Review: Literary Criticism in India edited by EV Ramakrishnan

An anthology of 17 essays acquaints the reader with new perspectives on Indian literary criticism and interrogates the critical trajectories employed in a range of Indian languages including Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi, Sanskrit and Tamil
Bhasha: India’s linguistic wealth (Shutterstock)
Bhasha: India’s linguistic wealth (Shutterstock)
Updated on Oct 06, 2021 11:25 PM IST
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By Shafey Kidwai

The collective consciousness of the Indian mind and the nation’s archetypes surface in the creative outpourings of celebrated poets and authors of different languages. When their works are shared across languages and cultures, it is not an act of homogenization. Instead, it is a cognition of the inner dialectic that transforms this work into a unique sociocultural artefact. This is why, besides classical poets, several writers of the recent past such as Tagore, Premchand, Manto, Sankara Kurup, KV Puttappa Kuvempu, Gopi Nath Mohanty, VS Khandekar, Amrita Pritam and Girish Karnad, to mention a few, are immensely popular. They reimagine national aspirations with a marked sense of diversity and present a broader formulation of the values that India stands for.

Review: Literary Criticism in India edited by EV Ramakrishnan
Review: Literary Criticism in India edited by EV Ramakrishnan

Though these authors have a devoted pan-Indian readership, engagements with these texts that employ a transdisciplinary approach – what Edward Said called “critical philology” – by prominent Indian literary critics like Namwar Singh, Gopi Chand Narang, SR Farooqui, GN Devy, Ayyappa Panikar, Ashok Mitra and Ashok Vajpai, among others, remain unperceived beyond their linguistic boundaries. This is perplexing and gives the impression that criticism has not yet taken root. People believe, not completely erroneously, that literary criticism in various Indian languages is hardly more than compiling histories and translations, and dishing out theme-centred appraisals of texts. On the contrary, literary criticism in Indian languages is alive to theoretical shifts. While the genre owes its existence to colonial modernity, it has now emerged as a discourse of the collective aesthetic sensibility. This has been judiciously showcased in Literary Criticism in India: Texts, Trends and Trajectories, a publication brought out by the Sahitya Akademi. It is one of the 283 books published by the National Academy of Letters in this pandemic-riven year. Edited by well-known bilingual critic EV Ramakrishnan, it features 17 reasonably argued articles with a perceptive introduction. Why did criticism take this long to emerge as an academic discipline in India?

A postal stamp based on a scene from Abhijnanashakuntalam, also known as Shakuntala. The Sanskrit play by Kalidasa is based on the story of Shakuntala in the Mahabharata. (Shutterstock)
A postal stamp based on a scene from Abhijnanashakuntalam, also known as Shakuntala. The Sanskrit play by Kalidasa is based on the story of Shakuntala in the Mahabharata. (Shutterstock)

The answer lies in our collective vision that equates Sanskrit poetics with Indian aesthetics. Sanskrit literature does not employ literary criticism in the sense in which we use it today. Ramakrishnan refers to Kuttikrishna Mar, reputed scholar of Sanskrit and Malayalam, who points out, “In Sanskrit literature, there was no literary criticism. We cannot cite a single critical work that chooses a text from the Puranas or Ithihasas or great works by Bhasa or Kalidas, to discuss it in minute detail to validate the author’s evaluation of the chosen text.” Eminent Hindi critic Namwar Singh’s article, The Tradition of Literary Criticism in Hindi bears witness to Mar’s idea and argues that literary criticism is not a shastra. “Criticism begins where the boundaries of shastra ends,” he says. In his brilliant introduction titled, Indian Literary Criticism Today: A Hybridized House, EV Ramkrishnan raises several incisive questions and spells out the contours of Indian literary criticism. He asserts that it is defined by the foundational narratives of deeply-rooted anxieties about authenticity, filiation and affiliation and that this has ingrained in criticism a sense of skepticism towards dogma and conformism. The author certainly has a point but instead of mentioning how criticism is being practised in Indian languages, he talks about Indian literary criticism which seems to have stemmed from the idea of criticism with a singular organizing principle. Ramakrishnan believes criticism has contributed substantially towards recovering the multiple traditions of Indian cultures. Still, he looks for a uniquely Indian discourse rooted in Indian paradigms which remains elusive. Prominent theorist Aijaz Ahmed, author of In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (1992) wants criticism to adopt a trans-disciplinary approach. Elucidating on the constitutive elements of the proposed critical matrix, he argues: “A whole range of issues – the question of literary genres, the relation between our classical heritage and our present, the interplay between textuality, orality, and the performative, and so on – should be integrated into this matrix.”

Poet and critic K Satchidanandan turns his attention to the politics of rereading the Indian context through the prism of multiple theoretical focalizations. Text is a passive entity that is only activated when the individual starts reading it. Reading paves the way for re- reading and counter reading for retrieving texts. The much-maligned and least-understood term, “deconstruction” is essentially an insight that shows how the text is self-collapsing and lacks a centre. Satchidanandan describes rereading as a radical activity that manifests the critic’s position from the standpoint of gender, social class, caste, race, sexuality, and status as a member of the minority/majority. T Vijay Kumar discusses the emergence and dominance of theory, which has become an autonomous academic discipline.

While this anthology interrogates the critical trajectories employed in Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi, Sanskrit and Tamil, its omission of Urdu and Odia is baffling. This apart, the Sahitya Akademi deserves appreciation for bringing out this anthology that acquaints us with new perspectives on Indian literary criticism.

Shafey Kidwai is a bilingual critic and a professor of Mass Communication at Aligarh Muslim University.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2021