5 talks: DSSEAS Hindi Literature and Cultures 2013


DSSEAS • Hindi Literature and Cultures • 2013

Tuesday 26 February

Vasudha Paramasivan

5.00-6.30pm, DSSEAS Library

The Life of Tulsidas: Early Modern and Modern Literary Representations 

How did modern Hindi poetry negotiate its literary past? Modern literature in Hindi constituted itself both in conversation and argument with the literary traditions of early modern North India. This early modern literary tradition had at its core two foundational notions - that Brajbhasha was the language of literature, and bhakti (devotional) poetry the pinnacle of literary achievement. My talk seeks to explore the relationship between modern Hindi poetry and its literary past through a study of select early modern and modern literary representations of the life of Tulsidas (1532-1623), a towering figure in the history of Hindi literature. I will put in conversation the early modern Gosāī carit (late eighteenth century) and Suryakant Tripathi Nirala’s modern Hindi verse biography Tulsīdās (1938)In juxtaposing these texts, I will focus on thematic concerns in the portrayal of the poet’s life that highlight the continuities between these works of early modern and modern Hindi literature.

Monday 4 March

Ian Woolford

4.00-5.30pm, DSSEAS Library

A Singer's Guide to Hindi Literature 

Literature, performance, and ethnography are good partners, especially in South Asia, where texts are often heard, rather than read.  When singers are also writers, and poets are clowns, the critic needs a guide for interpretation: a singer's guide. The twentieth-century Hindi author Phanishwarnath Renu is one such guide. His fiction, which inspired the regional genre in Hindi literature, is characterized by its use of village song and performance and is said to contain the smell of the village soil of his native northeast Bihar. Renu was fluent in the oral tradition of the illiterate laborers, herdsmen, and jokers of this region. He was a performer—a singer of tales—so literary analysis alone is insufficient to investigate his station on the border of written and oral tradition. I draw on textual analysis and on fieldwork in Renu's village, during which I lived with his family and studied with the surviving members of his village song troupe. I explore a contrapuntal method of reading fiction and song that demonstrates the genius of Renu's work and the genius of the song tradition to which he belonged.


Thursday 7 March 

Preetha Mani

4.00-5.30pm, DSSEAS Library

What’s So New about the New Story, Anyway?

The 1950-60s Nayī Kahānī, or New Story, movement is widely understood to have inaugurated a new moment in the trajectory of Hindi literary production. Its writers self-consciously sought to break with the colonial past by experimenting with new uses of language and genre, thereby linking the short story to the changing circumstances of the new Indian nation. But the short story had already been a well established, widely circulating genre for at least thirty years. What, then, made the short story especially befitting of the post-Independence present? What was so new about the new story, anyway? In this talk, I address these questions through an exploration of three specific literary devices used by the nayī kahānī writers – a new realism, a new humanism, and a New Woman. I argue, however, that it is not the newness of these devices per se that made them particularly suited to the post-Independence present, but rather the way they put pre-Independence Hindi literary traditions to new use. It was its unique reconfiguration of past and present that enabled the nayī kahānī to successfully speak to regional, national, and even international audiences simultaneously, something the Hindi short story tradition had never before achieved. Understanding what’s so new about the nayī kahānī thus provides insight into the “major” status of the short story in the Indian context, while also pointing to the ways this genre actively imagined post-Independence humanism within and beyond the Hindi literary sphere.



Tuesday 12 March 

David Lunn

5.00-6.30pm,  DSSEAS Library 

Humanism and Hindustani: Conflict, Common Ground, and the Possibility of a South Asian Comparative Literature 

We are generally familiar with the social, cultural and political divergence of Hindi and Urdu and their increasing association with Hindu and Muslim religious identities respectively during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  However, the activities and outputs of a significant section of literary and cultural producers in the late colonial period demonstrate that this division was neither total nor inevitable.  This is a feature of Hindi and Urdu literature and cultural production that has received relatively little scholarly attention thus far.

Examining these products and processes in Hindi and Urdu alongside one another allows us to explore an important dimension of the cultural politics of pre-Independence India, whereby the divisive tenets of exclusionary and normative nationalisms were actively challenged through a focus on literary and linguistic commonality.  Humanism emerges as a critical lens through which to view these efforts, which regularly challenged divisions based on religion alongside those of language and literary heritage.  Additionally, the idea and ideal of Hindustani as a bridge or common ground, and as it was deployed in practice, requires more critical attention. Finally, this paper makes the case for the great potential that comparative approaches to South Asian literature offer for a more nuanced understanding of the region's cultural and intellectual history.


Thursday 14 March 

Sujata Mody

4.00-5.30 pm, DSSEAS Library 

Literary Authority, Contest and Modern Hindi Canon Formation

Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi (1864-1938) in his capacity as editor of the Hindi journal 'Sarasvati' was an influential arbiter of literary modernity in Hindi in the early twentieth century. In 1900, 'Sarasvati' was the first of a new brand of Hindi periodicals, the ‘illustrated monthly.’ Though its declared objective was to promote the cause of modern Hindi and its literature, the language was as yet unstandardized, and the very idea of a modern literature had not yet been theorized in Hindi public discourse. By the end of his nearly two decade tenure as editor, Dwivedi had transformed the journal into a leading literary force in the Hindi public sphere and conceptualized boundaries for a modern Hindi literature that laid the foundations for what is now considered a modern Hindi canon. Dwivedi’s literary authority did not, however, go unchallenged. While prevailing scholarship constructs Dwivedi as a figure of almost absolute literary authority, my work examines his literary agenda and activities alongside critical articulations and negotiations of his agenda made by a range of authors publishing poetry and prose within his primary sphere of influence, the literary-nationalist Hindi public sphere. In this presentation, I focus on a selection of Dwivedi’s strategic exclusions, negotiations and compromises made in the context of challenges to his literary authority and their significance to his project of canon formation. Of particular interest, as it bridges my current and future areas of research, is a literary engagement with history in two of the early twentieth-century genres over which Dwivedi exerted significant influence, the narrative poem and the short story. I explore the variable use of history across these genres of writing, with a focus on the historical-mythological poems of Maithilisharan Gupta (1886-1964) and the historical short fiction of Vrindavanlal Varma (1889-1969) and Jai Shankar Prasad (1889-1937). A focus on negotiations of Dwivedi’s agenda by these authors, and variations in his editorial policy across multiple genres, provides a closer, more nuanced view of Dwivedi era literature – not as the result of a sole directive or rejection by Dwivedi, a man of absolute power, but as a series of exchanges with an influential, though pragmatic arbiter of modern literature, who did not always have his literary way. It also provides further insight into the complexities of canon- and nation-formation, and the consensus-building that these processes necessarily involved.