‘The School of Letters can attain further heights of academic status and ranking if the existing faculty can go as a team with the academic will for convergence’

Existential questions continue to haunt the School of Letters at the Mahatma Gandhi University as it enters the silver jubilee year.

When renowned academic U.R. Ananthamurthy, former Vice-Chancellor of the varsity, launched the school on the main campus at Kottayam in 1988, the vision behind the initiative was to showcase Kerala’s rich literary credentials to the world through an interdisciplinary approach.

“I wanted to combine languages and promote interdisciplinary research and learning,” recalled Prof. Ananthamurthy (read interview).

With the term interdisciplinary having undergone much debate, the perspectives of the heads of the school have also differed on what should be the institution’s identity, its purpose and the approach to be adopted.

Noted historian Rajan Gurukkal, former Vice-Chancellor of the university, said the school was instituted by Prof. Ananthamurthy with the distinct belief that teaching and research in comparative literature rather than languages, shall be interdisciplinary in nature, enabling knowledge production which was path-breaking, far reaching and non-linear in its effects.

“Knowledge of comparative literature generated beyond individual languages and across their interfaces is strikingly fresh, regenerative and converging. Convergence, however, failed to articulate itself in the absence of consensus about the perspective. I don’t think G. Sankara Pillai (the school’s first director) had interdisciplinary perspective in any determinate form, but his field, theatre, inherently interdisciplinary could facilitate convergence,” he said.

However, P.P. Raveendran, former director and faculty member, rejected the observation that the new tilt towards the study of individual languages was the reason behind the shift in focus of the institution.

“The school never had ‘comparative literature,’ understood in the traditional and technical sense of studying two or more languages and their literatures in comparison, as its central principle. In fact, the original idea was to bring as many languages as possible under a single umbrella, and then use that context to probe the possibility of developing a certain kind of knowledge, a concept of literature (and the arts) that cuts across linguistic and cultural barriers,” he said.

Dr. Gurukkal said R. Narendra Prasad (who succeeded Prof. Pillai as director), had realised the interdisciplinary dimension, but some of his colleagues, the faculty in Malayalam were too conventional to be thinking except in terms of the contours and boundaries of the language. “There began the major block. With the result the school in effect became an unhappy combination of English and Malayalam languages,” he said. But Prof. Raveendran reminded that ‘theory’ and ‘critique’ in reality were the key questions that engaged the scholars, who worked on the formation of the school.

“What was badly needed for unravelling the inter-relationship between literature, culture and society was a theoretically informed perspective that was expected to help students develop an approach to literature that was methodologically sound and which respected the idea of cultural pluralism,” he said.

Prof. Raveendran agreed that the school had right from its inception only single literature programmes. “There were only M. Phil programmes in Malayalam and English in the initial years. Though the perspective sought to be developed was ‘comparative literature’ in the sense outlined above, the degrees given were M. Phil in Malayalam and M.Phil in English. Even when the school decided to start M.A programmes in Malayalam and English it didn’t want to name it M.A in Comparative Literature, but chose to retain the more traditional nomenclature, M.A (English) and M.A (Malayalam),” he said.

Even though Prof. Ananthamurthy had a broad vision not only for the school but for the overall development of the university, his immediate successors could neither take it forward nor bring in any fresh academic perspectives.

V.C. Harris, faculty member and critic, pointed out that there was a strong campaign for bifurcating the school especially in the early 90s.

“Supporters of this campaign wanted a separate department for Malayalam. They were of the opinion that Mahatma Gandhi University should have an independent department for Malayalam and it should not be clubbed with English. We resisted this campaign for almost four years but in this process lost valuable time to rebuild the institution,” he said. Prof. Harris attributed poor marketing as a major reason for the school not being able to attract students from outside the State. “The university departments also faced a setback, as the focus of the university leadership shifted to promotion of self-financing programmes while ignoring the growth of its own departments,” he said.

P.S. Radhakrishnan, the present Director of the school, said the institution was able to play a key role in formulating innovative curricula and syllabi for literature programmes not only in colleges affiliated to the Mahatma Gandhi University, but also for similar programmes in other universities across the State.

K.M. Krishnan, faculty member and former Director, said Haritham, a journal of creative and critical inquiry, published by the school addresses issues in postcolonial theory, comparative literature and cultural studies. “Translation is also a key area of focus, with the M. Phil programme (both English and Malayalam) having a core course in translation studies,” he said.

Dr. Gurukkal said the school still had the potential to make change, as its infrastructural growth, institutions of transaction, and channels of communication were quite impressive and not inappropriate to meet the needs of interdisciplinary teaching and research. “I tried to recruit some good faculty with interdisciplinary perception, which was only partly successful due to the interference of anti-academics in the Syndicate. It can attain further heights of academic status and ranking if the existing faculty can go as a team with the academic will for convergence,” he said.

More In: Kochi