The plural and the singular

Print edition : April 19, 2013

A.K. Ramanujan. In modern times we have many writers who belong to the composite Hindi-Urdu tradition that can perhaps be called the Hindustani tradition, like Premchand, or bilingual writers like A.K. Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra, Kiran Nagarkar and Kamala Das who wrote/write in their mother tongues as well as in English. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Kamala Suraiyya (Kamala Das). Photo: H. Vibhu

Jayanta Mahapatra. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Kiran Nagarkar. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

At a book exhibition organised by the Sahitya Akademi's southern regional office and Siddhartha Kala Peetham in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, in 2008. Photo: RAJU. V

With 184 mother tongues, 25 writing systems, and several traditions of oral and written literature, the diversity of India’s literary landscape can match only the complexity of its linguistic map.

WHENEVER I think of the concept of “Indian” literature, a story retold by A.K. Ramanujan comes to mind: Hanuman reaches the netherworld in search of Rama’s ring that had disappeared through a hole. The King of Spirits in the netherworld tells Hanuman that there have been so many Ramas over the ages; whenever one incarnation nears its end, Rama’s ring falls down. The King shows Hanuman a whole platter with thousands of rings, all of them Rama’s, and asks him to pick out his Rama’s ring. He tells this devotee from the earth that his Rama too has entered the river Sarayu by now after crowning his sons, Lava and Kusha. Many Ramas also mean many Ramayanas and we have hundreds of them in oral, written, painted, carved and performed versions.

If this is true of a single seminal Indian work, one needs only to imagine the diversity of the whole of Indian literature recited, narrated and written in scores of languages. No wonder, one of the fundamental questions in any discussion of Indian literature has been whether to speak of Indian literature in singular or plural. With 184 mother tongues (according to Census 1991; it was 179 in George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India, along with 544 dialects, and 1,652 in 1961), 22 of which are in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, and 25 writing systems, 14 of them major, scores of oral literary traditions and several traditions of written literature, most of them at least a millennium old, the diversity of India’s literary landscape can match only the complexity of its linguistic map. Probably, it was this challenging complexity that had forced an astute critic like Nihar Ranjan Ray to conclude that there cannot be a single Indian literature as there is no single language that can be termed “Indian”. To quote him, as translated from Bengali by Sujit Mukherjee ( Towards a Literary History of India):

“Literature is absolutely language-based, and language being a cultural phenomenon, it is all but wholly conditioned by its locale and the socio-historical forces that are in operation through the ages in that particular locale. If that be so, one may reasonably argue that the literature of a given language will have its own specific character of form and style, images and symbols, nuances and associations.”

It is true that often “Indian” tends to imply the values that argue for the cultural unity of India as a whole. The use of English to write about literature in Indian languages seems to reinforce such a view. As E.V. Ramakrishnan observes in his introduction to Making It New: Modernism in Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi Poetry (IIAS, Shimla), the framework of grand narratives of history cannot accommodate the subversive function of the new trends in literature unless they become domesticated and canonised. The levelling effect of history and the domestication implicit in canonicity finally fossilise authors and works, leaving no trace of their relevance to our present. We also have to recognise the fact that the gap between the national and the regional has been problematised by the post-colonial vocabularies of identity and difference, and centrality and plurality.

Composite histories

Comparative literature scholars like K.M. George and Sisir Kumar Das have attempted composite histories of Indian literature as in the former’s Comparative Indian Literature and the latter’s A History of Indian Literature. Sisir Kumar Das tries to locate the points of convergence and parallels on a civilisational terrain of labyrinthine complexity. He looks at the history of Indian literature as a history of “the total literary activity of the Indian people, an account of all literary traditions, great and little, their ramifications and changes, their recessions and revivals, dominance and decline”. In fact a literary text produced in an Indian language answers a certain need or performs a historical function in the context of a specific linguistic community, and its meaning lies essentially in its specificity. This relationship of the text to its context gets blurred or distorted when we abstract a text in an Indian language into the realm of a national literary history. In order to understand how a poet or a fiction writer radicalises the literary idiom, it is necessary to grasp the specific history of that literature along with its social background from which the literary registers spring. There is in addition the question of the overlapping of various tendencies at the same juncture in most Indian languages. In Malayalam, for example, even now there are romantic poets following an older idiom jostling with those who consider themselves postmodern and experiment with avant-garde idioms. This gets further complicated if we introduce the element of ideology that, according to Michael Bakhtin, is inscribed in the language. In short, there are problems of chronology (or synchrony and diachrony), of ideology and of terminology involved in the consideration of the singular/plural nature of Indian literature.

Let us now look at the other argument. While Nihar Ranjan Ray is not without some followers in contemporary India, it is also possible to interrogate his general approach to literature as something tied entirely and inextricably to the language in which it is originally written. Language cannot be the only criterion of literature; other criteria, social, cultural, political, ethical and aesthetic, have been applied to literature from time to time. It can be, and has been, categorised, read and analysed from the point of view of class, race, caste, gender, myth, archetype, sign, structure, ideology and textual unconscious. In all these cases the language of the text assumes a secondary status under another dominant paradigm.

Secondly, there are many literatures that are known by the name of the nations they belong to rather than the languages they are written in. This is true of American, British, Australian, Canadian or Indian English literature where literatures mostly in the same language are given different nomenclatures. On the other hand, a category like European literature cuts across languages as it is written in diverse languages, like German, French, Italian, Spanish or Swedish. And Spanish literature written in South America is considered to have a separate identity as it belongs to the larger corpus of Latin American literature. Thirdly, crossings of linguistic boundaries are so frequent in Indian literature that we find it difficult to divide our literature solely on the basis of language. In the words of the distinguished Marxist theoretician Aijaz Ahmad, “multilingualism and polyglot fluidity” are in the very nature of Indian creativity.

We have Indian writers of the past like Kabir, Namdev, Meerabai, Guru Nanak or Vidyapati who were all multilingual. In modern times we have many writers who belong to the composite Hindi-Urdu tradition that can perhaps be called the Hindustani tradition, like Premchand, or bilingual writers like A.K. Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra, Kiran Nagarkar and Kamala Das who wrote/write in their mother tongues as well as in English.

Thirdly, most Indian languages share genres and forms from the mahakavya, doha, prabandha, prahasana, nataka and ballad to sonnet, elegy, lyric, narrative poem, short story and the novel. Fourthly, they also share concepts of poetics, both oriental and occidental, from rasa, dhvani, alankara, anumana, vakrokti, bhava and vibhava to mimesis, catharsis, metaphor, metonymy, suggestion, myth, archetype and several other, more contemporary, terms, concepts and methods. Fifthly, many literatures in India share literary influences as well as trends and movements like the Bhakti, the Nationalist or Swarajist, the Progressive or Pragativadi, the Modernist or Adhunik Movements and the later trends like post-modernist or uttar-adhunik, nativist or deseevadi, ecological or prakritivadi or paristhithivadi, feminist or nareevadi, Dalit and tribal or Adivasi movements. This is besides shared patterns of thought, feeling, concerns and their modes of expression.

These common features must have inspired the famous statement by S. Radhakrishnan popularised by the Sahitya Akademi: “Indian Literature is one even while written in different languages.” One problem with this approach is that it is reductive and tends to standardise all the literatures of India and in the process leaves out and thus alienates many literatures like the oral tribal literatures and literatures of the north–eastern region and of certain languages and dialects where the history has proceeded in other directions and which have had little impact of the West. This dilemma was best summed up by U.R. Ananthamurthy once when he said, “If you look at the diversity of Indian literature, you come to see its unity and if you look for unity, you are struck by its diversity.” This is, in fact, a dialectical statement that is nearer the truth than the positions expressed by either Nihar Ranjan Ray or S. Radhakrishnan for, while there have been pan-Indian trends and movements, there have also been regional ones, and even the pan-Indian movements like Bhakti have manifested themselves in different forms in different Indian languages.

It is also not true to say that all the movements have affected all the literatures alike or that the influences from outside the languages, Indian or otherwise, have had the same impact across languages. There are forms that are unique to certain languages, like, for example, the thullal poem, the kathakali verse, the cartoon poem or the pattalakkatha (barrack stories) to Malayalam, or bijak or ramaini peculiar to ancient Braj as used by Kabir, or the pillaipadal (lullabies), chintu (a kind of song), akaval (a metric mode in narratives), venpa (for didactic works), kalippa (for love poetry and choral music), vanchapp (for descriptive situations), kumm (a song for dancing women), and kanni (a couplet form) in Tamil, abhang in Marathi, vachana in Kannada, vakh in Kashmiri (all forms of Bhakti poetry) or rubai, maznavi, qavvali, manaqib, nama, qasida or quit’a in Urdu.

This is also true of the concepts of poetics. All the languages were not equally permeated by Sanskrit poetics. Tamil, for example, had its own concepts like that of the tinai or terrains with their peculiar moods and contexts. Tholkappiyam also speaks of meypadus comparable to the rasas. There are also concepts like ullurai, connotatively close to dhvani. Urdu has inherited a lot of concepts from the Perso-Arabic critical tradition. One can also see that different languages have appropriated Sanskrit as well as Western concepts in poetics with nuanced semantic shifts. Some forms are common to some languages, but not to all alike; the ghazal that came from Persian was developed in Urdu and then had practitioners in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and even in English in India (remember Agha Shahid Ali, for example). This is also true of neoclassical forms like champu and sandeshakavya, or movements like Dalit literature shared chiefly by, say, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and, more recently, Malayalam. Even a pan-Indian tendency like the Progressive Literary Movement was stronger in languages like Urdu, Hindi, Oriya, Bengali, Telugu and Malayalam than in others. There are also movements and debates confined to one or two languages like desseevad or nativism, chiefly observed in Marathi and Gujarati.

In short, while languages have interacted from time to time and received forms, trends and movements from other regions and languages, each language has had also periods of isolated growth and its own special genius just as each region in India has its own customs, celebrations, forms of art and literature and at times even certain temperamental tendencies. Indian culture is a mosaic of cultures, religions, races, languages, attitudes and world views; hence the concept of Indian literature also has to be open, inclusive, dynamic and flexible so that it accommodates diverse voices, of the majority as well as of the religious, linguistic, sexual and ethnic minorities.

Imperative to rethink concepts

After more than six decades of independence and five hundred years of imperial and colonial rule, it is imperative that we rethink concepts like Indianness and Indian literature. One may then be able to unveil the complicity of these concepts with the ideology of colonialism on the one hand and globalisation on the other. We have come a long way since the German romantic theorist Wilhelm von Schlegel used the term Indian literature to mean Sanskrit literature (1823). Since then many other scholars have used the term as being synonymous with Sanskrit literature, at the most extended to include Prakrit, Apabhramasa and Pali literatures. M Garcin de Tassy’s two-volume History of the Literature of Hindu and Hindustani in French (1839-47, later revised and enlarged as a three-volume edition in 1870-71), Albrecht Weber’s History of Indian Literature in German (1852), George A. Grierson’s Modern Vernacular Literature of Hindustan (1889), Ernst P. Horowitz’s A Short History of Indian Literature and Moriz Winternitz’s History of Indian Literature (1908-1922) in German as well as Herbert H. Gowen’s History of Indian Literature (1931) have all contributed to the constitution of the category of Indian literature.

Most of these do not represent, or under-represent, the literatures in the modern Indian languages that were full-grown by the time: many even had their own histories of literature written in the concerned language itself. Sanskrit was posited by them as the classical code of early India, congruent with new linked conceptions of classicism and class. Indian scholars too have contributed in a big way to the constitution of the category of Indian literature though many of their approaches are more nuanced and they take into account modern languages in various ways. Sri Aurobindo, Krishna Kripalani, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, V.K. Gokak, Umashankar Joshi, Sujit Mukherjee, Sisir Kumar Das, K.M. George, Ganesh Devy and so on, have elaborated the category as a posited unity of diverse language formations or as the articulation of “Indian Culture”. Aijaz Ahmad, in his essay on Indian literature In Theory, has acknowledged the difficulties of positing such a unitary category.

Pointing to the introduction of Narrative Strategies: Essays on South Asian Literature and Film by Vasudha Dalmia and Theo Damsteegt ( Leiden, 1998), where they claim to let the world know “the seriousness” of their discipline, he points out how their statement is unabashedly Eurocentric and ignorant or deliberately neglectful of the enormous scholarship that has been produced on Indian literature by scholars of various hues from the south Asian subcontinent. It is disgraceful that the attitude of European scholarship to this mighty archive remains unchanged since the 19th century. All these works also share the class and caste prejudices of the tradition of the Sanskrit-based Hindu orthodoxy.

Only recently have some scholars like Sheldon Pollock begun to realise this, as is evident in his introduction to Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia (New Delhi, 2003) where the language literatures have been treated in isolation as also in relation to other language literatures in India. Sheldon Pollock says: “With very few exceptions, European histories of Indian literature remained histories of Sanskrit and its congeners… The real plurality of literatures in South Asia and their dynamic and long-term interaction were scarcely recognised, except perhaps incidentally by Protestant missionaries and British civil servants who were prompted by the practical objectives of conversion and control.”

Pollock also examines how the subaltern school of historiography has sought to redirect the study of 19th and early 20th century Indian society and politics “toward the popular, the vernacular, the oral, and the local, and to recapture the role of small people in effecting big historical change”.

Contemporary analyses of colonialism have shown how new Indian pasts with real-life social consequences, such as the traditionalisation of the social order by the systematic miscognition of indigenous discourses on caste, were created by colonial knowledge. They have demonstrated at the same time how discourses such as nationalism that were borrowed from Europe entered into complex interaction with local modes of thought and action that, through a process not unlike import substitution, appropriated, rejected, transformed, or replaced them. He goes on to say how the re-examination of theory, practice and history of areas, especially driven by the analysis of globalisation, has made us aware of the artificiality of geographical boundaries of inquiry.

Today we need to develop alternative genealogies that go beyond the hegemonic canon and travel to the deepest springs of popular creativity. Rather than a mechanical unitary concept, we need to develop a comparative concept, a fresh literary cartography, marking areas of isolation and interaction, patterns specific to languages and influences that they share. Only then will we be able to overcome the binary opposition between the singular and the plural as irreconcilable antinomies and arrive at a dialectical concept of Indian literature in its twin aspects of unity and diversity.