South Asian Literature: A Brief Look into the History

Understanding a brief amount of the history and traditions of South Asian literature can help form a better connection to literature itself.

A Brief look into the History of South Asian Literature

"a storyteller proficient in classical music interweaves the main story"

Literary texts, including South Asian literature, is one of the most influential artistic mediums. It can shape the way that readers around the world view their own environment.

From reading the most celebrated authors in the western literary canon, to mindlessly listening to an audiobook, literature is everywhere.

Also, it has always been a channel to learn from. In fact, the word’s own etymology and meaning reveal a Latin translation to the “knowledge of book.”

However, South Asian diasporas around the world often experience dissociation from the literature that originates from Asia itself.

In the west, where literary curriculums still fail to accommodate the international reader, connecting with literature can be a challenge.

In fact, independent publisher, Melville House, featured an astonishing headline:

“82% of British school children surveyed report never studying Black, Asian, or minority ethnic authors.”

The lack of South Asian literature featured in global curriculums requires students to find out about literary history themselves.

Many significant South Asian authors are paving the way for literary representation. However, some South Asians worldwide are still often unaware of the origins of works in their own communities.

That’s why we have tracked some of the most prominent landmarks in South Asian literature.

From early beginnings to contemporary demands for curriculum changes, DESIblitz provides a brief insight into the history of South Asian literature.

Early Origins and Influences

A Brief look into the History of South Asian Literature

It is important to recognise that South Asian literature stems from some of the earliest forms of literature itself.

The expansiveness of linguistic forms in South Asia, as well as the emphasis on ancient cultures, has allowed literature to blossom.

In fact, literature has been prospering since the 2nd millennium BCE. An example of written work from around this time is the Vedas.

The Vedas is a historic text and contains the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature. As already mentioned, the meaning of the word ‘literature’ connotes a message of knowledge.

Similarly, the Vedas is a pivotal part of literature, with the term “Veda” containing translations to “knowledge.”

However, the educational company, World History Encyclopedia, has admitted it lacks the exact precision around this sacred scripture:

“The Vedas are not thought to have been revealed to a certain person or persons at a specific historical moment…

“…they are believed to have always existed and were apprehended by sages in deep meditative states at some point prior to c. 1500 BCE but precisely when is unknown.”

The sheer length of time between modern historians and the origins of these works proposes some barriers.

Despite this, the preservation of these texts allows researchers to get an insight into the earliest forms of writing. This is something that undoubtedly shapes the face of literature as a language.

In ancient India, literature surfaced (most predominantly) in the form of Sanskrit written texts. One of the most notable examples in this language and period is the Mahabharata.

Although the exact year of its creation is unknown, it remains one of the earliest recorded pieces of literature and remains prevalent in South Asia.

Approximately the 4th Century BCE or earlier is the period for the first version of this piece. Krishna Dvaipayana wrote it.

The Indian epic is the longest poem ever written at 100,000 verses. The story this historical text encapsulates is based upon a war of families, as well as a clash of morals.

It focuses on two family branches – the Pandavas and Kauravas who battle for the throne of Hastinapura.

Interwoven are numerous smaller stories that have very mythical themes and philosophical ideals.

In the west, people forget the popularity and significance of the story. But in South Asia itself, editor and writer Anindita Basu reveals:

“This story has been retold countless times, expanded upon, and retold again.”

“The Mahabharata remains popular to this day in India. It has been adapted and recast in contemporary mode in several films and plays.”

The epic has also been adapted for contemporary audiences in the form of a television series, most notably in 1988 and 2013.

This has enabled the significance and message of this archaic text to stay alive.

It also highlights how expansive literature is within South Asian cultures. Dating back centuries, these early origins helped influence the modern epic tales.

Methods of Storytelling

A Brief look into the History of South Asian Literature

In the 21st century, the ways in which we can access literature are broader than ever. In public libraries, bookshops, audiobooks and e-books, the opportunities are endless.

However, these formats weren’t available in the periods of time when the earliest aspects of literary work evolved.

Instead, verbal storytelling lay at the heart of South Asian literature.

The power of oral storytelling remains the focal point of early documented stories. The National Geographic describes the act of oral storytelling:

“Telling a story through voice and gestures. Like storytelling itself, the tradition of oral storytelling is ancient and crosses cultures.

“The oral tradition can take many forms: epic poems, chants, rhymes, songs, and more.”

“It can encompass myths, legends, fables…prayers, proverbs, and instructions.”

A specific style of oral storytelling is Katha. Using the themes to shape the story’s retelling, the ancient form focuses on the storyline.

Those who narrate these stories are like versatile teachers. They perform these pieces in engaging ways at functions in order to provide interpretations of historic texts to present generations.

PR agency, All Good Tales, notes other types of storytelling too, which transcend a single language and incorporate physical action:

“Stories with anecdotes, known as Kathakalakshepam, are told in Sanskrit, Tamil and Hindi.

“In these tales, a storyteller proficient in classical music interweaves the main story with music, dance and digressions.

“Kathakalakshepam means ‘narrating the stories of ancient text in a comprehensive manner to the common people’.

“The enthusiastic performer narrates, enacts and comments on episodes and themes from the mythological lore of India.”

This exemplifies the diversity of storytelling and the importance of keeping stories alive.

In fact, oral storytelling isn’t a thing of the past. It still remains at the heart of projects trying to portray valuable moments and movements.

Modern stories are valuable ones. That is why researchers and universities try to use oral storytelling to preserve modern activities and pathways.

The Univerity of Washington launched a South Asian Oral History project in 2005.

The project has the aim of “preserving the history of South Asian immigration to the region, but also of making these historical resources/material available to everyone.”

The project invited people to share their experiences on events that have shaped South Asian history from an American lens.

For example, the stories of those from India and Pakistan and their entrance into the USA from the 50s onwards.

Additionally, there are worldwide movements that celebrate this art form. The UK-based Society for Storytelling supports the traditional mode of storytelling.

Even The Kathakar Festival in India promotes this artistic medium. It is the only celebration of its kind, reciting forgotten folklore and the history of countries like India, the UK and Africa.

Although it is an act of the past, spoken storytelling is still common. It is globally used as a means of literary expression and documentation.

This emphasises how these historic narrations that have some origins within South Asia have built the foundations for modern literature.

Demand for South Asian Literature in Curriculums

A Brief look into the History of South Asian Literature

The amount of historical influence the South Asian region has on literature is undeniable. However, why is it still so rare to see South Asian literature included in the western world?

The number of British and South Asians residing in the UK has made a profound effect on surface-level diversity.

However, the sad truth is that young people often grow up without seeing themselves in western education systems, especially in literature.

The lack of South Asian (or ethnic minority) literary inclusion can lead to alienation for learners.

However, South Asian writers today are trying to amplify the history of their culture. Satnam Sanghera is a familiar name amongst British Asians, whose written works have obtained great success.

Originally launched in January 2021, Sanghera’s investigative book, Empireland, has seen some success in terms of curriculum inclusion.

In a tweet from June 2021, the writer recorded his jubilance in seeing his novel being added to school lessons:

“Seeing history teachers use #EmpireLand has been thrilling. Didn’t expect it to happen, let alone so quickly.”

“Also amazing that @penguin is now donating 15,000 copies of #EmpireLand to British schools as part of its #litincolour project. 30 for each school.”

The collaboration of South Asian heritage writers with strong publishers is allowing for change to the literary curriculum.

This provides hope that South Asian writers will appear more frequently within the lessons that children spend so much time in.

Even writers such as Monica Ali and Jaspreet Kaur are infiltrating the literary space. Not to mention South Asian authors who are experimenting with different genres as well.

Amruta Patil and Samit Basu are incredible graphic novelists who are shining a light on the plethora of unique South Asian literature.

So, there is more hope that these types of artists will surely bring a different ambience to schools in the future.

Literature will remain as such an important form of information and recording of experiences. Therefore, knowing its brief origins helps to enhance the whole reading experience.

Literature is a powerful gateway for readers and non-avid readers too. One can either learn about their historical relevance or better comprehend the world around them.

Understanding the history of literature is a vital element of being able to engage with it.

Without knowing the beginnings of what we read, a part of the literary experience is ignored and missed.

The ability to recognise the beginnings of stories in a South Asian context allows readers to experience more whilst reading.

Furthermore, being aware of the influence South Asian literature has had on storytelling can motivate British and South Asians to read more.

Once we know about the beginnings of something, it can promote us to continue educating ourselves further.

Aashi is a student who enjoys writing, playing the guitar and is passionate about the media. A favourite quote of hers is: "You don't have to be stressed or busy to be important"

Images courtesy of Instagram, World History Encyclopedia, Freepik & Anna Radchenko.