Back of The Book
Marathi literary theory emerged only in the second half of the nineteenth century—when it was “both, possible and necessary”. It emerged as an ideological need of the hour when popular critical discourse was absorbing and normalizing the colonial category of literature as (only) ‘creative writing’, a category which was largely absent in the pre-colonial Marathi cultural tradition.
Bringing Modernity Home: Marathi Literaty Theory in the Nineteenth Century seeks to map this epistemic negotiation through an analysis of eleven texts—also anthologized here—by six prominent nineteenth century thinkers from western India, Dadoba Pandurang Tarkhadkar, Mahadeo Moreshwar Kunte, Kashinath Balkrishna marathe, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Jatirao Phule and Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati.
By using, among other resources, the resources of radical liberalism creatively, these ‘nativist’ intellectuals—in the sense of ‘organic’ intellectuals, engaged with specific local cultural politics—collectively succeed in presenting an alternative understanding of the notion of literature—of literature as a cultural institution. The argument of the book is that this was a theoretically sophisticated understanding of the concept of literature that would not have been possible within the ideological framework of nationalism and in that, Marathi literary theory seems to side-step nationalism and to appropriate colonial modernity in a forceful way.
The extract used on the cover is taken from Dadoba Panduranga Tarkhadkar’s introduction to Kekavali (1865). It is rendered here in the traditional Modi style and in the Balbodh style of Devanagari script which gradually came to be preferred over Modi for Marathi printing by the nineteenth century.
The Modi passage is done in calligraphy while the composition of the Balbodh version is based on the typographical samples of Devanagari type cut by A. W. Von Schlegel in Germany in 1811. (Reference: Naik, Bapurao S. Typography of devanagari. Vol.3. Mumbai: Governement of Maharastra, Directorate of Languages, 1971).
Dr Prachi Gurjarpadhye is a former Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla. She teaches in the Department of English at Jai Hindi College, Mumbai. Bringing Modernity Home: Marathi Literary Theory in the Nineteenth Century is the first of a three-volume book mapping the mergence and growth of Marathi literary theory between 1860 and 1960.
Is there such a thing as Marathi literary theory?
Any indigenous literary theory is a strange beast. If it claims pedigree it seems to lose its authenticity and if it claims originality it only succeeds in looking outlandish. As a result, not many are willing to give it recognition. Perfectly reasonable people, who would amicably agree, for example, that the rasa theory from Sanskrit aesthetics and Structuralism from the Western tradition of literary theory, are animals of two very different species, would perhaps not extend such spirit of tolerance to any claims of citizenship status for Marathi literary theory. Most people would vehemently deny its existence. The more sympathetic ones would perhaps say that it has borrowed so much from the Classical theories and from the Western ones that it hardly stands on its own two feet to deserve being given the status of an independent entity in its own right.
If we were to set about building a methodical defence by beginning at the basics and ask what exactly 'literary theory' is, it would still leave us none the wiser. One would certainly begin well with the simple idea that theory is a set of principles that explain or account for a practical phenomenon, and it would logically follow then, that literary theory would mean a set of generalizations that underlie the literary practice in a culture, and that would, logically speaking, also govern the critical practice of that culture. The term 'literary theory' often used interchangeably with the term 'critical theory' generally means a culturally shared set of notions regarding questions such as: what is literature, what is the function of literature, what are the qualities of great literature and great writers, what constitutes 'literary' expression and how it is different from ordinary language, what are the standard features of a literary form such as tragedy; and also, by extension, questions such as, what is the function of criticism, what are the qualities of a critic, which standards determine a literary canon and so on. In short, literary or 'critical' theories seek to systematize the area of creative expression and its evaluation in a society and they also define the boundaries of this area. What could be neater than that?
The glorious simplicity and clarity of such a definition proves utterly useless however, when we begin to survey actual theories from world literary histories. The rasa theory and Structuralism both talk about literature and how it works, for example, but that commonality more or less ends there. It is not as if they both begin with a common set of questions and establish their findings using a similar methodology. It is not as if, in the light of our present state of enlightenment, their tenets can be placed side by side and categorized once and for all into two neat categories: valid and invalid. It will indeed be quite difficult to arrive at a definite set of features that are typical of all literary theory irrespective of where it is coming from.
So where does all this leave us?
We shall presently enter this maze of meta-theory but before we do that, first let me give you a plain account of what this book is about, at a simpler level.
The primary goal of this study is to establish a set of texts in Marathi as theoretical texts. Between 1865 and 1895, as many as eleven such texts came to be written, that may be described, in this author's opinion, as the early theoretical works in Marathi: three were written between 1865 and 1872 and almost all of the remaining eight were written during the 1880s. Written in various forms such as introductions, newspaper articles, letters, public lectures and also as sections in books with a larger theme, these texts can be seen as a collective body of writing that represents the early attempts at literary theorisation in Marathi.
Written by six writers coming from three different generations, and from three different varnas of the Hindu fold, these eleven texts reflect a range of some very complex aspects of colonial cultural politics in western India. Ironically, only Naval va Natak, the most tepid of these texts, has been acknowledged to some extent as constituting an attempt at theorisation, partly because it has had the advantage over other texts of appearing independently in a book form. However, now, after literary theory has enjoyed so much importance and has been the focal point of academic discussions world-wide, it may be said to be time to look more closely than that, at the corpus of nineteenth century writings in a modern Indian language like Marathi and to look for literary theory that we may perhaps call 'Marathi' literary theory.
These six authors are Dadoba Panduranga Tarkhadkar (1814-1882), a Vaisya religious reformer and scholar; Mahadeo Moreswar Kunte (1835-1888), a Citpauan educationist and intellectual; Kasinath Balkrisna Marathe (1844-1918), a Citpaoan scholar, well-entrenched in the colonial administrative set-up, Jotirao Phule (1827-1890) a Matt cultivator, a successful businessman and a radical social and religious reformer, Copal Canes Agarkar (1856-1895), a Citpauan educationist, journalist and social reformer, often described as an atheist, and Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), a Citpauan Sanskrit scholar and an early feminist figure, who had converted to Christianity. Kunte and Marathe largely stayed close to the Brahminical fold but the remaining four figures were radical social reformers who consciously sought to distance themselves ideologically from the Hindu Brahminical establishment. Their writings on literature reflect the pulls and pressures of their cultural climate and when placed in the context of their contemporary cultural politics their texts show evidence of a very sophisticated and nuanced reading of the notion of literature.
A small disclaimer: this history of Marathi theory does not claim to be an exhaustive one. It is more like a map and it would perhaps be possible to include some more texts in the list of theoretical works from the nineteenth century after a more extensive survey. I have not looked at the huge body of journal articles, for example, and to that extent this is a partial and incomplete history. The attempt here is to propose a possible canon and to show ways in which the newly emerging theoretical writing was an epistemological response to the presence of Western discourses in the nineteenth century cultural milieu.
The central argument of this study is that the degree of involvement of these writers in the cultural realities and conflicts has something to do with the way they approach the notion of literature. If they could say something original about the category of literature, it was not because they were borrowing freely from the West but because their grasp of their immediate cultural realities was strong and they could borrow intelligently and creatively.
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