MODERNISM in Indian literature emerged under different circumstances and at different times in different languages and can hardly be historicised or conceptualised in the same way. It had even different names, ranging from nayee kavita / nayee kahani in Hindi to adhunik sahitya in Bengali and Malayalam, navya in Kannada and puthukkavithai in Tamil. While all the adjectives mean “the new” or “the modern”, their connotations were not always necessarily the same. The idioms and approaches differed from language to language and even ideologically it was no monolith. For example, in Hindi, Bengali or Telugu the new poetry had a predominantly progressive character as the movement had been pioneered respectively by Muktibodh, Bishnu Dey and Sri Sri who had a radical socialist impulse in them while in Marathi, Malayalam and Kannada the thrust was individualistic, as B.S. Mardhekar, Ayyappa Paniker and Gopalakrishna Adiga stood primarily for the sovereignty of the individual, though their poetry seen in retrospect was not without social implications expressed often negatively, in terms of escape or of agony.
It is possible to build a whole approach to Indian modernism based on these attitudes, as has been done by E.V. Ramakrishnan in his interesting comparative study Making it New: Modernism in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry (IIAS, Shimla, 1995) though the clean distinction between what he, following Fredric Jameson, calls “high modernism” that is essentially form-based and centred on individual identity and what he, following Peter Burger, calls “the avant garde”, that is radical in content and questions the very institution of literature, may no longer hold. He questions the approaches of V.K. Gokak, U.R. Ananthamurthy, et al, to assert that the “rightist Adiga and the leftist Muktibodh” cannot explore the same states of mind and there are conservative and radical strains within the modernist camp.
He also complexifies the question further by pointing to the poets who are still wedded to certain kinds of romantic or non-modernist poetry that is traditional in tone and design and rural in vision and inspiration: “If our use of the term ‘modernism’ is haunted by bad faith in the Indian context it is because of the large segment of Indian reality it cannot accommodate within its aesthetic matrix. The other India which is untouched by print journalism and lives beyond the written word is nevertheless a strong presence which an Indian writer has to come to terms with.”
Tagore syndrome and high modernism The critic uses the terms “high modernism” and “the avant garde” to describe how various writers within the modernist group respond to the presence of such a subaltern domain of counterculture constituted by the underprivileged classes. The avant-garde tradition in Indian languages, according to him, constitutes an attempt to indigenise Western modernism through the deployment of indigenous forms of articulations and through the accommodation of greater segments of Indian reality within these forms.
High modernism to him is confined to the realm of the aesthetic and considers that realm to be autonomous. It is when such a formulation is made and the aesthetic crystallises as an independent category that the avant garde begins to clearly recognise the social cost of such a purely aesthetic project.
Ramakrishnan takes up for special study the poetry of Kedarnath Singh, Dilip Chitre and K. Satchidanandan in the last three chapters of his book in order to exemplify the distinctions he makes. These poets are taken primarily as avant garde poets who had started as modernists. He also looks at Dalit poetry in Marathi as practised by Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, Daya Pawar, Vaman Nimbalkar, etc., and the nativist “Dravidian” poetry in Malayalam like that practised by Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan as other examples of poetic practices that interrogate the status quo. Extending this distinction to fiction, one may think of O.V. Vijayan, M. Mukundan (Malayalam), U.R. Ananthamurthy (Kannada), Pudumaipithan, Sundara Ramaswamy (Tamil), Nirmal Verma or Krishna Baldev Vaid (Hindi) as examples of “high modernists” and M. Sukumaran, U.P. Jayaraj (Malayalam), P. Lankesh, Devanoor Mahadeva (Kannada), Uday Prakash (Hindi) and the majority of Dalit and feminist writers striving after a new idiom as “avant garde” writers.
The avant garde idiom was inseparable from that of “high modernism” initially because both had a common agenda of interrogating the patriarchal assumption that had become institutionalised in the literatures of Indian languages. U.R. Ananthamurthy and D.R. Nagaraj, in the introduction to Vibhava , the first ever anthology of modern writing in India, have spoken of these patriarchal icons in all the languages who represented the nationalist-romantic views and personified all that was stereotyped and stale in poetry. They call this the “Tagore syndrome”.
“In terms both of style and ideology, one can notice a surprising similarity among the father figures of different Indian literatures. Cultural nationalism, romantic love, nature, mysticism, metaphysical leanings and an ideal of nation building formed the common ethos of the Tagore syndrome and the concoction they produced had become a little too sweet and stale. The dominant form in poetry was the lyric and the fiction writer’s creed was realism. When this type of patriarchal authority became too much to bear, the new generation had to free itself from the clutches of what it thought was an overbearing literary culture. It is in this act of defiance, this urge to commit patricide if need be, that we see the beginnings of this movement.”
Tagore, as Amiya Dev suggests, was a poet of faith in God, nature and man while the modernists were poets of doubt and at times despair. Tagore had his parallels in other languages, such as G. Sankara Kurup in Malayalam, N.S. Bendre in Kannada, the poets of the Ravikiran Mandal in Marathi, Umashankar Joshi in Gujarati, the Chhayavadi poets in Hindi, or Bharatidasan in Tamil. But it may be wrong to assume that the modernists completely negated the legacy of such poets; it was redeployed in the new poetry in various ways. Amiya Dev has shown how the important variables like the Sanskrit connection, the Western impact and the Tagore tradition operate in the modern poetry of Jibanananda Das, Sudhindranath Datta, Budhadeva Bose and Amiya Chakravarty in diverse ways. In fiction, it meant a rejection of the realist tradition and the use of new styles, structures and formal devices to represent what was perceived to be the modern human condition. In fact, we need to read individual writers closely in the context of their languages and the larger context of modernism to properly expose the hidden contours of the modernist moment in the literary history of Indian languages.
It is time we overcame the inevitable reductionism that happens when two kinds of modernism are counterposed against one another as black and white and the folk is bluntly identified with the social. The actual practice of writers—the so-called high modernists as well as the avant garde —militates against such a clean categorisation as one often finds in the same writers both the tendencies expressed at the different stages of their evolution or in different works. At the most, one can only speak about “dominants” (the dominating trend or structural element) and not divide writers into the two neat categories.
Lament of loss, rejection of status quo Whatever the paradigm we choose, the modern experience in India can be seen as a composite of many elements that had in their background the larger context of industrialisation and urbanisation. Initially at least it was the revolt of a sensibility threatened by imminent decadence on the one hand and the ominous intimations of the loss of rural life on the other. The existing culture was under shock, stimulated by the retreat of Gandhian values from political life, the huge city-oriented demographic movements prompted by rural unemployment, the trauma left by Partition, the demon of hunger stalking the city slums as well as the villages, the tensions bred by colonial education, the alienation, angst and solitude felt by the sensitive urban populace, many of whom had their moorings in the village, the challenges posed by the uprooted masses to the secure sense of tradition and the native ways of seeing and feeling and the terror and ecstasy of the new world without a Supreme Ruler. Even collective ideologies seemed to have lost their charm to many and the simplistic idea of continuous progress was in question: the interminable complexities of experience compelled writers to seek alternative styles of thought, image and expression. It is in this process that they came to reject the status quoist ways of perception and articulation in their predecessors. It was a natural outcome of their quest and need rather than a deliberate posture, as U.R. Ananthamurthy, et al, seem to suggest.
The criticism that modernism was some kind of pastiche, as raised by progressive critics like Jaidev ( The Culture of Pastiche: Existential Aestheticism in the Contemporary Hindi Novel , IIAS, Shimla, 1993) and conservatives in all the languages, does not stand scrutiny. While it is true that the modernists had learnt lessons from poets across the world, as has been done by the pioneers of most of the later movements in Indian writing, it is wrong to look at their poetry as some kind of mimicry or soulless imitation. They were answering a demand of literary and social history to mould a fresh idiom that could express the new complex reality of their regions and reform the poetic style in their languages that was drowning in cliches. Western models might have been employed as tools of subversion, but the agenda for the new aesthetic was set by our own literary history. It initiated a dialogue between the subaltern and the hegemonic, breaking through the progressives’ distrust of new textual strategies.
By 1965-70, Indian writers in different languages had already produced a body of poetry that strove to capture the multilayeredness of Indian life with its uneasy co-existence of different time-worlds, of the rational and the spiritual, of the real and surreal, in their startling images, syncopated rhythms, employment of novel patterns, dream-like mixing and substitution of time and space, unexpected leaps of thought and fancy, transgressions of established norms of decency and propriety, odd combinatorial plays of the folk and the classical, indigenous and exotic elements, re-mappings of Indian mythology in the fresh contexts of life and language, forays into legends and archetypes and conscious use of everyday language.
To take some casual and early examples, Navakanta Barua’s Mor aru Prithvir (Of Mine and the Earth’s), Hiren Bhattacharya’s Bibhinna Dinar Kavita (Poems of Different Days) and Neelmani Phookan’s Surya Heno Nami ahe ei Nadiyedi (The Sun is Said to Come Descending this River) in Assamiya; Bishnu Dey’s Smriti, Satta, Bhabishyat , Shakti Chattopadhyay’s Jete Pari Kintu Kena Jabo (I Can Go, but Why Should I?), Sudhindranath Dutta’s Kulay O Kalpurush in Bengali; G.M. Muktibodh’s Chand ka Muh Tedha hai and Ajney’s Nadi ke Dweep in Hindi; Suresh Joshi’s Pratyancha and Sitanshu Yashaschandra’s Magan poems in Gujarati besides the poems of Ravji Patel and Labhshankar Thaker; Gopalakrishna Adiga’s Bhoomigeete, Bhoota and Koopamanduka in Kannada; M. Govindan’s Jeevitathil, Maranathil (In Life, In Death), Ayyappa Paniker’s Kavitakal (Poems), N.N. Kakkad’s 1963, Madhavan Ayyappath’s Jeevacharitrakkurippikal (Notes for a Biography) and Attoor Ravi Varma’s Kavita in Malayalam; Dina Nath Nadim’s Ba Geva Na Az (I Will Not Sing Today) in Kashmiri; L. Samarendra Singh’s Khula Amagi Wari (The Story of a Village), and Thangjom Ibopishak’s Narak-Patal-Prithvi (Hell, the Netherworld and the Earth) in Manipuri; the poems of B.S. Mardhekar, Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar and P. S. Rege in Marathi; Bhanuji Rao’s Bisad eka Ritu (Despair, a Season), Sachi Rautroy’s Kabita series, Ramakant Rath’s Sri Radha and Sitakanata Mahapatra’s Shabder Akash (The Sky of Words) in Oriya; Harbhajan Singh’s Rukte Rishi , Amrita Pritam’s Sunehere (Messages) and Shivkumar Batalvi’s Luna in Punjabi; Sundara Ramaswamy’s Nadunisi Naikkal (The Midnight Dogs) in Tamil; and Sri Sri’s Mahaprasthanam in Telugu were responsible for giving new formal devices and aesthetic dimensions to Indian poetry in the heyday of modernism. While they were united in their urge to discover a new idiom of poetry, they differed at many levels, of the specific linguistic situation and genius, of ideological moorings and the models, if any, they looked forward to in other languages.
This was paralleled in fiction where modernism was best represented by paradigmatic texts like U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Samskara , Ajney’s Shekhar, ek Jeevni , Nirmal Verma’s Antim Aranya , K.B. Vaid’s Bimal in Bog , Vinod Kumar Shukla’s Nowkar kee Kameez , Sundara Ramaswamy’s J.J. Sila Kurippukal and O.V. Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Itihasam . The movement also produced playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Satish Alekar, Ratan Tiyam, Chandrasekhara Kambar, Girish Karnad, H.S. Shivaprakash, C.J. Thomas, C.N. Sreekantan Nair, G. Shankarapillai, Kavalam Narayana Paniker, Badal Sircar, Mohit Chatterjee and others.
Modernism, in retrospect, appears to have been a way of documenting the dehumanisation of society in India after Independence with its attendant alienation, morbidity and loss of identity. There was a “shattering of the gestalt”, as Dilip Chitre calls it in his introduction to the Anthology of Modern Marathi Poetry edited by him.
The political conservatives and progressives alike had grown cynical and frustrated about the authoritarian tendencies of the nascent state and the economic and moral deprivation and both were on the lookout for new ways of documenting the outer as well as the inner reality of the new age. It has also impacted the democratic literary movements that followed, like Dalit, nativist, feminist and other trends that often qualify themselves as “post-Modernist” in terms of form and style.