More Histories, Different Histories

events, theory

I spent last Friday and Saturday at an excellent workshop on Indian Literature as Comparative Literature, organized by Preetha Mani of the AMESALL department at Rutgers. The workshop focused on the relations among the regional languages and literatures of South Asia and the question of their joint participation in “modern” or “modernist” Indian literature. I had the pleasure of being the discussant for a panel with Snehal Shingavi, Kumkum Sangari, and Francesca Orsini. For me, someone with interest in but very limited knowledge of South Asian literatures, and no modern S. Asian languages (except…English), the talks and discussion provided all kinds of leads into scholarship and primary sources from South Asia I want to know more about—and, equally, a wealth of stimulating comparative and theoretical ideas.1

I wanted to write a bit about the latter, but not without first acknowledging that abstracting away from specifics in favor of a theoretical argument can be problematic when it is carried out by someone like me—someone with limited knowledge of those specifics, and operating from English, a comparatively empowered discipline focused on a hegemonic language and literature. The danger of turning fragments of a cultural history into representations of some exotic totality looms large. Presenting “shantih shantih shantih” as “the peace which passeth understanding.” Some essays on Rushdie, or Tagore’s English writings, or (in my own case) G. V. Desani as redressing omissions in “global” modernism. A couple of times during the workshop I eagerly posed theoretical questions. But, as Bourdieu says:

Theory—the word itself says so—is a spectacle, which can only be understood from a viewpoint away from the stage on which the action is played out… It is consequently associated in reality with a social distance, which has to be recognized as such. (The Logic of Practice)

I found it truly refreshing to see anew, and from a completely different set of perspectives, the fraught question of the “modern” in literature. The papers made clear that the struggle to claim identification as “modern” is important in multiple Indian literatures; and, equally, that the “modern” is not some self-evident, and purely textual, matter of formal “innovation”—even as the question of form remains important to participants in the struggle to appropriate literary modernity, and here I include as participants we scholars at the conference as well as the writers under study. It was really a pleasure to get a sense of the breadth of possibilities in a literary field where the label “modernism” remains, it seemed, much more open than it does in the Anglo-modernist field. As one of the participants said, it is “modernity” which feels exhausted in South Asian studies (a rebuke to my current preference for this term over “modernism”). Far less crystallized around either a national or an international canon, the problem of the modern in literature in India raised, in the workshop papers, fascinating questions about circulation; about the state (state censorship and state patronage); about vernacularization; about scales of analysis; about how to understand the absolute centrality of the figures of a New Woman at multiple moments of Indian literary modernity; about the city and the village.

It was particularly clear from the talks that institutions, and not just individual writers or judges, are key actors in producing and arbitrating literary modernity. But which institutions? In the course of the workshop, I heard literary histories involving the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association; the Indian and international communist parties; the British, Indian, and Pakistani nation-states; Bombay little magazines (and their antagonist, a Bombay big magazine); the Mughal court; the Aligarh movement; the New Story and New Poetry movements; the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora; and many others. Equally importantly, a whole family of self-proclaimed modernisms or avant-garde movements at mid-century were determinedly oblique to the new nation as a formation, though often equally critical of internationalisms and self-contained regionalisms.

To abstract, I hope not illegitimately: the study of literatures of modernity is best carried out neither among the big abstractions (Capital, Empire, Nation, Modernity itself) nor in the comforting confines of “close reading.” Instead, I was impressed by what the papers showed by analyzing at the mid-level scale, where agents encounter or participate in structures smaller than The Nation or Capital—or, if not smaller, at least more differentiated—but larger than a stylistic grouping or a single coterie. This mid-level scale, in India and probably most other places, is typically multilingual; and when it isn’t, its monolingualism is polemical.

I also found liberating the recurring theme of attending to more institutions, and more spaces, than just the dominant ones. Once you become alert to the forces of canonization and the workings of symbolic, cultural, and literary capital, it’s hard not to get drawn into analyzing only the power of the dominant institutions. For example: the British modernist authorities that make Anglophone Indian writers what they are or aren’t; the academic journals that reify periods and canons; and so on. But there is a danger of airlessness in the approach, and the workshop had some inspiring examples of how to analyze away from the center (without forgetting that the center was there). Anjali Nerlekar’s discussion of Marathi little magazines in the 1960s emphasized the informal meeting (kaṭṭa)2 and the way it takes advantages of the spaces of the city (not only Bombay but Pune). Francesca Orsini took up the subject of folk literature / orature3 / loksāhitya and emphasized the importance of thinking about the divided spaces that separate it from sāhitya / Literature—but, and this was key, also looking for shared spaces. Kannan Muthukrishnan insisted on the endlessly ramifying, subdividing quality of literatures in search of literary modernity, as writers critically re-examine both large-scale linguistic traditions and smaller-scale communities they affiliate with (Sri Lankan Tamils; Jaffna Tamils; Jaffna Tamil Muslims…).

Orsini made another key point, which is that boundaries of the “modern” or of Literature are a historical product, and not fixed for all time. Thus, yes, colonial officials and nationalist intellectuals instituted a divide between folk literature and literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But folk-cultural practitioners who acquire cultural authority or prestige, or who use new media or find new spaces, may realign the divisions. Thus the problem is not simply that of bolting together studies of two utterly unrelated cultural domains—but of recognizing the conditions of divergence or convergence between practices. At the same time, we should recognize the distinctive histories of low-status cultural texts in (at least) the last two centuries, as a first step towards pushing back against the idea that only the consecrated “modern” participates in history. We should turn to the methods of anthropology and sociology, when we need them to understand the distinctiveness of cultural texts that live in performance, or in informal venues, or in collective production, or are otherwise less tuned to capital-L Literary appropriation. And maybe we should turn to those methods even when the texts are tuned to the literary.


  1. Also a very welcome courtesy from panelist to discussant: “Thank you for your labor.” A good formula.
  2. I’m kind of bummed that my lovely Sorts Mill Goudy typeface does not include the simple letter + diacritic combinations I need here. U+0101 LATIN SMALL LETTER A WITH MACRON and U+1E6D LATIN SMALL LETTER T WITH DOT BELOW is not so much to ask.
  3. Orature is discussed in relation to world literature by Caroline Levine in The Great Unwritten: World Literature and the Effacement of Orality, which makes a striking “modest plea for representativeness”—including representation by entextualization in anthologies.