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Mapping many Indias through the gamut of diverse literary systems

Indian literature is a heterotopic space of different cultural, literary and historical elements

By Mrinmoy Pramanick
  • Published 7.02.20, 12:02 AM
  • Updated 7.02.20, 12:02 AM
  • 3 mins read
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A watercolour from a series of paintings from the Company School on costumes, craftsmen, trades, processions and dignitaries, India, Circa 1832-35 Pinterest

Indian literature is a literary system meant to accommodate endless sets of literature which emerge during the course of time in response to different political calls. A single literary structure of Assamese, Bengali, Dogri or so on cannot help receivers to imagine Indian literature, but it is conceptualized popularly when a reader or a text crosses its (original) linguistic boundary. Indian comparatists quite often argue that no single Indian literature is genealogically limited into its space of origin. Literatures in India are interwoven with the literary, cultural and historical elements received from other literary systems.

K. Satchidanandan, the celebrated Indian comparatist, poet, translation theorist and bilingual critic, served Sahitya Akademi as a secretary and taught literature all his life. He inherits the critical terrains of Indian bhasha and English literature from his lifelong literary services and work experience with the people across languages and geo-cultural regions. The 23 selected essays in his Positions: Essays on Indian Literature, written over 25 years, have been divided into two parts, entitled “Looking at Paradigms”, and “Authors and Texts”. They reflect the narratives of a plural, polyphonic literary system called Indian Literature.

Indian literature is a contact zone of different languages and cultures. For example, Kalidasa’s Sanskrit plays accommodate different variations of Prakrit as well as Sanskrit, Nazrul’s Bengali poems include Bengali, tatsama words along with Perso-Arabic vocabularies. The Bhakti era of literature not only observes the emergence of minor religious faiths and an awakening of peripheral lives but also records the multiplicity of texts that emerged with the travelling of the saint-poets (like Tukaram) across the country. Displacement, modern enslavement in the colonial era, and migration initiated new literary dialogues in Indian literature and extended the map of Indian literature in the imagination. And that results in the origination not only of the canonical Indian-English literature of the diaspora but also literatures in Hindi in Suriname, Fiji and Mauritius, Bengali in Burma (now Myanmar), or a new literary category like Arabic-Malayalam or the ‘Miyan Gaan’ of Assam. Colonial modernity, its fragments and contesting alternatives do not only foreground the ‘Indian ode to the western wind’ in Indian literature but they appear also as residues in ‘desi’ consciousness, resulting in the revival and reconstruction of indigenous literary and cultural stoffs in Indian literature. As Udaya Narayana Singh also argues in his Translation as Growth, Indian literature is not only vertical (as in the reception of European literature) but it is horizontal (as in the reception of literature from one Indian language into another) as well. Hence, Indian literature is comparative. Satchidanandan’s Positions represents several such departure points in the historical trajectory of Indian literature.

“The Plural and the Singular”, the first essay of the book, is a historical study of Indian literature with beautiful allegories and metaphors. The entire representation may be understood as an introduction to the larger project of ‘Disciplining Indian literature’. The author redefines “The Modern and the Democratic”, first as the ‘radical transition of sensibility, perception and idiom’, reflected in poetry in 1950s and 60s which is broadly identified by Umashankar Joshi, with the 1930s as the beginning of another modern in Indian literature. And ‘the democratic’, in the author’s language, refers to the “engagement of literatures with collective destinies”.

'Positions: Essays on Indian Literature' By K. Satchidanandan, Niyogi, Rs 795
'Positions: Essays on Indian Literature' By K. Satchidanandan, Niyogi, Rs 795 Amazon

The 19th century represented a remarkable confluence of Western and pre-colonial indigenous literature; post-independent Indian literature observes many such initiatives of interweaving indigeneity with the modern in order to search for Bharat or Indianness. A. K. Ramanujan’s Folktales from India, or Satinath Bhaduri’s Dhnoraicharitmanas, O.V. Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Itihasam, or Bhalchandra Nemade’s Cocoon stand as examples. Independent India observes the necessity of radical political discourses both in political life and in literature. The literature of economic, cultural, linguistic, religious and sexual margins has gradually become visible in the last few decades and such appearances are not alienated from the political in life. A remarkable departure point in the democratization of literature has been experienced with the emergence of Dalit and tribal literatures in English, Indian bhasha and tribal languages. As tribal literature echoes from the Northeast to other parts of India, Satchidanandan catches the suggestive meaning of tribal literature as “prakriti, sanskriti and itihasa”.

Satchidanandan understands English not as an oppositional category (as popularly received) of Indian bhasha but another way of articulating the same reality as the bhashas do. Moreover, he finds an indigenization of English in the Indian context by Indian authors writing in English. Besides this, he provokes readers and engages them with different contemporary literary-political debates, like the Indian way of thinking, the Indian way of reading, the Indian theory of translation and appropriation, and the promotion of Indian literary criticism with references from Sanskrit to Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi and so on — and from there to talking about ‘many Indias’, like the translated univocal urban India and the untranslatable rural India.

In Satchidanandan’s words, the history of Indian literature is a history of “power and subversion”. He elaborates this definition in the context of the history of Bhakti and Indianness, in the translation of the Mahabharata in bhasha and also by engaging with Indian translation theory.

Positions echoes the dhvani, the suggestive meaning of Indian literature, and represents the ‘multilogue’ which is also the nature of Indian literature, with the shastra-sammilan, the respectful and discursive study of earlier knowledge. Hence, it presents “memorable utterances”, which is Indian literature itself.