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Literature as History: From Early to Contemporary Times

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Item Code: NAM107
Author: Chhanda Chatterjee
Publisher: Primus Books, Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9789384082031
Pages: 188
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.5 inch x 6.5 inch
Weight 430 gm
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Book Description

About the Book

Literature as History, between its two seemingly opposite spectrums, puts forth an idea of unusual convergence between the fields of literature and history. It begins by showing how literary material-since the Sangam period of Tamil literary Renaissance in the first millennium up to the very recent globally acclaimed Indo-Anglian literature-has reflected the twists and turn of history. Sometimes it highlights simply the life lived by the people in their everyday contentment and misery; sometimes it is the Sufiana tariqa (the Sufi way) of syncretic spiritualism (tassawuf), and sometimes it is the literary symbolism of nature trying to represent the nation. In this eclectic collection of essays, the one on Rabindranath Tagore’s seminal play The Red Oleanders documents the world’s great enthusiasm for the promised liberation of the weak and the oppressed from the hackles of industrial capitalism, while another on Tagore’s Letters from Russia explains the subsequent disillusionment and retreat from the first of hope and expectation. The three concluding essays in the volume, on Indo-Anglian literature and women’s writing, signal a new phase of history where the Indian diaspora has completed ‘the conquest of English’ and caused history to come full circle.


About the Author

Chhanda Chatterjee is Professor and Director, Centre for Guru Nanak Dev Studies and Programme Coordinator, UGC SAP DRS II of the Department of History at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal. Her earlier publication include Ecology, the Sikh Legacy and the Raj Punjab, 1849-1887 (1997), Ideology, the Rural the Power Structure and imperial Rule: Awadh and Panjab, 1858-1887 (1999), and Rabindranath Tagore and the Sikh Gurus; A Search for an Indigenous Modernity (2014).



This is a book whish hopes to illustrate that the literature of a particular period of time can also be read to understand its history. The quality and definition of this literature has changed over time. In ancient days it was often a dynastic chronicle, or the eulogy of some great royal personage. And yet even this kind of literature could contain glimpses of the lives of the common people as the Tamil text Patirrupattu by Ganapathy Subbiah would show. As we progress from early India to the days of Islamic hegemony we can trace the cultural transition through the literature of the new phase. Here Amit Dey introduces us to the ideas of the Sufis, who not only assigned an honoured place to the women place to the women of the faith, but also tried to begin an inter-faith dialogue through a translation of the canonical literature of the conquered.

The onset of a new phase of colonial rule, beginning with the East India Company’s regime and transforming itself into a new dispensation of the British Queen’s sovereignty in the wake of the outbreak of 1857, brought new influences. The literature of the colonial period was marked by these new ideas. Contact with the West introduced the ideas of nationalism and the resentment of the colonized against foreign domination began to reflect in a prolific outcrop of nationalist literature. Nationalist writers began to look upon their country as a distressed woman, who had once been bedecked with precious jewels. But the very richness of her possessions had proved to be her undoing. It attracted the greed of robbers from across the seas, and the country, which had once been famed for its wealth, stands despoiled of all her prize possessions. Ravaged by repeated famines and disease, her villages are now marked by underdevelopment. Anuradha Roy has shown how nature, nation, mother and country all became one in the nationalist imagination. The great poet and dramatist of this period, Rabindranath Tagore, tried to portray the exploitation of mine-workers under the capitalist dispensation in one of his seminal dramas, The Red Oleanders. It was an indictment of the contemporary materialism, of which imperialism and capitalism were the off-shoots. Tagore seemed to have found a way out of this imbroglio in a system of free education reaching to the lowest strata of the population, such as he had seen during his visit to Russia. Narrated in the form of letters, the Letters from Russia emphasized the contrast between the growth of underdevelopment in colonial India and the Bolshevik government’s care and concern for the well-being of the members of the state. Chhanda Chatterjee’s essay tries to read the workings of Tagore’s mind in the context of the changes in the world system by linking up the train of thoughts from the Red Oleanders to the Letters from linking up the train of thoughts from the Red Oleanders to the Letters from Russia. In Sobhanlal Datta Gupta’s writings, however, we find a reference to Tagore’s subsequent disillusionment with this system. Tagore’s angry interview to the Izvestia before his departure from Russia (referred to in his Bengali original but carefully left out from Sasadhar Sinha’s English translation, widely circulated by Visva-Bharati) regarding the repressive face of Bolshevism, perhaps represented the retreat of the entire world from the first of enthusiasm about the radical revolution in the lot of all wretched of the earth expected from the Bolshevik experiment.

The kind of awareness of the problems of the world that informed the writing of Tagore touched a new high in the post-colonial period with the splurge of India writing in English originating from the Indian dias pora dispersed in different corners of the world. They succeeded in investing local concerns like the resurgence of the malaria fever in Bengal or the proneness of the coastal areas of the Indian sub-continent to repeated attacks of cyclones, with global importance in a manner typical of postmodernist thinking.

Somdatta Mandal’s deft pen has traced the growth and developments of this Indo-Anglian writings were perhaps an illustration of what Jean Paul Sartre called ‘novels of situation’, where ‘man plays or wins or loses in the womb of universal history’ (Jean Paul Sartre, What is Literature, tr. Bernard Frechtman, Northhampton: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1st pub., 1950, repr. 1967).

Feminism-yet another off shoot of post-colonialism-is the subject of Swati Ganguly’s essay on the biased translation policy of big publishing houses. Ganguly argues convincingly that new and comparatively less known women writers never get the attention of translators engaged by well-known publishers and their voice therefore remains unheard among the slowly, but definitely, crystallizing feminist literature in the world.

Igor Grbic’s piece analyses Western attitude towards the East in general, Igor’s enquiry into the fate of the writings of Tagore enables him to advance a few hypotheses. War-weary West had worshipped Tagore as a new prophet in the inter-war years. But the infatuation passed off as the world settled down to humdrum existence and allowed Tagore to fade into insignificance. Grbic’ fears a recurrence of the same phenomenon for Indo- Anglian literature too. Grbic thus discerns a close connection between the emotions of an age and the kind of literature that it produces.



Literature is said to fulfil its purpose only when it is able to mirror life. It is able to offer rare insights into the lives of people which are beyond the reach of ‘dry as dust historians’. Ashin Dasgupta had pointed out in the course of a lecture that journalists and historians can merely narrate an event, whereas literature reserves the right to enter into the heart of an event. The emotions and mentalities of a people are therefore increasingly becoming the concern of historians. The German historian Ranke, who had been a very strong proponent of the objectivity of History, had confessed to drawing inspiration from the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott in his writing. Historical writing in pre-colonial India was often associated with the narrative of Purana and Kavya tradition-very far from the objective, rational and scientific historiography that came into vogue in the nineteenth and early twentieth century under the influence of colonial projects of deriving power from knowledge about the colonized. Rabindranath Tagore would have liked literature to fill the gaps in academic historiography by bringing in the tales of the lives of people as they were lived in realty. Our volume hopes to be such an exercise in literary historiography, where each paper has made use of the literature of a Particular age to bring forward the mentality of that age before the historian’s gaze.

In the first essay in this volume ‘Historicality in Literature’: A Case Study of the Classical Tamil, the Patirruppattu’, Ganapathy Subbiah tries to show from an analysis of the ancient Tamil text Patirruppattu (the dates may be from the second century BC to second century AD or from the second century AD to the fourth century AD), that classical Tamil literature could be said to contain ‘historicality’ in Ranajit Guha’s sense of the term. Subbiah refers to the lamentation of K.A. Nilakantha Shastri that while in other countries literature was taken to be the ‘bedrock of history’, in India it was often regarded as a ‘snare ‘. Texts were very often in the nature of a ‘fable’ acquiring many irrational accretions through the passage of time. Thus they were rarely of much worth to historians in unravelling the mystery of the past. Even a veteran authority like Vishwambhar Sharan Pathak worried that susceptibility of ancient literature to the values and mentalities of the days of yore might make them incomprehensible to the historian of the present generation with widely divergent conceptual tools. It therefore only adds further to the credit of Subbiah that he undertook the onerous task of delving deep into the ancient Tamil text Patirruppattu and tried to trace through it the life lived by the people in their everyday contentment and misery’.

Patirruppattu was one of the eight anthologies (ettuttokai) which formed part of the classical Tamil texts known as cankam literature. The name Patir. ruppattu denoted Ten Tens or ten poems, one each of the ten kings of the Ceral family, by a particular poet. Of these 100 poems only 80 could be traced; the first and the last bunch of the poems each could not be found in the text. The last could, however, be retrieved from references by commentators. The editing and publication of Patirruppattu along with an old commentary for the first time by Mahamahopadhyaya U.V. Swaminathan Aiyar in 1904 came about as part of a wave for the rediscovery and printing of lost Tamil classics. Vasudha Dalmia would view such moves as an attempt at a ‘new articulation of nationhood’ which to derive strength from a recovery of the past. The publication ran into two more editions, one in 1921 and another in 1940. In 1950 the Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society (SSWPS) brought out a new edition with a modern commentary by Vidvan Avvai Su. Duraiswami Pillai. The composition of one hundred poems in praise of a single dynasty (the Ceralar) endows them with the character of a chronicle of kerala. Added to the Ten Poems as a suffix is the patikam or an epilogue of 10 to 21 lines summarizing the achievements of the hero and his lineage. These lines seem to be composed by later writers who could draw on sources not available to the early composers. The authenticity of the Patirruppattu is further corroborated by the mention of some of the lings eulogized in the text as donors in the Pugalur Tamil-Brahmin inscriptions.

As in most ancient texts, the concern of the Patirruppattu poems was also the singing of the heroic and martial achievements of the Kings. Thus nearly two-thirds of its contents can be classified as patantinai or praise for the hero. The tinai is concerned with the king’s specific acts of valour. But in Patan is found greater details of the king’s character, his various acts in relation to his subjects. The poet’s attempt to elaborate not merely the physical prowess, but every other act of benevolence by the king, enables him to contextualize the various aspects of the inhabitants of the kingdom in everyday ‘contentment and misery’. Subbiah’s enquiry into and analysis of the classical Tamil classical Tamil text thus elevates the status of ancient texts of this genre, juxtaposing them alongside modern day literature which is increasingly being viewed as an index of contemporary mentalite and contemporary life.

While Subbiah’s study points to the efficacy of classical Tamil literature for an overview of the weal and woes of the people in those days, Amit Dey has made use of Persian literature in his paper ‘Mystical and Eclectic Tradition in Medieval India: A Study of Persian Sources’ to trace the position of honour and reverence accorded to women in Sufi mystical literature. The second part of his paper is concerned with the tradition of tolerance and respect for other religions parallel to Islamic orthodoxy in medieval times. In spite of an ingrained in certain Islamic circles against the moral and intellectual capability of women for religiosity and virtue, such as is seen in Abu Talib’s Qutal Qulub or even in the poet Jalal-ud-din Rumi (1207-73) (who would not event spare his own mother for having brought him to this cruel world just as Eve, the world’s first woman, had brought about the banishment of mankind form the Garden of Eden), Dey could city an impressive array of Islamic literature to demolish such orthodoxies.




  Introduction: Literature as History: From Early to Contemporary Times 1
1 Historicality in Literature': A Case Study of the Classical Tamil Text, the Patirrupattu 17
2 Mystical and Eclectic Traditions as Reflected in Persian Sources of Medieval India 27
3 Naturalization of the Nation and Nationalization of Nature: A Study of the Nationalist Literature of Bengal 49
4 The Radical Rabindranath: 'The Red Oleanders (Rakta Karabi)' and Dreams of a New World 81
5 Reading Tagore's Letters from Russia in the Twenty-first Century 95
6 The Evolution of Indian English Language and Literature: A Socio-Historical Survey 109
7 Tagore Syndrome': A Case Study of the West's Intercultural (Mis) readings 139
8 The Politics and Poetics of Translating Indian Women's Fiction in English 151
  Notes on Editor and Contributions 165
  Index 167


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