded ‘Braj-Bhasha’ and, following the lead given by Maha Vir Prasad Dvivedi, talented poets like Maithili Saran Gupta, Sridhar Pathak and Ayodhya Simh Upadhyay, ‘Hariaudh’, established it as the language of modern poetry. It is a mistake, however to suppose that ‘Khadi Boli’ was an entirely new-fangled medium without a literary heritage. Khusro Miyan and other courtiers of the great Mughals composed their witticisms and alert Poetic retorts in this variety of Hindi. In folk-lore it touched creative levels. Hesitant and trembling with its own possibilities, in its initial stages, ‘Khadi Boli’ acquired an unusual felicity of expression and a rich hoard of imaginative literature. It had a great advantage over its predecessor the ‘Braj-Bhasha’. It was a comparatively simple, flexible and suggestive language, having reduced by far the inflexions and declensional permutations of Primitive Hindi which originated from the Apabhramsas of Sanskrit.


Then there was the question of metre. The traditional patterns of verse were not in consonance with the new genius of the country, either in themes or in forms. Research was hence carried on in this direction with enthusiasm. A few metres of the Vritta type were borrowed from Sanskrit prosody; a few native metres that had lost their vogue in the decadent period were revived; and, in extreme cases, Free Verse was attempted. Blank Verse with quantitative metre had come to stay as the predominant type. The new experiments yielded rich results and prepared the language and the metre for expressing all the multitudinous shades and rhythms of life itself.


Literature in the past was confined to a single type, namely, the ‘Prabandha Kavya’. The modern Renaissance extended the frontiers of Indian literature in a variety of directions. The lyric, the epic, the drama, the one-act play; the novel, the short story, the biography and the auto-biography–all these types found place in the writings of the age. This instantaneous blossoming in many directions led sometimes to romantic excess, and sometimes to anarchic melodrama. But in the slow process of trial and error, the young plant took root, gained sustenance and swayed into a bountiful spring with blossom and fruit. The ray of the new sun that hissed against the frosty splendours of the past soared into an enchanted noon. The world of letters shone forth with mellow and manifold radiance.


“Revolt of solitary instincts against the bonds of the past” is the key to the various forms that the new Romanticism assumed. There had been a dearth of sincere passion in the poets of the preceding age; no new awareness was brought to life by their poetry. Poetic convention had thrown a sluggish cloud of familiarity over the external world which lost its capacity to evoke the elemental sense of wonder,–the basis of great poetry and the fountain-light of new day, The modern poet had to discover anew the strange beauty of reality and had to deal with the whole internal panorama of human consciousness and experience, The problem that confronted him was not to become a poet in his own language but to raise himself to a more cosmic level and become a poet of the world and also write ‘poetry of the future’. The narrow domestic walls were being broken, while men were gathered up into one common destiny. Romantic love, especially when unfortunate, combined in itself most of the strong and sinuous passions–“hate and resentment and jealousy, remorse and despair, outraged pride and the fury of the unjustly repressed, the purity of unrestrained surrender and the ecstasy of infinite longing.” Encouraged by Romanticism some poets became “anti-social and even anarchic”.


But most of them revived the old mystic creed and produced a highly imaginative type of poetry abounding in song and emotion: “The mystic acquires a new energy and sense of power from the cessation of the inner conflict and enjoys a sense of godlike exaltation in the contemplation of the infinite.” The mystic experience is by its very nature obscure to ordinary perception; it is not the less real for that. The living language of a mystic dream becomes all but dead on awakening. We need an interpreter, a translator. And it is here that the mystic poet steps in. When poetic vision lushes philosophic contemplation with fancy and melody, we have a new type of poetry wherein the mystery of the Universe is unravelled in terms of faith and beauty:


No familiar shapes

Remained, no pleasant images of trees,

Of the ‘sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men, moved slowly through the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.


In the history of Indian mysticism Kabir reinforced this tendency in order to counter the extreme formalism of the orthodox cult. It was an effort that might be compared to the protest levelled by the English Romanticism against the dry intellectualism of philosophers. It was found that the head could lead the soul away from Nature and God; in terms of vivid urgency, therefore, the demands of the heart were sought to be reasserted. Kabir approached God, not through the vicarious agencies of Love, Beauty or Nature, but through personal adoration and devotion. “He merges and melts into a unity by ascending to a height of spiritual intuition where there is no room for incompatible concepts either of religion or of philosophy. His songs illustrate all the fluctuations of the mystics’ emotions, the ecstasy, the despair, the still beatitude, the eager self-devotion, the flashes of wide illumination, the moments of intimate love:


O Friend: this is His lyre:

He tightens its strings and draws from it the melody of Brahm,

If the strings snap and the keys slacken,

Then to dust must this instrument of dust return;

Kabir says: naught but Brahm cart evoke the melodies.”


Malik Mohammed Jayasi was a Sufi Mystic; he visualised God as an adorable woman and depicted himself as a lover yearning to obtain her. Mirabai roamed in Brindavan in ecstasy in quest of Infinite Love. All Rahasyavada (mystic) poetry is concerned with the final communion of the soul with the all pervading love when,


‘Sudden thy shadow fell on me,

I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy.’ (Shelley)


Connected with mysticism is Chayavad (symbolism), for the mystic makes use of symbols and images which assume extraordinary signification, with the associative memories, in poetry. Mira says:


‘If Thou art a hill, then I am Thy peacock;

If Thou art the moon, then I am Thy “Chakor”;

If Thou art a place of pilgrimage, then I am Thy pilgrim;

I have joined true love with Thee.’


The images or ‘ohayas’ which were, in the old religious verse, a method of apprehending the mystery of life, lost their spiritual quality and their evocative power and became mere cliches in the works of the Stylists during the ‘Riti Kala’. We find a continuity of tradition in the modern revival of the mystic cult; but we find a new set of images coming into existence, for the new poetry has had to deal with a wider range of human experience than in the past. Thus Rahasyavada stands for the modern outlook while Chayavad represents the modern technique. “Human love is symbolic of divine love; falling leaves are a symbol of human mortality, because they are examples of the same law which operates through all the manifestations of life.” Aurobindo employs this technique with great effect:


‘Someone leaping from the rocks

Past me ran with wind-blown locks

Like a startled bright surmise

Visible to mortal eyes,–

Just a cheek of frightened rose

That with sudden beauty glows,

Just a footstep like the wind

And a hurried glance behind,

And then nothing,–as a thought

Escapes the mind ere it is caught,

Someone of the heavenly rout

From behind the veil ran out.’


The modern Hindi poets have primarily occupied themselves “with a mystical interpretation of life through nature, love and beauty. The constant comparison of natural with spiritual processes is, on the whole, the most marked feature of their poetry. The mystic poet of Nature, by introducing rain and cloud, wind and the rising river, boatmen, lamps, temples and gongs, flutes and Veenas, birds flying home at dusk, tired travellers, flowers opening and falling, showers and vessels, has given a new tone to the poetry of mysticism.” The new Mysticism sometimes tried to reincarnate old myth in terms of modern thought. Maithili Saran Gupta, Ayodhya Simha Upadhyay ‘Hariaudh’ and Jai Shankar Prasad have reinterpreted the stories of Ramayana, Bhagavatha and the Brahmanas with this attitude of mind “founded on intuitive experience of unity, of oneness, of alikeness in all things”.


‘As he listened to the hush, a thought

Came to him from the spring and he turned round

And gazed into the quiet maiden East,

Watching that birth of day, as if a line

Of some great poem out of dimness grew,

Slowly unfolding into perfect speech.’    (Urvasi)