Literature in Hindi is broadly divided into four prominent parts chronologically. These are : Adi Kal or Vir Gatha Kal, Bhakti Kal, Reeti Kavya Kal, and Adhunik Kal.
Literature of Adi Kal or Vir Gatha Kal (before 15th century) was developed in the regions of Kanauj, Delhi and Ajmer stretching up to central India. ‘Prithwiraj Raso’ an epic poem by Chand Bardai (1149–1200) is considered as one of the first works in Hindi literature. Chand Bardai was the court poet of Prithwiraj Chauhan, the famous ruler of Delhi and Ajmer during the invasion of Muhammad Ghori. During the later part of this period and early Bhakti Kal, many saint-poets like Ramanand and Gorakhnath became famous. The early form of Hindi literature can also be seen in some of Vidyapati’s Maithili Works.
Bhakti Kal (1375-1700) is the period of medieval Hindi literature which is marked by the influence of Bhakti (devotion to god or goddess) movement and composition of epic poems. The Bhakti period is also marked with development in poetic forms chiefly from a mixture of older forms of poetry in Sanskrit School and the Persian School. These included verse patterns like Doha (two-lines), Sortha, Chaupaya (four-lines), etc. Unlike the Adi Kal or Vir Gatha Kal which was characterised by an overdose of poetry in Vir rasa (heroic poetry), the Bhakti Kal marked a much more diverse and vibrant for of poetry which spanned the whole gamut of rasas, especially sringara rasa (love) and Vir rasa (heroism). Bhakti poetry had two schools—the Nirguna School (the believers of formless God) and the Saguna School (the believers in incanations of Lord Vishnu and Lord Rama). Kabir and Guru Nanak belong to the Nirguna School. The Saguna School was represented by mainly Vaishnava poets like Surdas and Tulsidas. The main compositions are Ramcharitmanas and Sur Sagar extolling Rama and Krishna.
Reeti Kavya Kal (1700-1900) is characterised with the erotic element in Hindi literature. This era is called Reeti (procedure or form) because it was the age when poetic figures and theory were developed in flowering forms. Although most Reeti works were outwardly related to Krishna Bhakti, their emphasis had changed from total devotion to the shringar (love) of Krishna— his leela (pranks) with the Gopis in Braja (Brindaban) and the description of the physical beauty of Krishna and Radha.
Adhunik Kal (1900 onwards) started with the British influence in Hindi literature. The person who brought realism in the Hindi prose literature was Munshi Premchand who is considered as the most revered figure in the field of Hindi fiction and progressive movement. Before Premchand, Hindi literature revolved around fairy and magical tales, entertaining stories and religious themes. Premchand’s realistic stories and novels (Godan etc.) have been translated into many other languages.
The Dwivedi Yug (Age of Dwivedi) in Hindi literature lasted from 1900 to 1918. It is named after Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, who played a major role in establishing modern Hindi language in poetry. He broadened the topics of Hindi poetry from the traditional ones of religion and romantic love to many modern subjects including nationalism and social reform.
In the 20th century, Hindi literature grew to a romantic upsurge. This is known as the era of Chhayavad (Shadowism). Jaishankar Prasad, Suryakant Tripathi, Mahadevi Varma and Sumitranandan Pant are the four major Chhayavadi poets. Poet Ramdhan Singh, known as ‘Dinkar’, was another great poet with some Chhayavadi elements.
The period of Neo-romanticism represents the adolescence of Hind poetry. It is marked by the beauty of expression and flow of intense emotion. A unique feature of this period is the emotional attachment of poets with the national freedom struggle too.
Other important genres of Adhunik Sahitya in Hindi are Prayogbad (Experimentalism) also known as Nayi Kavita (New Poetry) and Nai Kahani (New Story) of Nirmal Verma and others, followed by Pragativad (Progresivism) of Madhav Muktibodh and some other authors.
In the meantime, Hindi travel literature flourished. Rahul Sankrityayan and Baba Nagarjun were some of the great writers who dedicated themselves to the Hindi travel literature. Simultaneously Hindi playwriting came into force. The pioneer of Hindi theatre and playwriting was Bharatendu Harishchandra who wrote Satya Harishcandra (1875), Bharat Durdasha (1876), and Andher Nagari (1878) in the late 19th century. Jaishankar Prasad became the next figure in Hindi playwriting with plays like Skandagupta (1928), Chandragupta (1931) and Dhruvaswamini (1933).
Hindi essay writing also developed in this period. Acharya Kubernath Rai is one of the famous essay writers. His collection of essays are Gandha Madan, Vishad Yog, etc. He was proud of his Indian heritage. His love for natural beauty and Indian folk literature and preference for agricultural society over the age of machines, his romantic outlook, aesthetic sensibility, his keen eye on contemporary reality and classical style are notable among contemporary essayists in Hindi.