Indian literature & comparative perspectives

How should we think about ‘Indian' literature? A new book recommends and develops a comparative approach to our vernacular traditions, one that takes us beyond regional insularity and cultural chauvinism.

February 22, 2011 02:24 am | Updated December 05, 2021 09:18 am IST

Curious young readers at the Jaipur Literature Festival. A new book “Colonialism, Modernity, and Literature: A View from India” provides close readings of a uniquely representative work of modern Indian literature and develops its analyses in a resolutely comparative framework. File photo

Curious young readers at the Jaipur Literature Festival. A new book “Colonialism, Modernity, and Literature: A View from India” provides close readings of a uniquely representative work of modern Indian literature and develops its analyses in a resolutely comparative framework. File photo

A few years ago, during his visit to Cornell University, U. R. Ananthamurthy asked a group of professors and doctoral students why vernacular Indian literary texts so rarely receive the kind of careful attention critics give to major texts in European and American literature. Emphasising the need for extended textual readings as well as cross-regional analysis of the literary traditions in India, he called for textual comparisons that highlight similarities and differences in the way common themes and similar social situations are treated. He argued that several strands of cultural and social influence run through Indian literary texts, strands that are impossible to see clearly if our focus remains confined to the works of any one linguistic or regional tradition.

The new volume Colonialism, Modernity, and Literature: A View from India is a response to Ananthamurthy's call. It provides close readings of a uniquely representative work of modern Indian literature and develops its analyses in a resolutely comparative framework. That work is Fakir Mohan Senapati's late-19th century Oriya novel, Chha Mana Atha Guntha , the most recent translation of which, Six Acres and a Third , appeared in 2005 (Indian edition by Penguin in 2006). Focussing on literary and cultural analyses, this collection of essays presents one distinct and complex view from the Indian context, but it is a view with wider implications.

The first theme this volume addresses is the relationship between colonialism and socio-cultural modernity in the colonised world. The recent scholarship on ‘alternative modernities' strongly suggests that fine-grained historical, cultural, and philosophical analyses will show how distinctly modern values such as individuality and radical egalitarianism were articulated in contexts other than the capitalist West. Since the so-called pre-modern societies have been looked at through speculative and ideologically distorted lenses, it is likely that a more rigorous, empirically based analysis can drastically revise our understanding of them. Literary and cultural texts — both high canonical and popular or ‘folk'— can play a major role in this revisionary analysis.

The second major theme of the volume concerns the forms in which social critique is articulated in literature, and in particular how they define a literary view from below — the perspective of the lower orders of society, the subalterns — as expressed in literary styles and modes. Comparative analyses reveal, for instance, that the narrative forms Senapati develops, extending some indigenous oral and written traditions, are similar to the forms used by the Latin American writer Gabriel García Márquez, who was challenging — some sixty years after Senapati — the dominance of neo-colonial power in his own society in Colombia.

Finally, the volume's comparative method itself points to a significant theme: the strategic political value of comparison in the study of Indian literature. These essays may suggest to readers non-ethnocentric — and, in the modern Indian cultural context, non-chauvinist — ways of studying Indian literature. They de-emphasise regional literary histories, especially the construction of hoary pasts and glorious traditions, to focus instead on cross-regional clusters of historical and cultural meaning. They attempt in-depth interpretations instead of merely celebrating authors and their works.

Comparative perspectives

The essays by Jennifer Harford Vargas and Paul Sawyer suggest what a critical comparatism would look like and how we may go on to develop a method to talk about ‘world literature,' a method that is attentive to national contexts without being limited by chauvinist or cultural-nationalist agendas. Whether it be in the form of a ‘South-South' dialogue of the kind Vargas suggests, or in the form of a contrast between two differing perspectives on a common moral and imaginative project, which Sawyer develops, this kind of comparative reading takes us beyond the ethnocentric use of comparison that was common in the West during the imperial period.

Two other essays provide comparisons of Senapati's novel with an Assamese and a Telugu text respectively, both from the 19th century, and show how all three works draw on an indigenous modern sensibility. This indigenous Indian sensibility is often wary of the colonial modernity of westernised babus while being receptive to many of the positive values for which European culture was also known. Tilottoma Misra compares Senapati's novel with a satirical prose-sketch, “Fair Without, Foul Within,” written in 1866 by the Assamese writer and scholar Hemchandra Barua. Even though Misra does not suggest this possibility, readers of Six Acres will easily recognise Barua's text as one that must have influenced Senapati: both employ a similar kind of ironic and satirical tone.

According to Misra, Barua draws on a popular performing tradition native to Assam, oja-pali, through which, at least since the 15th century, rural audiences had been exposed to a dialogic and critical narrative voice. Oja-pali is similar to the Oriya thia-pala; in both, a group of five or six performers dance, enact scenes, dramatise themes, and recite poetry, while the lead singer goes on to provide both serious and parodic commentary on the recited texts and contemporaneous subjects, both high and low. It is reasonable to speculate that for Senapati as well as Barua, popular rural performance forms such as oja-pali and pala provided inspiration for their satirical voices and their anti-hegemonic values; through the rich critical strands of satirical writing these forms embodied, they provided Barua and Senapati a link to a tradition of humour and social critique that predates colonialism by several centuries.

Velcheru Narayana Rao compares Senapati with his contemporary from northern Andhra, Gurajada Apparao. Narayana Rao has been arguing for years that a careful study of pre-colonial Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada literature reveals a robust tradition of modernity in pre-colonial Indian culture, one that has been eclipsed by the assumption that British rule brought modernity to India. Focussing on Apparao's famous 1890s play Kanyasulkam ( Girls for Sale ) and Senapati's novel, he shows how both writers provide a counter to the “cultural amnesia” of the babus and the upper castes who, under the influence of the new education, “rejected their immediate past in favour of colonial modernity.” Narayana Rao goes on to distinguish from this tendency the more complex critical approach of Senapati and Apparao, which he defines as an indigenous and non-colonialist strand of modernity.

Ananthamurthy's challenge

Ananthamurthy's call — or rather, his challenge — to scholars and critics of Indian literature led to the collaborative work of this volume. The authors' hope is that the close readings and theoretical explorations will inspire more such engagements with important literary works and their multiple contexts. As critical analyses, all these essays depart from the ‘colonial discourse' approach that dominated and defined the field of postcolonial studies in the 1980s and 1990s after the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978). The essays' emphasis on the subaltern's voice and agency suggests a framework that may be called ‘radical humanist,' a framework that departs in particular from aspects of the Foucauldian theory on which Orientalism had drawn.

If the arguments about indigenous or alternative modernity are convincing in this one instance, with a focus on one related group of texts, they will also indicate why the sharp conceptual opposition between tradition and modernity is misleading and needs to be rejected. Empirical accounts of the rational basis and social function of indigenous, especially rural institutions, as well of the rich body of ideas contained in folklore and popular forms of dialogic and interactive performance (of which pala and oja-pali are examples), can reveal robust expressions of the socially progressive values that can be found in rural Indian life. They can also suggest similar possibilities elsewhere in the world.

The readings and analyses in this book are invitations to a critical dialogue, since they are meant to provoke as well as illuminate. They encourage alternative textual interpretations of Indian literature, seek to reinvigorate debates, and open new avenues of cross-disciplinary research in which literary criticism is part of a collaborative project to define the features of the world we — all of us — have inherited from the Age of Empire. This particular ‘view from India' may indicate how the study of literature is essential to our varied inquiries into the tangled relationship between colonialism and modernity, as well as into a genuinely democratic postcolonial future.

(Satya P. Mohanty is Professor of English at Cornell University. He has edited, and written the introduction to, Colonialism, Modernity, and Literature: A View from India , which will be published in early March by Palgrave Macmillan, New York. An Indian edition of the book will be published by Orient BlackSwan.)

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