State of the Discipline: The Indian Context
Subha Chakraborty Dasgupta
Believe it or not, this is the second or third occasion when a Comparative Literature Journal has come forward to take note of the state of the discipline in India, where it has been in practice quite rigorously for more than half a century. True, there were only two full-fledged departments of Comparative Literature in the country until some time back, but there were Centres and Modern Indian Literature and Language departments along with a few English Literature departments that offered courses in Comparative Literature. In the last Five Year Plan, three Centres of Comparative Literature came up in three newly formed Central Universities. Skeptics feel that it is in the interest of the universities to reduce the number of literature departments to one and not two or three, for in India there is usually a department of English and a department of the regional language along with one or several other foreign or Indian languages. Meanwhile, a few older Centres offering courses in Comparative Literature along with English have reverted back to their single literature status. What surfaces, then, is that the state of the discipline in India is not very different from the rest of the world, where state support and financial resources for the humanities are far from adequate but where meaningful and globally relevant research activities are being carried out. Sometimes such activities take place in Single Literature or Culture Studies departments as well, and Comparative Literature departments in the country, with assistance from the Comparative Literature Association of India, continue to fight for the rights of their students to be eligible to apply for posts in such departments. Susan Bassnett’s statement, made two decades back, that Comparative Literature was on the decline in the West and was gaining ground in the rest of the world, particularly in Asian countries (4-5), is only partially true in the context of India.
It is important to go into the history of Comparative Literature in India a little before talking about its present state. Comparative Literature in India began in 1956 with the establishment of Jadavpur University in Calcutta, a university that had as its parent body the National Council of Education. The National Council had come into being in 1906 at an important moment in the history of the nationalist movement and in an effort to establish a system of education by the people that would best serve their interests. This was also the body where Rabindranath Tagore made his speech on world literature – or visvasahitya – that he called Comparative Literature in 1907. Buddhadeva Bose, a renowned poet whose name is linked with the beginning of the modernist movement in Bengali poetry in the thirties of the twentieth century, and who was also a profuse translator of modern non-English European poetry as well as of the classical Sanskrit author Kalidasa, was called upon to take charge of the department. Bose invited Sudhindranath Datta, another important modern poet and translator, to teach in the department. Datta had earlier written a path-breaking essay entitled “Kavyer Mukti,” or the liberation of poetry, in which he advocated interacting with poetic traditions from all over the world. What I wish to underline is the fact that the foundational impulses of the discipline in Bengal were creative, with a focus on the training of the imagination, and were transnational, along with a trace of the historical imperative to look beyond the colonial masters. Contrary to the popular perception, decolonizing processes were never really the defining factors in carving out a pedagogy. There were larger goals and visions. English literature had an important place in the syllabus and in the first phase Jesuit priests and Sanskrit scholars were part of the faculty. I should mention here that my citation of events related to the department at Jadavpur University stems from the fact that it was the single full-fledged department of Comparative Literature in the country for a long period.
The first two decades of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur had a large section of Sanskrit, European and Bengali literature in the syllabus, while courses on Indian Literature were introduced in the seventies; at the end of the seventies, the syllabus began to include texts from Latin American and African countries. Today, there are Area Studies components in the syllabus that include Africa, Latin America, Bangladesh and Canada. Meanwhile, Delhi University’s department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies began in the seventies to focus on Comparative Indian Literature and some very substantial work emerged from the department. In fact, Comparative Indian Literature is the preferred nomenclature in several Centres in the country. The large diversity of cultural traditions brought together by shared histories in India calls for a comprehensive comparative approach to the study of literature in the country; Comparative Indian Literature perhaps also has the potential to develop a Comparative Literature that is marked by a greater degree of difference – particularly with reference to the construction of theory in Comparative Literature departments such as that at Jadavpur. The question of relation-in-difference, which needs to be stressed, gets underscored in most engagements that the discipline undertakes, as questions of comparison and relationship are formulated with reference to the historical time and space where they are generated. Each is again relevant to the set of a larger framework of questions in a larger history. Therefore, questions such as the one framed by R. Radhakrishnan in his thought-provoking essay in New Literary History – “When was the last time comparisons were made between ‘cosmopolitan realisms’ and ‘third-world realisms’?” (454) and his answer: “never” (454) – come as a surprise to comparatists from a place like India where the discipline itself is premised on such questions. It is also in formulating and responding to similar questions that the history of the discipline in the world gets written. But to go back to the question of Indian Literature foregrounded in Comparative Literature in the country, it must be stated that a deep engagement with areas of Indian Literature inevitably leads to a dynamic transnational perspective, with the constant flow of people to and from the country to the outside world, and then, a moving caravan of thoughts, religions, myths and stories, and later, texts and translations. Within India again, as in all nations, the cultural scene is fraught with fissures and disjunctures, with intensely differentiated segments, and an important urge in recent years has been to include peripheral voices from literary and oral traditions. The challenge before the Indian comparatist today is to be more inclusive in a non-hierarchical manner: to move outside one’s frame of reference, or at least allow it to get unsettled, which is perhaps also symptomatic of the comparatist’s predicament in the world today. Translation Studies in its interface with Comparative Literature provided some stimulating work in this area at Hyderabad University.
At the turn of the century, Cultural Studies programmes did usurp the space of Comparative Literature to some extent, and Comparative Literature responded by moving into a larger space of interdisciplinarity, particularly in its research areas. Delhi University for instance, developed a course on modes of envisaging space with reference to literature, architecture and the construction of Indian cities. The department at Jadavpur took up the theme of Literature as Knowledge System as a project under the University Grants Commission’s Special Assistance Programme, interacting with philosophers, sociologists and scientists. Interdisciplinarity was more than an attempt to see how the language of one discipline could lead to an enhanced understanding of the language of the other and seemed to imply the construction of a new object for contemplation. There are, of course, debates related to the linking of literature with ‘knowledge,’ but the ongoing exercise is important in as much as it allows for a space to reconceptualize or re-articulate the place of literature in today’s world, and that from as many varied perspectives as possible.
The state of the discipline is also necessarily linked with the degree of interconnections that it establishes with institutions and individuals engaging with Comparative Literature in different places in the world, and I have to state that there has been very little significant dialogue between Indian comparatists and the rest of the world. In the international forum, that is the International Comparative Literature Association, there has been a nominal representation and some members have also participated in collaborative projects, but more is required as it is eminently possible in today’s world. That Inquire has come forward to initiate such networks is proof enough that the discipline is well and thriving.
Bassnett, Susan. “Introduction: What is Comparative Literature Today?” Comparative Literature: a Critical Introduction. Oxford; Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993. 1-11. Print.
Radhakrishnan, R. “Why Compare?” New Literary History 40.3 (Summer 2009): 453-71. Print.
Subha Chakraborty Dasgupta is Professor of Comparative Literature and Joint Director of the School of Cultural Texts and Records at Jadavpur University. She has a book entitled Reception of World Literature in Bengali Periodicals (1890-1900), a monograph focussing on orature, and several edited volumes on themes related to Comparative Literature. A recent volume that she edited is an annotated bibliography of travel narratives entitled Of Asian Lands: A View from Bengal. At present she is working on a translation project on the compilation of discourses in Bengali. She is the current editor of Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature.