About The Book
The convergence of literary and historical theory has made literary history one of the most exciting fields in the humanities.
This book, the first major reassessment of literary history in nineteenth century India in a long time, comprises essays which analyse the making of literary history, the process of canonization, the reinvention of literary tradition, and the writing of literary history.
A central premise of the book is that when European literary cultures arrived in India, they came into contact with popular performance forms and complex literary cultures that had their own histories.
The essays also reach beyond the obvious genres and include little-known texts, situating them, within a wider debate about national origins, linguistic identities, and political entitlements.
Print culture and oral tales, drama and gender, library use and publishing history, theatre and audiences, detective fiction and low-caste novels art' among the topics covered.
About the Author
Stuart Blackburn's several books include Print, Folklore and Nationalism in Colonial South India (2003) He is directing a five-year research project on cultural change in Arunachal Pradesh, India.
Vasudha Dalmial is Professor of Hindi at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions: Bharatendu Harishchandra in Nineteenth-century Benares (1997).
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 concepts and points of reference. This convergence has led to a reorientation in the study of literary history. The periodisation, assessment and attribution that characterised earlier literary historiography have been replaced by an effort to understand the place of literature in history, largely through an analysis of the textual production of cultural meaning and the socio-political conditions of creating texts. To this end, the emphasis has been reflexive, focusing on the writing of literary history itself, as well as on the processes of canonisation and the reinvention of tradition. The present book, we hope, opens up this emerging field of critical literary history to nineteenth-century India.
At the outset we should remind ourselves that literary history is itself relatively recent field of enquiry. In Europe, literary historiography is generally acknowledged as having emerged in the eighteenth century, as part of a more general intellectual shift born of the Enlightenment. A central characteristic of this new sensibility, as seen all over Europe in the literary nationalisms that underlay Romanticism, was the belief that literature recorded a people's past and sustained their cultural identity; this literary past, in turn, was a living patrimony to be preserved and passed down. This new sense of history was fostered by writers, folklorists, novelists and, especially in the British Isles, by a band of antiquarians who were fascinated by relics and their own inventions of ancient bardic poetry.
The modern study of Indian literary history may also be traced to the eighteenth century, when it was researched and reflected upon by the early Orientalists. Literary histories did exist before, as reflected in medieval hagiographies of poet-saints and in anthologies of poems compiled in Indian languages right up to the nineteenth century and after. However, these early compendia were more concerned with chronological listings of literary works, including origins, attribution and textual explications, than with a literary history that attempted to understand texts in their wider cultural and historical frameworks. A modern literary-historical sensibility developed only in the nineteenth century, as part of a gradual movement from merely recording the past to rewriting it within a wider public debate about national origins, linguistic identities and political entitlements. The growth of Indian literary historiography is thus best viewed alongside similar and concurrent attempts to recover the past-the writing of historical novels and the institutionalisation of the fields of archaeology, epigraphy, anthropology and folklore-all of which developed in concert with new articulations of nationhood in the final third of the century.
It is surely significant that modern Indian literary histories were first published during the 1870s and 1880s. Some of these early attempts were written in Indian languages, some in English, but all were the culmination of earlier work. In Tamil, for instance, medieval hagiographies of poets and a later anthology preceded the first English language compilation, Sketch of the Dekhan Poets, which appeared in 1829 in Calcutta. The author, Cavelly Venkataramaswami, who had assisted Colin Mackenzie during his long years of collecting historical manuscripts in South India, compiled biographical summaries and a few illustrative verses of classical Tamil (and Telugu) poets. Thirty years later, Simon Casie Chitty, a Tamil Christian in Ceylon, expanded the list in The Tamil Plutarch, published in Jaffna. Chitty himself explained that he nearly gave up the effort because of a lack of accurate historical documentation of the literary past, but then turned to "the traditions current among the people', which he found to have been "scrupulously detached from the fictitious and ornamental additions such as oriental imagination delight in'. However, the first Tamil work that approaches a modern literary history was published in 1886, again in Jaffna by a Tamil Christian, J.R. Arnold (A. Catacivam Pillai), with the tide Pavalar Carittiram Tipakam (and an English tide, Pavalar Chariththira Theepakam, or the Galaxy of Tamil Poets). Arnold enlarged the' earlier list of poets by including not only the authors of newly discovered texts, which lengthened Tamil literary history by several centuries, but also a few poets from the nineteenth century. This rediscovery and printing of lost Tamil classics at the end of the century spurred several other studies in Tamil literary history; but the first truly modern treatment was published only in 1904, and it required a second edition in 1929 to complete the task. Tamil Literature, a college textbook written by M.S. Purnalingam Pillai, Professor of English literature at Madras Christian College, is emphatically divided into periods and presents a master narrative, inflected through the Dravidianist notions of an ancient past corrupted by northern influences and later redeemed by Tamil saviours." The Tamil past was now imagined primarily as a literary past.
The earliest selections and systematisations of what was to constitute Hindi literature also came about through the medium of anthologies, which had been put together as instructional readers, initially for use by young British civilian and military students at Fort William College in Calcutta, and later for Indian students as well. The earliest such anthology was compiled in two volumes by William Price: Hindee and Hindoostanee Selections, published in Calcutta in 1827. The Selections was printed in the Persian and the Nagari scripts because Price saw the difference in the two languages as religio-cultural rather than linguistic. Whereas the first volume contained the verse of a variety of poets, the second consisted entirely of Lalluji Lal's Premsagar, an early nineteenth century prose retelling of the Bhagavata Purana commissioned for the College. As Price specified in the Preface, he saw Chand Bardai's heroic epic poem, Prithviraj Raso, as possibly a seventeenth-century creation which had been projected back into the fourteenth century, making its legendary author the oldest Hindi poet on record. Bardai was "the poet of Prithwee Raee, who has celebrated his master, and a number of Rajpoot families in verse. This work, and others of a similar character, exist in the libraries of the Princes of Rajpootana, but have never found their way to the lower provinces of Gangetic India.' Further, there was "the Poet and Reformer Kubeer', the hagiography Bhaktamal-Price cited H.H. Wilson as the source of this information-and the poets "Bihari, Keshavdas, Gapgkavi and Surdas'. The poetry of devotion thus followed the heroic, and this sequence was continued into the present by the work commissioned by the college.
Price's selection remained standard for many decades, to be replaced only in 1867 by Babu Sivaprasad's Hindi Selections, published in Banaras. By this time Hindustani, designated in non-official circles as Urdu, had finally parted ways with Hindi, so that Sivaprasad could concentrate entirely upon the latter. This emphasis on Hindi was also possible because a wider selection of contemporary works had become available by that date, not least through Sivaprasad's own efforts. This second anthology, which was printed as Gutka in Banaras in 1870, was to remain in circulation until well into the twentieth century. These early Hindi readers paved the way for the canonisation of Hindi literature.
An attempt to date the poets on a comprehensive scale, however, was first made in Shivsingh Saroj (1878). The compiler of this famous anthology of poetry, Shivsingh Semgar, was Inspector of Police in the village of Kantha, district Unao in Avadh. His anthology was motivated by the desire to fill what he saw as a gap in vernacular poetry (bhasa kavya), that is, historical information regarding the poets themselves. He had looked through Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian and English books, and collected information on 1,000 poets, of which 836 were included in his anthology. In the Preface, he attempted to sketch the evolution of bhasa kavya, which began, Inevitably, with a brief account of Sanskrit poetry, from which he considered it to be derived. Continuing the pattern set by Price, Semgar saw the first poetry as heroic, followed by the devotional tradition; however, he also mentioned contemporary poets, so as to create an unbroken, hermetically sealed lineage, encompassing the entire Hindi-speaking heartland of North India.
Two other large-scale classificatory ventures were attempted in the nineteenth century, both in European languages. The first, published in French in 1839-46 and reissued in 1870-1, was Garcin de Tassy' s two-volume history, with information on 800 Hindui and 2,200 Hindustani poets. The second work, published in 1889, was the Modern Vernacular Literature of Hindustan by George Grierson, which dealt exclusively with Hindi literature, and privileged Hindi over Sanskrit literature. However, the first full-fledged historical accounts written in Hindi, bolstered by the findings of the Search Committee for Hindi manuscripts established by the Nagari Pracharini Sabha (Society for the Propagation of Hindi, founded in 1893 in Banaras), were to appear only in the early twentieth century.
Developments in modern literary historiography for other languages certainly vary, but in the two examples of Tamil and Hindi we see the major forces at work all over the subcontinent. The new literary histories of the nineteenth century drew on traditional anthologies, augmented first by new, printed listings in the early decades of the century and then by the recovery of "lost' texts and authors; this expanding source material was then processed through European scholarly conventions, infused with the spirit of contemporary historical frameworks. Finally, these histories were articulated in regional forms of literary nationalism.
These early literary histories of the 1870s and 1880s were not, however, the only vehicles for a rewriting of the literary past in nineteenth century India. A modern literary-historical sensibility also emerged in other forms of writing over the course of the century: essays, novels, plays, history books, newspapers, magazines and pamphlets. Far more than derivative specimens of a new literary historical period, these prose forms also spread fresh thinking about literary history itself Newspapers, journals and magazines printed claims and counterclaims about the glories of classical texts, as well as their inadequacies; they deplored the lack of original prose in the regional languages and called out for the creation of a modern literature. Novels-and not just historical fiction-commented on the literary past through allusion, imitation and direct reference to earlier texts and traditions. With their self-reflexivity and transparent reformist agenda, these early novels serve as extensions of the journalistic debate over the scope and value of the newly-revealed literary histories of Indian languages.
These new kinds of writing were disseminated in substantial numbers only after commercial printing had taken root in the metropolitan centres of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay in the 1830s and 1840s, and later in Lucknow, Banaras, Delhi, Pondicherry, Bangalore and other cities, Before long, the new print forms found their way into public institutions, schools, universities, libraries, literary societies and political groups, as well as more informal gatherings on the street and in the home. This steadily mounting body of printed prose consisted of old, new and mixed genres, read as much for pleasure as for edification. Much of it was reshuffled in the course of the century as literary tastes changed and literary forms went up and down the social ladder of respectability; some types of prose came to be included in the canon of the modern, while others were either deliberately excluded or fell out of favour.
One purpose of this book, therefore, is to reorientate the study of modern Indian literary history so as to include these many forms of popular literature that were printed for public consumption. In this task, we can build on a considerable store of scholarship, beginning with the earliest literary histories mentioned above. In recent years, our knowledge of the nineteenth century has been deepened also by the volume edited by T.W. Clark on the development of the novel; by the multi-volume history of Indian literature produced by Sisir Kumar Das; by the two-volume anthology of women's writing edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, as well as by several monographs detailing a longer literary history in the various regions of India. All these have added a wealth of information on texts and writers.
Nevertheless, the bulk of the study of nineteenth-century Indian literary history has suffered from two problems specific to that period. The first is its ambiguity. Located between the demise of glorious courtly literatures of the late medieval period on the one hand, and the dawn of modern literatures of the early twentieth century on the other, nineteenth-century writing has rarely been the subject of serious scholarship. Neither fish nor fowl, caught between a fading poetic tradition and an inchoate prose culture, the hybrid writing of the century eludes obvious categories and periodisation. This in-betweenness has bedevilled much of the scholarship on its literary history. One attempt to resolve the ambiguity has been to divide the century into "traditional' and "modern' texts, authors and trends, but such a classification tends to ignore the continuities and borrowings of form and content that crisscross the century. Another manifestation of this split vision has been a tendency to view the literature of the nineteenth century as a "preliminary' phase, a precursor to the emergence of modern Indian literatures. In this respect, there seems to have been a failure to build analytical bridges linking the pre-colonial and colonial periods, and the result has been that prose writings of the nineteenth century are too often discussed in terms of' realism' , the' credibility' of characters and so forth. Conceived thus, as a foreshadowing, and cut off from its antecedents, the prose of the nineteenth century has been relegated to the role of merely anticipating the crowning achievement of literary modernity, i.e. the novel. Unsurprisingly, then, attempts to locate influences behind early Telugu or Marathi novelists, for example, are more likely to identify English rather than traditional sources. Prospective rather than retrospective, the propelling force behind nineteenth-century literary historiography has been the desire to move' forward' out of the colonial period, and to this extent it has been a modernist and reformist project.
A good illustration of this interpretative framework is found in The Novel in India: Its Birth and Development, edited by T.W. Clark in 1970. The essays in this volume discuss important and sometimes little-known prose texts, and they provide a literary-historical context in which to understand the rise of the novel. Bur the book's title and focus point to the problems highlighted above, especially to the reliance on literary texts-above all the novel-and a tendency to view literary history as an evolution of textual forms. Clark's volume remains valuable, and in some respects it points towards the present volume, but thirty years after its publication we require a more historically informed and textually diverse literary historiography.
A second problem that has skewed the study of literary history of nineteenth-century India is the colonialist-nationalist divide. Throughout the century, journalism and printed books were controlled and monitored by the colonial state. Although some Indians owned and operated presses even before the relaxation of controls in 1835, most publishing was owned by private European enterprise, while most texts were produced by Christian missionaries and their converts. Only by the turn of the century did publishing begin to shift into Indian hands, and the legacy of this battle against European control and influence lives on in some recent literary histories of the period. Although we have learned that colonial power was not monolithic and that colonialism cannot be conflated either with Christianity or with European influence, we are, even today, prone to view nineteenth-century literature as a by-product of this political divide, either as a colonial construction or as a nationalist reaction.
Lately, however, this literary no-man's land of the nineteenth century has been the object of considerable historiographical work. By theorising colonialism, modernity, the public sphere, nationalism, and so on, this scholarship has provided us with a conceptual headstart for a new literary historiography. Nevertheless, we note that much of this valuable research once again divides the century in half, beginning somewhere after mid-century and continuing into the twentieth century, a demarcation that accords well with the history of the nationalist movements and modern politics, but not with literary history. This present volume, by contrast, attempts to look at the colonial century as a whole, as an historical period in its own right, in which pre-colonial sources continue to inform modern literary practices, which were neither wholly derivative of tradition nor simply transitional to modernity.
We begin with several premises. The first is that when European literary idioms reached India, they did not enter a literary vacuum; rather, they came into contact with popular performance forms and complex literary cultures that themselves had histories, produced in constant interaction between regions within India and beyond, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One obvious example is the development of prose, the most prolific form of new writing in the nineteenth century. Too often, an assumption is made that this new public prose was born in the encounter with' modernity' in the nineteenth century. In fact, prose writing pre-dates the nineteenth century by several hundred years in the form of historical chronicles, hagiographical compendia, commentaries, missionary tracts and finally prose fiction, both the oral and the written tale. The initial task of a new literary history of nineteenth-century India, therefore, is to identify pre-colonial forms and assess their continued vitality.
A second premise of this book is that no matter what qualifications one wishes to make, literary history in the nineteenth century arose from an encounter between Indian and European literary cultures within the context of colonialism. Another task of a new literary history is thus to engage with the deep and pervasive influence of European literary practices, including colonial policies and institutions, such as patronage and colleges, the many forms and uses of translation, and the existence of European languages and literatures themselves. No amount of appreciation of traditional Indian literatures can diminish the power of these European forces in forging their modern literary histories.
In sifting and weighing influences, we have attempted not to categorise "tradition' and "modernity' as if they were static, monolithic realities; as one of us has argued elsewhere, tradition and modernity were themselves mediated and constructed through the complex cultural interaction that characterises this century. One consequence of this dynamic exchange was that a colonial modernity required a reimagined literary past, which, once inscribed in print, engendered a new literary-historical sensibility.
A third premise of this book has already been mentioned but is important enough to be restated: a literary historiography of nineteenth century India must reach beyond obvious literary genres and conventional concepts. Even familiar forms and patterns will yield fresh insights when they are set within a more complex literary context: the novel, for instance, may look quite different when viewed alongside law codes, almanacs, oral tales and plays; and realism might acquire new meanings if viewed next to journalism and sketch-writing. By extension, we need to formulate interpretative frameworks that utilise but are not limited to commonplaces such as colonialism, modernity and nationalism. The literary history of nineteenth-century India developed in the crucible of those historical forces, just as it defined itself in terms of conventional literary categories, but we also believe that a much more complex literary-historical sensibility was born in this century. It both marked and generated change, and it is an object of study in its own right.
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