The Literary Criterion has completed 60 years. A look at what has kept the magazine going.

Literary magazines have always had a precarious existence in India; opening optimistically and then folding up in despair after a brief run. The Literary Criterion, founded by Prof. C.D. Narasimhaiah (CDN) in 1952, has been around longer than most and is still widely regarded as the arbiter of standards.

A diamond jubilee is a good time to remember how CDN toiled on several fronts to establish the foundations for English studies in India. The Literary Criterion is one of them. CDN was not merely the journal’s editor-publisher; he laboured over every aspect — proof-reading, corresponding with contributors, personally supervising its production with the printers in Mysore and even writing addresses on the covers for mailing. He did all this alongside a prolific writing career and full-time teaching in India and abroad, to keep standards high and subscription rates low. He was quite unfazed by obstacles — defaulting subscribers, contributors who missed deadlines, slipshod printers; “a smooth sea never produced a skilful navigator,” he was fond of saying.

F.R. Leavis’ Scrutiny and Eliot’s Criterion were the inspiration behind The Literary Criterion and CDN never forgot his debt to Leavis, his mentor at Cambridge. But “it was CD’s Indianness that made the difference”, as Tim Cribb, his friend and Cambridge don, observed succinctly. His approach to a literary text in terms of balancing the classical concepts of rasa and dhvani with contemporary thought was unique. Acknowledging his influence in “Decolonising English Studies: Attaining Swaraj”, Makarand Paranjape has said, “... a piece such as this could not have been written had it not been for CDN and others like him who had, in a sense, both shown the way and paved it for us.”

When CDN passed away in 2005, it was the end of an era for generations of writers, scholars, teachers and students. The legacy he left behind is alive in Dhvanyaloka: The Literary Criterion Centre in Mysore, run by his children (C. N. Srinath and Ragini Ramachandra) and his daughter-in-law (Jayashree Sanjay) who bring out a quarterly edition of The Literary Criterion, faithfully adhering to the principles of its founder.

In the wake of Independence, when English Studies in our universities were Euro-centric, The Literary Criterion brought out special issues every year, usually in the last quarter, devoted to American, Australian, African and Indian literatures in English. CDN invited guest editors of international standing and scholars from renowned institutions to contribute. These numbers are collector’s items at universities today.

According to C.P. Ravichandra, who edited the issue on Contemporary British Literature, “CDN conceived these numbers as not so much issue-based as nation-based, probably in tune with the grand project of emerging nationhood all over the globe in the aftermath of colonialism.”

The journal broke new ground by setting lofty standards of literary judgment and linking them to moral and aesthetic concerns. “The Literary Criterion did what no other media did then: keep a stern eye on values,” Ravichandra points out. According to C. N. Ramachandran, critic and Kannada novelist, “CDN taught us to value literary criticism as a serious activity involving moral values. He imbibed the confidence of a critic in the young minds of his students.”

In his editorials, CDN made no secret of his dismay at the declining standards of teaching and research in universities around the country. To his students, he was a hard taskmaster and never hesitated to crumple a page or chapter of a lazily-written thesis or essay, consigning it to the dustbin before its shaken author. He had an uncanny gift for spotting talent and nurturing those who demonstrated passion and perseverance in their scholarship. Approaches that were imitative and derivative — “those carbon copies of Yeats and Mattheiessen” — were discouraged. Many a research scholar with the temerity to ask for photocopying at Dhvanyaloka, was instantly reminded that The Literary Criterion Centre was a reference library and not a Xerox shop.

CDN consistently opposed agenda-ridden writing and posturing, as is evident in his diatribes in The Literary Criterion against writers V.S. Naipaul, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy. As he grew older, he mellowed, acknowledging in a piece summing up his life’s work, that his views on these writers could have earned him a reputation for being controversial.

On its golden jubilee, CDN could take pride in the fact that there was no part of the world The Literary Criterion did not go to, including countries such as Russia and Latin America, where the English language was not in common use. We are reminded once again of his injunction at that time: Keep travelling, charaiveti, charaiveti (March on, March on, Ye traveller).

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