Literary Texts and the Peasant Movement in Odisha: A Discussion

The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of EPW.

In 1989, Biswamoy Pati published a paper in EPW, which outlines the way the peasants and tribals figured in the Oriya literature of the 1930s. Pati’s article sheds light on five literary figures of Oriya literature as he traces the shift in the treatment of the figure of the peasant in Oriya literature. The illustration of each writer through a brief description of some of their best works, attempted by the author, is a delightful feature of the article and aids preliminary understanding of the literature that emerged out of Orissa in the 1930s.  

Pati’s article elicits authors Rabi Shankar Mishra and Jatindra Kumar Nayak’s interest as they enter a discussion with Pati. The discussion spanning over five articles, Mishra, Nayak and Pati highlight the intellectual challenges of treating literary texts as source material for a historical analysis. Mishra and Nayak choose to focus on Pati’s treatment of Fakirmohan's Chha Mana Atha Guntha in order to highlight the flaws in Pati's use of literary texts for understanding Orissa's history/society. Through the means of Fakirmohan’s Chha Mana Atha Guntha, the  authors Rabi Shankar Mishra, Jatindra Kumar Nayak and Biswamoy Pati weave a complex debate regarding the plurality of reading literary texts as a means to study history and society.

Although not a part of any major literary movement in Orissa, the literature in discussion had links with the growth of a progressive writer's movement in Orissa in the 1930s. This literature is extremely valuable, both for its literary content as well as for providing us with clues to the perceptions of the intellectuals of peasants and tribals in society, their world views and the changes that were taking place. The discussion embodies the anxieties of an interdisciplinary endeavour attempted by Pati. 



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One can discern a correlation between the peasant movements which swept Orissa and a distinct shift in the depiction of the peasant in Oriya literature. 


The context which shaped the process comprised the disillusionment with Gandhian politics after the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930–31), the acute economic pressures of the “Great Depression,” the emergence of a socialist trend in Oriya literature leading to the birth of both the Kisan Sabha and the Communist Party in the province, the electioneering for the 1937 elections with promises which fired the imagination of the peasantry and, finally, the birth of militant mass movements in the princely states.



From the fatalism and didacticism of Phakirmohan Senapati, the perspective shifts to the Gandhian paradigm of idealism and non-confrontation in the writings of Kalindi Charan Pannigrahi. In the writings of Ramprasad Singh we witness a serious concern for the peasants in the princely states. Whereas in the works of Bhagabati Charan Pannigrahi and Sachidananda Routroy the peasants and tribals are not only the central characters, but they also think, question and seek to change things. We also have poets like Banchanidhi pondering over the links between swami and the peasants.



With Phakirmohan, we locate the beginnings of literary realism along with the birth of the novel as a new genre, in Oriya literature. These were obviously inspired by the traditions of bourgeois democracy, the middle class and the literary movements in the West as well as by the developments in regional literature in India.



Although the peasants are not the focus of his stories, the entry of common people into Oriya literature began with Phakirmohan.



One can illustrate this by pointing to Mangaraj in Chhamana Athaguntha–a poor, orphaned boy who eventually becomes a rich man in line with the tradition of “great” characters. Besides, Phakirmohan retained certain traditional perceptions. Thus, he was not interested in agrarian tension and his focus is on the rich and powerful Mangaraj.



The connection between exploitation and poverty seems to be over-simplified and indeed distorted. Thus, it is emphasised that Mangaraj became vicious and exploitative because of his poverty-stricken background. The upstart nouveau riche is the target of attack.



Nevertheless, we simultaneously witness a shift to realism. The focus on Mangaraj projects landlords as exploiters in the social structure of Orissa.



Kalindi Charan's novel Matira Manisha (1952), The Simple Man, written in 1931 epitomises the interaction of Gandhian idealism with Oriya literature. The issues are very personal inter-human relationships within a family. Individual sacrifice is supreme. The effort is to avoid confrontation and conflicts over “worldly” things.



This literature is extremely valuable both for its literary content as well as providing us with clues to the perceptions of the intellectual of peasants and tribals in society, their world views and how changes were taking place.



Within a short span of forty years or so Oriya literature had undergone a virtual metamorphosis as far as the peasants and tribals were concerned. In fact one observes a tendency for literature to move ahead of society. A gap remained between the ideals, values and vision of these writings and society, which although changing, could not keep pace with it. How long this literature could sustain itself in this fashion needs to be studied.


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Biswamoy Pati's article makes Mishra feel uneasy about the way in which he has used literary documents for the purpose of historical analysis.


Pati outlines a transition from the fatalism-didacticism of Fakirmohan Senapati to non-confrontational Gandhian idealism of Kalindi Panigrahi and finally to the socialist protest of Bhagavati Charan Panigrahi and Sachi Routroy. This view not only simplifies the achievement of the authors mentioned but also offers too neat a scheme of social transition.



This attitude involves an insensitivity to the complexities of the linguistic medium. Such insensitivity to the medium actually impairs the ability to interpret and analyse even “non-literary” documents.



A close reading of the text Chhamana Athaguntha would show that Fakirmohan's attitude towards fate, or what he calls Karmaphala is very ambiguous. In fact, Mangaraj is more a victim of the relentless logic of historical circumstances than a mere reaper of the fruits of his own karma.



Fakirmohan is not interested in mystifying the punishment meted out to his protagonist, Mangaraj, by bringing in the notion of fate. This we think is a point that cannot be overemphasised. Instead, we find a rational, analytical mind at work in the novel, which tries to understand and Interpret the totality of human action. It is also a mind full of compassion for the victims of large abstract forces of society and history. Thus, we see that Fakirmohan cannot be described either as a fatalist or as didactic.



To say that Fakirmohan was not interested in agrarian tension amounts to a gross misunderstanding of Chhamana Athaguntha, it also reveals misunderstanding of agrarian tension as a human event. The whole novel concerns itself with a series of crucial displacements affecting the owners of land. In actuality, agrarian tension is not visible here in terms of slogans, banners, and marches; it is so pervasive in the novel that it shapes the psyche of almost all the characters. It is here that the historian/social scientist ought to be more responsive to the narrative and linguistic strategies adopted by a novelist.




Pati's reading Fakirmohan leads him to see exploitation and oppression in terms of individual characters. But for Fakirmohan exploitation involves large historical processes embracing empires and generations. This comprehensive vision of Fakirmohan has completely eluded Pali's grasp.



Pati's attitude to Fakirmohan's characterisation in Chhamana is again simplistic. He locates Mangaraj in the tradition of “great” characters, i e, princes and princesses, and argues that common people play a minor role in the novel.



He has lost sight of a whole gallery of characters from a “common” and ordinary background who not only lend density to the novel, but help illuminate important historical processes. 



Our main submission is that Pati fails to comprehend the complexity of a literary language which needs to be carefully, sensitively examined in order to make it yield insights into social/historical changes. Fakirmohan uses a language so full of irony, innuendoes, allusions and subversive humour that the grim approach of Pati cannot make the text produce the necessary “information.”



This is actually the problem of many social scientists/historians who use literature as evidence in their analysis of historical patterns. And those historians who take no notice of literature as a source for writing history miss a store of precious information, and as a result, their writing becomes heavy and unsubtle.




The basic thrust of Pati’s article was a very specific one, viz, how some of the writers of the 1930s—as Intellectuals and activists—were being both shaped and were shaping the peasants and tribals of Orissa. Phakirmohan was only an entry point to study the 1930s. Pati took up Phakirmohan’s Chha Mana Atha Guntha to highlight certain broad trends.


Examining Mishra's virtual “touch-me-not” attitude—i e, a historian straying into literature, it needs to be emphasised that a “purist” from the world of history would also be displeased with this sort of an interdisciplinary attempt. Given this, it needs to be reiterated that such attitudes go against the very notion of interdisciplinary interaction and thereby narrow the rich possibilities of interdisciplinary studies.



By using the label “Simplistic” he is in fact losing sight of certain complex contributions that my work projects. Here one can refer to my argument that Phakirmohan's use of the language of the peasant virtually saves Oriya from being obliterated as well as the importance of the narrowing down of the gulf between the upper classes/castes and the common people—both points emerging out of my discussion of Cha Mana... (1897).



The point regarding “simplification”—regarding the process of transition from Phakirmohan's didacticism/fatalism to Bhagabati Charan's Socialist protest (sic)—Mishra's logic again misses out on my reading of the texts. I attempt to locate the writers as well as their works in their historical context, in order to locate the shifts in the 1930s.



My concern was not to look at the full range of his literary creations, but to delineate the shifts/changes/continuities which are visible in this particular story, which centres around a peasant family.



Talking more specifically about Phakirmohan, the essence of Mishra's discourse seems to be: (a) Phakirmohan was a complex/contradictory/ambiguous writer. I have no differences with him here since most writers of this phase embody this element, (b) Phakirmohan cannot be said to represent either didacticism or fatalism. In fact, I will go a step further and say that his works incorporate various strands including these. However, arguably, in Cha Mana.. the narrative, course of events, the rich/poor dialectic and the slender possibilities of human agency/intervention, makes the didactic/fatalistic element fairly obvious, (c) Phakirmohan's mind is a rational analytical mind, full of compassion for the victims of large abstract forces of society and history. For him exploitation involves empires and generations. His narrative and linguistic strategy is full of irony, hints and subversive humour.



While maintaining my position that Phakirmohan was not consciously interested in agrarian tension, I would like to spell out that my analysis obviously recognises the attempts at breaks/continuities and examines his work in relation to the 1930s. 






I do not accept Mishra's point regarding the text being autonomous from the process of history and the writer.



Thus, Mishra fails to stick to his own premises consistently, and does not accept the contradictions and dilemmas of the Oriya intellectual of that context caught between the colonial and the feudal order.



I do not expect Phakirmohan to focus on agrarian tension as was done in the 1930s, while I do accept the diverse references to outcastes and displaced marginals in his works. And, here may we remind Mishra, that we see in the 1930s some of the most sensitive writers conceptualising the contradictions in much sharper terms, raising slogans, beating drums and putting up posters to get people to meetings, marching to fight the colonial and the feudal order, even putting an end to their literary career—things which Mishra evidently looks down upon. The sweep of the anti-colonial/feudal and the peasant movement, in fact, blurred the dividing lines between categories like the “intellectual,” the “writer” and the “activist.” 



It is ultimately a question of choice. My focus is to see these people as both writers and activists, as both shaping and being shaped by various forces—including the peasants and tribals who were normally scoffed at/feared by upper class/caste intellectuals, Mishra's point advocates studying the textual “strategy of strategies.” He is most welcome to do so, even if he objects to a historian/social scientist (like me) straying into the world of literature.



Given Mishra's critical orientation, one can perhaps assume that he accepts the plurality of textual readings. Thus, I am sure that I have a right of space for my reading of Cha Mana.., which implies a particular type of reading of the same text.


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Mishra and Naik point out that they did not take Pati to task for not providing "a study of Fakirmohan and his creative career." They chose to focus on his treatment of Fakirmohan's Chha Mana Atha Guntha in order to highlight the flaws in Pati's use of literary texts for understanding Orissa's history/society.


Pati misunderstands our position when he says that we are victims of a kind of literary purism. In describing his use of literary texts as simplistic we did not ignore the complexity of relations constituting a writer's activity as an intellectual and as an activist; we simply expressed our dissatisfaction with Pati's manner of projecting this complexity.



While Fakirmohan often celebrates the vitality of the language of peasants, he does not sentimentalise this language, and does not flinch from presenting its darker aspects. In fact, by not examining such complexities of literary language, Pati has not only overlooked an aspect of a literary text, he has also proved unequal to the subtle and difficult demands of interdisciplinary research.



Furthermore, we are charged by Pati with inconsistency for saying on the one hand that Fakirmohan was not didactic-fatalist and for saying on the other that he dramatised in his novel large, impersonal social and historical forces. But an awareness of such forces, we believe, does not cancel out social action on the part of the individual, and does not make him a fatalist. Rather, it makes his action more comprehensive and more meaningful.



We may here refer to Pati's original essay (8 April 1989, p 747) where he argues that for Fakirmohan Mangaraj was vicious and exploitative "because of his poverty-stricken background." Such fatalistic-deterministic logic is alien to a mind like Fakirmohan's. In the same Chha Mana Atha Guntha Fakirmohan gives us Mukunda who, his poverty-stricken background notwithstanding, is a noble and kind-hearted character.



Pati obstinately maintains that Fakirmohan was "not consciously interested in agrarian tensions." But a consideration of the very title of the novel—six acres and thirty-two decimals of land—should alert any sensitive reader to the author's conscious interest in land as a site of social conflicts and struggle for power—a few slogans, posters, drums and marches (as Pati would have it) would not have expressed Fakirmohan's conscious interest in agrarian tensions in any sharper terms.



The nature and value of the activism of the writers of the thirties in Orissa, we think, are yet to be properly examined. Pati's approach to the modes of recognition of these writers appear simplistic.



It is surprising that he does not find any inconsistency in expressing satisfaction over a radical(?) writer like Routray receiving recognition from feudal-capitalistic institutions.



Pati cannot dismiss our earlier objections to his use of literary texts for historical analysis in the name of freedom of choice or of plurality of readings. Plurality of readings does not preclude the possibility or desirability of making a critical judgment on a particular type of reading. However, we do consider Pati's efforts praiseworthy, because few historians/social scientists in Orissa care to use literary texts for historical and social analysis; and very few Oriya literary critics understand the discipline of history.


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Pati challenges Mishra and Naik who accuse him of highlighting Fakirmohan Senapati as a champion of the language of the peasants.


My basic thrust was to locate Fakirmohan's shift to the “spoken” language from the “high,” Sanskritised Oriya, in a context when the existence of Oriya as an independent language was being questioned. It was not my remotest objective to present the case for Fakirmohan. In fact, I had tried to project exactly the opposite of what I have been accused of—how the language of the peasant was appropriated by an upper caste/class Oriya intellectual to demonstrate the independent identity of Oriya. Hence my point that the peasants' language saved Oriya from being obliterated—a feature yet to be recognised, given the hegemony of upper caste/class values.




Mishra and Naik seem to make a “historic block” out of Fakirmohan. It is from their acceptance/construction of Fakirmohan as a “historic block” that Mishra and Naik approach the question of perceptions of agrarian tension within literary texts. Their analysis pivots around a “no-change”/”static” perspective. This implies that they do not provide any space for developments, the human agency and interventions between Fakirmohan's time and the 1930s.



My point regarding Mangaiaj's poverty-stricken background has been grossly misunderstood. My argument was that perhaps Mangaraj's “'upstart” origin was significant to Fakirmohan. Possibly the upper caste/class notions of the Oriya intellectual and his desire to preserve the social hierarchy shape Fakirmohan's construction of Mangaraj as wicked and vicious—the “upstart nouveau riche” appears to be the target of criticism. I have obviously nowhere suggested that Fakirmohan located all poor people as “bad” (or, all rich people as “good”)!


My positions on Sachidananda Routroy are articulated elsewhere. It is fine if one decides to criticise him for his 'links' since the late 1940s. However, I would request Mishra and Naik to produce a single evidence to show that he was associated with the structures of feudalism or capitalism in the 1930–40 period.



To say that few Oriya literary critics understand the discipline of history and few historians/social scientists of Orissa care to use texts for historical and social analysis is too sweeping a generalisation to be worthy of any comment.


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Mishra and Naik accuse Pati of misrepresenting and distorting their position with regard to the use of literary texts for purposes of social analysis.


A simple shift from high Sanskritised Oriya to spoken Oriya, as Pati avers, never takes place in the novel. In fact, Fakirmohan's language is a complex mix of Sanskritised diction and colloquial idioms. In this context, Pati's expression "the language of the peasants” seems to us a highly idealised academic category because the colloquial idioms of Fakirmohan were not confined to a single socio-economic group such as the peasants. Further, the orality-literacy problem in Oriya society at the time when Fakirmohan wrote his novels cannot be explained, as Pati does, in terms of high Sanskritised versus spoken Oriya. The arrival of English, the continued presence of Persian and Arabic and other Indian languages, not excluding dialectal usages, had generated the language situation which shaped Fakirmohan's sensibility. This heteroglossic cultural situation complicates categories such as author, caste, class, etc. Pati shows no understanding of this linguistic density and complexity in Fakirmohan's times.



Pati's implicit assumption that a writer's 'greatness' is directly proportional to the quantity of his overtly expressed sympathy for the oppressed is very touching indeed, but, as a principle of literary evaluation, ridiculous.



Pati has failed to understand our position on Fakirmohan's depiction of agrarian tension and social change. We repeat that Fakirmohan expressed his awareness of these issues in moral and psychological depth, and not through slogans or explicit statements. Pati's infatuation with explicitness blinds him to the nuances of not only literary texts but to the deeper implications of social conflicts.



Pati's representation of Mangaraj is yet another example of his simplistic approach to social change, conflict, and literary texts. For him Mangaraj is nothing more than an ‘upstart nouveau riche’, the target of criticism of an upper caste novelist. He has failed to notice how the attitude of the narrator towards Mangaraj changes as the narrative unfolds. In the end the narrator expresses profound sympathy towards Mangaraj, which Pati fails to understand. Terms such as hegemony, nouveau riche, class are not at all adequate to analyse Fakirmohan's treatment of his protagonist.



Pati's manner of relating phases of Sachi Routroy's literary career to different periods of socio-political history is too diagrammatic and explains away Routroy's intricate relation to capitalist and feudal structures.


Pati does not show a mature understanding of the many sided relationship of an author with his class or his times.



Understanding the act of writing, like all human acts, demands humility and flexibility, virtues utterly lacking in Pati's pieces, which reveal only an impatience to pass sweeping judgments on issues such as class, caste, author, texts, revolution, etc.


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