Updated: September 23, 2010 16:08 IST

Issues in Indian literary historiography

M. S. Nagarajan
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Way back in 1949, Rene Wellek raised a question that still keeps haunting us. “Is it possible to write literary history, that is, to write that which will be both literary and a history?” Words are not the only ones that change their meaning; critical terms also do. The term ‘literary historiography' formerly meant the methodology involved in writing the history of literature aka literary history.

Colluding triad

But with the advent of Foucauldian theories regarding the operation of power structures, and more recently with the foundational work of Homi Bhabha (Nation and Narration and The Location of Culture), followed by the recent writings of Sheldon Pollock and Aijaz Ahmad, the term has grown more inclusive to mean what has been grandiosely called “nonfictional meta-narrative” that attempts to redefine the history of a nation state using literature as one — if not the only — frame of reference.

Language, literature, and nation form a colluding triad but this simple formula cannot work in the case of India, which has 21 officially declared literary languages, not to speak of the 100-odd unscripted languages. With a multiplicity of languages and widely differing literary traditions, how can India speak of a single national literature?

Literature and Nationalist Ideology is a collection of papers (and a few commissioned articles) presented at a conference held in Germany a few years ago. The 14 meticulously researched articles raise issues and questions that have a bearing on this contested/interrogated notion of narrating our multilingual nation by taking into account the literatures of modern Indian languages, excluding Sanskrit (whose presence looms large on them), but including English, the latest triumphant entrant in the literary terrain of this country.

Torsten Tschacher argues, with a high-powered academic thrust, that Tamil historiography is not inclusive enough; that Tamil Islamic texts are not integrated into the master narrative of Tamil literary history and its supposedly unified tradition; and that ultimately “the ‘stream of Islamic literature' does not merge with the ‘ocean of Tamil' — it drowns entirely.” Isphita Chanda suggests the eschewing of sedulously aping abstract western epistemology. He pleads for approaching Indian literature — now that we are an independent nation — with the concrete, shared material representations in our hands that “do justice to both the individual entity and the composite one.”

Five of the 14 articles are devoted to a study of the Hindi scene in Indian historiography. According to Charu Gupta, its literature has been dogged, right from the colonial times, by heated debates on sexuality, obscenity, and eroticism. Bharatendru Harishchandra, Mahavir Prasad and Maithilisharan Gupta, and a large section of Hindi literati influenced by Arya Samaj assumed the role of watchdogs doing their best to cleanse its literature of what they considered murky in thought and diction that tended to harm the moral fibre of society. But such narrow views, puritanical constructs, and moral policing have now come to be challenged by jettisoning the established canons and encouraging students to read hitherto marginalised writings. Purushottam Agarwal pleads for a healthy, honest recovery of the “usable past,” and avoidance of what he terms “sectarian lobbyism.”

Hindi heritage

Ramchandra Shukla's Hindi sahitya ka itihas still remains the standard text on the subject, serving as the key source for establishing the Hindi canon. But according to Navina Gupta, this book imputes a Hindu identity to the Hindi heritage. Urdu works suffer from the “politics of exclusion.” Kabir, the most prominent bhakti poet, would not fit into Shukla's national vision. Thomas Bruijn discusses the complex syncretising discourses that have shaped the modern historiography of Hindi writings. Stuart Blackburn rues that the oral stories of Arunachal Pradesh remain outside the historiography of Indian literature. “They are the unscripted tales, spoken in the unofficial languages by people who are barely included in the Indian nation. They challenge us to rethink our concepts of Indian literary historiography.” Hans Harder (editor of the volume) and Snehal Shingavi feel that Indian writing in English, often dismissed as “jet-set literature,” either out of prejudice or ignorance, has now been naturalised by our historians. K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, in his most comprehensive book Indian Writing in English (1962), calls it “a tree that has sprung up on hospitable soil from a seed that a random breeze had brought from afar.” Literary histories do have an important role in building and nourishing the culture of a nation. The essays in this volume are marked by some splendid robust writing. One hopes they will provide the necessary epistemological tools to invigorate our understanding of India and its invaluably resonant literatures.

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