Reinterpreting Literary Studies: Beyond Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education (1835)”.
English literary studies, as a discipline, is fundamentally passé and is in a state of impasse; the sooner we realise this, the faster we can move on and make an epistemic shift in the Humanities in defining what constitutes “literari-ness”; most importantly – it has little relevance and serves no purpose in the Indian context because the Indian literary tradition – which is thousands of years old - cannot be determined by a British literary tradition, that at the most, is still quite recent. It is incredibly problematic that we refer to British cultural motifs in order to talk about our desires as an Indian society. We have to be willing to recreate a literary tradition that refers to the Indian literary-Sanskritic past.
I will use an example of a 16th century text to elucidate my point; in Tûlsidásá’s Awadhi (Hindi) version of Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sri Ramacharitmanas, there is a passage in the introductory chapter, where the Bhakti poet draws attention to the literary processes that he used; and he writes:
For the gratification of his own self, Tûlsidásá brings forth this very elegant composition relating in common parlance the story of the Lord of Raghus, which is in accord with the various Puranas, Vedas and the Agamas (Tantras), and incorporates what has been recorded in the Ramayana (of Valmiki) and culled from some other sources.
In the above extract, we learn about poetic self-intellectual gratification; and the freedom that the poet took in using “common” language to talk about a sacred text; in a self-referential moment, Tûlsidásá also refers to the fact that he used a number of primary sources to arrive at his own poetic text.
Literary studies, as a discipline – at least, in the Indian context -- needs to embrace this pre-print manuscript culture that has existed in the Indian literary tradition for thousands of years. Why have we allowed ourselves to be coerced into a kind of a forced amnesia?
Even if we accept that the scholarship on print culture within the South Asian context is still in its nascent stages, it does not explain as to why there is very little mention of India’s pre-print literary tradition, and even if there is, it is conflated with popular-folk culture. In the colonial Indian context in the nineteenth century, Anindita Ghosh argues, one has to take into account the existence of “significant preprint literate [performance based] communities” which continued to operate in the presence of print as “print sustained earlier reading and writing traditions.” (Anindita Ghosh, “An Uncertain ‘Coming of the Book’; Early Print Cultures in Colonial India.” Book History 6(2003)). Book historians argue that in a post-print culture in colonial India, different kinds of public spheres emerged, and these did not necessarily exist in mutual harmony, as there was a constant shift between print and orality. But eventually, as the editors of India’s Literary History state, it was “printed prose which became the principal vehicle for a literary modernity in colonial India.” (India’s Literary History. Essays on the Nineteenth Century, ed. Stuart Blackburn and Vasudha Dalmia (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004)). What becomes evident is that book historians have an acute sense of apathy towards India’s literary-manuscript culture.
We, though, need to ask a fundamental question: what exactly constitutes literary studies? Why exactly should we keep on rehashing texts that have been examined, and deconstructed – ad nauseam? What do I – as a reader and as one engaged in participating in this practise – gain through this act? Literature reflects on a vast repertoire of experiences, and creates cultural motifs which define identity and that in turn becomes ontological to a society. We need to question as to what academic institutions offer us in terms of providing us with an education in literary studies. As of now, by being a participant in the Literature department, I have been systematically taught to erase what is central to my identity and my cultural past as an Indian.