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Development of Autobiographical Writings in India

August 16, 2013

The autobiographical writings of Babur and Jahangir, Abul Fazal’s autobiography, appended to Ain-i-Akbari, also gained extensive acclaims.

by N. K. Agarwal

The great Moghuls have contributed immensely to the cultural enrichment of India. About this valuable contribution of these emperors, A. B. Pandeya has pointed out:

“The versatile genius of India furnished such excellent specimens of architecture, painting, book-craft, music and literature that they command respect and admiration to this day and have won for India a place in the cultural history of the world.”

Baburnama: The Memoirs of Babur

Baburnama: The Memoirs of Babur

One of these contributions is perhaps the art of autobiography writing. Several eminent autobiographies were written in this period. Prominent among these autobiographies is perhaps the autobiographical work of Babur. About the Memoirs of Babur, Dr. Stanley Lane-Poole comments:

(The Memoirs)…are no rough soldier’s chronicle of marches and countermarches… they contain the personal impressions and acute reflections of a cultivated man of the world, well read in Eastern literature, a close and curious observer, quick in perception, a discerning judge of persons, and a devoted lover of nature-one, moreover, who was well able to express his thoughts and observations in clear and vigorous language… The utter frankness and self-revelation, the nconscious portraiture of all his virtues and follies, his obvious truthfulness and fine sense of honor give the Memoirs of this Prince of autobiographers an authority which is equal to their charm.”

Besides the above discussed autobiography of Babur, Jahangir’s autobiographical work Tuzuk ‘i’ Jahangiri has also achieved wide praises. Jahangir’s autobiography is marked by clear and lucid style. For instance, mark the following expression from his autobiography:

“On Thursday, the 8th of Jumda-s-sani,1014 A.H., I ascended the throne at Agra, in the 38th year of my age. The first order which I issued was for the setting up of a Chain of Justice, so that if the officers of the court of justice should fail in the investigations of the complaints of the oppressed and in granting them redress, the injured persons might come to this chain and shake it, and thus give notice of their wrongs. I ordered that the chain should be made of pure gold and be thirty gaz long (60 feet), with sixty bells upon it. One end was firmly attached to a battlement of the fort at Agra, the other to a stone column on the bank of the river.”

Jahangir’s autobiography is highly praised on account of this lucid expression, as is evident from the above example. Besides the autobiographical writings of Babur and Jahangir, Abul Fazal’s autobiography, appended to Ain-i-Akbari, also gained extensive acclaims.

Thus, we see that the art of autobiography flourished immensely in the Mughal period. This Mughul tradition of autobiography writing was continued in the modern age by several evolutionary Indo-Anglian authors and thinkers.

The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi

The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi

The most famous among these autobiographies are perhaps Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Parmahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of Yogi and Nehru’s An Autobiography. Of these, Gandhi’s autobiography was highly admired. In this connection, George Orwell has pointed out:

“At about the time when the autobiography first appeared, I remember reading its opening chapters in the ill-printed pages of some Indian newspaper. They made a good impression.”

Similarly, Nehru’s Autobiography is also extensively admired. For instance, K. R. S. Iyengar, while comparing Nehru’s autobiography with Gandhi’s comments:

“When the Autobiography appeared, Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth was already acknowledged as a world classic, and Jawahar Lal’s necessarily invited comparison with Gandhi’s autobiography.”

Parmahansa Yogananda’s autobiography is also admired highly. The reason for this appreciation is that in the autobiography, Yogananda Ji has painted the deep religious and philosophical sentiments in a style marked by Biblical simplicity and Mathematical plainness. For instance, mark the following expression from the autobiography:

“In his melodious voice, Rabindranath read to us a few of his exquisite poems, newly created. Most of his songs and plays…have been composed at Shantiniketan. The beauty of his lines, to me, lies in his art of referring to God in nearly every stanza….”

On account of this portrayal of his religious experiences in a lucid style, his autobiography is highly lauded. For instance, W. Y. Evans-Wentz has praised the autobiography with its creator in the following words:

“The value of Yoganandaji’s Autobiography is greatly enhanced by the fact that it is one of the few books in English about the wise men of India….To its illustrious author, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing both in India and America, may every reader render due appreciation and gratitude.”

Thus, we see that in modern age, the art of autobiography well flourished in India. This tradition of autobiographical writing was further carried by Nirad C.Chaudhuri.

Here, we should remember that Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of An Unknown Indian differs from the autobiographies of Gandhi, Nehru and Yogananda, because in it he has defied the traditional view about autobiography that it is “the story of one’s life, written by one’s self.” Contrary to the traditional view, Chaudhuri’s autobiography lacks the expression of his personality. It does not reveal Chaudhuri’s life extensively. Chaudhuri’s real intention in writing this book is not to reveal the various facets of his personality. But the ultimate motive behind this book is perhaps historical. In place of painting his personality, Chaudhuri has portrayed “the conditions in which an Indian grew to manhood in the early decades of this century.” He has himself confessed in this connection:

“My intention is thus historical… the book may be considered as a contribution to contemporary history.”

This point was also stressed by K.R.S.Iyengar:

“It is clear, then, that Chaudhuri’s real aim is to write history and the autobiographical exercise is merely a means to get the history started.”

Iyengar thinks that Chaudhuri in his autobiography has portrayed his surroundings rather than his own personality. Even then the facts remains that Chaudhuri’s autobiography has achieved for itself a permanent place in the history of Indo-Anglian literature.

By the perusal of the above mentioned facts, it can be forcefully asserted that the art of autobiography has flourished extensively in India right from the period of the great Mughals to the modern age.

This short story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).

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