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Indian English Literature, Literary Criticism and Theory

May 29, 2015 | By

While speaking on the present scenario what one has to concentrate on is not “tradition and the individual talent” anymore or whether one’s poems are a “spontaneous overflow of emotions recollected in tranquility” or not but something much deeper, which is the philosophical question of what criticism should do today.

Let me start this time by repeating something everybody knows. Literature is not something that came about only in one place or time but is found emerging from many places and spaces at different points of time in mankind’s chequered and varied history. Apart from maybe Egypt in Africa, Indian literature of the ‘Arsha Bharatha Samskaram’ variety is thus one of the oldest canons, if not the oldest, starting, of course, traditionally speaking, with the Vedas. The earliest works that are meta-literature and not just literature, and theoretical, while not exactly criticism, that can be applied to how we look at literature that we have to bother about, as commonly accepted, are Kautilya’s Arthashastra, that can be viewed primarily as a kind of parallel to Plato’s  Republic, in an oblique sense, but the more accessible work  that has left a deep imprint on literature per se in India as a first text which is meta- or prescriptive, meaning about literature, thus being and becoming influential as theory, though it was actually on drama or more specifically on acting  – our Aristotle’s Poetics, again in an oblique way – is Natyashashtra by Bharatha. ‘Arthashasthra’ and ‘Natyashashtra’ came earlier. The rasa theory has cast its shadow over all of Indian literature from then on and this is the shadow of Sanskrit and its aesthetics. In the South, we have had Dravidian aesthetics which is connected to Tamil as a counterpart which deals with ‘tinai’ in all its ramifications.

When we fast forward the spool a bit, we go past Sanskrit to regional languages like Hindi, Bengali and Malayalam and all our other major tongues, other than Tamil and also acknowledge that India has experienced Pali from Prakrit, an influx from languages like Greek, and Arabic, leading to Urdu, and finally English, and the resultant admixtures as a backdrop has enriched and not enfeebled our literature, criticism and theory, unlike what people think.


Madan Gandhi – a leading Indian critic, scholar, editor and philosopher in the Upanishadic tradition who is also Cambridge returned holding a copy of My Dazzling Bards by Kiriti Sengupta, of whose ‘ten’ the present author is one .

Some of the major names in Indian literary theory and criticism in English, according to me, to go through them briefly, would be Aurobindo with his The Future Poetry, in which he revives the idea of poetry as sound, the mantra, chant, invocation and Michael Madhusudan Dutt who, like Dante left Latin in an earlier time to write his Divine Comedy in the vernacular and nationalistic Italian, left English to write his masterpiece of an epic poem ‘Meghnaad Badh Kabya’ in Bengali, but also gifted blank verse and the sonnet form to his mother tongue and India meanwhile. This brings us to the task of the critic in earnest who whether by writing on literature or not  brings in a kind of hybridization, cross-overs, of which such internationalism that turns the tables on the invader, in this case the British, is one post-colonial sort.

However after such figures what we see is a strange pall cast over Indian writing in English in the field of criticism and theory whereby only those who are abroad or were abroad make a huge mark in the minds of Indians as capable critics. Whether it is A K Ramanujam in his  choices of who to translate, or B Rajan, the Milton scholar, or the later renowned ones like Gayatri Spivak of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” fame, Homi Bhabha (Dartmouth) or Ranajit Guha (settled in Vienna), what is noteworthy is the same pattern, go abroad, publish against those abroad who appointed them and make a name back in India – as if we have to wait for Western validation to accept great criticism even if of the critiquing variety of Western models or just the critical kind.

These thinkers are not exactly like Aurobindo, or MM Dutt or even Harish Trivedi or Ramachandra Guha, the latter three who are to some extent, more homegrown varieties, though also having ‘foreign’ experience. We have had a cartographer/cataloguer/mapper like K Srinivasa Iyengar, who did a gargantuan, herculean and mammoth job once upon a time in mapping IWiE, but the truth is very few Indians seem up to the task of matching their gigantic Western counterparts in the field of literary criticism and theory, though we now do have significant thinkers coming up as world view holders and ideologues like Vandana Shiva, Kancha Ilaiah, Chandra Bhan Prasad etc. However, this is ideology and is rather different from having critics of the stature of Alain Badiou, or philosophers like Giorgio Agamben or even a populariser like Zizek who also deal with literary critcism and literacies criticism in our ranks.

I have come across many critics who are both sound in their foundation and write good criticism in India and Kerala in English including Madan Gandhi first, Sunil Sharma, Madhumita Ghosh, Bina Biswas, Niladri Chatterjee, Bharat Ravikumar, Kiriti Sengupta, Anilkumar Payyapilly Vijayan, etc., but they either work at the level of being just explicators, analysts, elucidatory interpreters or repeat what is already available to us in what earlier critics said or our traditions , which does not mean it is not precious, yet they do not so far take risks in branching out into the kind of world-changing criticism that can be written or was by an Eliot or a Freud in his reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or brought about by schools and movements like Russian formalism, the Marxist critics, the Yale deconstructionists, feminist critics etc., yet… Only the last mentioned critic shows some element of risk-taking. This despite India having many critics who have got Fulbright etc. Maybe my knowledge is limited.

However, my daring is not! I propose that to be a great critic one does not have to go to UK or USA and can still write in English – Aurobindo serves as a good example – but what one needs is to understand and have the courage to speak of today’s literature, yet not in isolation from anything in the past or from other genres or in isolation from what other critics and theoreticians have said or of theories of today and the past. While speaking on the present scenario what one has to concentrate on is not “tradition and the individual talent” anymore or whether one’s poems are a “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, recollected in tranquillity” or not but something much deeper, which is the philosophical question of what criticism should do today. What has to undergo a sea change to make literary criticism and theory relevant for today is to take it out of the category called scientific research and bring it back out on the streets and thoroughfares of the internet which is exactly what I propose to do. What this means in practice is that one is not writing on literature (meta-literature), or literary criticism or theory to be prescribed as an adjunct to the textbook some unfortunate student is studying somewhere in India, cursing his head off, as it appears in his reading list, but instead writing as intelligent enquiry, asking again the questions one has to ask about the books we read, the simple ones that still hold true like do we like it, if so why, if not why not, and starting from there to go deeper into the grey areas like what is it about, does it not contradict itself sometimes, are there patches of weakness and not just excellence in it, what does it refer to, what is its ideology, what is its style etc. In Geetha Narayanan’s research project on pedagogy  – PROJECT VISION – that I had the good fortune to teach in once when I taught Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the students were asked to look at text, self as reader, world, author and contexts by me to understand it. It was amazing how much came forth.

William Blake by Madhumita Ghosh

William Blake by Madhumita Ghosh

What I mean can be illustrated by the fact that reading in India is still not taken as a topic on which critics are tested, as to whether they know how to read in the fuller meaning of the word today or whether they have had any training in critical thinking.

We may for instance never have heard sometimes that reading now means acquiring and learning literacies, many  of which are new, unless we have heard of James Paul Gee, but once we have heard of  his work, it is no longer possible to write literary criticism or theory in the old manner.

I cannot explain this in the short space of an article but hope to exemplify what I mean in the coming columns in the most exciting manner, which is to ask what happens to works written nowadays if looked at in the light of modern critical theories or new literacies or as part of a rigorous critical thinking exercise or in reading done using tools of discourse analysis.  These tools could be Indian, ancient, Western or anything else that is handy, since we are no longer limited by anything in 2015, but the exciting part is applying them to new writing today, hot from off the presses, irrespective of whether one is burning one’s fingers in the process or not.

Let me take a very brief example for pleasure to make the article a litle interesting.

We have the following line in a famous poem by William Wordsworth: “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” The line goes: “..oft, when on my couch I lie.” We know that the word couch has taken on a different meaning in the twentieth century after the arrival of the psychiatrist’s couch, post- Freud. Now the question here as a reader is, is such an impure reading being foisted a-chronologically on the poem, if done well, meaning intelligibly or sensibly or even amusingly, justified or justifiable? The answer is – since the advent of post-modernism – why not? Since we read connecting what we read to ourselves and the world around us now and today, why not impure readings?  I read a reading of Rukhaya MK  of Frost’s ‘The Road not Taken’ and in that she says he took no road whatsoever, but the middle path, an impure reading in terms of overlooking a line in the text or taking it to mean something entirely different from what it means in its context or according to the ‘author.’ The question is, faced with such a reading what should one do? Can one call it a less relevant reading?  No, but one can examine the tools used for reading which takes one back to the question of who trained someone to read and how! Yet here we are still in the shallows, the depths being whether Indian English critics can match our counterparts in the West by producing more than a handful of significant figures who have written books worth their while that can compare with works like Edward Said’s Orientalism, for instance.  That too written from home-turf or from places that are not considered famous ‘centres’ of learning, the way a Fanon could come up from Algeria. I feel it is possible and the time is now ripe for such masterpieces to emerge – from younger critics with greater potential and better insight than I have, like Rukhaya and Anilkumar Payyapilly Vijayan, amongst many others, not excluding my own articles here that are building up to something grand in the best tradition of the essay, while being fully aware of the fact that these are fragments and do not need to fit together neatly, are a “heap of broken images,” but reflect a million openings and gaps, in the best tradition of criticism and theory which should be both accessible and populist, not to speak of being readable, understandable and enjoyable,  in 2015.

Thanks to Reena Prasad for discussing some of the ideas in this article with me so I could write it.

Links and Resources:
Brief biography of Geetha Narayanan
On Critical Thinking
An article by James Paul Gee
Wordsworth’s poem
Rukahya M.K.’s article on Frost

More to read

Poetry and Keralite Writing in English – 1
Keralite Writing in English – II
How To Enjoy a Poem: Taking the example of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” or “A Dream Deferred .”
Book Review: ‘A Treatise On Poetry For Beginners’ by Dr. Ampat Koshy

The opinions shared by the writer is his personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Learning and Creativity Magazine. The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

Dr. Koshy A.V. is presently working as an Assistant Professor in the English Department of Jazan University, Saudi Arabia. He has many books, degrees, diplomas, certificates, prizes, and awards to his credit and also, besides teaching, is an editor, anthology maker, poet, critic and writer of fiction. He runs an autism NPO with his wife, Anna Gabriel.
All Posts of Dr Ampat Varghese Koshy

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11 thoughts on “Indian English Literature, Literary Criticism and Theory

  • madan gandhi

    Scintillating, perspicacious, insightful, mature write up, lucid to read—a path-breaking essay—blazing new paths in Indian literary criticism—reminiscent of CS LEWIS– Common Pursuit (Cambridge’s Scrutiny School)– reminiscent of Eliot’s ‘Functions of criticism’ and ‘Frontiers of Criticism’—and laying emphasis on exegesis, enjoyment, edification, and correction of taste—as the objectives of any significant criticism touching upon a range of perspectives–, post modern to phenomenological.

  • Bina Biswas

    I wrote a comment earlier but it showed Nikhil’s name.
    You are a present day M Arnold. It won’t be wrong to say that you propound theories like WW and Coleridge. Thanks for educating us.

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