For a new cartography

Print edition : November 13, 2015

S. Radhakrishnan. The quote "Indian literature is one, though written in different languages” is often attributed to him. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Harish Trivedi. Photo: M.A. Sriram

Mamang Dai. Photo: R. Ragu

Namdeo Dhasal, Dalit writer and activist. Photo: PTI

Robin S. Ngangom, Manipuri poet and writer. How truly representative of our diversity are "national" literary histories? Photo: The Hindu Archives

Sheldon Pollock. He wrote discontinuous histories of South Asian literature. Photo: Misha Friedman/ The New York Times

E.V. Ramakrishnan Photo: By Special Arrangement

Ipshita Chanda. Photo: By Special Arrangement

IS a history of Indian literature possible? If so, can it strictly follow a chronological protocol? What will be the norms of its periodisation? Can it blindly follow set literary canons? Will it be an integrated history or a comparative one? How strong has been the nexus between literary histories and national histories? What about the individual literary histories already existing in different languages? Are they adequate? What are their shortcomings? Are they not silent on certain aspects of literary history and writing by certain sections of society? How do we accommodate oral literature in literary histories? What about literature by minorities, women, Dalits, tribal authors, etc.? What should be the language of literary history, whether Indian or regional? Does literary historiography have a time-tested methodology? Should it focus on movements, genres, texts or authors? Should it be itself read as literature or as history? These were some of the questions raised and sought to be answered at a recent seminar on literary historiography in India co-organised by the Sahitya Akademi and the Department of English, University of Tirupati.

I had begun my chairman’s remarks in the inaugural session by observing that the seminar was being held at a time when the very legitimacy of history had been problematised by revivalist forces. Myths and legends we had thought were the stuff of literature had been elevated to the status of history, and the epics, products of great poetic imagination, considered real representations of real events worthy of historical research. I recalled the great Pakistani writer Intizar Hussain’s remark about how Ayodhya that was a great land of his imagination was reduced to just a few acres of land in an Uttar Pradesh village when the Ram Janmabhoomi agitations began.

I have already discussed in these columns the need for an open, inclusive and plural concept of Indian literature free from homogenisation and standardisation of any kind. This also calls for an open and inclusive approach to the history of Indian literature, if at all such a history is possible. Nihar Ranjan Ray had dismissed the possibility of such a history as he found the very concept of Indian literature untenable as literatures are language-based and there is no single “Indian” language that unifies all literatures in the country. S. Radhakrishnan’s oft-quoted statement “Indian literature is one, though written in different languages” suits his metaphysical approach well as it imagines an “Indian” essence that is manifest in diverse languages that are its phenomena, just as all creation is considered the phenomena of a single Brahma. It will be more appropriate to look at the problems involved in imagining a single Indian literature and hence a unified history of that literature. It is safer to think of Indian literature as a process rather than as a final product and to look at the similarities we may find in different literatures in India as some kind of “family resemblances”, to use a term employed by Umberto Eco. We need to be cautious and tentative when we use terms like “Indian literature” (in the singular) since every argument for its unity also leads us to a deeper understanding of its diversity.

For example, it is argued that India was a cultural entity even before it became a political unit as the idea of Bharatvarsha is found in the Vishnu Purana, the Mahabharata and the Meghadootam, or in the works of Amir Khusro, the Hindavi poet of the 13th and 14th centuries, or in the works of Sankardev, the Assamese poet-saint of the 15th and 16th centuries. But was it a holistic concept of India as we see it today? Did it, for example, include in it the north-eastern regions beyond Assam and Manipur? Did not the poets demonise the tribal people or even the Dravidians in general in some cases? What was the status of Dalits and of women?

Common genres

Secondly, it is said that many genres are common to India’s literatures —like mahakavya, sandesh kavya, champu, maznavi, doha, gatha, barahmasa and ghazal, besides all modern forms; but they are available only in certain clusters of languages and not all in all of them. This is also true of the different phases in the evolution of Indian literature. The golden age of Sanskrit literature coexisted with Sangam literature in Tamil and Buddhist, Jain and other literatures in Pali, Prakrit and Apabhramsh. Along with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata or even before these were born as written texts, several oral and folk epics seldom referred to in available histories of Indian literature also existed; the Ramayana and the Mahabharata themselves are not single texts but whole traditions with hundreds of oral, written and performed versions.

Bhakti, though a movement in retrospect, had within it different cults and ways of life and thought; and progressive, modern/ adhunik and “post- modern”/ uttar-adhunik literatures are not available in all languages, and these movements, even where they existed, did not all happen at the same time and had different names and meanings in different languages. For example, in some languages, like Malayalam, to be “progressive” and to be “modern” meant opposite things, while in some others, like Hindi, the movements overlapped and impacted each other. Again, many movements that had appeared one after another in the West co-exist in Indian languages (for example, we have “romantics” and “moderns” coexisting in several Indian languages), rendering impossible any neat chronology of trends and movements.

Neglect of orature

Privileging of literature over orature, of certain languages, authors and texts over others, has happened throughout the representational accounts of literature in India. This is also true of Sanskrit and Western critical categories that, even when they travelled to different languages, have been employed with diverse connotations and nuances. Some languages have developed their own critical categories. Often, Persian and Tamil poetics are ignored in such standardised accounts. Some of the Indian languages do not yet have a critical corpus at all.

The entry of English as a language of imagination, scholarship and creative expression has further complicated the scene. The history of Indian writing in English has little to do with the histories of other Indian languages; its history is much shorter and its norms of periodisation different. There is also the question of writing the history of a non-English language in English. We have had many such, from Moriz Winternitz to Jan Gonda and from Sheldon Pollock to Sisir Kumar Das, leaving us to wonder whether the evolution of sensibility and the change of idiom in one language can be properly represented in another language. These were some of the points I raised in my chairman’s address in the inaugural session.

Another interesting question that came up in the seminar—raised by Harish Trivedi—was, what did we have in place of histories before proper histories of literature emerged in our languages? Maybe they existed in the form of negations of a previous position or argument or appreciations and commentaries that referred to previously existing texts. With our different understanding of time, we probably did not care much about the actual dates of authors and texts, thus shrouding in mystery the lives and even the identities of Vyasa, Valmiki, Bhasa or Kalidasa, about whom we know next to nothing except what their texts say. We do not even know whether there was one Vyasa or many Vyasas, as suggested by the growth of the Mahabharata over a long period, from a book of seven thousand verses to one having a hundred thousand. Maybe we can only think of discontinuous histories as attempted by Sheldon Pollock in his work on South Asian Literature.

Ipshita Chanda felt that a single history of Indian literature by a single author can hardly do justice to the diversity of the enormous corpus. Considering the commonalities as well as the specificities of Indian language literatures, she suggested a comparative historical method that did full justice to the plurality of Indian literatures and understood literatures in terms of regions where clusters of languages interact. She also found it necessary to look at the ideologies that regulated literary communities, decide what is continuous and what is discontinuous and also to look at the silences about certain texts, registers and differences.

One interesting feature of the seminar was the discussion on individual histories of different Indian languages. Judhajit Sarkar problematised the distinction between “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” histories of literature made by Sisir Kumar Das in his History of Indian Literature, published by the Sahitya Akademi, through a close examination of some well-known histories of Bangla poetry after Tagore. He pointed out that Das also does not adequately reflect on the changing configuration of the “literary”, which is the ostensible subject of all literary histories.

Social milieu and context

E.V. Ramakrishnan felt that most Malayalam literary histories looked at texts as the creation of individual genius, or pratibha, and seldom looked at the social milieu and contexts that gave rise to them. Even the assumption of Kerala as a homogeneous region that speaks a single language is a gross simplification as languages such as Tulu, Kannada, Tamil, Konkani and many tribal languages are spoken by certain communities of Kerala, besides the language of Lakshadweep, which has a strong Arabic element in it. Some histories, like that of P.K. Parameshwaran Nair and N. Krishna Pillai, render invisible the path-breaking contributions of Christian missionaries to the growth of Malayalam language and literature. They had given Malayalam its first dictionaries, codified its grammar, started printing, pioneered the growth of modern prose through Bible translations and even introduced genres like travel-writing.

Translation is another marginalised area. Ulloor Parameswara Iyer in his history of Malayalam literature speaks only about 14 women writers, most of whom belong to the royal family! The only corrective attempt has been made by the Kerala Sahitya Akademi in its three-volume history Nammude Sahityam, Nammude Samooham (Our Literature, Our Society), authored by several scholars who are specialists in their areas. P.P. Raveendran looked at M. Leelavathy’s Malayalakavitacharitram (History of Malayalam Poetry), which gives clues to an alternative history, like finding the continuities between romanticism and modernism in Malayalam—the shadow of Changampuzha Krishna Pillai is not hard to detect in the poetry of Ayyappa Paniker. Leelavathy calls this the pinnilavu (the residual moonlight) of romanticism.

Gopal Guru pointed to the need to question not merely colonial epistemological power, but also the indigenous one. He said there was an urgent need to examine the nature of language itself as shaped by certain sections of society that made it impossible for the subaltern to speak. It is necessary to look at the ontological status of vulnerable communities in literary representations and to examine literature also from an ethical point of view. Avadhesh Kumar Singh complemented this formulation by pointing to Gandhi’s introduction to K.M. Munshi’s History of Gujarati Literature, where Gandhi had said it was only the history of the literature of the middle classes as it did not have anything to say about oral literature produced by the “lower” strata of society. He also gave plenty of examples from the literary histories in Hindi to show how most of them demonstrated the dominance of the upper classes and castes and of the male and ignored writing by Dalits, translations and the diversity within what is called “Hindi”, which is but an umbrella term for a conglomeration of languages. Lalitkumar showed how Jaikant Mishra’s history of Maithili literature ignored folktales and the songs of the common people, though later he compensated by writing a book exclusively on folklore. Jatindra Nayak, pointing to the controversies around Mayadhar Mansingh’s well-written History of Oriya Literature—published by the Sahitya Akademi and then forced not to reprint for some years—pointed out how speaking about contemporaries in a literary history can create problems and how a critical evaluation by a literary historian is often resisted by those criticised if they are alive.

H.S. Shivaprakash pointed to the futility of literary histories based on linear chronology. We need a more kaleidoscopic view of history that underscores clashes, compromises and confluences among different castes, conventions and genres. He said he would have no compromises with Brahmin histories that tended to ignore Jain and Veerashaiva traditions and would rather listen to what the texts themselves may have to say. The word “Hindu”, he pointed out, began to be used in Karnataka only during the period of the Vijayanagara empire. There was no history, too, in the language in the Western sense. The words were charite and charitrya, which could also mean “nature” or “character”. Again, literature had no equivalent; it was only kavya and in practice it referred mostly to performance texts. Hagiographic narratives were also performance texts. He also referred to M.M. Kalburgi, recently murdered by fanatics, as a great scholar who had edited the multivolume anthology of Kannada Vachana Sahitya, the indigenous form between prose and poetry invented by Veerashaivas like Basava.

North-eastern literature

Esther Syiem spoke of the special identity of the literature of the north-eastern hills—especially Khasi literature—centred around oral traditions, myths and fables. She said it was hardly a part of the story of Indian literature told so far since the whole trajectory was distinctly different as the literatures of the Mizos, the Khasis, the Nagas, etc., were free from the impact of Sanskrit and their epics had nothing to do with the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or Hindu religious and philosophical texts.

Arindam Chakaravarty looked at commentaries in Sanskrit as a form of literary history as they always referred to earlier texts and commentators, building upon as also negating what they had done, a tradition that he called vivekasopanaparampara, a series of “steps of wisdom”. Prachi Khandeparkar pointed out how Marathi literary histories have always had urban, Brahminical literature as their norm and have been characterised by an absence of cultural-political perspective. It would be useful to examine literary histories as histories of memory and its loss. Hemant Dave pointed out how the formalist project of New Criticism put an end to literary history in Gujarati, while Malashri Lal observed that English writing in India had developed an independent trajectory characterised more by episodic occurrences than by a continuous production of quality writing, as is the case with major Indian languages. The title of her paper, “Unbearable Lightness of Indian English Literature”—its former epithet borrowed from Milan Kundera’s novel Unbearable Lightness of Being—was meant precisely to show the general weightlessness of the tradition of Indian English writing compared with that of the languages. She looked at four histories of Indian literature in English, including the one edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra ( A History of Indian Literature in English, 2003), to prove her case.

The seminar pointed to the need for literary histories to accommodate diverse voices, differences of vision and design, interrogate old canons, address questions of reception, look at the gaps and silences in existing histories and to develop a new cartography that may defy neat chronologies and look at shared areas of influence and exchange and isolated patterns of growth and evolution, creating a whole new genealogy.


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