Many tongues, one voice: Review of ‘Under the Bhasha Gaze’ by P.P. Raveendran

An essential text in the study of Indian literature, English translation, comparative literature, and cultural studies.

Published : Oct 05, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

At the O.V. Vijayan permanent photo gallery at Thasrak in Palakkad. Most authors and works discussed and referred to are from Malayalam. 

At the O.V. Vijayan permanent photo gallery at Thasrak in Palakkad. Most authors and works discussed and referred to are from Malayalam.  | Photo Credit: K. K. Mustafah

In his preface to Under the Bhasha Gaze, Prof. P.P. Raveendran states that the essays in the collection were researched and written as papers for various presentations over a period of 20 years The essays, he notes, are bound by a common thread: a politics of bhashas. The book has 20 chapters and an epilogue.

Under the Bhasha Gaze: Modernity and Indian Literature
P.P. Raveendran
Oxford University Press
Pages: viii+348
Price: Rs.1,795

Watching contemporary literary, cultural, social, political, and economic histories practically explode in our faces in the eventful first two decades of the 21st century, the author indeed has had the opportunity to test his theories and hypotheses and season and stabilise his arguments.

In the book’s exhaustive and explicatory Introduction, Prof. Raveendran presents a skeletal design of the entire work. The essays are arranged into three sections. Section I, titled “Historicising Bhasha Literature”, has seven chapters that address modernity and translation in the context of Bhasha literature. Section II, titled “Border-crossing Bhasha Literature”, has another seven chapters on comparative Indian literature and realism and magical realism, the region and the nation, and bilinguality in Bhasha literature. Section III, titled “Six Ways of being Modern: Reading a Bhasha Canon”, contains six chapters and an epilogue and focusses on the oeuvre of Malayalam writers such as M.T. Vasudevan Nair, S.K. Pottekkat, O.V. Vijayan, Rajelakshmy, Ayyappa Paniker, and Madhavikkutty (aka Kamala Das/Kamala Surayya).

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At the very outset, let me make it clear that Prof. Raveendran’s pithy writing condensed into the 348 pages of this book does not yield itself easily to review. What I have attempted to give below is not even the tip of the iceberg, but the glimpse of a mere speck. Let us consider the terms that make up the title.

“Modernity” is traditionally associated with changing social formations resulting from the breakdown of the feudal order, and large-scale industrialisation, especially in the European context—a process deemed to have begun in the 17th century which spread worldwide. In the Indian context, the author explains, it has its beginnings in the social awakening triggered by figures such as the Buddha and Thiruvalluvar, as well as the Bhakti Movement saints of the medieval period, and progressing to the social and spiritual revival orchestrated by Sree Narayana Guru and others in Kerala and elsewhere in the 20th century. The author, thus, “adopts the idea of a proliferation of modernities as a way of dealing with the concept’s nuanced, contested, and contradictory character”.

A quick comparison of the blurb with the first paragraph of the “Introduction: Bhasha in Focus” reveals that both are almost verbatim but for the concluding section of the latter. However, the most important difference is the use of the term “Indian literatures” in the blurb, whereas the term “Indian literature” has been used in the Introduction. Is there a difference? Yes, there is.

Cover of Under the Bhasha Gaze by  PP Raveendran

Cover of Under the Bhasha Gaze by PP Raveendran | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

‘Indian literatures’

India has 22 official languages, which are listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, with hundreds of mother tongues interspersed across smaller groups and regions; two more languages (in addition to the 22) are recognised by the Sahitya Akademi as having significant literatures. Therefore, instead of terming “Indian literature” as a monolithic term, scholars have preferred to use the term “Indian literatures” or bhashas. However, throughout the main text of this book, Prof. Raveendran has used the term “Indian literature” in a collective sense while adopting the term “Indian literatures”, meaning bhashas, in the blurb.

The author describes bhasha as “the common word for ‘speech’ or a ‘regional dialect’in most Indian languages, especially when used in opposition to the hegemonic language of Sanskrit”, among several other usages. It invariably is used to refer to non-Sanskritic works or regional language renderings of Sanskrit works. Further, “…its anti-hegemonic thrust in the Indian linguistic context confers on it a degree of political power…”. The colonial bureaucracy developed the term “the vernacular” to refer to bhasha.

Chapter 7, “Bhasha Writing as World Literature”, begins by formulating two approaches in defining “Indian Literature”: one, the concept of an “essential spirit of Indianness” that enfolds bhashas, and, two, “as a politically significant blanket concept that binds ‘discrete’ literary formations, each of which are formed around a bhasha with its own canons and traditions”.

Meanwhile, the author brings into focus a sort of antithesis of the idea of Indian literature as he dwells on the power relations that breed tensions between different bhashas, citing the case of Assamese and Bengali (in effect, there is one between Odia and Bengali as well), Tamil and Telugu, Kashmiri and Telugu in the past, and between Hindi and Urdu post-Independence and, finally, about the perceived attempts by the dominant political power of the day to impose Hindi on non-Hindi-speaking regions.

He further expands the idea of Indian literature by explaining Sheldon Pollock’s formulation of a “Sanskrit cosmopolis” in premodern South Asia in the first millennium CE, in which, he says, a kind of universalism was involved. He then brings in the binaries of deshi and marga—“great and little traditions”, as theorised by Robert Redfield and Milton Singer—and cites the cases of Sanskrit and Prakrit.

Another significant concept the author introduces is that of the “everyday”, a term coined by Henri Lefebvre. It describes what is in appearance “the insignificant and the banal”; Hegel called it “the prose of the world”, as couched in Lefebvre’s definition, and is derived from the French word, quotidienne, which has its English equivalent in “the quotidian”. The author emphasises the importance of the “everyday” in modernity, in building a bulwark against high art and elite literature, as the latter would never allow “art or literature …[to be] deemed worldly”.

As he launches into the idea of “world literature” following the model of “Indian literature”, he cites the pioneering role of Goethe in cosmopolitanism as the latter maintained a non-nationalistic outlook and identifies Tagore as his worthy Indian descendant, who sought to “exorcise” the cult of “nationalism”. He winds up this strain of thought with a pensive reflection on the failure of Tagore’s quest, which has led to the “hyper-nationalist frenzy” of the present day.

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After thoroughly examining aspects of “Modernity in Indian Literature”, the author dwells on the present times in “Epilogue: Crisis in Indian Modernity”, which begins by stating that Indian bhashas find themselves between “the forces of globalisation that tend to homogenise cultures on the one side and the forces of a hegemonic nationalism which try to suppress regional cultures in the name of tradition, national pride, and cultural unity on the other”.

He ends the 14-page Epilogue with the observation that bhasha nationalism that goes against the grain of the polyphonic nature of the Indian linguistic psyche could lead to perpetuating “new forms of unreason”. He further observes that this may be why a “subaltern” bhasha like Hindi, “in spite of its inferior status in the premodern hierarchy of Sanskrit imperialism, appears to extend the prospect of functioning as the language of power in the new ‘anti-modern’ regime visualised by right-wing and conservative forces in India”.

  • Prof. P.P. Raveendran’s book delves into the complex dynamics of Indian literature, focussing on the concept of bhashas and their role in shaping modernity.
  • The author describes bhasha as “the common word for ‘speech’ or a ‘regional dialect’in most Indian languages, especially when used in opposition to the hegemonic language of Sanskrit”.
  • He critically examines the tensions between various bhashas, emphasising the power struggles between languages, and reflects on the contemporary crisis in Indian modernity in the face of globalisation and rising nationalist forces.

Solid addition

Notably, the author draws case studies from pan-Indian literature only in a limited manner to explicate his points. Except for Gopinath Mohanty’s novel Paraja, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (which is set in Kerala), a brief mention of Fakirmohan Senapathy’s Chha Mana Atha Guntha, and passing mentions of a few other Indian authors from various literatures, most authors and works discussed and referred to are from Malayalam.

It has its positive side as readers at home and abroad can become acquainted with the works of key Malayalam literary figures. However, while discussing “Modernity and Indian Literature”, examples from other literatures, such as Kannada, Bengali, Marathi, Hindi, and Tamil, which are readily available through English and Malayalam translations could have been incorporated.

Nevertheless, this work is, indeed, a solid addition to Indian critical literature in English. It will certainly be an indispensable text in the study of Indian literatures, particularly in English translation, comparative literature, and cultural studies. As Indian Literature in English Translation (ILET) is gaining importance as a specific discipline in university departments throughout the country, this will doubtlessly become a canonical text.

A.J. Thomas is a poet, translator and former editor of Indian Literature, the bimonthly English journal of Sahitya Akademi.

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