Through my window

Dilemmas of Indian literary criticism

Print edition : March 21, 2014

T.S. Eliot. Philip Sydney and Matthew Arnold had held sway for some time in liberal Indian criticism; later they were replaced by Eliot and I.A. Richards. Photo: The Hindu Archives

K. Ayyappa Paniker. He tried to apply the "tinai" theory to Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's novel "Kayar", while V.J. Sebastian did the same to a series of contemporary poems and S. Carlos (Tamilavan) also tried to extend and apply the theory to modern texts in Tamil. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Critics such as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi often depend on modern Western theories, taking care though to adapt them to the needs of Urdu with insights from Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetics as in Faruqui's classic study of the great poet Mir Taqi Mir. Photo: PTI

Critics such as Gopichand Narang often depend on modern Western theories, taking care though to adapt them to the needs of Urdu with insights from Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetics as in Shamsur Rahman Faruqui's classic study of the great poet Mir Taqi Mir. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

Octavio Paz. He said of Latin America that Marxist concepts and terms had become natural components of social and literary discourse. Photo: The Hindu Archives

TRADITIONAL Indian poetics is in a crisis today. Its categories are proving clearly insufficient to explain several of the modern genres, forms and movements in Indian literature. This often unacknowledged crisis had already begun with the maturing of Indian languages, which declared their independence from Sanskrit centuries ago even while retaining aspects of it that they found useful to their flowering and growth. These languages had their own literary traditions, mostly oral, which informed their new developments. Some of them, like Tamil, had a different poetics altogether. Their canons were formed not only with examples from Sanskrit literature, many of which Tamils got translated or adapted, but from Western, especially English, classics as well, which were either translated or followed as models.

The inadequacy of the existing paradigms became acute in the 19th century when, mostly under the Western influence, new prose genres like the novel, the short story and even modern prose drama began to develop in Indian languages. Criticism for some time continued to fight shy of these genres and to confine itself to poetry and verse drama since it hardly had any tools to explain and interpret the new forms.

The crisis began to affect even traditional forms like poetry with the advent of new genres like the sonnet, the pastoral, the elegy, the new lyric or the sequence poem and new movements like modernism that replaced the simile and the metaphor with the symbol and the image and experimented with free verse and prose as the vehicles of poetic imagination. Imagination itself had grown unconventional with new modes such as symbolism, surrealism, anti-poetry and the like. Then came the new movements like Dalit writing, women’s writing, tribal writing, nativism, ecocentric writing and modern folk writing, not to speak of the Indian variants of postmodernism, all of which sprang from new social awakenings and carried a new intellectual and verbal energy that could hardly be explained by traditional poetics. In addition, now there are concrete poetry, blog-poetry, hyperlink and multimedia forms that are trying to go beyond language with the additional use of visual images, both still and moving, as well as sound.

Behind all these were the radical changes happening in Indian life itself: the complexification of life brought about by the changed environment; the new textures of urban living with its contradictory aspects of penury and luxury made possible by new technologies; the intensification of the alienation among the intelligentsia; the angst of the new awareness of space and time; the growing consumer instinct; the loss of traditional values and the growth of the new post-industrial ethos; the continued intervention of the modern state in every aspect of the lives of its subjects; the revolutionary awakenings of the marginalised and oppressed sections of the people against discrimination based on caste, class, race, religion and gender; the threats of war, poverty and terrorism; the search for new identities; and the new structures of feeling generated by these transformed environments of existence. The canons were being constantly transformed, the institution of literature itself was under threat, the status-quoist concepts were being challenged and the paradigms proving hopelessly inadequate to meet the needs of literary criticism. The history of Indian criticism in the past few decades has been the history of the varied responses to these challenges and the attempts to arrive at some critical canon that might help unlock and explain contemporary Indian texts.

One response, call it a form of enlightened revivalism, has been an attempt to extend, develop and reinterpret traditional poetics in order to apply its concepts to modern texts and genres, at times incorporating the concepts of Western poetics in the process. Indian poetics has often been identified with Sanskrit poetics though there is a whole parallel tradition in Tamil and in Urdu, derived from the Persian tradition, not to speak of individual texts, like Kavirajamarga in Kannada, available in the languages and the poetics implied in our oral literary practices. Critics like (the late) Krishna Rayan read Sanskrit poetics in the light of the new theories from the West and came up with extended and flexible interpretations of the central concepts of Sanskrit poetics like dhvani (suggestion), rasa (basic emotion), vakrokti (indirect speech) and anumana (theory of reception) along with their peripheral concepts.

In his book Text and Sub-text (1987), Rayan looked at the theory of suggestion and tried to establish that suggestion—the production of unstated, subsurface, indirect, multiple, emotive meaning—was what distinguished modern literature from the literature of earlier periods. Rayan examined texts like Alfred Tennyson’s Becket alongside T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Christopher Fry’s Curtmantle and Jean Anouilh’s Becket ou L’Honneur de Dieu. Four of Thomas Hardy’s novels exploring the notion of a return to the roots were analysed in relation to novels by Margaret Drabble that pursue a similar theme. The book also looks at the practice of suggestion and evocation in Milton’s Paradise Lost and the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the minimalist, micro-suggestive, poetic practice of the Review poets. The critic quoted critical passages from Western theorists to relate the theory of suggestion to symbolist practice as well as to the Sanskrit concept of rasadhwani. He also considered the binary oppositions like emotive/referential meaning (I.A. Richards), oblique/direct (E.M.W. Tillyard), local texture/logical structure (J.C. Ransom) and intensive/extensive meaning (Allen Tate) to be renamings of the suggestion/statement distinction found in Eastern as well as Western poetics.

In Burning Bush: Suggestion in Indian Literature (1988), Rayan extended the rasadhwani concept to modern subcontinental texts in various languages by authors like Nirmal Verma, Kiran Nagarkar, Lokenath Bhattacharya, Rajinder Singh Bedi (fiction); P. Lankesh, Kumaran Asan, Jayanta Mahapatra, Nissim Ezekiel, Dina Nath Nadim and Soubhagya Kumar Mishra (poetry); and others besides some older texts from classical Tamil and Sindhi in order to demonstrate the applicability of the theory to different languages, genres and periods.

In Sahitya, a Theory, Rayan produced an eclectic theory for Indian critical practice by bringing together Sanskrit, Tamil and Western concepts with plenty of examples and quotations. Natyasastra and Tolkappiyam were referred to as two basic texts. Here, he also established parallels between the rasas of Natyasastra and the meypadus of Tolkappiyam. The critic looked at the diverse aspects of literature like literariness, image, narrative, character, style, rhythm, landscape and evaluation. In the chapter on landscape, he introduced the tinai concept of Tolkappiyam. The landscape here was the signifier, and the bond that held it to the signified was arbitrary and fixed by conventions which were sustained for several generations during the Sangam period. Ayyappa Paniker tried to apply the tinai theory to Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s novel Kayar, while V.J. Sebastian did it to a series of contemporary poems. S. Carlos (Tamilavan) also tried to extend and apply the theory to modern texts in Tamil.

While these are interesting experiments, the method can work fully only in a stable static culture with a lot of received assumptions and capable of a large number of shared responses. The theory of rasas is also too limited and rigid to make it critically effective when applied to modern texts where the boundaries of emotions are blurred, the moods are in a flux and the responses more complex. Behind these theories is a whole static world view and a fixed view of literature and literariness. They have also a tendency to look at literature, especially poetry, as a craft detached from its time and society. Both classical Sanskrit and Tamil poetics, therefore, fail to historicise their texts, and themselves need to be historicised to be understood. Concepts like dhwani and ouchitya (propriety) and the linguistic injunctions against asleela (obscene), gramya (rustic) and chyutasamskara (uncouth) can hardly be isolated from the class that generated them and hence do not apply to several subaltern forms and movements, both ancient and modern.

The traditional concepts of pratibha (genius), sahridaya (the competent reader), the sahitatva (the fixed togetherness of the word) and the meaning—compared to the bond of Parvati and Parameswara—as something deposited in the work by the author and the authorial institution itself emerge from an idealist philosophical premise. The concept of the reader as the producer of meaning, of the text as a flux, and the absence or the eternal “deferance”— deferring—of a “final meaning”, literariness itself as the effect of reading, and the historical and ideological determinations of the text are alien to this aesthetic ideology.

While the concepts of dhwani and anumana do take the reader into account, it is an abstract reader outside real history. It is seldom bothered with the question of the historical construction of subjectivity and hence fails to answer several questions about writing, reading and authorship. This also applies to Persian poetics, which deals exclusively with forms available in classical Persian or Arabic from which Urdu has adopted them —like masnavi, nazm, ghazal, rubai, qavvali, manaqib, nama, qasida, qit‘a (or muqatta‘at), their prosody, rhyme patterns, rules of composition, style and evocation of moods and feelings. The tradition is still alive in the criticism of traditional poetry, but while discussing the new poetry and fiction, critics like Gopichand Narang and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi often depend on modern Western theories, taking care though to adapt them to the needs of Urdu with insights from Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetics as in Faruqi’s classic study of the great poet Mir Taqi Mir.

The Western orientation

Quite a few critics, in English as well as the languages, have been employing Western theoretical tools to analyse Indian texts, both old and new. The influence of Western criticism was evident from the very beginning of modern criticism in India, which emerged along with the new genres like the short story, the novel and the modern prose-play. Only the credos and fashions have changed with changes in Western theory. If initially it was only English criticism that influenced Indian critics, later Russian, French and German schools also began to have their impact. This began chiefly with the emergence of Marxist and Freudian analytical models. The early Marxist models were often reductive as the critics were not yet familiar with the works of Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School (like those of Adorno, Habermas or Hokheimer) or even of Michael Bakhtin, Ernst Fischer, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin and Raymond Williams and the later theorists (like Louis Althusser, Pierre Macherey, Fredric Jameson, Roland Barthes, Giorgio Agamben or Jacques Ranciere), not to speak of the post-structuralists, who were yet to emerge.

In that circumstance, the models were chiefly from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe: Zhadanov, Lunacharsky, Plekhanov, Lukacs and others. No wonder the critics equated modernism with decadence, upheld socialist realism as the sacred model for committed writers to follow and often pursued a narrow class-reductionist approach. One of the reasons for the fall of the Progressive Literary Movement was this exclusionist approach, which would not try to read literary works using modern tools to grasp their progressive implications or interpret commitment in a larger context where it could also involve social concerns of various kinds other than purely class concerns. The Progressives would not have committed this mistake if they had carefully read even Marx or Lenin. Marx was a great admirer of the Greeks and Shakespeare and in many of his analyses exposed the contradictions in the self-proclaimed committed writing (for example, in his detailed critique of Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris in The Holy Family, he brings out the contrast between the authorial claims to radicalism and the reactionary implications of the text itself) while upholding certain other forms of writing that did not make any claim to commitment. Macherey looked closely at Lenin’s symptomatic reading and appreciation of Tolstoy as the “mirror of the Russian revolution” as against Plekahanov’s accusation that Tolstoy was a reactionary as he was a Catholic and an aristocrat by birth. Here, Lenin goes beyond the empirical biographical facts to the truth of the text itself, which transcends the author’s class origins and proclaimed opinions.

A similar hermeneutic conflict can also be seen in the well-known argument over Kafka between Lukacs on one side and Benjamin and Bloch on the other. To Lukacs, Kafka represented decadence and morbidity, but Benjamin and Bloch read Kafka politically and saw in his works a sharp critique of bureaucracy, an expression of the solitude of the individual cut off from the community and the premonitions of the Nazi nightmare. The exclusivist approach of the early Progressives blurred the distinction between party literature and literature per se. While their method could partly explain “Progressive” literary works as they understood them, it was incapable of understanding more complex works of literature that contained many voices and grappled with multiple contradictions. The result was that some of the better writers of the period, whose multiple articulations did great justice to the society of the times, were kept out of the Marxist canon. Only recently have some unorthodox Marxist and Marxisant critics begun to develop a more open approach to literature, taking into account the postcolonial and post-structuralist insights into the working of language, unconscious and society.

Early Freudian criticism too suffered from reductionist attitudes that analysed the characters as though they were living beings and attributed their motifs to their author. Only after Lacan, Deleuze and Guttari has Freud begun to be understood in all his complexity as also his concept of unconscious, which is structured like a language.

Sydney and Arnold had held sway for some time in liberal Indian criticism; later they were replaced by Eliot and I.A. Richards. This happened especially during the emergence of modern poetry, which came to be associated with Eliot’s modes and mores. Eliot did have an influence on early modernist poets like Mardhekar, Muktibodh, Bishnu Dey, Navkant Barua, Gopal Krishna Adiga, Kaa. Naa. Subramanyam, Ayyappa Paniker and others. But they chiefly imbibed Eliot’s iconoclasm in terms of form while their poetry was by no means a “pastiche” but was sufficiently indigenous and their formal innovations sprang from the inner need of their own literary histories. They were no more “Elioteans” than the new novelists like Nirmal Verma, Krishna Baldev Vaid and U.R. Ananthamurthy were “Joyceans”.

The new critical tools were patently inadequate to understand the new writing in Indian languages as they also had their deeper social roots in the urbanisation of the country, the alienation of the intellectuals and the disillusionment with the system and the values it stood for. Semantics and semiotics would have helped one grasp the verbal plays and the deployment of symbols and metaphors in the new writing but not their socio-spiritual environment. Existentialist and phenominological tendencies dominated the critical scene in the 1960s, when literature was conceived as the apotheosis of solitude and the articulation of metaphysical angst and alienation. Northrop Frye’s archetypal patterns were at times contextualised and put to effective use, especially in the study of poetry.

Another interesting development was the developing dialogue between Marxist and post-structuralist approaches to writing. Roland Barthes’ political semiology and his concept of the death of the author and the distinctions he drew between the “work” and the “text”, Jacques Lacan’s theory of the unconscious as the “discourse of the other” and the mode of symptomatic reading that derives from it as illustrated by Althusser and Macherey, Jacques Derrida’s strategies of deconstruction meant to subvert the hegemonic discourses and institutions by reading them from the margins and bowing them up by developing their contradiction, and Michel Foucault’s theories of the power-knowledge nexus and the construction of subjectivity combined with Bakhtin’s concept of ideology “inscribed” in the linguistic sign, of dialogic imagination and of the “carnivalesque”, Gramsci’s concept of the “popular”, Ranciere’s concept of “the political”—all these can liberate Marxist criticism from the sociological reductionism and the mechanical application of class theory that had characterised its earlier phases.

In fact, this is happening in a big way in languages like Malayalam and Bengali, where, as Octavio Paz said of Latin America, Marxist concepts and terms have become natural components of social and literary discourse. This is chiefly being pursued by young academics seeking an escape from the empiricist-positivist or idealist-iconic models offered by conventional English criticism, thus de-Anglicising and indirectly decolonising the critical discourse.


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