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Why Does Literature Matter?

of the machineries of social power

Why Does Literature Matter?

India’s Literary History: Essays on the Nineteenth Century

edited by Stuart Blackburn and Vasudha Dalmia; Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004; pp 515, Rs 750.


n a recent book titled Why Does Literature Matter? (Cornell, 2004), American philosopher Frank B Farrell has commented on the impoverishment of literary space in the contemporary world, much in the same way that thinkers such as Nietzche and Bernard Williams have found an impoverishment of modern ethical space. “To read widely in academic literary criticism of recent decades [that written from 1970 to 2000] is to wonder”, he says in the opening sentence, “why literature matters at all”; subsequently identifying, among the causes, the appearance of the literary text “as one more site, no more privileged than others, where cultural codes linked with issues of power reveal themselves…” [Farrell 2004]. When literature is reduced to an arrangement by the author of particular words in a particular order, authority, he maintains, passes to the critic, “who is able to read the hidden cultural codes”. Earlier ways of reading which are “theoretically unsophisticated about the working of language” or “politically ignorant of the machineries of social power” fall by the wayside, and with the text having so little integrity of its own, the literary work loses its earlier value (ibid).

This phenomenon in the context of literary writing has had its repercussions also on the writing of literary historiography, where the turn toward cultural studies in the 1980s among western academia has resulted in a tectonic shift in the approach to the writing of literary history as well. Earlier, foundational texts of literary history were concerned not merely with mapping the territory, but also with evaluating the field, praising the worthwhile, and tracing the evolution of the literary text; in short, with both qualities that were inherent in the text, as well as the social history in which the text was embedded. Thus Boris Ford, the editor of the hugely popular 10 volume The New Pelican Guide to English Literature (1955) set out his agenda in four points in his general introduction in the following way. The series aimed to provide the reader with “(i) A survey of the social context of literature in each period...(ii) A literary survey of the answer such questions as ‘What kind of literature was written in this period?’, ‘Which authors matter most?’, ‘Where does the strength of the period lie?’. (iii) Detailed studies of some of the chief writers and works in the period...

(iv) An appendix of essential facts for reference purposes, such as author’s biographies (in miniature), bibliographies...and

Economic and Political Weekly March 11, 2006 so on” (pp 8-9). One of the most instructive sentences in the book regards the formulation of the very site of literary history as it was understood in 1955, acknowledging “a considerable debt to those 20th century writers and critics who have made a determined effort to elicit from literature what is of living value to us today: to establish a sense of literary tradition and to define the standards that this tradition embodies” (ibid, p 8).

Traditions of Literary History

In the west, the writer’s or critic’s evaluation of literary tradition was thus formative for the field; T S Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent (1922), D H Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) and F R Leavis’ The Great Tradition (1948), to name but very few, were seminal texts in the formulation of the literary canon and for an understanding of the literary past. Subsequently, with the development of poststructuralism and new historicism and the diminishing of literary space, western academia turned towards the cultural studies model of literary historiography.


Now, a radical reduction in the fundamental precept of making “a determined effort to elicit from literature what is of living value”, has transformed literary history into an almost exclusive domain of sociology and social history and to an analysis of the politics of culture and power.

The scene in modern India was both different and more complicated because of the multilingual regional strands that constitute “Indian literary history”; Buddhadeva Bose, the eminent Bengali critic, had remarked (1971) that just as there is no such thing as “Indian food”, there is no such thing as “Indian literature”; would it follow then, for him, that there could be no such thing as “Indian literary history”? Literary history belonged to particular languages in India, and each region crafted its own, out of their individual literary resources and traditions beginning in the late 19th century; similarly the hugely important arena of the writer or literary critic engaging with the production of literature was one that flourished variously in the varied languages of India. Thus, the afore-mentioned Buddhadeva Bose was only one in a line of eminent writer/critics in Bengal, to take only one regional example (with all due apologies) that had Bankimchandra Chatterjee, followed by Rabindranath Tagore, followed by Bose himself and the Kallol group of writers among many other distinguished contributors over the years who had consistently and continuously defined the literary culture of their times and in their pasts in their own mother tongue. It was around the 1870s that literary history in the western style began to be written in the regional languages in India; Narmad’s Gujarati-language work, Kavicaritra (Lives of the Poets) was written in 1865, followed by a history of Bengali literature in the European model in Ramgati Nyayaratna’s Bangala Bhasa o Bangala Sahitya Visayak Prastav in 1872.

Occasionally some of these were written in English, or the most seminal among them translated, such as J C Ghosh’s Bengali Literature (1948) in English, or Dinesh Chandra Sen’s History of Bengali Language and Literature, translated in 1911 from the original Bengali published in 1896. Sen’s monumental work had institutionalised much of the medieval Bengali literature presented in it for the first time. “We did not know that there was

Economic and Political Weekly March 11, 2006

such a vast entity as early Bengali literature”, wrote Rabindranath Tagore after the second edition appeared in 1898 [Ghosh 1990: 225]. Criticism written in English had dealt with Indian writing in English

– many excellent contributions exist in this area from poets such as Adil Jussawala and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra – but no literary histories were written in English which had all of India’s languages as its territory. Sisir Kumar Das’ two volumes on the 19th and 20th centuries in the projected 10volume Sahitya Akademi publication, A History of Indian Literature, appeared only in 1995, and this is the only attempt, after Indologist Moriz Winternitz’s famous volumes with the same title (1908-22), to deal with Indian literary history in its entirety, although Winternitz’s work restricted itself to the Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit past and was resolutely monologic rather than pluralist in its vision.

There is thus no significant tradition in English of either writer/critics assessing the field of Indian literature, or of literary histories enveloping all or most of the Indian languages. It is in this context that two recent important English publications emerge: Sheldon Pollock’s massive Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2003) and Stuart Blackburn and Vasudha Dalmia’s Indian Literary History: Essays on the Nineteenth Century (Permanent Black, Delhi, 2004), both published within a year of each other. Both also mark the advent of this turn towards what I call “the cultural-studies model” of literary history. The latter book, indeed, opens with a celebration of this line of study, remarking, “Ever since Clifford Geertz transformed the drama of Balinese cockfighting into a text, and new historicism made the complementary gesture of returning culture to the centre of literary studies, students of literature, history and culture have shared a common vocabulary, key concept and points of reference”. The effort, here, is “to understand the place of literature in history, largely through an analysis of the textual production of cultural meanings and the socio-political conditions of creating texts” (p 1). This new definition, obviously, is not one that T S Eliot would have recognised as the domain of literary history, and because the term “literary history” is an old one, unreconstructed for usage in this more recent sense, the title of the book under review misrepresents its provenance, and would have been better off if it had been called, for instance, Indian Literary Culture and Publishing and Performative Practices, with apologies to Peter D Mcdonald’s British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Interpreting Literature

In the introduction Stuart Blackburn and Vasudha Dalmia trace the origins of the modern study of Indian literary history to the 18th century, when Indian writers, in concert with British Orientalist researchers, began to compile and comment on their individual literary traditions. Medieval accounts of poets and anthologies of poetry had existed in the Indian languages, the editors mention, but the European impulse, itself a recent 18th century phenomenon, towards recording cultural pasts came into its own only in the 19th century, when literary history began to be interpreted in a romantic-nationalistic mode. The example given here is from Tamil: medieval hagiographies of poets preceded an English compilation, Sketch of the Dekhan Poets (Calcutta, 1829) which foreshadowed Simon Casie Chitty’s The Tamil Plutarch (1859). The “first truly modern” treatment of Tamil literary history, Tamil Literature by M S Purnalingam Pillai, however, appeared only in 1904. In the context of the use of the term “first truly modern” literary history, it might be worth asking here, hopefully not entirely whimsically, the question asked by Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam in their introduction to Textures of Time: Writing History in South India 1600-1800 (Permanent Black, 2001): “Did history and historical consciousness exist in south India before the conquest of the region by the British in the closing decades of the eighteenth century?” (p 1) Although received wisdom has said no in answer to that question all these years, the writers wish “to refute the notion that history was an “alien” import brought colonial rule”. To substantiate their claim, they recover a significant body of literature from late medieval and early modern south India. From folk-epic to courtly poetry to prose narratives, many texts rich in drama, emotion and colour are drawn upon to show “that history in south India has been written in many genres and that writing history is not a matter of strict adherence to formal characteristics and types” (p 3). If “each community writes history in the mode that is dominant in its own literary practice”, and “what constitutes history is not a given”, (p 9) would it be possible then to argue the same for literary history? Using the skills of the social historian and the literary scholar, Rao et al have found “powerful forms and modes of history-writing” (p 23) in early modern south India; could then a literary history of India preceding the colonial era be shown to have existed through a renegotiation of available materials by future researchers? And if it could, how would that change our ideas of our literary past and our relation to our forebears?

Understanding 19th CenturyWriting

Speculative questions apart, the most welcome aspect of the volume under review is its focus on 19th century writing in India. An ignored and undervalued period, the 19th century has yet been seminal, not merely as a precursor, but in its own right, to Indian modernity. The quality of writing in this period has been astonishingly high, the range and output of its writers bewilderingly diverse, the quickness of mind and sharpness of insight displayed by its thinkers enviable. The metaphors of a Chandu Menon, the polemic of a Bankimchandra, the drama and colour of an Urdu ‘qissa’ or ‘dastan’, the wit of a Bhartendu Harishchandra – all these are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This volume attempts to capture some of these aspects, and in some of the essays here, does so admirably. V N Rao’s piece, ‘Print and Prose: Pandits, Karanams, and the East India Company in the Making of Modern Telegu’; Francesca Orsini’s ‘Detective Novels: A Commercial Genre in Nineteenth Century North India’; Priya Joshi’s ‘Reading in the Public Eye: The Circulation of British Fiction in Indian Libraries’; and Vasudha Dalmia’s ‘Generic Questions: Bhartendu Harishchandra and Women’s Issues’ all stand out for their depth of analysis, presentation of material and above all style of presentation, the last surely being one of the most important aspects of any writing at all. The essays on Parsi theatre by Anuradha Kapur and Kathryn Hansen, the account of the printed oral tale in Tamil by Stuart Blackburn and on the Tamil Christian poems of Vedanayaka Sastri by Indira Peterson, the reading of a 19th century ‘qissa’ by Kumkum Sangari are all invaluable contributions.

Some caveats will, inevitably, remain. Dilip M Menon’s ‘A Place Elsewhere: Lower-caste Malayalam Novels of the Nineteenth Century’ is unfortunately disappointing not because of its inherent flaws, of which there are hardly any, but by virtue

Economic and Political Weekly March 11, 2006 of its being a reworking of his already published ‘No, Not the Nation: Lower Caste Malayalam Novels of the Nineteenth Century’ that had appeared in Early Novels in India (Sahitya Akademi, 2002). The first sentence of both the essays is exactly the same; while the first version reads: “The late nineteenth century saw the happy coincidence of the first stirrings of nationalist sentiment as well as the emergence of a new artefact of the imagination: the novel”, in the second version in this volume, the word “fortuitous” replaces “happy”. The essay by Hans Harder on Bengali literary culture is a brave attempt to push back the frontiers and reexamine the early works of Bhabanicharan Bandyopadhyay in the 1820s but gives one no sense at all of the frisson of literary cut and counter-thrust in a field fraught with high literary drama and performance in this region in this century. Sometimes the sheer quantity of information presented is wearing, as in Ulrike Stark’s otherwise interesting piece on the Newal Kishore Press in Lucknow (55,000 Hindi books were printed in Lucknow in 1868…exceeding Benares’ total by 45,000 printed volumes…among the less than 15 Hindi titles sent by the NKP in 1869, most were textbooks...), while in another paper, the liveliness of the Urdu dastan as evidenced from the quotations, tends to get drowned in the sea of Christina Oesterheld’s three sections of the essay and seven pages of notes.

I wish to return, at the end, to the question with which I started, which was about the diminishing space for the literary in literary history of the cultural-studies mould. In a fragment written in 1931, ‘Criticism as the Fundamental Discipline of Literary History’, Walter Benjamin had written that “the fundamental distinction between literary history and criticism must be rejected”, while in a following piece, ‘Literary History and the Study of Literature’ he denied that literary history could ever be reduced to a historical discipline, making an extensive survey of German literary histories, which began in the 18th century as a halfway house “between a textbook of aesthetics and a bookseller’s catalogue”. While condemning the “value” based literary history that used the modernist “hydra of scholastic aesthetics” opportunistically, the concluding lines of this piece could perhaps serve as pointer towards the direction in which we could hope that Indian literary history will emerge:

What is at stake is not to portray literary works in the context of their age, but to represent the age that perceives them – our age – in the age during which they arose. It is this that makes literature into an organonof history; and to achieve this, and not to reduce literature to the material of history, is the task of the literary historian [Mcdonald 1997: 464].




Bose, Buddhadeva (1971): ‘Bengali Gastronomy’, Ananda Bazar Patrika, January 1-4.

Farrell, Frank B (2004): Why Does Literature Matter? Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, p 1.

Ford, Boris (1982): ‘Introduction’ to The New Pelican Guide to English Literature, Penguin Books, London, first published in 1955, pp 8-9.

Ghosh, Tapobrata (1990): ‘Literature and Literary Life in Calcutta’ in Sukanta Chaudhuri (ed), Calcutta the Living City, Vol 2, Oxford University Press, Kolkata, p 225.

Mcdonald, Peter D (1997):British Literary Culture and Publishing Practice 1880-1914,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Economic and Political Weekly March 11, 2006

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