Increasing environmental debates have fuelled interest in the study of literature in relation to environment and ecology.

Pursuing English literature at the college level is often thought to be about revisiting giants who once walked the earth. Across disciplines, including the humanities, courses with contemporary relevance and those tailored for job markets have been introduced to woo students of the 21st century. Obviously, English literature and language studies have not merely stood and watched. Be it English for mass communication, copy writing or Dalit writing, feminist writing, post-colonial literature and human rights, these have all found their way into the syllabus.

A relatively recent addition to these new lines of exploration is the study of literature and the ecology or literature and the environment. What do students and scholars of literature have to do with the environment? “As literature engages with life and everything in the world, it must also engage with the environment,” says Murali Sivaramkrishnan, head, department of English, Pondicherry Central University. The department offers, “Green Voices,” as an elective and a soft course. As professor Murali says, “eco-criticism,” is fast becoming a buzzword in the academic circles in India.

Green lens

Simply put, eco-criticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment, which necessitates looking at literary studies though a green lens. To understand what this branch of study is founded on, Cheryll Glotfelty, University of Nevada, spells out succinctly: when “… literary scholars began to ask what their field has to contribute to our understanding of the unfolding environmental crisis.” While literature has always engaged with nature and the environment from a creative and aesthetic approach (through poems on nature and more), eco-criticism demands a close critical look at nature and the environment.

Literature and ecology/environment is best associated with the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in the U.S. which states that the course is, “for those interested in the natural world and its meanings and representations in language and culture.” ASLE has various affiliate bodies in the world, with two such in India alone. The ASLE-India chapter (whose newsletters are published from Puducherry) and the Organisation for Study of Literature and Ecology (OSLE) with key office-bearers from Tamil Nadu.

Like their international counterparts, these bodies have published papers, books, and regular newsletters, apart from conducting conferences to promote interest in the study of literature and environment.

According to Suresh Frederick, head, department of English, Bishop Heber College, Tiruchi and vice-president, OSLE, a few institutions in India have already been offering the course for quite some time. At the Madras Christian College, it has been part of the curriculum for a decade. “Recent conferences by English literature departments in India have deliberated on literary studies with an ecological approach,” he says.

While the course is an elective, it may soon turn into a core course in universities, feels professor Murali, president of ASLE, India. Increasing environmental debates and a growing consciousness on environmental issues by citizens have only fuelled interest in study of literature and ecology. By studying inter-relationships between nature, culture and environment, eco-criticism also explores facets like eco-feminism, eco-poetics and eco-justice.

Relevance

The study of literature and environment holds good as an elective for students from other disciplines as it is essentially an interdisciplinary branch which integrates philosophy, life sciences, ethics and feminist thinking.

Students of environmental engineering, ecology and sciences have also taken up Green Voices at Pondicherry University in the past. For would-be activists, nature photographers and green engineers, an understanding of eco-criticism can give a creative and critical approach towards the environment, rather than a purely scientific one. Not being bound by disciplines, it can help students to broaden their horizons on environmental issues.

“It is as important for literary scholars to talk about environment as about human rights or women’s writing,” says Mr. Murali. “Eco-criticism can provide a new perspective on environmental issues. When perceptions differ, finding alternative solutions is possible.”