Chandrakanta: The First Hindi Bestseller

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    The literary work Chandrakanta would evoke little reaction from people today. While some may remember it from a popular adaptation of the work on TV by Doordarshan in the 90s, few realize that this novel, written by novelist Babu Devakinandan Khatri in 1892 marked a great milestone in Hindi language and literature. It took the language of modern Hindi, as we know it and its Devanagari script to the masses. Known as the ‘First Hindi bestseller’ and the ‘First Hindi fantasy novel’ Ramchandra Shukla, the noted historian of Hindi Literature in his book Hindi Sahitya ka Itihas or the History of Hindi Literature claims that Chandrakanta created a readership for Hindi literature, which was in its nascent stage at the time. Such was the popularity of the novel, that even a century after its publication, the book cover boasts of how ‘countless people learnt Hindi just to read this novel’.

    It took the language of Hindi as we know it and its Devanagari script to the masses

    Chandrakanta is the story of Princess Chandrakanta of Vijaygarh who is in love with Prince Birendra Singh of the rival kingdom of Naugarh. It is essentially a love story with lots of magic and fantasy. Khatri introduces ‘Aiyyars’ who are fashioned as part ninjas and part magicians, who can take any shape and are well versed with magic tricks. Adding to all the drama are secret caves, hidden treasures, mysterious Yogis and palace intrigues. A 1891 advertisement for the novel read-

    Chandrakanta - never has such a strange, surprising, wonderful novel come to print – the astonishing art of Aiyyari must be seen to be believed!

    As interesting and fantastic as the story was, the great thing about the novel Chandrakanta was the impact it had on the Hindi language. Dr. Arthur Dudney from Columbia University in his research paper ‘How Devakīnandan Khatrī’s Chandrakāntā, the First Hindi Best-seller, Navigates Western Modernity and the Fantastical’ highlights the time this work was written in. According to him the novel actually lifted the national spirit! He points out that the British had emerged victorious during the revolt of 1857 and the national morale was at an all-time low. People were attracted to the mythical ‘Golden Age of India’ purged of any foreign influence and there was a demand for books with heroic stories, which harked back to such a glorious past.

    According to Dr. Arthur Dudney, the novel actually lifted the national spirit

    This was also a time when a schism was appearing between Hindi and Urdu. In the United Provinces (present day Uttar Pradesh), Urdu written in Persian script was then the language of governance and lower bureaucracy. In the 1890s, a movement was started by the proponents of Hindi to make the Devanagari script an alternative to Urdu. In 1893, a society named Nagari Pracharini Sabha was formed in Benares for the promotion of Devanagari. The proponents of Hindi were keen to iterate the idea that Hindi was the language of Hindus while Urdu was that of Muslims. In parallel, there was a movement to purge Hindi of any word drawn from Urdu or local dialects. To make it ‘Shuddh’ or pure.

    It was in these times that Chandrakanta shone through. The author, Babu Devakinandan Khatri was born in 1861, in Samastipur in Bihar. Later, he would go on to work for the Raja of Benares. Khatri originally wrote Chandrakanta in a serialized form, as individual chapters called bayans which were published from 1888 to 1891.

    These chapters became so popular that people would eagerly wait for the next chapter to be released. Not many people knew how to read the Devanagari script, hence they would gather around a person who could read it, and get it read aloud. The publishers’ claim that ‘countless people learnt Hindi to read the novel’ is partially true. Most people had to learn the Devanagari script. In 1892, the series was compiled and published together in the form of a novel.

    Chandrakanta paved the way for the beginning of a whole new fantasy genre in Hindi

    Scholar of Hindi literature, Francesca Orsini believes that Chandrakanta paved the way for the beginning of a whole new fantasy genre in Hindi. The success ofChandrakanta led Khatri to write Chandrakanta -Santati, seven sequels to the original book. This was followed by further sequels called Bhootnath and Bhootnath-Santati. Thus, the total saga of Chandrakanta and its sequels spanned over sixteen books! This made it the longest work of Hindi literature ever written till then.

    However, Chandrakanta also had its share of critics who did not consider it ‘serious literature’. A number of Hindi writers and literary critics considered the whole fantasy genre exemplified by books such as Chandrakanta totally frivolous. They believed that the purpose of Hindi literature was to reflect society’s social problems as well as seek to enhance moral values. They preferred works of authors like Premchand, which were gritty and realistic. Devakinandan Khatri’s counter to this criticism was that he wrote books that people could be entertained by.

    Another grouse critics had with the novel was that it was not written in ‘Shuddh’ or pure Hindi. Khatri had made a conscious choice not to use such language while writing the novel. Going against the puritanical trend of using highly Sanskritised words, he had written the novel in a language which common people could understand. This had contributed to its popularity in a big way.

    After 1947, Hindi received official patronage and Hindi literature thrived, as did the novel which started it all. Chandrakanta was reprinted 20 times before 1936 alone and remains in print even today. It has been remade into popular television serials and there have been plans to make a movie based on it as well.

    As the debate on whether Hindi should remain the National language resurfaces time and again… it is important to remember the book that made Hindi and its script so popular. And in an era of fantastic stories like the ‘Game of Thrones’ we should remember Devakinandan Khatri, the man who seems to have been way ahead of George R R Martin and Chandrakanta - India’s most successful best seller!

    Cover Image Courtesy: Amazon India

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