Some bilateral aspects in 20th century literature


In Germany, the interest in India's religious, philosophical and classical literatures has always been very strong. German writers, philosophers and academicians incorporated Indian ideas into their works.

Hermann Hesse became instantly famous with his rendering of Gautama Buddha's story, entitled  /Siddhartha/, which came out in 1922.
Hermann Hesse became instantly famous with his rendering of Gautama Buddha's story, entitled /Siddhartha/, which came out in 1922.© picture-alliance

While the 18th and 19th centuries perceived India – and Asia – as an exotic region of tremendous richness in natural resources and exciting diversity in cultural traditions, the 20th century writers and intellectuals found inspiration in a stereotypical ‘idea’ of India, in the words of Stefan Zweig. For him the “East” was an abstract entity filled with symbolic contents. Hermann Hesse was fascinated by the spiritualism, religions, philosophies, and cultures of India. Hesse’s involvement with India is based on his grandfather Gundert's missionary work in Kerala. The book with which Hermann Hesse became instantly famous was “Siddhartha” (1922), the story of Gautama Buddha.

In his short story “Die Vertauschten Köpfe – eine indische Legende” (1940) German Nobel Laureate for literature Thomas Mann (1875-1955) worked upon the ancient Indian motif of the transposed heads. The story, originally found in the riddle-book “Vetalapanchavimshati”, deals with two friends of opposite nature and personality, who - under the spell of the Goddess - sacrifice their heads. Pleased by this act of devotion, the Goddess fulfils the wish of the wife of one of the friends, to bring them back to life. However in utter anxiety and distress, the wife mixes up the heads and fixes them on the wrong bodies. She is now in a dilemma who is her real husband, the body who carries her husband's head, or her husband's body with his friend's head. In the story the polarity between body and mind, or intellect and bodily strength, is thematised.

Brecht is a household name in Indian literary circles.
Brecht is a household name in Indian literary circles.© picture-alliance

Brecht is a household name in Indian literary circles. Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), together with writer Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958), took up a theme from Indian history and rendered it into a play entitled “Calcutta, 4th May”, written in 1925-26. This play focuses on the freedom struggle in 19th century Bengal and the uprising of local rulers against the harsh British colonial rule. At a young age Brecht wrote a review of Tagore’s poem “The Gardener”, pointing to, as he himself calls it “youthful enthusiasm for his love poems”, though he wondered, how anybody could write about love and tenderness in the times of the raging World War I. The Berliner Ensemble, founded by Brecht and his actress wife Helene Weigel, has always been a frequent visitor to India with its repertoire of Brechtian themes, such as “Threepenny Opera”, “Mother Courage”, or “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui”, which became popular especially in Bengal. Playwright Heiner Müller (1929-1995) was its artistic director for many years. His works have found great popularity in India, one reason for this could be his social engagement and his criticism of the anti-social attitude of the people in power in a capitalist society. His play “Hamletmachine” (written in Berlin in 1977) talks of power, conflicts, and suppression. Well-known artist Nalini Malani in her video-installation “Hamletmachine” of 2002 re-interprets it in terms of communal conflicts.

In his novel of 2005 “Two Lives”, Vikram Seth tells the story of his great-uncle Shanti and his German Jewish wife Henny, a depiction of World War II, the Holocaust and romance between two utterly divergent personalities.

Anita Desai, born in 1937 of an Indian father and a German mother, describes in her novel “Baumgartner's Bombay” (1987) the exile of a German Jewish businessman in Bombay, and his tragedy of a displaced person in alien surroundings.

Top of page