Let me state at the very beginning that for me literature and arts are intrinsically tied up with politics. There is no literature existing in a vacuum. Literature occupies a public space that very few of the current crops of writers seem to acknowledge. More so with the new crop of the expatriate Indian writers in English. Thought and action can lead to some rare mental awakening and this we have seen in many writers, even in recent times.
I just now read through a book review on two collections of literary essays by two literary giants, one the South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner, J.M.Coetzee and another by the Peruvian writer and a Presidential candidate in his country, Mario Vargas Llosa. Says the reviewer at one place:” Politics in a literary work may be in Stendhal’s formulation like a pistol shot in the midst of a concert. But even Coetzee’s essays we see that literature cannot exist independently of politics and mankind’s countless other pursuits. The fascination with power or the concerns with transforming mankind or societies or grappling with the history of nations, fate of individuals, everywhere when we rise above the mass of concerns and scenarios, you reach out to the struggles for truths, values and principles that sometimes end up tragically. Sometimes, you turn out to be prophets or some such colossal figures. Only politics and power can give any piece of writing and literature those rare heights of exploring the higher truths, metaphysics of living and death.
Anti-Americanism, international terrorism, globalizations are some themes that have led to new literary outpourings. Make for a divided and confused world and identity crises across the cultures and peoples. The new millennium when it came, many thought, that there will be a new dream, a new vision for the new stage in man’s history and by that consequence, we would leave behind a more bloody century as a last memory of a past era, a past millennium. There were in fact, so many new initiatives on the part of the nations of the world to usher in a new millennium of concerted efforts to reach for newer goals, to abolish poverty, illiteracy and ensure new levels of prosperity, education for all, health for all and this was the Millennium Goals set by the World Bank. There were many such noble sentiments.
But alas, the world saw suddenly two developments, the September 11 terrorist attack on America and the consequent wars, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Now, we seem to be living in a world that seem more dangerous and more unstable in the absence of a more united and strong and democratic UN and the American unilateral declaration of wars has made a mockery of the UN and the new hot spots, in North Korea and Iran, the Middle East crisis and the prevalence of more dictatorships in quick succession in Asia and elsewhere make any hopes for a new millennium fading rather than flourishing.
Only in such dark periods or when hopes of mankind seem confused and distorted by so many insane voices and insane actions on the part of the powerful and mighty, we seem to think of alternative ways of thinking. Arts and literature come to the fore at such times of disturbance in mankind’s collective consciousness.
Is literature, to take the one dominant form of art and culture, a tool for giving us any guidance or any new insights and hopes? Or, is literature too of pursuing politics by other means?
Literature has always served a political purpose. More so in our times.
The twentieth century is a century that has been much written about. Also, the Western historians, more the UK ones, based either in their own universities or in the US campuses, are the more forthcoming to write the histories of the modern times and how we have come to view the world and the happenings in this new century from our experiences of the last one.
Anti-Americanism is no more valid in the arts and literature.
When Communism was ruling, it had a focus, the anti-Americanism, its imperial reach and the capacity to reach out to the other cultures in cinema, the media, magazines and books. The anti-American rhetoric suited the Cold War years. Not now anymore, it seems. Rather now, it is the American society and culture, its open society and its liberal atmosphere that draw most talents and it is America based scientists, economists and writers who seem to be getting noticed and winning Nobel Prizes and other prizes.
Of course, lately, even before, the Nobel Prizes for Literature in particular, also for Peace, are being awarded to languages and persons outside the English speaking world. Thus, lately many languages of the world, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, the Dutch and Polish languages, writers from Western Nigeria (Wole Soyinka), now lately to writers writing in English, like V.S.Naipaul and the Turkish writer were awarded the Prize. Most of the later-day winners have had an exposure to living in the USA or UK and had access to reaching out to the Nobel Committee.
This is a measure of the nature of the changing world and the changing perceptions of what constitutes excellence and serious literature. Peace awardees also now represent a wider geography. Certainly, the American domination in certain specialized fields in the sciences might persist but the anti-American sentiment is no longer valid, as far as literature uplighting mankind’s realities and its capacity for imagining a better world.
The twentieth century literature itself bears witness to this statement. About the close relationship between politics and literature. As in the most famous example of the rise of Irish nationalism and the rise of the Irish revival of culture and literature. Ireland and Irish literary contributions have always influenced and impacted the rest of literary movements in Europe and elsewhere .Modern Indian literature owes a great deal with the revival of Irish literary consciousness. Tagore won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 thanks to W.B.Yeats moving introduction to Geetanjali and Yeats’ introduction can stand even today as a testimony of Indian uniqueness in the arts and literatures of the modern world.
Irish revival of politics and literature
Irish revival had much to do with the revival of the Irish language, Ireland ,a colony of the English oppression for ages, saw the language and the folklore of the native Irish revived and restored, a national theatre was established, Irish language was introduced in the school curricula there and after Yeats and other writers of international rank came the storm that took the very Western literature by the arrival of James Joyce who turned the terms of literary creation and literary debates upside down!
Says a critic:” The (Irish) Revivalists sought to recover the Irish language, they retried the Irish folklore and songs, established a national theatre in Dublin… the political consequences would flow from the activity of culture-(re)building. Gaelic antiquity would provide the material source of ethnic identity. The very terms of this claim, the political agency of literature is oblique-make it difficult to prove or refute….The inspired inconsequence of much Revivalist politics can be heard in its characteristic literature, in the very texture of Douglas Hyde’s poetry, which infuses the English language with a Gaelic syntax and establishes strangeness as the standard condition of beauty. It is the art of l’etranger, the Norman English writer, who turns the country he is occupying and dominating into alien land-an imperial exoticism””
Joyce’s initial resistance to this movement to the issue of its self-proclaimed insularity, a parochialism that choked his already declared sense of membership in a pan-European literary community”(Joyce Ulysses by Vincent Sherry).
The characters that populate the pages of Ulysses, says the critic, come from lower middle class, not working class, but people of nowhere space, who exist on insecurities of many sorts and they offer Joyce the stage for a high verbal drama! This high verbal drama is the unique piece of literature as Ulysses established. Irish colonialism left its people to encounter Irish nationalism and the international socialism.
Thus, we are often reminded how the last century also witnessed so much destruction as well as so much creativity, in all branches of knowledge, arts and thought, more so the literature that flourished in the wake of the Communist regimes that suppressed the creative writers more ruthlessly than any other regimes. So, we seem to be carrying the baggage of that experience into our own present outlook.
The last century saw the massacre of the mass of people in the two world wars, afterwards in the hands of Stalin and, according to a current historian (Niall Ferguson) some 12 other conflicts, from the Mexican revolutionary war to Irish rebellion to the more recent Congo civil war that each one cost the lives of more than a million people.
So, we are still fresh in our minds of the massacres of the people by powerful individuals in power and also we are now witness to the same pattern of wars and mass killings in Afghanistan and Iraq where the same motives seem to drive the powerful countries to resort to brutal killings.
Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling: Nobel Prizes
So, we seem to be living in an age that is far from conducive for living in peace and relative economic prosperity for the mass of mankind. In such an environment what sort of arts and culture that would thrive. When terrorism takes so many tolls on the innocent people, when the religious fundamentalism drives people from the less affluent countries, yet the educated and highly motivated among the ones who arm themselves for large scale destabilization and dare-devil killing and bloodshed what sort of arts and literature can thrive?
Politics always played a role, a rather key role in the way the literature of a time, a period, evolved. Just to take the one period in modern history, namely, the rise of British imperialism, we can see straightaway the very Nobel Prize Committee was swung into action as dictated by the imperialist power of the British rule over the world. Two of the Nobel Prizes, one to Winston Churchill and another to Rudyard Kipling(the first Englishman to win in 1907) ,were given as can be seen today clearly than ever more out of the imperial power hold on the imagination of the world when London held the key to the rest of the world’s cultures and peoples.
Swedish Academy, it seems, didn’t have a clue to the world literature as it even didn’t take note of such greats like Tolstoy and other Russian greats. I believe Churchill was awarded the Prize, not for war and peace efforts but of all things, for Literature! What kind of literature was it? That was blasphemy of the first order. His “history of the English people” is not a piece of literature, there is no way to justify it as literature, it had no imagination whatever, and it was pure propaganda, in fact, a self propagation. We have to just read the latest biography of Churchill by Roy Jenkins to see how Churchill had no claims whatever on neither his many propagated claims like an ancestry or an aristocracy nor any high principles. His speeches might be great, given the war time in which they were made and they certainly made an impact on the public confidence in mobilizing the people but his printed words, they are far from being called any literary work. True to character, Churchill didn’t deem it fit to travel to receive the Prize also. So too in the case of Kipling. It was pure imperialist ballads, his fiction all set in exotic locales, writings for children and the low-education or education Anglo-Indian class. At best a recall of the imperialist world lost for the home-coming British officials, more so the army personnel. Such a man was awarded the literature prize!
And at a period his history when such greats like Leo Tolstoy were living and reaching the very heights of human creativity and moral endeavors. One more black spot on the Nobel Committee, a black spot that can’t be wiped out anymore is the denial of the Nobel to Mahatma Gandhi, universally acclaimed even when the imperialism was at its zenith. So, how arts and literature thrive in different periods of history, when the brutal force of the nation’s armies and other destruction forces grip the imaginations of the mankind, the opinion makers and others like the Novel Prize Committee!
When politics has come to take a toll on the lives of the mass of people. Politics has never had such all pervasive impact on the lives of the ordinary people, as it does today. And the role of literature has become also critical when we have gone through, in the course of the twentieth century, so much misery on the basis of what we believed to be true, as told by the state machinery of propaganda. Also, as never before, propaganda turned literature, the best creative talents of writers, poets, writers and artists to write under an unstated command what it should serve. The interests of the state, rather the cruel and often beastly instincts of the dictators and mass killers. In this sense, the twentieth century will go down in history as an unparalleled period in the history of man when so much energy and creativity was directed towards not shedding light and insight but darkness and self-inflicted misery on the people themselves.
May be ,in the course of time, we will come to realize how enormous the role of literature and creative arts is on the lives of people, on the critical role it played or failed to play and to that extent much of the twentieth century literature would be judged rather more harshly and more critically. May be, thereby we would get a better grasp of the relationship between politics and literature. Wherever we failed, we might learn lessons for the future. Wherever we succeeded, or those writers, poets and artists who paid dearly, would stand out as beacons of light for current and future writers.
A writer is a creative artist, he creates a piece of work that originates in his imagination and takes form and structure and content through the life and experiences of the writer. A writer or for that matter any person is conditioned by his or her existence. In a deeper sense, the piece of writing is an existential dilemma, an existential struggle, a search and a striving towards finding meaning and purpose in life and makes sense of the world. Any piece of great literature is one, this seems universally true and for all times, in ancient to the modern times, that imparts much meaning and a sense of history and even a sense of historicism to the times that we live through or the time that has passed us through.
The twentieth century saw the two world wars, the rise of a peculiarly brutal political ideologies, Nazism, fascism and Communism. Oh, there were too many more isms, what about the infamous Marxism-Leninism, Freudianism etc. Yes, no other century in the past saw so much change and so much suffering, so much shedding of the blood of the innocent.
Those who have a sense of historic insight, even a sense of historicism, (even if you don’t believe in any such isms, it is sometimes helpful to see how such theses help us to know things in our own times), then, such rise of brutality of man to fellow man, reminiscent of the Roman Empire’s decline and fall in the hands of the many other vandal races, the Goths and such such barbarians who attacked and vandalized the very civilization of man. In such historic sweep, you sometimes hold the view that mankind hasn’t progressed much since those times. Otherwise, how we are to explain the rise of such brutal isms in the twentieth century?
Anyway, as for literature, we have seen in the last century how great minds, sensitive and creative minds were brutalized by these regimes. Fortunately, we now live at a time when the world, though still not fully stable thanks to the unequal placement of nations under the UN arrangement, America is pursuing a course that in the opinion of some of the best minds, a course that is fraught with immense danger for the future of humanity.
American writing and popular culture
Eric Hobsbawam devotes a whole chapter(The Age of Extremes) to “The Arts 1914-1945″(178-198).What highlights is the fact that along with changing fortunes of the world and its people, there came the various movements, cultural and other forms of artistic movements and they took their origins in the American material advances, the commercial cinema to popular cultures like Hollywood to radio to newspapers and photography to sports and music, the last two specially from the Latin American countries and with cricket from the UK accelerating the pace of popular culture and entertainment and culture we are where we are today when world cup makes news headlines and prime time television and Hollywood and Bollywood makes for popular entertainment.
Even literature as such had seen enormous changes towards many of the modernist trends and here too we see the American influence. The US writers like Ernest Hemingway, points out Hobsbawm,as “reportage”, a term entered the French dictionary in 1929 and in English in 1931.This genre became an accepted socially-critical literature in the 1920s,largely,says Hobsbawm,under the Russian revolutionary avant-garde who extolled fact against pop entertainment which the European Left always condemned as people’s opium.
The Indian freedom struggle certainly contributed to the rise of modern consciousness in all branches of life inside India, more so in the nationalist consciousness in arts and literature. Bengal renaissance was a long process, long before the coming of Gandhi’s non-violence in politics, the pre-1905 years were the years of terrorists of Bengal. As rightly noted by more than one writer of the times, that there is a similarity to the rise of revolutionary politics modeled on the Irish revolutionaries. The Bengal revolutionaries named one of their armies as” Republican Army, Chittagong branch” the very name the Irish revolutionaries gave themselves then.
Yes, we cant say the same thing as to the rise of nationalist literature that was born in Ireland and there was no such literary output, though the literature and poetry of the times still bear witness to the bare echoes, if not a more strident voice of freedom ,in the Bengalis writings then. Tagore’s” Home and the world” is a true reflection of the rising consciousness of the Indian people then.
Be in that sense, there is this equally immense sense of anger and outrage against the American dominance of the world. There is this rise of anti-Americanism, as a countervailing force to encounter the brutality of the deployment of physical force, military and economic force to subdue nations to tread a particular course that serve the American interests at once, no matter how short-sighted such a course can be. It is in this context, the historic context we have to see what role, if any, literature plays or can play. We all seem to know the use of literature, or for that matter, the arts and its many dimensions. All literature, in all languages, is not serving the same functions, it seems.
Arts in general seem to stand on a different footing. Arts like buildings, paintings or such designs in the physical forms, like the Greek and Roman forums, in India the famed temples and caves, Ajanta and Ellora are all meant to give expression to peoples’ artistic and cultural and civilisational impulses.
As for literature proper, most of the world’s language literatures are not known outside these language groups. Only the world’s most dominate languages, English, French, German, Spanish and the Russian language literatures are widely know throughout the world. This may be an accident of history. Thus, we in India seem to know, that is the English educated middle class readers, more about English literature than we know the literatures in the Indian languages. Hence, the boast, an ignorant boast at that, of Salman Rushdie who dismissed much of the Indian language literature and preferred the English writing and the writers.
Now, as for the use of literature we know more of the use of literature in India It helped to enlighten the readers, our epics did this job admirably well down through the ages and we seem to be having the same view of the use and purpose of literature even today, that of making us happy, to enjoy reading and appreciating the literary beauties and the aesthetical value and much else and in a main way our social and moral side of the arts is taken care of by literature and poetry etc.
In modern times too the same preoccupation with non-political function of literature is well understood, even in Tagore and afterwards. Or, can we say that Bankim Chandra and Tagore helped Indians to find through literature a national awakening and our taste for political action? I am not sure of a clear answer, as for these two writers, in particular.
But this much can be said for certain. There was always the impact of such new literature of modern India and that helped Indians to acquire nationalist consciousness. Outside Bengal, I am not even sure of any such question being asked, then or now. Not so conclusively, I feel.
Anyway, it was at the turn of the last century, we saw such political stirrings among the literary-minded persons, more specifically in Ireland, a country that was long suppressed and treated almost as an extended territory of England.
Said W.B.Yeats: “The modern literature of Ireland, and indeed all that stir of the thought that prepared for the Anglo-Irish war, began when Parnell (Irish rebel politician) fell from power in 1891.From that event was conceived and the race began, a disillusioned and embittered Ireland turned from parliamentary politics to direct political action. The rest, as it is said, is history. The bloody history of Ireland is also a history of the rise of the powerful Irish literary activism. Yeats and the long list of the literary geniuses are all known. James Joyce is such a bright star that he has been written and rewritten now for some four or five generations!
Yeats is too much of an old hat, so too all others who had openly proclaimed and performed their direct political engagement and many paid for that role dearly with their lives and reputations.
Shelley may be taken as the starting point when he said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Now, to come back to a contemporary writer, Harold Pinter who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2005, Pinter, if anything an unabashed America-baiter. His Nobel speech itself testified to that effect. Now in a collection of his prose, poetry and political speeches (Various Voices, 1948-2005) Pinter gives full expression to the role of literature and in his case, theatre to its role in giving meaning and voice to some of the issues of the day.
“We have heard many times that tired, grimy phrase:’ failure of communication’… and this phrase has been fixed to my work quite consistently. I believe the contrary. I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid.” Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone’s life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome a possibility”. Pinter has many interesting things to say about literature and its creativity. The blank page can be both exciting and frightening, he says, exciting because the blank page is where you start working from and frightening because you don’t know until you have covered it!
Yes, creative ability is always an unpredictable activity or an unpredictable course; you don’t know for sure where you are going until you have traveled the road to the point of an end. Once you finished the travel, then, as Pinter says, you are again faced with the feeling of emptiness. He says:” Each play for me was a ‘different kind of failure’” That feeling is also the impulse for trying the next play. So he says he went on to write his next play with that feeling only. He had written nine plays and staged them in different settings, outside England too and that is why he is justly famous and well-known as won the Nobel Prize.
But from what he has created as plays, as a piece of literature, it doesn’t follow he has developed any political or social visions. Certainly, his politics as such, his rabid anti-Americanism doesn’t seem to spring from any of his literary impulse. Not to me at any rate, not as I am able to find in other writers.
All who had had a political role, like W.B.Yeats who played such a leading role in the Irish-Celtic arts revival and that led directly to the Irish nationalism and much else and the present day tremors in Ireland, in the North as well as in the South can be directly traced to the Irish-Celtic literary revival, use of Irish language as a medium of education, Irish drama, Irish poetry and much else had made Ireland even today a disproportionately a major literary force in the world of letters.
Of course, the political obligation of literature has been there throughout history. In modern times, we have had the Russian writers under Communism, so too the other writers in the entire Eastern European countries under the Communist dictatorships. Writers and poets and artists had paid dearly for their convictions, even some like Mayakovsky, a poet who turned a party propagandist had to pay dearly for his exuberance. I needn’t give out names, there are too many, from Boris Pasternak to Josef Brodsky to Anna Akhamatova to the venerable Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Brodsky’s life is a moral fable, as Czeslaw Milosz says. Imprisoned by the brutal state, thrown out of the country, lived as exile, and after his death, the head of the state kneeling beside his coffin! Yes, that is the power of literature and poetry, poetry the greatest mark of any language, Brodsky demonstrates a point for generations to know and if possible to live by as an example. Says Milosz: “A fairy tale, yet it did happen like that, in our hardly fairy- tale-like century”!
In literature the real strength is always poetry, it is so in every language. Brodsky is a real poet who demonstrated what a poet can do. A departure from poetical forms, in versification, from metrical norms and rhymes seems to coincide in time with the radical changes in our ways of life, the speed of living, the quick changes in socio-economic fortunes of entire societies, as the one we seem to be living and passing through calls for poetry that would catch the attention of the best and the sophisticated sections of such societies.
Also, the explosion of popular culture, popular entertainment, the new genres, like new music and even such new genres like performance poetry and much else creates a challenge and opportunities to refine and radicalize your emotions given form in literature and poetical creations.
Nobel Prize for Tagore
So, too in a way the English language literature dominates the world literary trends, in my opinion, in an inverse proportion. The outside world, in Europe, more so in the Nordic land, the Nobel Prize Committee in particular seems to be taking a more establishment view of the literary activity. If it is in English language then, it is over-rated. If the literature is in any other language, other than the major European languages, then the chances of such creative genius getting international recognition is diminished. A Tagore, it now seems, is an aberration, an accident, thanks to his happened to be known to a set of well-connected literary and artistic friends at that point of time. Otherwise, none of the Indian language literature is likely to be receiving any such notice.
Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who won the 1980 Nobel Prize has many interesting things to say about literature, the use of English language in translations and how the Russians, the poets and writers always managed to translate their writing into English or get translated and therefore they got noticed more than other language writers. Polish writers are also of great impact on the Continent, more so for the Russian writers.
Unfortunately, we Indians who have been fortunate enough to have the power and influence to do much to promote Indian literature abroad are not doing their bit of help. There is not much awareness about promoting Indian literature abroad, in the English and other continental languages. After the first few years when the Sahitya Akademy was set up, when Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Radhakrishnan and others were at the helm of the Akademy, there was a lack of leadership, lack of vision and today we see a perceptible decline in its activities.
It is also the period that is since Independence, the Indian language literature suffered while the English language writing by Indians has come to the fore. Now, there is an epidemic of novels in English by Indians, mostly by women writers, every other woman writer who has spent a some time in the USA has come out with a carefully crafted” creative writing” style formula that seems paying.
10,000 new novels each year!
The FT (Financial Times) weekend book review page has recently carried out a review about novels publishing. Five books alone for giving guidance as to how to read a novel! “Now, reading is a highly stressful business” the reviewer says!” A book is published every 30 seconds. This includes 10,000 new novels every year, with ten times as many on the publishers’ backlist”!
I used to think that it is really worthless to ready any American novel, after I stopped reading after my favorite author Ernest Hemingway and one or two Somerset Maughm. Now, it is my experience, that to read the new Indian writers in English is equally forbidding. They are deliberately written with a formula, lately, bigger the bulk the better, it seems. Where is the time to rush through so much of the acres of printed pages?
Writing and publishing has now become a big business and with the rate of this high turnout, it is very likely that most written stuff would remain unread and go down the drain and serious literature is difficult to find in this ocean of mediocrity. One highly gifted individual, one highly contemplated piece of writing, now and then, might come to capture the spirit of the times and that will the milestone in the evolution of high arts and culture.
Politics might surely impact and so too in turn, it is literature and the culture to which people would turn to seek an understanding and for establishing a communizing of their hopes and fears, their aspirations and seeks their inspirations.
Rather there is a rather cynical attitude even among those writers, who had won the highest literary prizes and have lived all their lives abroad, to run down what Indian literature has got to offer. The Indian language writers feel second class citizens even among the fellow Indian writers who all write in English and therefore feel instinctively superior for that!
This is one more instance of the Indian mindset still held hostage to the hang-up of the colonial past. Even the new generation writers in English language and those who bask in the glory of the literary prizes and such blandishments with which British literary establishment continues to dominate and even over-awe the Indian literary establishment has to be seen for what it is worth.
India’s language literature
Unless there is a new initiative to launch a new scheme to translate a large number of our Indian language classics, there is no chance Indian literature would get noticed abroad. The Ministry of Education must come out with a separate budget for such a translation project in order to make our Indian languages to emerge as possessed of an equally muscular strength and confidence.
English has come to play such a critical role in our emergence as an economic power. So, we have to use the language in our literary and educational curriculum as part of any basic education and bilinguism is today imperative. We can already see the use of English language in promoting regional language literature. Given the utter poverty of the Orissa state, I am often amazed to see such a large number of Oriya writers, poets more than prose writers (!), who write with equal felicity in English too!
This is not the case in other language, including Bengali, where you can assume a wider English knowing readership is available or down South in Malayalam where there is an active writer’s population and also some local publishers who aim for an all Indian audience. In TN, there is a reverse development. Everything in Tamil today is made cheap, the film culture has degraded the literary tastes and the role of the Dravidian leaders who pretend to be writers and who bring their political clout to dumb and silence the rise of independent voices also added to the darkness that has set in the South.
Mass culture kills creative writing
Today we see in India, the parallel to the Hollywood culture in Bollywood and down South, a much more virulent commercial and vulgar cinema culture that threatens to kill any serious pursuit of high arts or serious literature. One more outcome of the current populist culture, the tabloid press and the commercial cinema’s impact is the deadly mix of film actors, actresses as democratic political leaders! All is populism, commercial, money and corruption-driven. In a recent exchange of letters between two writers, poets, it was brought out how a Chief Minister of a state managed to get his only name recommended for the award of Jnanpeet award year after year for nearly a decade!
That was the time also when the chairmen of the Jnanpeet award committee were none other than the former Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao and then Dr.Karan Singh respectively. These two men were writers themselves and given to respect the republic of letters and hence it is thanks to their status, the particular language literature was sparred from getting awarded such a reputed award to the incumbent Chief Minister! Worse, it seems, the scenario, in Sahitya Akademy, the national level organization to recognize and promote literature in the Indian languages. The rules of the award for literature in the Indian languages are framed in such a way there is intense canvassing, first, to get the books by the respective authors into one of the three that are considered. After this first process was over, then another intensive pressure tactics is mounted so that one of the three is selected finally! As a result, most of the books awarded the prize don’t make it to the public attention, they remain unread, and in some cases the prize is awarded not for the creative works but for some pedantic academic writing!
Yes, currently, this language literature is inundated with the academics-turned literary writers. Most of their writings might have some merit but their literature doesn’t capture either the height of imagination nor do they reflect the realities of the world.
The stark fact remains that while there is a huge Indian population living outside in India, in the USA, Canada and UK, there are associations devoted to promote Tamil, Telugu and Kannada and other languages there is no real growth in literary tastes. Some of the publications promoted by these NRI-based organizations don’t measure up to any international quality standards.
Also a glance through the literature that is available in English shows that when it comes to translations from other languages, the European and Eastern European languages score high, Russian language literature is available in such extension’s too the Polish and Italian languages widely translated. Compared to this phenomenon, Indian languages literature is hardly anywhere in the international league.
It is time we reorganize out university literature and languages depts. into one of combined depts. that would strive to promote comparative literatures and also translations from one to the other of the Indian languages.
Literature by definition has to be serious literature if it is to capture the imagination of the larger world. A writer or a poet need not be a democrat or pander to any popular fancies and fantasies. As it is said of Josef Brodsky, the Great Russian poet, he was no democrat and he believed that poetry in every society known to history is of interest to little more than one percent of the population. Second, one cannot speak of equality among poets, with the exception of the few who are the very best, to whom it is inappropriate to apply the labels “greater” or “lesser”. Says the great Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz:”As egalitarian as could be in his instincts, an opponent of any division into the intelligentsia and the people, in relation to art he was as aristocratic as Nabokov.”(Czeslaw Milosz: To Begin Where I Am, Selected Essays, New York).
We have to compete with the internationally known and admired languages like English, French, Italian and Spanish and also our writers must travel and interact with their peers in respective spheres.
I haven’t heard any such instance in the last several years. What we hear is about our writers staying in universities and teaching. Or researchers of high standing, like the late much admired A.K.Ramanunjan are becoming exceptions rather than the norm. As it is, most of the English language writers migrate to the US or UK, to stay close to their audience and the publishers and their agents so that they get noticed by all concerned. Otherwise, there is every chance of their talents gets wasted in the Indian environment. As for the Indian language writers, their chances to reach outside their provinces’ borders seem slim. Except some rare exceptions. In Malayalam, Bengali, Oriya and Assamese I find some rare achievements and these names to be made known widely.
Certainly, there is much to ponder and introspect about the likelihood of Indian language writers emerging as others like from the European continent, like the Russian and other Eastern European countries. It is remarkable that a man like Brodsky, with no school or university, he suffered, migrated to USA, learnt English and wrote in English and won the Nobel Prize for literature! That is something unparallelled. There are lessons here for Indian writers.