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Scripting a cultural continuum

Print edition : Aug 29, 2022 T+T-

Scripting a cultural continuum

The Sahitya Akademi, headquartered at Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi.

The Sahitya Akademi, headquartered at Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Shanker Chakravarty

What does the Sahitya Akademi mean to ordinary Indians, readers, and writers today?

The occasion for this study, 75 years of Indian independence and nearly 70 years of the existence of the Sahitya Akademi (established in 1954), is a good occasion for an audit of sorts. What was the Sahitya Akademi set up to do? It was one of three (or four, if one includes the National School of Drama) institutions established to direct sustained attention to the production and archiving of the nation’s languages and literatures. As is evident from studies across disciplines and practices of the initiatives that began in the decade following Independence, these were, in equal (or not so equal) measure, constituted of the producing of idioms and knowledge as much as of the “discovery” and archiving of the new nation’s diversity. Languages and literatures were as much a part of this schema as were idioms of performances or forms of visual arts.

How important is culture to the nation state? Resource allocations, which tend to be meagre, belie the insistent calls to culture to affirm national identity. In the years post Independence, in the 1950s when the Akademis were set up, and today, the sphere of the cultural was and is understood as a key terrain for the production of a disciplined national citizenry. Yet, while the “national” desire for homogeneity was apparent everywhere, the Akademi in its early years fought that tendency, arguing against the forms of European nationalism that were constructed around the idea of around the idea of a national language.

Fighting homogeneity

Ilyas Husain (2011) has documented the spirited resistance of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who argued forcefully against demands that the Akademi work to develop the resources of Hindi, which some claimed merited the status of the national language. In response, the Akademi decided to support and uncover the literary histories of 14 different national languages. Further, it decided to support languages that were not yet included in the Constitution. As Husain puts it, the Akademi was able to resolve concerns around the languages and scripts in a manner that politicians failed to do.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at a Sahitya Akademi book exhibition.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at a Sahitya Akademi book exhibition. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Ilyas Husain in his 2011 essay asks a daunting question—was the conceptualising of the Sahitya Akademi’s mandate connected to the movement for linguistic States which roiled the nation in the mid 1950s? We might suggest that the Sahitya Akademi’s ambitions were to produce the languages it recognised and supported as mediums wherein narratives forged within the ambits of the nation state might be articulated.

Also read: A violent birth

The challenge faced by the Akademi was that it was clearly an institutional site where the complex problems of nation-building came to be played out. In the mid 1950s, as the Akademi shaped its generous policies fit for a “polyglot” nation, it seemed to be able to address the urgent concerns raised by the anti-Hindi movement gaining strength in the south of India and the interlinked movement towards the reconstruction of the regional States on the basis of language.

Teaching culture

A significant part of my teaching at the Literary Art, Creative Writing Programme at the Dr B.R. Ambedkar University Delhi consists of two sequential courses: “Premodern literary cultures in India” and “Modern cultures in India”. These courses are amongst the most challenging I have ever taught; every word in their titles is a challenge and an opportunity. Given the long history of the subcontinent, what might comprise the premodern, where does it start, where does it give way to the modern, can one identify the moment of the modern? Is what we know of as India today, or more precisely, the subcontinent, 75 years after its formation, identical to what it was several millennia ago? How have historical events, the constant mobility of populations from across the mountains and the seas, changing political formations, a complex social structure, over 3,000 languages, and the relentless inequities of caste structured our understanding and experience of the subcontinent?

““It is the purpose of this Akademi to recognise men of achievement in letters, to encourage men of promise in letters, to educate public taste, and to improve standards of literature and literary criticism.””S. RadhakrishnanMarch 12, 1954

These are questions that arise every time I work with students on these courses. In the subcontinent, the easy truism that nations can be aligned with particular languages falls apart. A strategy I adopted in the classroom was to create a space where every student engaged in a genealogical and affective engagement with the language with which they most closely identified.

The attempt in the classroom was to bring together literary historical material with creative texts. The Modern Indian Literature course seems simpler. We feel able to identify the modern as perhaps the 19th century, perhaps the nationalist movement, perhaps Independence and after. We are clear about the borders of the nation, but yet, the question we need to encounter is this: how do languages shape who we are? In the classroom I repeatedly hear from students who inhabit oral cultures about whether their languages were ancient, or literary, or a product of missionary colonialism. When, in fact, were they premodern or modern? Clearly, the categories are problematic and yet productive.

This is where the Sahitya Akademi has played a role. In the years before the COVID pandemic undid our lives, my students and I would board a Metro (or two) and travel from Kashmere Gate to Mandi House. Once there we would walk towards Rabindra Bhavan on Copernicus Marg. Entering the building and making our way to the Sahitya Akademi, we would skirt the offices, visit the bookshop and the library. In each of these we would stop to see if our languages, our communities and our experiences were represented. In the bookshop one finds books and encyclopaedic volumes stacked densely. As we move through the store looking for “our” languages, we find them in their “own” scripts, in Roman transcriptions, or in translation. Each of these is a prize.

The reading room in the Sahitya Akademi library, one of Delhi’s most comprehensive resources of writing and thought across many languages.
The reading room in the Sahitya Akademi library, one of Delhi’s most comprehensive resources of writing and thought across many languages. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

A question that the trip to the Akademi raises for me is this: can one find oneself linguistically at the Sahitya Akademi? Language, we must acknowledge, is a primary index of our identities; it is a way in which we recognise and identify ourselves. Communities remember in their languages. What then is the texture of the imagination, the form of experience, the fields of affect in languages other than English or Hindi? 

The courses I teach have made me attentive to the relationship of the nation to the intangible “resource” of languages and literatures. The Sahitya Akademi has played an extraordinary role in marshalling these resources, naming, categorising, and generating relationships between them. How does the Akademi conceive language? Is a language valuable because of its potential to produce literature, or do languages need to be conceived otherwise, as generatively embedded in their communities?

Encyclopaedic desires

Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007.Volume 1 Book 1.
Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007.Volume 1 Book 1.

The Akademi’s institutional mandate demands that it generate a vast range of documents. The most significant among these might be the biannual editions of Indian Literature, a significant site where major Indian writers from across the political spectrum have showcased both their creative work and their theoretical articulations. The Editorial Note to the first issue of the journal claimed that its ambitions were modest, “ help writers and readers in the various languages to know each other better. It is unfortunately true that we in India suffer from and are handicapped by our ignorance of ourselves.” (2014:124) 

From its earliest days, the Akademi has been possessed of encyclopaedic desires. A case in point is The National Bibliography on Indian Literature, 1901-1953, commissioned soon after Independence and helmed by B.S. Kesavan in the early 1960s. So massive was the task it took 20 years for the editors to produce the first four volumes!

Apart from this, the Akademi produces a plethora of documentary material such as Annual Reports consisting of endless and repetitive details of events, prizes, categories, publications, attendees, funds. The imperative towards record-keeping and documentation which bedevils the Akademis’ publications tend to take the form of interminable lists of events giving details of place, participants, and thematics. The buzz of debate certainly does not animate these pages. While these are likely to yield rich analytic material to sustained study, a quick survey suggests bureaucratic logjam and creative stasis.

Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007. Volume 1 Book 2.
Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007. Volume 1 Book 2.

There is not much that can be gauged about the health of languages, of literary cultures, of communities and nations by the drab and relentless recounting of information, but how might we interpret, analyse and cross-hatch what exists at the interstices of struggles and contestation?

What does the Sahitya Akademi mean to its various constituencies: ordinary Indians, the massive subset of readers, writers and administrators? The Sahitya Akademi library is one of Delhi’s most comprehensive resources of writing and thought across many languages, its reading room is inevitably full with scholars occupying every carrel; for “ordinary” Indians and visitors to Delhi it is a part of the Mandi House complex, perhaps an architectural landmark; it is also a flashpoint of sorts, a place of eruption and occasional turmoil, with writers embroiled in struggles over autonomy, censorship, communalism, discrimination, the impulse towards homogenisation. Writers navigate a tense and delicate balance between the struggle for representation (linguistic and literary), carving out spaces of speech and writing, and the fear of being absorbed within a bureaucratic and statist enterprise.

The Akademi’s current conditions raise questions about its continued relevance and of the relevance of the “public” institution. The charges of bureaucratic stasis and the undermining of functional autonomy are not untrue. My concern however is with the possibilities intrinsic to the capaciousness of the Akademi’s institutional structure. “Private” organisations, be they publishing houses, literary centres, research hubs, bookshops cannot duplicate (nor would they wish to) the expansiveness of the Akademi’s mandate. The public institution, at least in its preliminary imaginings, was inclined towards inclusion, towards expansiveness, and towards generosity and criticality. Failure in small and big ways is intrinsic to such massive structures. But failure should not engender the doing away of these institutions. It is critical that the Akademi pay heed to its early mandate to nurture heterogeneity. The rhetoric of reform rarely addresses bureaucratic malaise, or more plainly, takeover.

Also read: Speaking in tongues

Clearly, the Sahitya Akademi can no longer function under the remit of the 1950s, nor should it take on board, uncritically, the populism of the present. Is the Akademi’s future a continuation of its sarkari present? Can it imagine another future for itself: where its bookstores would be crowded with eager young people and its conference spaces charged with heated debate? 

In conclusion, a visit to the Akademi’s website provided some insight by way of two requests for tenders. The first sought costs for the opening of an Akademi bookstore at a station somewhere on the Bengaluru Metro, and the other sought tenders for a light installation based upon the colours of the national flag. One is compelled to ask if the fraught history of the Akademi’s engagement with the subcontinent’s many languages and people can be encapsulated in light shows that will drench the facades of Rabindra Bhavan in hues of the brightest saffron, purest white and darkest green. It must be said, however, that the Akademi bookstore, which I enter sometimes on my commute home, remains welcoming and oddly comforting.

Anita E. Cherian is Associate Professor of Literary Art, Creative Writing at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University Delhi.