Hindi literature as a whole can be divided into four stages: Adikal (the Early Period), Bhaktikal (the Devotional Period), Ritikal (the Scholastic Period) and Adhunikkal (the Modern Period). Adikal starts from the middle of the 10th century to the beginning of the 14th century. The poetry of this period either highlights certain religious ideologies or praises the heroic deeds of the Rajput rulers and warriors in the form of verse-narratives (raso-kavyas). The earliest poetry of this period is represented by the Apabhramsha poetry, which includes the Siddha literature (750-1200 A.D.), the Nath literature and the Jain literature. Siddha literature was written in the popular language and this echoed devotional themes combined with a strong erotic feeling. The Nath literature represents the mystico-devotional poetry, written between the 7th and the 14th century by the poet Gorakhnath (c.1150 A.D.) and his followers, using the doha (couplet) and the chaupai (quartet) styles in their poems. The padas and vanis of these saints had a great influence on the Sant literature of the later-day mystic poets like Kabir, Nanak and Dadu Dayal. During this period Jain poets like Swayambhu, Som Datt Suri, Sharang Dhar and Nalla Singh composed the Charit Kavyas, which propagate moral tenets and portrayals of nature. Heroic Poetry was an integral part of the Hindi literature of the Adikal period. Several raso-kavyas were produced during this period which include Chand Bardai’s Prithviraj Raso, Dalpativijay’s Khuman Raso, Narpati Nalha’s Visaldev Raso and Jagnik’s Parmal Raso.
The period between the 14th and the 17th century, known as the Bhakti Kal or the Devotional Period, witnessed the rise of Bhakti Kavyas or devotional poetry. This form of poetry has been divided into two schools: Nirguna and Saguna Schools depending upon the devotional attitude of the poets towards the Lord. The Nirgunas believed in a formless god, while the Sagunas believed in a human incarnation of god. The Nirgunas have been further divided into two groups on the basis of the different sadhanas (disciplines) followed by them. Kabir (1399-1518 A.D.) was the most important poet of the Nirguna School. Kabir, along with Guru Nanak, Dharma Das, Maluk Das, Dadudayal, Sunder Das, are the poets who emphasised on the importance of knowledge for the realisation of God, and were called the Saint poets. They advocated monotheism through their Sakhis (couplets) and Padas (songs). Another important group of the Nirguna Poets is the Sufi poets, who believed that love was the path of realising God. Jayasi, Manjhan, Kutuban and Usman were the pioneers of this school. The Saguna poets are either the followers of Lord Rama or Lord Krishna. Tulsi Das is the foremost among the Ram Bhakt poets. He depicted Rama as the Ideal Man in his classical works Ramacharitamanasa, Gitavali, Kavitavali and Vinay Patrika. Other important poets of this group were Agradasa (Hitopadesa, Kundalian), Nabhadasa (Bhaktamala) and Pran Chand Chauhan. The Krishna Bhakt poets composed devotional pieces portraying different aspects of Lord Krishna’s life, mainly the popular image of the playful Krishna. Surdas (1483-1563) is the greatest of this stream of poets. His Sur Sagar and Sur Saravali are the masterpieces of devotional Hindi poetry. Nand Das (Rasa-pancadhyayi and Bhanvar-gita), Parmananda Das (Dhruvacarita and Danalila) and Meera Bai were other leading poets of this stream. Meera Bai (1499-1547) was the most celebrated of the women poets of medieval times. Several works like Narsiji Ki Mahero, Gitagovinda Ki Tika, Ragagovinda, Garva-gita and Raga-vihaga are attributed to Meera Bai. Maulana Daud (Candayan), Kutuban (Mrigavati), Malik Mohammad Jayasi (Padmavati) were among the important Sufi poets of this period. Abdur Rahim Khankhana (1556-1627) was another great poet of this period. Some of his important works are Rahim-dohavali, Sringara Sorath, Madanastaka and Rasa-pancadhyayi.
The Ritikal or the Scholastic period covers the period 1600-1850 A.D. It emulated the Sanskrit rhetorical tradition and tackled different aspects of poetics like rasa, alankara and nayika bheda through Saviyas and Kavithas. The poets of this period can be classified into two groups on the basis of their subject: Ritibaddha (those wedded to rhetoric) and Ritimukta (free from rhetorical conventions). The Ritibaddha poets composed on Lakshana (definitional) and Lakshya (illustrative) themes. Chintamani Tripathi (Kavya-viveka, Kavikula-kalpataru and Kavya-prakasa, Keshavadasa (Rasika-priya and Kavi-priya), Mati Ram (Rasaraja), Padmakara (Jagadvinoda), Deva, Kulpati Misra, and Bhikari Das were the leading poets of this style. The Ritimukta group of poets wrote in a spontaneous manner depicting powerful feelings of love and did not follow the pattern of poetry based on rhetoric. Ghanananda (1699-1740), Bodha (b.1747) and Thakur (1766-1823) were the leading names of this genre of poetry. Ghanananda (Sujana-sagara, Rasa-Kelivalli and Kripa-kanda) is by far the best writer of the non-rhetorical tradition of Hindi poetry. Some poets like Vrinda (1643-1723), Vaital and Giridhar (c.1743) composed didactic poetry in stray verses while others like Bhushana (1613-1712), Sudan, Lal Kavi (1657-1707) and others concentrated on heroic poetry. Bihari (1603-1663) was another leading poet of the Ritimukha School, renowned for his anthology of dohas called Bihari-satsai.
The Adhunikaal or the Modern Period in Hindi literature began in the middle of the 19th century. The most important development of this period was the evolution of Khariboli prose and proliferation of the use of Khariboli in poetry in place of Brajbhasha. This period has been divided into four phases: the age of Bharatendu or the Renaissance (1868-1893), Dwivedi Yug (1893-1918), Chhayavada Yug (1918-1937) and the Contemporary Period (1937 onwards). Bharatendu Harishchandra (1849-1882), who brought in a modern outlook in Hindi literature, is described as the ‘Father of Modern Hindi Literature’. Radhakrishna Das, Pratapnarayan Mishra, Balkrishna Bhatta, Badrinarayan Chaudhuri and Sudhakar Dwivedi were other important writers of this phase. Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi (1868-1938), who brought in a refined style of writing in Hindi prose, is regarded as the architect of modern Hindi prose. During this phase, social, political and economic problems were portrayed through the medium of poetry. Other important writers of this period are Nathuram Sharma Shankar (1859-1932), Ayodhya Sinha Upadhyay (1865-1947), Maithali Saran Gupta (1886-1964), Ram Naresh Tripathi (1889-1962) and Gopala Sarana Sinha (1891-1960). Maithali Saran Gupta revived the epic tradition with his long narrative poems like Jayadrath Vadh (1910), Pancavati (1925), Saket (1931) and Yashodhara (1932). He also translated Madhusudan Dutt’s Meghnadvadh-kavya into Hindi. This period, which has been described as ‘the didactic’ period, served as a bridge between the Bharatendu age and the Chayavad.
The post-Dwivedi Yug witnessed a new romantic upsurge in the form of the Chayavad style of poetry. This new poetry movement was described as ‘an aesthetic, subjective movement that revolted against formalism and didacticism’. Makhanlal Chaturvedi (1888-1968), Balkrishna Shama ‘Navin’ (1897-1959), Siyaram Sharan Gupta (b.1895), Jayashankar Prasad, Surya Kant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ (1897-1963), Sumitranandan Pant (1900-1977), Mahadevi Verma (b.1907) and Subhadrakumari Chauhan (1904-1948) were the leading Chayavad poets. Makhanlal Chaturvedi’s works include Hima-kiritni and Hima-tarangani. Nirala’s powerful poetry is reflected in works like Juhi Ki Kali, Parimala, Anamika, Archana and Aradhana. Sumitranandan Pant has several important works to his credit including Pallava, Gunjana, Yugavani, Gramya, Svarnakirana, Silpi and Lokayatana. The other important literary works of the Chayavad period include Jayshankar Prasad’s Kamayani, Jharna, Amsu and Lahar; Mahadevi Varma’s Rashmi (1932), Niraja (1934), Sandhyagita (1936), Yama (1940) and Dipasikha (1942); Navina’s Kvasi and Apalaka; Gupta’s Gandhi, Unmukta, Nakula and Mrinmayi and Subhadrakumari Chauhan’s Jhansi Ki Rani, Mukul (1931) and Unmadini.
The decline of the Chayavad movement saw the emergence of several different styles in Hindi poetry. One popular style known as Pragativada or progressive movement was popularized by the writings of Balakrishna Sharma Navin (1897-1960), Bhagvati Charan Varma (b.1903), Ramdhari Singh Dinkar (b.1908), Rameshwar Shukla ‘Ancala’ (b.1915) and Narendra Sharma (b.1916). Harivansh Rai Bachchan (b.1907) enriched the world of Hindi poetry with his three beautiful collections, Madhusala (1935), Madhubala (1936) and Madhukalas (1936). Bachchan’s poetry was distinct from the romanticism of Chayavad and the enthusiasm of the Pragativad. His kind of poetry is sometimes referred as ‘Hridayvad‘ or the poetry of passion. Then followed an experimental movement called Prayogavada, which came to be known in later times as the ‘Nai Kavita’. This movement brought about a new poetic content and talent to reflect modern insight. The pioneers of this trend were S.H.Vatsyayan ‘Ajneya’ (b.1911), Shivmangal Singh ‘Suman’ (b.1916), Girija Kumar Mathur (b.1917), Gajananmadhav Muktibodh (1918-1964), Dharamvir Bharati (b.1926), Nirmal Verma and others. The history of Hindi poetry, thus, extends over a period of almost one thousand years.
The development of Hindi prose has been classified into three periods: The first phase (1868-1918), the phase of growth (1918-1937) and the present phase (1938 onwards). Prose literature of Bharatendu and Dwivedi era covers the first phase. The writers of this age developed drama, novel, short story, essay and literary criticism. Bharatendu Harishchandra, Bal Krishna Bhatt and Radha Krishna Das were the prominent writers of this period. Other prominent litterateurs of this age included Devaki Nandan Khatri (novelist), Chandradhar Sharma Guleri (short-story writer), Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi (essayist) and Padma Singh Sharma (critic).
The period of growth is represented by Jayshankar Prasad (Chaya, Akash Deep), Rai Krishna Das and Mahadevi Varma. Premchand (1880-1936) was the greatest stalwart in the field of fiction. His works of fiction include Sevasadana, Premasrama, Nirmala, Kayakalpa, Rangabhumi, Ghaban and Godan. His last novel Godan has been translated in all the major languages of India. Other important fiction writers of the contemporary period include Jainendra Kumar (Sunita and Tyagapatra, Sukhada, Vivarta), Phanishwar Nath Renu (Maila Anchal), Satchinanda Vatsyayan (Sekhar Ek Jivani), Dharamvir Bharati (Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda), Yash Pal (Dada-comrade, Desh Drohi, Divya and Manusya Ke Rupa), Jagdamba Prasad Dikshit (Murdaghar) and Rahi Masoom Raza (Adha Gaon). Dr. Nagendra and Dr. Namwar Singh are the most respectable names in the field of literary criticism. Upendranath ‘Ashk’ Jagdish Chandra Mathur (Konark), Lakshminarayan Lal (Sukha Sarovar) and Mohan Rakesh (Asadha Ka Ek Din, Lahraon Ke Rajahamsa and Adhe-Adhure) are renowned modern playwrights in Hindi.