The politics of rereading

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Romila Thapar. Photo: R.Ragu

Romila Thapar reveals the Orientalist determinations behind the reception of Sakuntala.

The anthology edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita traces the evolution of women's writing in India across centuries.

This collection, edited by Paula Richman, brings together several rewritings of episodes from Ramayana.

REREADINGS and counter-readings are a way of retrieving texts and making them available to contemporary readers in new ways in which they can easily relate to them as also for diverse aesthetic and ideological uses. The theoretical premise that encourages multiple readings of a text was prepared chiefly by reception theorists like Wolfgang Iser, Roman Ingarden and Jonathan Culler and thinkers and analysts like Pierre Macherey, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida whose meta-readings of old and new texts led to their radical re-evaluations. There are many factors that can make a rereading radical or otherwise: the social and historical premise; the ideological tools being used; the reader’s (critic’s) positions vis-a-vis gender, social class, caste, race, sexuality and majority/minority which could be status-quoist and hegemonic or revolutionary and counter-hegemonic/subaltern. I am speaking here only of rereadings, which however cannot completely be extricated from rewriting, of which examples abound in contemporary literature, especially in the work of subaltern writers who have rewritten episodes from epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, religious texts like the Bible as well as regional myths and legends. But that is subject enough for another essay. I may just point to Ramayana Stories in Modern South India edited by Paula Richman (University of Indiana Press) as one anthology where several rewritings of episodes from Ramayana—by Kumaran Asan, N.S. Madhavan, K.B. Sreedevi, C.N. Sreekantan Nair, K. Satchidanandan, Kuvempu, Vijaya Dabbe, Subramania Bharati, Pudumaipithan, Ambai, Chalam, Volga, and others—have been brought together. Writers like Pratibha Ray, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, P.K. Balakrishnan, S.L. Bhyrappa, Girish Karnad, Ratan Teyam, Mahasweta Devi and Lathalakshmi have attempted rewritings of episodes and re-visioning of characters from Mahabharata while others like Paul Zacharia, Sara Joseph and Anand have rewritten tales from the Bible.

Rereadings of canonical texts side by side with the discovery of buried and forgotten texts have certainly unleashed a lot of radical energy in the realm of criticism. Just to take examples from a single language, Malayalam, critics like B. Rajeevan, V.C. Sreejan, S.S. Sreekumar, E.V. Ramakrishnan, P. Udayakumar, V. Sanil, S. Saradakkutty, J. Devika, Dileep Menon and M.T. Ansari have been consistently rereading texts from various, mostly subaltern, points of view. They have been trying to expose the ideological determinations that underlie representations, especially of Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis and women, in the texts they choose to reread. The new readings of Sree Narayana Guru and C.V. Raman Pillai by P. Udayakumar, the reading of Pothery Kunhambu’s Saraswativijayam, a Dalit novel, by Dileep Menon, the readings of Chandu Menon by M.T. Ansari, the readings of some texts of Kumaran Asan by S. Saradakkutty and V. Sanil illustrate this trend. B. Rajeevan and P. Udayakumar, for example, have looked at the evolution of the concept of the body in Sree Narayana Guru as he moves from works like Mananateetam, Siva Satakam and Indriya Vairagyam to Atmopadesa Satakam, Advaita Jeevitam and Suddhipanchakam. Sree Narayana Guru denies ontological status to the body, but gives it epistemological status and discovers a subtle body ( sookshma sareera) within the gross body ( sthoola sareera).

The body can attain purity once it is liberated from the gross body. Then it will be capable of spiritual bliss. This is the moment where community enters Sree Narayana’s system, for, the reforms within the communities—in education, economy, health, etc.—enable societies to attain this bliss, as the material and spiritual arrangements need to be coordinated like the organs of a body to lead to enlightenment, to recall his statement in Advaita Jeevitam. Here he reminds us of Tirumular, the Tamil Saivite saint, as well as Basava, the Kannada Saivite reformer, both of whom accepted the interdependence of the body and the soul. It is the body that bears the organic marks of distinction in man; caste marks and caste titles are an aberration that hide these organic markers. So there are only two castes among humans —men and women. (The third gender was probably theoretically invisible at that point of time.) Sree Narayana thus views caste as a false distinction, religion as nothing more than a matter of opinion, and the community as the locus of concrete social action. In 1916, Sree Narayana declared that he did not belong to any caste or religion. Human community, he said, would be born only when false distinctions and hierarchies disappeared. This was the basic principle of the Renaissance that was soon to transform the society in Kerala.

Dileep Menon’s reading of Saraswativijayam, a novel by Pothery Kunhambu published in 1892, looks at Kunhambu’s project closely to discover that initially he, too, had thought of reforming the Hindu society but later abandoned it as impossible. The author, an Ezhava who was often called “Pulayan Kunhambu” for his concern for the Pulaya community, found that tradition was impervious to modernity. The novel is an example of the spatial delineation of issues of power, hierarchy and inequality as the characters traverse different territories of freedom and knowledge. Travel becomes a metaphor of individual redemption here as the cruel landlord, Kuberan Namboodiri, travels to Kasi, Marathan, the Pulaya protagonist travels to Madras, and Subhadra, the Namboodiri’s daughter falsely accused of extramarital relations and banished from her caste, travels to Kannoor to escape from the enclosed space of historical memory. Kuberan has a change of heart; Marathan converts to Christianity, studies law and becomes a judge; Subhadra, too, converts and becomes a teacher and gets reunited with her husband who, too, converts to Christianity.

Christianity is the mediator of modernity in the text. Kunhambu did share the creative tension between the possibility of an internal critique of Hinduism and the pragmatic and robust alternative of empowerment through colonial education, though finally he found that liberation was unattainable within the Hindu fold, a fact that Ambedkar, too, was to discover later, though his choice was not Christianity, but Buddhism. Saraswativijayam is not a revenge novel, nor a conversion tract; conversion here is a metaphor for the new possibilities opened up by colonialism and modernity. It may be noted that while elite thinkers like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Dayananda Saraswati championed an internal critique of Hinduism and found habitation within reformed religion, most of the subaltern thinkers found a solution to caste inequality only in conversion. Sree Narayana was an exception, as, through a philosophical inversion, he could free himself from all religions.

Different Sakuntalas

Romila Thapar has reread Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Sakuntalam from a historical point of view to reveal the Orientalist determinations behind its reception. She has shown how Kalidasa’s Sakuntala is delicate, shy, meek, faithful and unquestioning in her obedience, returning with tears from Dushyanta’s court when he disowns her, as different from the Sakuntala of Adiparva in the Mahabharata where she is strong and independent and boldly interrogates Dushyanta’s sense of justice and decorum. She puts certain conditions even before she enters into a gandharva relationship with the king. Kalidasa’s description fits in very much with the romantic concept of the innocent forest virgin embarrassed by the awakening of desire. In fact, there is a whole romantic opposition at work here between the simple, picturesque ashram in the woods that represents rusticity and innocence and the splendid palace of the king that stands for the urban with its accent on power and cunning. Kalidasa’s Sakuntala was the kind of ideal heroine that the romantics were looking for. Goethe describes her as “a rustic girl”, a “child of nature” with elegant limbs and graceful undulating gait. Popularised in the West through Monier Williams’ English translation, from which the German translation was done by Georg Forster in 1791, Abhijnana Sakuntalam fitted very well with the Orientalist project of romanticising the East reflected equally well in colonial photography and the Company paintings.

The Germans also exulted in the racial bonds between the ancient Indians and Europeans whom they considered “Aryans”, whatever that term stands for. For French Indologists like Sylvane Levy and Russian Indologists like Oldenberg, Sakuntala was part of their fantasy about India. She was the ideal Hindoo woman, also, for the Indian middle class nationalists, who, like the Orientalists, bemoaned the “fall” of the ideal Indian womanhood. Rabindranath Tagore also upheld Sakuntala, combining in his approach the British Orientalist attitudes of the 19th century, the nascent nationalist sentiment and Victorian moralism. Romila Thapar upholds Shantaram’s portrayal of Sakuntala in his film Stree as being faithful to her portrayal in the Mahabharata as also the contemporary interpretation one comes across in Nachiket Patwardhan’s Anant Yatra, which brings Sakuntala to modern Bombay where Dushyanta is a business executive. The film hints that any appreciation of the naive and frail Sakuntala today can only be an escape from contemporary oppressive patriarchal urban reality.

Postcolonial readings, especially informed by Edward Said’s theoretical insights, have helped unearth the colonial prejudices behind a lot of work on India—not literature alone, but also photographs and paintings. These interrogations, while at times reductive or eclectic, have helped make writers and readers conscious of the dangers of (mis)representation.

The patriarchal canons are being interrogated, myths revisioned, texts decoded and literary history revised by many feminist critics and theoreticians. Susie Taru and K. Lalita have traced in their introduction to the anthology Women Writing in India, Sixth Century B.C. to the Present (Oxford University Press) the evolution of women’s writing in India across centuries. Uma Chakravarty, Vijaya Dabbe, Madhu Kishwar, Sonal Shukla, Leela Mullati, Parita Mukta, Vijaya Ramaswamy and others have reread the poetry of women saints like Lal Ded, Akka Mahadevi, Satyakka, Kadire Rammavve, Ayadakki Lakkamma, Muktayakka, Andal, Karaykkal Ammayar, Meerabai, Gangasati, Janabai and Bahinabai to show how Bhakti was to them a tool to escape gender distinction, patriarchal oppression and domestic confinement just as it was to the Buddhist nuns like Mutta, Ubbiri or Sumangalamata of the sixth century BCE.

God becomes a way of dissolving an otherwise impossible situation in these saints. Their worldly marriages, actual as well as potential, represent both the lure and the bondage of the world while their relationship to God represents a renunciation of the world and the woman’s traditional roles in it. Like Susie finds the lyrics of Terigatha to be, their poems are epiphanic experiences in which the painful constructions of secular life fall away and the torment of feelings subsides as the peace and freedom of nirvana are attained. While they exult in their new life transformed by Bhakti, they also contrast it to the painful worlds they have left behind. These poets created an alternative family, resisted the oppressive social role imposed upon them by the male-dominated society and simultaneously created a parallel language of experience and emotion.

A lot of scholars and academics like Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Malashree Lal, Vrinda Nabbar, Brinda Bose, Ruth Vanita, Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, J. Devika, Anita Devasia, G.S. Jayasree and S. Saradakkutty have also done considerable research in women’s discourses and the representation of women in literary texts by men. Same-sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai (Macmillan), while being an anthology of gay and lesbian texts, also rereads a lot of ancient and medieval Indian texts like Mahabharata, Krittivasa Ramayana, Manikanthajataka, Panchatantra, Kathasaritsagara, Padmapurana, Bhagavatapurana, Skandapurana and Shivapurana from the homoerotic point of view.

Eco-criticism is another mode of rereading that focusses entirely on the text without looking at its organic relationship with nature and the larger universe. Even though it was William Rueckert ( Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Eco-Criticism, 1978) who introduced the term, it was Joseph Meeker’s The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (1974) that first defined the subject. According to Meeker, literary ecology was concerned with the biological themes appearing in literature. Its aim was also to discover the role of literature in human ecology. Literary works, he said, often reveal man’s beliefs about the truth of natural processes and the cultural ideologies that have brought human race to the modern environmental crisis. Cherryll Glotfelty, who edited the first eco-criticism reader (1996), describes eco-criticism as an attempt to unravel the exchanges between nature and culture. It has one leg in literature and the other on earth: as a theoretical discourse it connects equally with human beings and non-human ones. Writers’ world is not only the social world, but the ecosphere itself. Earth, she says, is at the centre of eco-criticism just as gender is at the centre of feminist criticism and class at that of Marxist criticism. Eco-criticism, according to Lawrence Buel, brings space into the critical agenda that has so far been confined to the theme, plot and characters. He sees it as an umbrella term that embraces various modes and approaches.

It has also been called “ego-criticism” (Sven Birkerts, Only God can Make a Tree: The Joys and Sorrows of Eco-Criticism) as it rereads literature to discover what it has to say about man’s egocentrism, greed and craze for wealth and power. Some eco-critics also draw strength from Engels’ Dialectics of Nature, Raymond Williams’ insights into the city-country contradictions, and the works of Adorno, Walter Benjamin and other new Marxist thinkers. The anthology Haritaniroopanam Malayalathil (Green Criticism In Malayalam) edited by G. Madhusoodanan carries 76 different samples of what can be broadly called eco-criticism in Malayalam—along with 16 theoretical pieces—that began to grow with the environmental awareness generated by the struggle against the proposed dam in the rainforests of the Silent Valley. The book carries rereadings of many Malayalam literary texts based on the concepts of eco-Marxism, eco-Feminism, eco-Ethics and eco-Spirituality in literary criticism.

It was perhaps Sharad Patil’s book in Marathi, Abrahmani Sahityanche Saundaryasastra, that first launched an attack on “Brahmin aesthetics” and spoke of the need for a counter-poetics. Sharan Kumar Limbale in his book Towards an Aesthetics of Dalit Literature has attempted a critique of status-quoist Marathi aesthetics as also of the adulatory as well as negative criticism of Dalit literature by savarna critics. He points out that Dalit literature is not meant to entertain readers but to provoke them into rethinking their society and its ethics and aesthetics. It is impossible to investigate Dalit writing with its rebellion, rejection and commitment with the established critical tools meant for the literature of acquiescence and consent. He does not agree with critics like Yadunath Thatte who want to enlarge the rasa theory to include revolt and cry as the tenth and eleventh rasas. What is needed is a new aesthetics that takes into account the “differentness” of Dalit writing in content as well as form. Aestheticist criticism cannot digest the non-traditional stance of Dalit literature. For that freedom will have to be recognised as an aesthetic value. The intensity of experience, the way the experience is socialised, its power to cross the boundaries of time and space—these are the standards Limbale proposes for the evaluation of Dalit literature.

Dalit imagination

D.R. Nagaraj in his book The Flaming Feet: A Study of the Dalit Movement in India has gone deeper into the specifics of Dalit sensibility and Dalit imagination and the problem of cultural memory in the context of the cosmologies of caste and the realism in Kannada fiction. He traces the cultural memory of Dalits to the subaltern, radical, traditions, folk cosmologies, rural myths and oral narratives which are getting lost in the oppressive process of Sanskritisation pursued by Hindu revivalists. He looks at the cults of Madeswara and Manteswamy in southern Karnataka as examples. He points out how the cultural paradigm of the nationalists had no place for Dalit cultural traditions and practices. The monolithic cultural model erected on the basis of Vedanta by the Hindu Right also precludes all the philosophic and cultural expressions of Dalits. Nagaraj makes a very insightful comparative rereading of U.R. Anantha Murthy’s Samskara and Devanoor Mahadeva’s Kusumabale to show how caste has been an important factor in determining their modes of representation and imagination. Samskara gives the readers an insight into the self-image of the Brahmin by allowing them to see the world through the eyes of Pranesacharya, whose attempts to break the system miserably fail as against that of Naranappa, his alter ego who completely breaks free of tradition and its taboos.

This, according to him, is also the failure of the novel as it cannot establish the sexual contact between the Brahmin and the non-Brahmin as a possible way to break free of the oppressive caste society. Realism frustrates the novel’s radical ambitions. But Kusumabale rejects the notion of verifiable reality at the very outset and follows a folk narrative form. While Samskara ignores the socio-economic power structures, thus turning its concern more metaphysical, Kusumabale counterposes the personal and the political realms of the caste structure and finds that sexual contact like the one in Samskara can only lead to violence within the existing power structure. Devanoor Mahadeva revives the Dalit mode of imagination as when a cot tells a story and a lamp turns into a woman who comments on the events of the day. The narrative is open and works at multiple levels while Samskara is highly centred and has an ending that closes the narrative.

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