Indian poetry has a long and rich history dating back to ancient times. Due to the diverse nature of India, Indian poetry has been written in numerous languages including Sanskrit, Hindi, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali and Urdu; as well as in foreign languages like Persian and English. 5th century Indian poet Kalidasa is regarded as one of the greatest poets of all time and he has had a major impact on not only Indian poetry but on world literature. The medieval period in India saw the emergence of several great poets which include Rahim, Kabir and Tulsidas. Tulsidas, in particular, wrote Ramcharitmanas which has been acclaimed as “the tallest tree in the magic garden of medieval Indian poetry”. Nineteenth and twentieth century has seen the emergence of several towering figures in Indian literature which include Mirza Ghalib, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, Mahadevi Verma and Kamala Das. Here are the 10 most famous Indian poets and their best known works.
Lifespan: December 17, 1556 – 1627
Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana, better known as simply Rahim, was a Mughal general and courtier during the time of Emperor Akbar. He was in fact one of the Navaratnas or the “nine gems” in the court of Akbar. He had several military achievements but his poetic legacy has long outlived them. As a poet, Rahim is most famous for his dohe, couplets consisting of two lines, each of 24 instants. The dohe of Rahim are straightforward lessons for everyday life, touching on themes such as friendship, enmity, the crests and troughs of life, family and relationships. Apart from dohe, Rahim also wrote a great deal of Hindu devotional poetry and even poems on love and erotica. In contrast to his dohe which are simple and have moral and ethical overtones, his other poetry is more literally complex.
Rahiman Dhaga Prem Ka
Dono Rahiman Ek Se
Jo Baden Ko Laghu Kahe
#9 Kamala Das
Lifespan: March 31, 1934 – May 31, 2009
With her mother being a famous poet and her grand uncle a respected writer, Kamala grew up in a culturally rich household. She married at a young age of 15 and the resulting unsatisfactory relationship led to her writing being focused on domestic and sexual oppression of women. Her open and honest assessment of female sexuality made her work both controversial as well as acclaimed. The poetry of Kamala Das is known for its confessional tone, like that of Sylvia Plath. She wrote in English as well as in Malayalam, the language of her native state Kerala. While to her English audience she was Kamala Das; in Malayalam, she wrote under the pen name Madhavikutty. She converted to Islam in 1999 and assumed the name Kamala Surayya. Kamala Das was one of the leading Indian poets of the 20th century and she is known as the Mother of Modern Indian English Poetry.
My Grandmother’s House
Punishment in Kindergarten
Born: August 18, 1934
Known by his pen name Gulzar, Sampooran Singh Kalra is perhaps the most famous living Indian poet. Although he has written poetry collections and directed films, he is best known as a lyricist who has contributed immensely to the Indian Film Industry. Born in a Sikh family in British India, Sampooran moved to Mumbai after the partition. He took several menial jobs initially to earn a living including one at a garage at Vichare motors. Post college, he became involved with the PWA (Progressive writers association) and it was here that famous Indian film director Bimal Roy encouraged him to join films. Gulzar stature grew as he wrote lyrics for some of the best known Hindi songs. He worked with some of the greatest Indian music directors producing timeless classics which continue to be popular all over India. In 2014, Gulzar received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest award of the Indian cinema. He has also won an Oscar and a Grammy for writing the song “Jai Ho” for the film Slumdog Millionaire.
Tujhse Naraz Nahin Zindagi
Tere Bina Zindagi Se
#7 Mahadevi Verma
Lifespan: March 26, 1907 – September 11, 1987
Mahadevi Verma was born in a liberal Hindu family and it was her mother who inspired her to write poems at an early age. After her husband refused to live with her as she was not good looking, Mahadevi began teaching at village schools around Allahabad. She went on to become the Principal, and then the Vice-Chancellor of Prayag Mahila Vidyapeeth, a woman’s residential college in Allahabad. As a poet, Mahadevi Verma is regarding as one of the four major poets of the “Chhayavaad”, an era of Neo-romanticism in Hindi literature. She is known as the “modern Mira” due to her emotional intensity and rich imagery of nature. In 1988, Mahadevi Verma was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award in India. She has been called the grand dame of Hindi literature and her poems are widely read in schools as part of the curriculum.
Main Neer Bhari Dukh Ki Badli
Aa Gaye Tum
A saint revered by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, Kabir was a towering figure in 15th century India. However, he was critical of both Hinduism and Islam; and instead claimed that the True God is with the person who is on the path of righteousness. Not much can be established about the life of Kabir with certainty. He is said to have spent his early life in a Muslim family but it was his teacher, the Hindu bhakti leader Ramananda, who strongly influenced his life as well as his work. The poetry of Kabir is simple but profound and it has metaphors which are easy even for the common people to understand. They usually contain a moral which helps the reader understand aspects of life or teach him a virtue to help him become a better human being. Kabir is most renowned for his Dohe. They still remain hugely popular in India and there are numerous reference to them in popular culture.
Guru Govind Dou Khade
Kal Kare So Aaj Kar
Bura Jo Dekhan Main Chala
#5 Sarojini Naidu
Lifespan: February 13, 1879 – March 2, 1949
Known as the ‘Nightingale of India’, Sarojini Naidu began her writing career at the age of 13. Her first collection of poems, the widely acclaimed The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905. It combined traditional poetic forms with lush images of India. Naidu soon became known due to her highly skilled use of English metrical forms as well as for the romantic imagery in her poetry. Her mastery of difficult poetic constructs earned him worldwide praise including from English writers Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons. Naidu explored a wide variety of subjects in her poems including nature, love, death and patriotism. She even wrote poems for children. Sarojini Naidu was also a political leader who played a pivotal role during the Civil Disobedience movement and the “Quit India” movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. She was the first woman President of the Indian National Congress and also the first woman governor of an Indian state.
In the Bazaars of Hyderabad
The Golden Threshold
Lifespan: c. 1532 – 1623
Not much is known about the life of Tulsidas but there are numerous legends associated with him. He is said to have been abandoned by his parents and was raised by Narharidas, an ascetic who gave him the name Tulsidas. Tulsidas was a prolific writer and he composed at least six major works and six minor works. The best known among them is Ramcharitmanas, an epic poem which tells the story of Ram, one of the major Hindu deities. Even though Tulsidas was a great Sanskrit scholar, he wrote Ramcharitmanas in the vernacular Awadhi dialect of Hindi so that the story of Ram was accessible to the general public and not just the Sanskrit-speaking elite. Ramcharitmanas is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of Hindi literature and it has been acclaimed as “the tallest tree in the magic garden of medieval Indian poetry”. Tulsidas is, without doubt, one of the greatest poets in Hindi as well as world literature. He has been acclaimed by Indian and Western scholars alike for his poetry and for his impact on the Indian society.
Active: 4th – 5th century AD
According to legend, Kalidas was initially a simpleton and unlearned person. When an extremely intelligent princess defeated the most learned men in the kingdom, the nobles decided to fool her by putting Kalidas in front of her and asking him to stay dumb and let them explain his answers. The princess was fooled and married Kalidas but soon she realized that he was a great fool. She humiliated him and threw him out of the palace. It was then that Kalidas visited a temple of the Hindu goddess Kali and was blessed with knowledge. His name in fact means “the one who serves Kali”. Kalidas is widely regarded as the greatest Indian writer of all time. Though his best known work is his play Shakuntala, he also wrote at least two epic poems: Raghuvamsha and Kumarasambhavam; and a few other minor poems. Kalidas has had a great impact on Indian literature and numerous subsequent authors, including Rabindranath Tagore, have been influenced by his works. Kalidas became widely known to western writers in the 18th century and since then he has also had an impact on western literature.
#2 Rabindranath Tagore
Lifespan: May 7, 1861 – August 7, 1941
Referred to as “the Bard of Bengal”, Rabindranath Tagore is a towering figure of world literature and the most famous modern Indian poet. He wrote poetry from the age of eight and published his first major poetry collection, Bhanusimha Thakurer Padabali, at the age of 16. His best known work in poetry, Gitanjali, was published in 1910. Tagore himself translated its works to English and the The English Gitanjali or Song Offerings was published in 1912. The following year, Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature, largely for this book. This made him the second non-European after Theodore Roosevelt to receive a Nobel Prize. Tagore was a prolific writer who, apart from numerous poems, also wrote drama, short stories and novels and even translated some of them to English. The major theme in the poetry of Tagore is the essential unity of all creation, which is also the main theme of the Upanishads, ancient Sanskrit texts that contain some of the central philosophical concepts and ideas of Hinduism. Among the various achievements of Tagore, is composing the national anthems of two nations, India as well as Bangladesh, and providing inspiration for a third, that of Sri Lanka.
Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata
Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo
#1 Mirza Ghalib
Lifespan: December 27, 1797 – February 15, 1869
Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, popularly known as Ghalib, was an Urdu and Persian poet who remains a towering poetic figure in numerous nations, particularly India and Pakistan. Born in an aristocratic Muslim family in Agra, he was orphaned at the age of 5. He began writing at the age of 11 and was married at the age of 13. He spent his life writing poetry for patrons at the Mughal court. During his time, he was infamous for drinking and gambling; but since his death his fame has consistently increased. Ghazal is a lyric poem with a fixed number of verses and a repeated rhyme, typically on the theme of love, and normally set to music. Although Ghalib wrote in several genres, he is most famous for his ghazals and he is widely considered the greatest and most influential poet of Urdu and Persian ghazals. His poetry is known for the intensity of emotions that it expresses, its absolutely perfect form and for the profound ideas it conveys. Though not as well known during his lifetime and not as critically acclaimed as some of the poets in this list, Mirza Ghalib is perhaps the most famous Indian poet.
Dil E Nadan Tujhe Hua Kya Hai
Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi
Har Ek Baat Pe Kehte Ho