3.1 Comparative Literature as Practised in the Department at Jadavpur University: History, Pedagogy and the Challenges Ahead
Rohit Dutta Roy
Even though the idea of Comparative Literature in India did not arise from the search for national literature as a political imperative, it is today seen as being intrinsic for a multilingual situation. Given the coterminous growth and simultaneity of our literary traditions, seeking aesthetic juxtapositions or a rapports de fait between literatures was almost essential in post-colonial India. The inadequacy of the framework pursued in single literary disciplines, the increasing cognizance of the inherent heterogeneity and dialectical interliterary process, and the literary moorings of both Buddhadeva Bose and Sudhindranath Datta having been tempered by a pan-European learning, had all been instrumental in the founding of the first full-fledged department of Comparative Literature in Asia in 1956 at Jadavpur University in Calcutta.
Sisir Kumar Das, the doyen of Comparative Literature in India, had pointed out how contact between literatures and cultures had continued unabated in the pre-modern era. However, the necessity to study the relations between literatures wasn’t felt until the end of the nineteenth century, when the literatures of India were being compartmentalized according to their linguistic affiliations, even as they were accepted as curriculum in academic institutions. Comparative literary studies as an academic discipline in India faced vehement opposition from single literary disciplines, yet it has prevailed to efficaciously challenge the myopia of monoliterary scholarship. Comparatists in India have, over decades, developed a systematic approach and formed our own meta-language, unlike the half-hearted adoptions from literary and cultural theory or selected tenets of the field of Comparative Literature made by single-language studies. As the emergence of Comparative Indian Literature in centres across the country also suggests, Indian comparatists have worked out an evolving pedagogy for Indian Literature through their cognizance of heterogeneity.
Times have changed since the 1950s and today, owing to the forces of the neoliberal economy, the focus is on doling out courses which have a high demand and open up to a lucrative job market. Even within the humanities the emphasis is on courses and disciplines which have already been institutionalized and have achieved prominence and popularity. It may be worrisome that almost six decades since the department of Comparative Literature was founded in the suburbs of a city which took pride in its cosmopolitanism and transnational influences in the growth of its modernist ethos, Calcutta hasn’t got another department of Comparative Literature admitting undergraduates. Yet, the future may not be so bleak. Individual efforts and recognition of the work being done at Jadavpur have reasserted the need for Comparative Literature as an essential part of single-language programmes. The Comparative Literature Association of India has been advocating for the introduction of Comparative Literature as a subject as well as its recognition as a single literature methodology.
In the Comparative Literature department at Jadavpur, the language of mediation is essentially English and Bangla; although, the professors themselves are well-versed in the languages and cultures of their core areas and often encourage students to take up language courses offered by the School of Languages in the University. Nepali and Tamil are the languages one can choose from as their compulsory language paper in the BA coursework. Comparative Literature maintains a focus on literature proper albeit as a social communicative system. It must be remembered that the considerable amount of students in Jadavpur interested in taking up Comparative Literature are first generation learners from the lower socio-economic strata guided by the urge to study literature and to gain exposure to other literary traditions. Their interest and enthusiasm to study in the department, when posed against the question of employment in academia, is a luxury they can ill-afford, even with the University’s annual session fees of only INR 999 and an additional 100 as examination fees (approximately 21 US Dollars). Most undergraduates in the department start their journey unsure of what to expect. They are often surprised to find that the coursework — besides giving them a grounding in historiography of India and the West, the thematological and genological process of literature, situating the texts within the context of their origin and reception — also engages with the dynamics of producing society.
The classes, still very much in the same mould as the initial years, foster the spirit of inquiry where nothing is taboo with discussions often ranging from comic books to newspaper reports. An undergraduate in the discipline is exposed to the multiplicity of the Ramayana traditions, learning to question the hegemonic idea of an authoritative version much in vogue since the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, while the ‘Literature and other Arts’ course makes a student ask the question integral to our discipline and the breaking of frontiers — ‘What is literature?’ — as he or she interrogates the very notion of the written world and critically analyzes graffiti, paintings, comic books, etc as part of their coursework. Some of the students choose to pursue Masters in Sociology, Arts and Aesthetics or Linguistics upon completion of their undergraduate degree requirements, and the many who choose to continue towards to a graduate programme have to be prepared for the openness and rigorousness that the specialization provides. This, in many ways, trains both the ones who would seek appointment after receiving their MA degrees as well as the ones who may strive to meet the demands of an MPhil or a Doctoral degree. The Master of Arts programme emphasizes transactions and evaluates cross-cultural appropriations, besides the subsequent study in the thematic and stylistics which emerged across various epochs. If a graduate class in ‘Comparative Literary Studies’ engages with cultural upheavals in post-colonial India and questions of realpolitik while remaining grounded in cultural materialism, an assignment under the course ‘Approaches to Comparative Literature’ may entail the rigorous study of the curriculum in a single-literary discipline, suggesting both topical changes and methodological shifts to avoid the curse of monolingualism.
When asked about his days as a student in the Department, this is what Assistant Professor Dr. Sayantan Dasgupta had to say: “During 1992-97 the time that I spent here as a student were interesting years. We were reading Classical Greek literature besides the Sanskritic tradition as well as Modern Indian Bhasha Literatures such as Malayalam and Gujarati, in translation, something revolutionary in those days. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude was being taught in the department even before his Nobel and the international acclaim which followed suit. It was that very same urge to be part of a process which was unique and the belief that with my training I could bring something new into the classroom which made me want to come back to the department, this time as a teacher.”
Comparative Literature in India – and more so at Jadavpur University – has evolved through praxis rather than a formal method, training future proponents as part of a closed institutional system. Therefore, as a graduate, what bothers me are not the same fears that Spivak may have had while pronouncing the death of Comparative Literature, since the Indian situation suffers from as Professor Ipshita Chanda has pointed out “malnutrition, rather than epistemological collapse” and to echo what Buddhadeva Bose, the founding head of the department at Jadavpur, had written back in 1959 “Comparative Literature has the further disadvantage of being on rather uncertain grounds as regards employment prospects, which consideration will deter many suited for literary studies.” While the Indian response to Comparative Literature might have solidified the institutionalization of comparative methodologies in various forms, it has yet to generate public interest or discussion in the media. As Master of Arts students hoping to pursue further academic research and then an opportunity to teach in a department of comparative literary studies, what plagues many of my peers is that the chances of tenure tracked faculty positions for a substantial number of prospective researchers are rather thin. Yet, those who would be looking for careers in publishing houses, media, advertising and the likes would be considerably far better equipped than their monoliterary counterparts, given the training that they receive here.
Even though the average Indian is by nature multilingual (or at least bilingual) and the intelligentsia holds Comparative Literature in high regard, its fewer job prospects in academia, due to socio-economic factors and resistance from single-literature disciplines, has meant that a large number of the relevant age cohort seeking higher education in the humanities often get admitted to single-language/literature departments. Though there is the lack of a public forum on Comparative Literature that could lead to increased general interest and its entry into the university classroom on a greater scale, the department at Jadavpur has served not just as an academic discipline but as an agency shaping organic intellectuals who would serve the social order. In a country where IT graduates earn more than agricultural scientists with higher education linked to an economics dominated by the service sector, Departments of Comparative Literature across the country have a larger role to play in the process of nation building. The future does hold great promise.
Bose, Buddhadeva. “Comparative Literature in India” Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature 45 (2007-08): 7-20.
Chanda, Ipshita. “Can the Non-Western Comparatist Speak?” Literary Research 20. London, ICLA, 2003. 58-68.
Chaudhuri, Indra Nath. “Historicizing Comparative Indian Literature” Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature 43 (2005-06): 119-128.
Das, Sisir Kumar. “Comparative Literature in India: A Historical Perspective” Aspects of Comparative Literature: Current Approaches. ed. Chandra Mohan. New Delhi: India Publishers and Distributors, 1989.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. Columbia: Columbia UP, 2003.
Rohit Dutta Roy is an alumnus of the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, India. His interests lie in the sphere of literary and cultural history. He has presented his scholarly work at Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Delhi, Banaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University, Visva-Bharati University, Central University of Rajasthan, Brown University, Duke University, University of Cambridge and Columbia University. He is also engaged in translating Bengali plays of Girish Chandra Ghosh, Bijon Bhattacharya and Utpal Dutt.