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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post forms part of my ‘aspects of the novel’ collection. Please do note that these entries, which may appear basic, are simply my own notes on the subject. They implicitly or explicitly describe a canon not of my own making or choosing and replicate this from various sources. The original encyclopaedia articles are far more comprehensive, nuanced and worth consulting. I am especially conscious, in this article, of the danger of causing offense by grossly simplifying a national history.

South Asian literature begins with Vedic scriptures (c 1500-1000 BCE). These scriptures contain references to stories of deeds of the gods. It is, though, with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – Sanskrit epics with the former classified as history and the latter poetry – that fully formed narrative literature comes to the fore. These recursive frame stories seem to have metatextual connotations, for instance with Rama’s own tale being told to himself.

The second century CE sees the emergence of the Brihatkatha (the Great Story of Gunadhya). This work is classified as being in the tradition of “story literature”, although the work is mostly known through its translations and adaptations. Again, this is a frame story that contains, within it, many digressive threads and divergent tales.

Perhaps the text most influenced by the Brihatkatha but also influential in its own right is the Panchatantra, which is a collection of didactic tales. Aspects of these tales found their way into other cultures, such as Aesop’s Fables. It is also a potential source for the Thousand and One Nights. Other influential story collections include the Vetalapanchavimshati (Twenty-Five Tales of the Vampire) and Shukasaptati (Seventy Tales of the Parrot).

The literary status of these types of narrative-driven prose is disputed, with some Sanskrit scholars tending to divide texts into useful/instructive vs. art. There are also different categorical terms used, such as kayva: katha (story) and akhyayika (biography). An example of the latter is the biography Harshacharita (Deeds of Harsha) written by Bana (c. 606-47 CE). These types of forms typically involve poets praising their patrons. Bana also wrote in the “story” genre, though, and his Kadambari is a good example of this.

From the ninth century onwards, examples of single-threaded stories, rather than frame tales around divergent groupings of stories, start to emerge. Examples include Lilavai of Kouhala, the Tilakamanjari of Dhanapala, and the Udayasundarikatha of Soddhala.

Further reading: Lawrence, McCrea, ‘Ancient Narratives of South Asia’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 28–35