Writers must serve a social purpose

A look at the role of literature, in the context of the recent Jaipur Literature Festival.

I was in Jaipur when the Literature Festival was on, and intended to go there, but was dissuaded by some friends who said it would be a waste of time. So what I learnt about it was from newspapers, television and the Internet.

To put it in briefly, I was totally disappointed. Much of the time was wasted on Salman Rushdie, whom I regard as a very mediocre writer who would have been unknown to most people but for The Satanic Verses. Much of the ‘Literature' Festival was really a caricature. There were, of course, serious writers too whose work deals with the problems of the people but they received no attention in comparison.

That set me thinking: Where is serious literature anywhere to be seen? Why blame this festival alone?

There are two theories about art and literature. The first, ‘art for art's sake' and the second, ‘art for social purpose'.

According to the first theory, art and literature are meant only to create beautiful or entertaining works, to please and entertain people and the artists themselves, and not to propagate social ideas.

If art and literature are used to propagate social ideas, they become propaganda. Proponents of this view include Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot in English literature; Edgar Allan Poe in American literature; Agyeya and the ‘Reetikal' and ‘Chayavadi' poets in Hindi literature; Jigar Moradabadi in Urdu and Tagore in Bengali.

Literature should serve people

The other theory is that art and literature should serve the people, and help them in their struggle for a better life, by arousing emotions against oppression and injustice. Proponents of this school are Dickens and George Bernard Shaw in English literature; Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck in American literature; Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and Victor Hugo in French; Goethe, Schiller and Erich Maria Remarque in German; Cervantes in Spanish; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky in Russian; Premchand and Kabir in Hindi; Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Kazi Nazrul Islam in Bengali, Bharati in Tamil and Nazir, Faiz, Josh and Manto in Urdu.

Which of these should be adopted and followed by artists and writers in India today?

There have been great artists and writers in both schools. Shakespeare and Kalidas can be classified as playwrights of the ‘art for art's sake' school. Their plays serve no social purpose beyond providing entertainment and an understanding of human impulses and motivations. Shakespeare was basically a realist, but had no intention to reform society or combat social evils. Yet, he is an artist of the highest rank.

Poetry at its best

Kalidas' Meghdoot is nature and love poetry at its best. Depictions of the countryside that he gives are astonishing in their beauty. Even Wordsworth can come nowhere near it. Nevertheless, Kalidas has no social purpose.

Shaw wrote with a social purpose — to combat social evils and reform society. His plays represent a powerful denunciation of social injustices and evils. Dickens' novels attack the social evils in England.

Art critics often regard the two basic trends or tendencies as realism and romanticism. The truthful, undistorted, depiction of people and their social conditions is realism. In romanticism, the emphasis is on flights of imagination, passion and emotional intensity.

Passive & active realism

Realism and romanticism can be either passive or active. Passive realism usually aims to depict reality truthfully, without preaching anything. The novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte Sisters are examples. In this sense, they are socially neutral. However, sometimes passive realism preaches fatalism, passivity, non-resistance to evil, suffering and humility.

Dickens, Victor Hugo, Gorky and Sarat Chandra belong to the school of active realists. They oppose fatalism, passivity and non-resistance to evil, and inspire people to fight social evils.

The strength of passive realism lay in its exposure of human motivations and social evils, and its weakness in its lack of positive principles or ideals. With its truthful approach to reality, it concentrated on describing the visible and real, but showed no way out. It criticised everything but asserted nothing. It often viewed man from a fatalistic point of view, as a passive product of his surroundings, helpless and incapable of changing social conditions.

Social purpose

Passive and active realism can both serve a social purpose. But while passive realism often preaches fatalism and pessimism and the futility of trying to improve society, active realism is optimistic, characterised by solicitude and concern for the people. It inspires them to strive against their plight and improve their conditions.

In Shakespeare, Balzac, Tolstoy or Mirza Ghalib, it is difficult to see if they are romantics or realists: both trends merge. In fact, the highest art is often a combination of the two.


Romanticism, like realism, can be passive or active. Passive romanticism attempts to divert people from reality into a world of fantasy or illusions, or to a fruitless preoccupation with one's own inner world, with thoughts about the ‘fatal riddle of life,' or dreams of love and death. Its characters may be knights, princes, demons or fairies who exist in a make-believe world. Passive romanticism hardly serves any social purpose.

Active romanticism, on the other hand, attempts to arouse man against societal evils, for example, Shelley's ‘Prometheus Unbound', Heine's ‘Enfant Perdu', Gorky's ‘Song of the Stormy Petrel,' and the poems of Urdu writer Faiz. It serves a social purpose. This genre rises above reality, not by ignoring it but by seeking to transform it, and regards literature as having a greater purpose than reflecting reality.

‘Art for social purpose' may be expressed not always in a direct way, but also in indirect, roundabout or obscure ways, for example, through satire. Look at Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels or A Tale of a Tub, Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland, Cervantes' Don Quixote, and Voltaire's Candide and Zadig. Much of Urdu poetry which serves a social purpose is expressed not in a direct, but in an indirect way. Mir, Ghalib and Faiz are examples.

Should artists and writers in India follow the school of ‘art for art's sake' or ‘art for social purpose'? What we have to consider is, which would be more beneficial to India's historical situation today. Thus, the question of who is greater as an artist, Shakespeare or Shaw (I personally think Shakespeare is) is not relevant in India today.

In such a poor country, ‘art for social purpose' alone can be acceptable. India faces tremendous challenges; artists and writers must join the ranks of those struggling for a better India. They must inspire through their writings, writing against oppression and injustice.

Lack of good literature

However, there is hardly any good art and literature today before us. Where are the Sarat Chandras and Premchands? Where are the Kabirs, the Dickens? There seems to be a vacuum in artistic and literary terms. Everything seems to have become commercialised. Writers write not to highlight the plight of the masses but to earn money.

Today India thirsts for good literature. If someone writes about the people's real problems it will spread like wildfire. But are our writers doing this? If they are not, why do they complain that nobody wants to read them? Art and literature must serve the people. Writers and artists must have genuine sympathy for the people and depict their sufferings. Like Dickens and Shaw in England, Rousseau and Voltaire in France, Thomas Paine and Walt Whitman in America, Chernyshevsky and Gorky in Russia and Sarat Chandra and Nazrul Islam in Bengal, they must inspire people to struggle for a better life, what can be really called human existence, and to create a better world, free of injustice. Only then will people respect them.

(The author is the Chairman of the Press Council of India, and a former Judge of the Supreme Court)

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Printable version | Jul 9, 2020 8:59:47 AM |

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