South Asian Literature: A Brief History


Literary texts, including South Asian literature, are one of the most influential artistic mediums. It can shape how readers around the world perceive their own surroundings.

From reading the most famous authors of the Western literary canon to mindlessly listening to an audiobook, literature is everywhere.

Moreover, it has always been a channel for learning. In fact, the etymology and meaning of the word reveals a Latin translation of “knowledge of the book”.

However, South Asian diasporas around the world often disassociate themselves from literature originating in Asia itself.

In the west, where literary programs still fail to adapt to the international reader, connecting to literature can be a challenge.

In fact, the independent publisher, Melville House, released an amazing headline:

“82% of UK schoolchildren surveyed said they had never studied black, Asian or minority ethnic authors.”

The lack of South Asian literature featured in global curricula forces students to educate themselves on literary history.

Many important South Asian authors are leading the way in literary representation. However, some South Asians around the world are still often unaware of the origin of works in their own communities.

That’s why we’ve followed some of the most important landmarks of South Asian literature.

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

Early origins and influences

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

The expansion of linguistic forms in South Asia, as well as the emphasis on ancient cultures, allowed literature to flourish.

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

The Vedas are a historical text and contain the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature. As already mentioned, the meaning of the word “literature” evokes a message of knowledge.

Likewise, the Vedas are an essential part of literature, with the term ‘Veda’ containing translations of ‘knowledge’.

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

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

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

The very length between modern historians and the origins of these works offers some barriers.

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

In ancient India, literature surfaced (mainly) in the form of texts written in Sanskrit. One of the most notable examples of this language and this 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 widespread in South Asia.

Around the 4th century BCE or earlier is the period of the first version of this coin. Krishna Dvaipayana wrote it.

The Indian epic is the longest poem ever written at 100,000 lines. The story that this historical text summarizes is based on a family war, as well as a clash of morals.

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

Intertwined are many smaller stories that have very mythical themes and philosophical ideals.

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

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

“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 as a television series, notably in 1988 and 2013.

This allowed the meaning 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 have helped influence modern epic tales.

Storytelling methods

A brief overview of the history of South Asian literature

In the 21st century, the pathways to literature are wider than ever. In public libraries, bookstores, audiobooks and e-books, the possibilities are endless.

However, these formats were not available at the time when the first aspects of the literary work evolved.

Instead, verbal storytelling was central to South Asian literature.

The power of oral storytelling remains the focus of early documented histories. 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.

“Oral tradition can take many forms: epic poems, chants, nursery rhymes, songs, etc.

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

A specific style of oral storytelling is Katha. Using the themes to shape the narrative of the story, the old form focuses on the storyline.

Those who tell these stories are like versatile teachers. They perform these pieces engagingly at receptions to provide interpretations of historical texts for current generations.

PR agency, All Good Tales, also notes other types of storytelling, 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 ‘telling the stories of an ancient text in an understanding way to ordinary people’.

“The enthusiastic interpreter recounts, stages and comments on episodes and themes from the mythological tradition of India.”

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

In fact, oral storytelling is not a thing of the past. He always remains at the heart of projects trying to represent precious moments and movements.

Modern stories are valuable. This is why researchers and universities are trying to use oral storytelling to preserve modern activities and journeys.

The University of Washington started a South Asian oral history project in 2005.

The project aims to “preserve the history of South Asian immigration to the region, but also to make these historic resources/materials accessible to all”.

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

For example, the stories of those from India and Pakistan and their entry into the United States from the 1950s.

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 the forgotten folklore and history of countries like India, UK and Africa.

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

This highlights how these historical accounts that have origins in South Asia laid the foundations of modern literature.

Demand for South Asian Literature in Study Programs

A brief overview of the history of South Asian literature

The historical influence of the South Asian region 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 had a profound effect on diversity at the surface level.

However, the sad truth is that young people often grow up not seeing themselves in Western educational systems, especially in literature.

Lack of South Asian (or minority ethnic) literary inclusion can lead to learner alienation.

However, South Asian writers today are trying to amplify the story of their culture. Satnam Sanghera is a household name among British Asians, whose writings have achieved great success.

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

In one Tweeter from June 2021, the writer records his jubilation when he sees his novel added to the school classes:

“Watching history teachers use #EmpireLand has been exciting. I never expected this to happen, let alone so quickly.

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

The collaboration of South Asian heritage writers with powerful publishers helps to change the literary program.

This gives hope that South Asian writers will appear more frequently in the classes children spend so much time in.

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

Amruta Patil and Samit Basu are amazing graphic novelists who bring to light the plethora of unique South Asian literature.

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

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

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

Understanding the history of literature is an essential element in order to be able to engage in it.

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

The ability to recognize the beginnings of stories in a South Asian context allows readers to experience more of them while reading.

Additionally, being aware of the influence of South Asian literature on storytelling can motivate Brits and South Asians to read more.

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

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