Indian literature & comparative perspectives

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.

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