Few Questions on Hindi Literary Historiography

Ganga Sahay Meena is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at gsmeena.jnu[at]gmail.com.

Ganga Sahay Meena

Whether it is historiography or the relationship between the work and its criticism, the assessment of the work and the era is determined by a particular viewpoint. Hence, it is extremely important to know the perspective from which a literary historiographer or a critic looks at a particular work or era. Now that we live in a democratic society and we have more opportunities to say what we want to than in the past, it becomes necessary to talk about the character and form of historiography of Hindi literature. It is necessary because there is an unspoken agreement on certain things in criticism and literary historiography, which is extremely dangerous for healthy literature and criticism. It is necessary to question and review them, at the very least. There are reportedly a lot of people asking for the rewriting of the history of Hindi literature but, in effect, this is no different from the “first” and the “second tradition” of Hindi criticism, or against the “first” history of Hindi literature, the “Second History of Hindi Literature” (Hindi Sahitya ka Doosra Itihas) of Bachchan Singh. In both cases, the word second is used to emphasize a certain distinct character, but there is hardly anything that distinguishes one from the other. Instead of the perspective of “self” if something is written from the perspective of the “other” only then there appears the possibility for the second.

            Since the 1990s when literary historiography and criticism in Hindi began to be questioned, there has been much discussion regarding the decline of creativity and the “crisis in criticism”. The question is whether important works are no longer coming forth and if criticism is indeed facing a deep crisis or if this is only a fear arising out of the democratization of literature and criticism.

            A great part of Hindi literature prior to the modern period (Adikal, Bhaktikal and Ritikal) is full of religious, aesthetic and heroic literature, which is largely bereft of any social concern. Today, it has become part of our common sense and we cannot even imagine Hindi literature without it. Actually, we never felt the necessity for secular and progressive literature in Hindi. Even if we leave the rightists aside, the left-wing critics and scholars themselves are not tired of singing praises of Tulsidas and, in fact, use his quatrains and couplets as epigraphs for their writings and lectures. The reactionary understanding is that as long as the society is feudalistic, the form of its literary expression too will be feudal and not socialist. Those who entertain this wisdom and keep themselves limited to Hindi as well as those who ignore Indian languages and jump straight from Hindi into English forget that even a thousand years prior to the Adikal in Hindi, in this country itself Sangam literature was being written, which is not only secular but also quite rich. Even Premchand, while living in colonial India, was writing stories that went beyond opposing the colonial rule. Karl Marx’s Capital and Maxim Gorky’s Mother trespass this same logic.

There is history and sociology involved in the creation of such an ethos in readers and teachers of Hindi literature. Allow me to borrow the terms coined by Francesca Orsini, reader at the Department of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia, University of London. Since the beginning there have been two streams in Hindi literature: Ekmatpasand (unitarism) and Bahumatpasand (pluralism). Orsini’s conclusion seems to be correct that the given character of Hindi literature is due to predominance of the ekmatpasand stream. Explaining ekmatpasand Orsini writes: “Notwithstanding that one’s own perspective on a certain subject is correct, there are also other perspectives, they are possible. Perspectives, beliefs, rules begin to appear, to some extent, soft, flexible and doubtful. But there are people who do not agree to this. Them I have called ekmatpasand.” It is obvious that in Hindi the ekmatpasand stream has dominated Hindi.

            Questions are raised about religious literature as well. All bhaktakavis (Bhakti poets), including Tulsidas, in their writings, consider Ram and Krishna as God’s incarnations. These writings are used across the country primarily at the time of religious rituals. Now this must be considered the Hindu ethos of the Hindi literary historiographers and critics that according to them this purely religious book is the greatest Hindi work and Tulsidas is the greatest poet. And Ramchandra Shukla who established Tulsidas’ reputation is considered the best Hindi critic and his Hindi Sahitya ka Itihas (A History of Hindi Literature) is taken to be the best literary history of Hindi. All these things are holy cows for a range of critics and scholars – from left to right. One can find even the critics belonging to most radical ideology saying that without Tulsidas and Ramcharitmanas, Ramchandra Shukla and his history of Hindi literature, it is impossible to read Hindi literature. What kind of relationship is this between work and criticism? Now when questions like this are being asked, there is an attempt to reject them by appealing to a “crisis in criticism”.

From Indrajalakala (The Art of Magic) Meerut, India: Jwala Prakash Press, 1884

            It is important to illustrate this ekmatpasand stream. Ramchandra Shukla’s colleague in Nagri Pracharini Sabha and the Banaras Hindi University, Shayam Sundar Das has thus introduced Kabir: “Despite having been raised in a Muslim house, Kabir was full of Hindu ideas and this implies Brahmin or at least Hindu blood running in his veins.” What kind of scientific perspective is this on the basis of which Shayam Sundar Das is assessing Kabir’s poetry? This has been the perspective, more or less, of the entire ekmatpasand stream. One can only imagine the direction it gave to Hindi literature and criticism.

            Commenting on this very character of Hindi, short-story writer Uday Prakash says in his famous novel Peeli Chhatri Vali Ladki (The Girl with the Yellow Umbrella): “In the Hindi department Saligram, Shailendra George and Rahul were sailing in the same boat. The trio would visit the library and head to the Hindi section where they counted the name of the writers. How many writers from which caste? They would underline the castes of writers and poets who won awards, and of the judges. They would make a list of officials and staff who worked in all the Hindi-related institutions, academies etc. They would keenly observe the names of correspondents, editors, bureau chiefs and producers of newspapers and TV news channels … In the whole world there would be no other instance where one caste group has so completely seized control of a language.”

            Taking yet another recourse to Orsini’s words, one must say, “In the Hindi world ultimately the ekmatpasand forces prevailed – whether newspapers or magazines, literary institutes, and even the Congress. There everyone accepted such Hindi that was no doubt pure, but was neither native nor representative of the variety in this Hindi world.” Today that variety is becoming visible, by way of creative expression of women, Dalits, tribals and OBCs. Purist ekmatpasand impulse has been trying to reject these expressions by establishing various kinds of standards but like a river, the flood of people’s creativity is overcoming all hurdles and making its own way forward.

            These are few questions related to Hindi literary historiography. But it doesn’t end here. There are many other issues to contend with – to write a complete history of Hindi literature. This will be possible only when, through self-criticism, we reflect impartially on various problems of Hindi literary historiography and, taking everyone along, take a common step to write a complete literary history of Hindi.

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