Chandrakanta, Devaki Nandan Khatri’s extraordinary novel, first published in 1888, is set in the courtly world of princes and princesses, magnificent palaces and gardens. The beautiful Princess Chandrakanta is imprisoned in an ancient tilisma, and waits to be rescued. Her lover, the valiant Prince Birendra Singh, battles jealous rivals and tries to break the ancient enchantment in order to reach her. The real protagonists of the story, however, are not the prince and the princess, but their secret agents, the ‘spy-magicians’ known as aiyaars.
Written in the spoken Hindi of northern India rather than in any difficult literary idiom, Chandrakanta became an instant hit upon publication and was modern India’s first bestseller. Over the years its appeal has remained intact through various translations and adaptations, both in the printed form and in the visual medium.
Now in a sparkling new translation by Rohini Chowdhury, this fantastic classic will enchant a fresh generation of readers and entice them into an unforgettable realm of magic and bravery.
Devaki Nandan Khatri (1861-1913) was born in Pusa, Bihar, in the home of his maternal grandfather, Jivanlal Mahato, a wealthy landowner. His father, Lala Ishvardas, descended from an illustrious family from Lahore. He shot to literary fame with his first novel, Chandrakanta, at the age of twenty-six. He subsequently set up his own printing press, the Lahari Press, in Banaras. His other popular works include Chandrakanta Santati and Bhutnath, and several tilismi and jasusi novels, all of which became hugely popular.
Rohini Chowdhury is a children's writer and literary translator, with some thirty books to her credit. She is widely regarded for her translations of the seventeenth century text, Ardhakathanak, the autobiography of poet and thinker Banarasidas, and of the acclaimed Hindi novel, Tyagpatra, by Jainendra.
Humanity has long been fascinated by tales of love and valour, adventure and suspense, of beautiful princesses languishing in lonely prisons, and brave young princes riding to their rescue; evil enchantments and wicked opponents notwithstanding, the prince and his princess are united, and live happily ever after. Chandrakanta, Babu Devaki Nandan Khatri's extraordinary first novel, is one such wonder tale. First published in serial form in 1888, and in a single volume in 1891, the novel was a runaway success; written in the spoken Hindi of northern India rather than in any difficult literary idiom, it became an instant hit upon publication and was modern India's first bestseller. By 1904, six editions of the novel had appeared, and Chandrakanta, and its sequel-Chandrakanta Santati (published in 1905), together sold more than eighty thousand copies in the first decade of the twentieth century. Interestingly, Devaki Nandan Khatri chose more popular Urdu script. This did not, in any way, hinder the novel's astounding popularity; rather, thousands of readers learnt Devanagari in order to read Chandrakanta. Its success, therefore, represents an important step in the development of Hindi and its ultimate precedence over Urdu in northern India.
Khatri began writing Chandrakanta in 1887. He was all of twenty-six years old at the time, and this was his first foray into fiction. As he explains in the preface to the first edition, 'I have never written a book before, this is my first attempt, so if there be errors and mistakes, it is not a matter for surprise ... ' The first part of his novel was published in 1888 in Banaras, by his friend, Babu Amir Singh, owner of the Hariprakash Yantralay. Khatri wrote his novel in four parts, his fans welcoming each new part with unabated eagerness and enthusiasm. At almost three hundred pages, and with a total of ninety-three chapters across the four parts, Chandrakanta became the longest Hindi novel of the nineteenth century. All four parts were published separately in 1891, and then together in one volume, in 1892.
Chandrakanta was so successful that by 1894, Khatri was able to set up his own press, the Lahari Press, and start his own monthly fiction magazine, Upanyas Lahari. He also began publishing Chandrakanta Santati (Chandrakanta's Descendants), the sequel to Chandrakanta. He wrote the sequel in twenty-four parts, completing the final part in 1905. Khatri also published Urdu editions of Chandrakanta, and at least one edition in Nepali (Corkhabhasha). Khatri continued to publish Chandrakanta and Chandrakanta Santati in various editions, Hindi and Urdu, to suit every pocket, under his own imprint of the Lahari Press, though printed by other presses. As Chandrakanta and its sequels continued to grab the popular imagination, readers would mob the premises of the Lahari Press whenever a new part of the novel was expected.
Khatri capitalized on his success by continuing the story in a second sequel, Bhutnath; this was based on a character from Chandrakanta Santati. He wrote and published six parts of this sequel between 1907 and his death in 1913. After his death, his son Durga Prasad Khatri took over the management of the Lahari Press; he also continued and completed Bhutnath, writing another fifteen parts of the story between 1915 and 1935. The novels continued to sell so well that Durga Prasad Khatri further continued the story in a third, six-part sequel called Rohtasmath.
Though never accepted as 'literature' by the Hindi literary establishment due to the levity of its subject matter, the very popularity of Chandrakanta makes it a landmark in the history of Hindi literature, and particularly so, in the history of the Hindi novel. As Francesca Orsini points out, from the point of view of commercial Hindi publishing, which was still in the early stages of development at the time, Chandrakanta (and its sequels) managed to create in readers the habit of reading novels in Hindi, introducing them to the conventions of the modern novel, a habit that later, more 'literary' writers in Hindi were able to exploit. Cnandrakanta's success also gave birth to a whole new sub-genre of Hindi fiction-that of the tilismi and jasusi detective novels (to which Khatri himself contributed several works), which became hugely popular as well.
Khatri drew heavily on the Persian-Arabic tradition of the dastan and qissa for his novel; he was also influenced by the writings of the Bengali poet and novelist, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, and the English novelist, W.J. Reynolds. In Chandrakanta, Khatri brings together all the narrative elements of a dastan; at the same time, he successfully makes the leap from the traditional, oral forms of storytelling to the modern conventions of the novel, so that even those critics who refuse to accept Cnandrakanta as a work of literary merit, accept Khatri's role in introducing readers to the new literary form of the novel.
The dastan was oral in nature, and usually recited by a dastan- go or professional storyteller. Full of razm, bazm, husn O' ishq, and aiyaari, i.e. battle and warfare, courtly assemblies, beauty and love, and trickery, the form became hugely popular all over the Islamic world. III India, dastans acquired even greater popularity under the Mughal emperor, Akbar. One of the most popular dastans of the time was the 'Dastan-e-Amir Hamzah', relating the life and adventures of Amir Hamzah, the Prophet's uncle." Despite their popularity under the Mughals, dastans really came into their own in India in the nineteenth century, when they began to be composed in Urdu. By the middle of the nineteenth century, a few dastans had also appeared in print, including Ghalib Lakhnawi's hugely popular Urdu version of 'Amir Hamzah'.
Like 'Amir Hamzah' and other Urdu dastans of the time, Khatri's novel is set in the courtly world of princes and princesses, magnificent palaces and gracious gardens, where love and beauty rule the day and chivalry and honour are valued above life itself, where the beautiful Princess Chandrakanta, imprisoned in an ancient tilisma, must wait for rescue, while her lover, the valiant Prince Birendra Singh, must battle jealous rivals and break the ancient enchantment in order to reach her. Yet, as in the dastans, the real protagonists of the story are not the prince and the princess, but their secret agents, the 'spy-magicians' known as aiyaars. Both the prince and the princess have their own cohort of aiyaars and aiyaaras, and, as in most dastans, it is really the aiyaars who determine the direction and set the pace of the story. Thus, Khatri's tale has all the elements of a traditional dastan: descriptions of war and battles that help the prince prove his valour (razm); elaborate enumerations of royal splendour and details of courtly gatherings (hazm); beauty as embodied in women, and love (husn o' ishq); complex tilismas, ancient enchantments, and clever and ingenious aiyaars with their inventive, and sometimes cunning, tricks and plans (aiyaari). A virtuoso dastan-go would often 'stop' the dastan in order to offer his listeners long lists and detailed descriptions of 'dastan-mandatory' items. Khatri, too, offers his readers detailed descriptions of nature, feminine beauty and battles, and often gives lists of plants and trees, royal treasure and other items, but unlike the traditional dastan-go, he keeps his descriptions short, never allowing his narrative to pause or flag.
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