This two-part series of international workshops proposes to study Indian literature as a field of comparative literature using the lens of regional literary modernisms. It takes as its premise that the study of modern Indian literatures must simultaneously attend to geographically specific aesthetic, linguistic, and identity concerns, as well as the larger regional, national, and global processes of which these concerns are a part. The series thus considers how the field of modern Indian literature might look differently were it imagined as constituted through historically situated interactions between literary and extra-literary texts and actors and what comparative methodologies might be most appropriate for understanding them.
The “Indian Literature as Comparative Literature” project thus diverges from what are perhaps the two most prominent approaches to Indian literary studies. On the one hand, postcolonial studies scholarship envisions Indian literature as an a priori, umbrella category subsuming all regional Indian literatures. On this view, Indian literature is a sum greater than its regional literary parts, which are, in turn, composed of the overarching historically, geographically, and culturally “Indian” features that filter into them. In conjunction, many studies of modern India focus on literary and historical processes within a single linguistic region, and in doing so; they configure the region as representative of general trends across the subcontinent. The overwhelming consequence of this approach is that the uneven literary and historical interactions, connections, and disconnections between linguistic regions remain under-examined. On the other hand, scholars of various regional Indian literatures conceive of regional literatures as separate literary fields with distinct geographical, linguistic, and cultural histories that sometimes, but not always, share literary orientations. On this view, there is no necessarily singular, coherent category of Indian literature to which all the literatures of India belong. Thus, the field of Indian literature has been explored either through a theme-based overview of common texts and trends across regional contexts that leaves out close textual analysis or attention to regional specificity, or as region-specific literary historical studies with little discussion of relationships that arise across contexts.
The first of the “Indian Literature as Comparative Literature” workshops was held at Rutgers University, USA, on September 26-28, 2013. It brought together international scholars of English, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, and Urdu literature in India through a focus on regional literary modernisms. The workshop showed that while a broadly defined modernist literary aesthetics may have characterized prominent colonial and post-Independence literary production in each of these languages, geographically and historically specific social, linguistic, and economic hierarchies gave these modernisms greatly varied local meanings. A panel on “Rethinking Comparativism” raised questions about the ways that institutional support has privileged an Anglophone modernist aesthetics above Hindi or Urdu ones, how dominant modern Indian aesthetic forms co-constitute and are co-constituted by others—both local and global, and how oral and folk forms must be included in discussions about Hindi modernism—and modernisms in Indian languages more generally. A second panel focused on “Novel Experimentations” to suggest that concerns about love, family, and personhood—rather than ones about nation and nationalism—took center stage in the modernist Hindi novel, that older Sanskritic tropes were key to imagining the modern new woman of the Indian English Bildungsroman, and that early Urdu novels drew from Urdu poetic forms to construct a modernist Urdu aesthetics. A final panel on “The Local and the Global” demonstrated that divergent regional linguistic and identity concerns led Hindi and Tamil short story writers to adopt more nationally and globally recognizable modernist literary techniques, that Marathi and English writers in Bombay developed a modernist aesthetics based on local geographies of the city that emerged from the cracks between the national and the global, and that Sri Lankan Tamil modernist aesthetics have arisen from the spoils ethnic struggle and war more so than from its connections to mainland Tamil literary trends.
The second “Indian Literature as Comparative Literature” workshop will be held on December 18-19, 2014 at the French Institute of Pondicherry, India, and seeks to build on the questions and conversations raised by first workshop’s panels. In particular, it seeks to develop new comparative questions for the study of Indian literature through attention to literary history and the interactions between regional, national, and global critical apparatuses and literary forms. Participants are asked to consider: what is the role of the nation and national identity in shaping the relationships between regional Indian literatures and comparisons between them? To what extent do modern conventions of genre facilitate literary comparisons between regional literatures? What is the role of translation in developing dialogues between regional literatures? How do we periodize regional Indian modernisms? And, how might we alter our approaches to modern regional literatures in the Indian context to diversify these canons and make visible their exclusions?
Together, the workshops aim to bring leading scholars of regional Indian literatures into conversation and will form the basis of an edited volume examining regional modernisms and theorizing frameworks for comparing literary movements across the diverse linguistic and cultural regions of India.
Full programme and abstracts of the talks: