The emergence of modern Hindi and its attempt to be accorded the status of India’s national language is deeply enmeshed with the Independence movement in the 1900s. From a variety of dialects, vernaculars and scripts, modern Hindi was given a standardised form by adopting the Khari Boli form written in the Devnagari script for official as well as literary use.

Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850-1885), who played a key role in popularising the use of this new form in literary genres such as poetry, drama, travelogues and essays, is widely regarded as the “father of modern Hindi”.

During his short life, Benaras-born Bharatendu brought to maturity the development of playwriting in modern Hindi, employing satire and humor to comment on society. He also influenced many writers to adopt the newly emerging Hindi language for their novels, an attempt that came to great literary success in the 20th century.

At the time Bharatendu was writing, as the colonial rulers were attempting to impart primary education in India’s native languages, the north-western provinces were debating what the “real” vernacular of the people was. Another important question was that of the script to be used by colonial administration – Nagari or Persian.

Votaries of each side vehemently presented arguments in support of their languages, which were increasingly getting differentiated into Hindi written in Nagari and Urdu written in a script derived from Persian. With the adoption of both Nagari and Persian by the colonial administration in 1900, the movement from the north-western provinces spread to other parts of the country as the struggle to make Hindi the national language.

Bharatendu Harishchandra’s role goes beyond just powering linguistic developments. He provided the ideological push to the Hindi movement as he attempted to establish a link between “one’s own language” and the “progress of the nation”. In a famous poem in 1877, he wrote “Nij bhasha unnati ahai sab unnati ko mool”, (one’s own language is the root of all progress) declaring the inseparability of language and national development.

His work strengthened of Hindi’s claims to national status in the 20th century, when there were increased efforts to standardise its syntax and grammar, expand its vocabulary and there was a proliferation of its usage for non-fictional and scientific writings.

However, a critical reading of Bharatendu’s writings and texts reveals a crucial side of his work that has been ignored because of the focus of nationalism on indigeneity and exclusion. What is less emphasised are Bharatendu’s experiments with mixing languages and scripts, reflecting the potential and possibilities of the socio-cultural diversity of 19th-century India.

Sample the following couplet from a poem by Bharatendu Harishchandra published in his journal Harishchandrika in 1874 that mixed Hindi and English.

“When I go Sir, molakat ko, these chaprasis
Trouble me much.
How can I give daily Inam, ever they ask
Me I say such
Some time they give me gardania
And tell bahar niklo tum
Dena na lena mufta ke aye yaha hain
Bane Darban ki dum.”

Resembling the Hinglish that is now used widely in quick-read novels and social media conversations, these lines reflect the spirited attempt to combine the languages of the colonisers and the colonised people to narrate the ordeals of Indians in gaining access to government office.

Credit: Pixabay.

In another poem written as a eulogy to Queen Victoria in 1877, Bharatendu mixed three different scripts – Nagari, Roman and Persian – while writing Hindi. He produced a unique amalgam that calls into question the strict separation of scripts.

While the early-20th century Hindi movement banished such attempts, primarily because of the efforts of another prominent literary figure Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, the fusion of scripts has found currency in the imagination of contemporary pop-culture artists and corporate brands. The mix of Roman and Nagari letters is visible in the design of modern apparel, advertisements, the logos of music albums and body tattoos.

It reflects an outlook that is a blend of local and global, with the local being used to interpret the global.

Bharatendu was also prominent in popularising the use of Hindi dialects: in plays and mushairas, he featured the vernacular specific to the social location of each character, replacing a common standard language. He wrote Sanskrit Lavani, poems in Gujarati and Braj Bhasha and ghazals in Urdu under the pen name “Rasa”.

These literary ventures combined languages and scripts in a period when the differences were being highlighted. These experiments indicate the heterogeneous and inclusive imagination of the nation with regard to language. While there is no doubt that these efforts were based on the dominance of the Hindi language, they are nonetheless very different from Sanskrit-driven Hindi that is preferred in some circles, a variant that is notorious for purging “outside” words and asserting its supremacy over other regional languages.

Compared with the hegemonic ambitions of Hindi today, these literary endeavors fracture the uniform, exclusionary and majoritarian interpretation of the Indian nation that often accompanies the support for the Hindi language.

Prachi Gupta is a Phd research scholar at the Center for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her email address is

September 14 is Hindi Divas or Hindi Day.