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Marathi - The Language of Warriors

Marathi is the language of the warrior nation that fought the powerful Mughal Empire to a standstill and established itself as a symbol of the struggle for Indian independence during the 1857 Mutiny. This article traces the origin and history of this language which is now spoken by over 90 million people around the world today.
Marathi is one of the twenty-two languages selected in the Constitution of India as an official language. The highest concentration of Marathi-speakers in India is in the state of Maharashtra, the commercial hub of India. Significant numbers of Marathi-speaking people are also found in the states of Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, where they have lived for centuries.
Marathi is estimated to be over 1,300 years old, with the oldest evidence of Marathi procured from the base of a thousand-year old statue in Shravana Belagola in Karnataka. The inscription is a tribute to King Gangaraya from his general Chamundaraya who had funded the construction of the statue.
Marathi is descended from the Prakit dialect Maharashtri (literally, the "Language of the Empire"), which was the official language of the Satavahana Empire in the early centuries of the Common Era. Under the patronage of the Satavahana Empire, Maharashtri became the most widespread Prakrit of its time, and also dominated the literary culture amongst the three "Dramatic" Prakrits of the time, Maharashtri, Sauraseni and Magadhi. A version of Maharashtri, called the Jaina Maharashtri, also was employed to write sections of Jain scripture. The Satavahana Emperor Hala's Sattasai, an anthology of over 700 love poems, has been established as the most famous work of literature in Maharashtri. Maharashtri evolved during the 15th and 16th centuries into Marathi.
Marathi came into prominence during the reign of Chhatrapati Shivaji, who led the Marathas in an independence struggle against the Sultans of Bijapur and later the Mughal Empire. The Marathas later established a federated empire, nominally governed by a group of Peshwas, which stretched out from Delhi to Orissa and southwards to Thanjavur by the later part of the 18th century.
Marathi, through its origins from the Prakrits, derives a large part of its grammatical and sentence construction from Sanskrit. Marathi grammar can divided into 8 distinct parts : 'Naam' (the equivalent of a noun), 'Sarva naam' (pronouns), 'Visheshan' (adjective), 'Kriya Visheshan' (adverb), 'Kriyapad' (verb), and special tools 'Ubhayanvayi Avyay' 'Shabd Yogi Avyay' and 'Keval Prayogi Avyay', wherein 'Avyay' literally means 'Indispensable'.
Marathi, owing to geopolitical reasons and the widespread nature of Marathi-speaking communities, hosts a number of dialects. Two key dialects, historically, have been Ahirani and Manadeshi. A Marathi dialect called Malwani from the Sindhudurg region has gained considerable attention in recent times, owing to its usage in several dramas and plays. This trend owes its origins to "Wastraharan", a play written by Gangaram Gawankar and staged by Machchhindra Kambli. Its popularity among the masses fuelled interest in the dialect and has thus borne an entire new genre in Marathi culture called Malwani plays. Another key dialect, which is employed in areas around Nagpur, Amravati, Pusad, Vashim and Yavatmal, is the Vaidharb. Maharashtra was also home to an ancient émigré community of Jews who intermarried with Marathas to form the Bene Israel community. This community speaks a dialect known as Judæo-Marathi, which incorporates elements of both Hebrew and Marathi. This dialect has been legitimized by recognition by Israel after a large number of Bene Israeli Jews immigrated to Israel after its formation. Interestingly, Konkani, owing to the upheavals wrought by the cultural destruction initiated by the Portuguese Government after the occupation of Goa, was also considered a dialect of Marathi until linguistic research proved otherwise.
Technology has also had a profound impact on Marathi. Before the advent of the printing press, Marathi writers used a cursive script known as the Modi script. The script tehn fell into disuse with the advent of printing presses and the favour accorded to Persian scripts that gained currency during the age of the Sultans and the Maratha rulers who employed this script extensively to communicate with the Sultans and the Mughals.
Marathi plays host to a large and extensive literary culture over the past 1,000-odd years. The origin and growth of Marathi literature is directly linked to two significant events :
  1. The rise of the Jadhava dynasty.
  2. The emergence of the Mahanubhav Panth and Warkari Panth sects
The Jadhavas adopted Marathi as the court language at their capital Devgiri and became a beacon for learned scholars in Marathi to showcase and find patronage for their skills. The Mahanubhav Panth and Warkari Panth were two religious sects adopted Marathi to preach their methodologies in devotion. While the followers of the Mahanubhav sect included several scholars who wrote pathbreaking works in Marathi prose, the saints of the Warkari sect established themselves as eminent poets who composed Marathi poetry.
Marathi literature first made a formal appearance in the 10th century AD. The new era in Marathi literature can be grouped into two main ages : the Ancient or Old Marathi Literature Period (which spanned primarily between the 11th and 19th century) and the Modern Marathi Literature Periods (which includes all accomplishments from the 19th century till the present date). The Old Marathi Literature Period specialized in the creation of distinctive works of poetry that featured, and restricted itself to, the composing poet's choice in words and rhythm. The works produced in this period was primarily devotional, utilizing a narrative style and sometimes featuring a pessimistic outlook.
The Old Marathi Literature Period was pioneered by the efforts of three famous Marathi poets : Mukundaraj (also known as Vivekasindhu), Dnyaneshwar and Namdeo who wrote devotional poetry in a very simple language without elaborate stylizations. These pioneers were followed by the saint and poet Eknath whose work "Ekanathi Bhagavata" is considered an epitome in the accomplishments of Marathi literature. Eknath's simple style held enormous appeal among the people and he is considered to be the founder of secular poetry. Another great poet, Mukteshwar, followed Eknath's footsteps who further developed style to create a poetic version of the Mahabharata.
One of Marathi literature's greatest poets, Tukaram, holds a unique place in Marathi history. A radical proponent of reforms, his vision coupled with his vigour and earnestness earned him the title of "Sant Tukaram" by the people, who thus equated him to a saint. Tukaram's close friend Ramdas also created a milestone in Marathi literature with the "Dasabodha".
18th century poetry is replete with the works of great poets who gradually transformed the face of Marathi literature into the age of Modern Marathi Literature. Some of the best poets of the 18th century were Vaman Pandit ("Yathartha Dipika"), Raghunath Pandit ("Nala Damayanti Swayamvara") and Shridhar Pandit ("Pandavpratap", "Harivijay" and "Ramvijay"). The poet who formed the basis of the Modern Marathi Lierature Period was Morapanta whose poetic rendition of "Mahabharata" is considered to be the first epic poem written in Marathi. This poem uniquely contained sections of prose and poetry. The prose section consisted of historical records composed in a prose format, known as the "Bakhars", a style that originated sometime after 1697. The poetry section contained styles known as "Padvas" and "Katvas" originally invented by a school of Marathi folk singers known as the Shahirs. The years between the last decade of the 18th century and the first two decades of the 19th century marked the emergence of the Modern Marathi Literature Period from the latest developments in Old Marathi Literature Period.
The Modern Marathi Literature Period, like most rebirths in Indian literature, came after the exposure to the European methods of penmanship and publication. The Raja of Tanjore initiated this effort by publishing an English book translated into Marathi in 1817. Translation of key European works was a major impetus to the development of Marathi literature. Bal Shastri Jambhekar, Lokahitavadi and Jyotiba Phule gained inspiration from the European genre of writing and wrote about various topics in Marathi. The first Marathi newspaper began in 1835. Baba Padamji's 1857 work "Yamuna Paryatan" became the first Marathi novel written on the topic of social reform.
The establishment of the University of Bombay in 1858 and the starting of the renowned Marathi newspaper "Kesari" in 1880 also provided a boost to the development of modern Marathi literature, which in these intervening years, comprised almost completely of translated works. Keshavasuta also initiated a sense of modernism with his poetry which incorporated newer styles of verse in its creation.
Two poetic societies, Ravikiran Mandal and Kavi Tambi, established in this period, encouraged several great poets like Ananta Kanekar, Kavi Anil and N. G. Deshpande to showcase and develop their distinctive poetic styles. Post-Independence poetry diversified in terms of subject matter to incorporate the various facets of human life. B. S. Mardhekar set the trend with P. S. Rage, Vinda Karandikar, Vasant Bapat and Shanta Shelke following in his footsteps.
The development of the dramatic form is an essential part of the evolution of Marathi culture. Vishnudas Bhave pioneered new styles of Marathi drama, followed by the efforts of other great dramatists such as B. P. Kirloskar, G. B. Deval, R. G. Gadkari, Mama Varerkar and P. L. Deshpande. Marathi drama continues to flourish to this day and is still a major entertainer in the present-day context.
The first Marathi novel to be published was "Madhali Sthiti" written by Hari Narayan Apte. Other prominent Marathi novelists who followed in his footsteps were Natha Madhav, C.V. Vaidya, Professor V. M. Joshi, V. S. Khandekar, Sane Guruji, Kusumvati Deshpande and Kamalabai Tilak. The short story and essay forms developed by the efforts of eminent writers like Diwakar Krishna, V. S. Gurjar, S. M. Mate, Durga Bhagwat and N. S. Phadke, among others, who almost exclusively wrote in these forms.
Today, Marathi, as a language, has crossed boundaries with the popularization of the "Mumbaiyya" slang, a device consistently highlighted in several Hindi films. The location of the Hindi film industry in Mumbai, the state capital of Maharashtra, is another factor in the popularization of Marathi. Maharashtra is the culmination of several tumultuous events in India history and Marathi's displayed sense of adaptability over the ages would ensure its prevalence in coming ages as well.
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