Literature has always impacted society in its own subtle ways. Its impact may not be felt as quickly as that of, say, music, theatre or film, which are perhaps more effective instruments of direct communication; but it leaves a more long-lasting impression on its readers and slowly but surely brings about a transformation in their attitude to the world, real as well as of ideas. The awakening of a so-far invisible or marginalised segment of society is always first felt in literature: in its language as well as its cumulative psychological and social impact. And India has been no exception to this.
The democratic tradition of renaissance and resistance in Indian literature can be traced back to the tribal and oral lore of the ancient past that voiced the perceptions, concerns and dreams of the community in simple, imaginative and sonorous verses, informed by a deep respect for the cosmic order, a profound understanding of human suffering and a mythopoeic imagination that infused nature and life with a strange sense of mystery and magic.
The early oral and written epics and poetry in Pali, Prakrit, Apabramsh, Sanskrit and the early form of Tamil, as well as the many tribal tongues belonging to diverse language families, Bhakti and Sufi poetry that declared the equality of all human beings before God and rejected the Varna and caste distinctions, power hierarchies and priesthood, and the ant-colonial poetry and fiction of the Indian Independence struggle have all enriched this tradition by a strong reformist urge and the interrogation of the status quo from diverse points of view.
The Progressive Movement of the 1940s and the ’50s, which consisted not only of Marxists but also Gandhians, Lohiaites and others with a broad socialist vision gave a new impetus to the class and caste struggle in India by speaking for the lowest strata of Indian society like peasants, workers, marginalised villagers, destitute women, Dalits, craftspeople, beggars and sex-workers as can be seen in the works of hundreds of writers from Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, Premchand, Sadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander, Kaifi Azmi and Bhisham Sahni, K.A. Abbas, Mulk Raj Anand, Gurdial Singh and Amrita Pritam to Bimal Mitra, Manik Bandopadhyaay, Tarashankar Banerjee, Sri Sri, Ranganayakamma, Jayakanthan, Thakazhi Siva-sankara Pillai, Lalitambika Antarjanam , Vaikom Muham-mad Basheer and O.N.V. Kurup.
From the 1970s onwards, the progressive literary tradition began to flower like never before with the emergence of several neglected sections of society getting empowered by democracy. This literature has emerged from a series of “transversal struggles” that have been raising the issues of decentralisation, right to cultural difference, caste and gender power, ecological caution and the rights of the tribal people to land, language and culture, and sought to fight the intrusion of the market in everyday life, the consequent reduction of liberty to mere consumer choice, the forced standardisation of culture sought by capitalist and communal forces, the valorisation of competition, suppression of autonomy, the subtle imperialism of the unipolar world in the wake of globalisation and the cultural amnesia imposed on the Indian people with their glorious intellectual and artistic traditions.
The modernism of the ’60s with its individualistic tendencies began to be interrogated as new collective identities got forged and a new a literature of opposition and an aesthetics of resistance began to evolve in almost all languages of India. I have elsewhere called these new collectivities “imagined communities” and “alternative nationhoods” as these writers have been trying to evolve their own concepts of community and nation where the voices of the silenced and marginalised would be heard aloud and listened to, and where they will have a decisive say in shaping the nation’s destiny.
Each citizen and each community has the right to imagine his/her/its own nation; the moment one tries to define this nation, name it and turn it into a religious, cultural or linguistic monolith, the idea of the nation evaporates and divisions begin to take over. India’s pluralism has always resisted imposed unities like the ones that the self-appointed champions of ‘Hindutva’ have sought to do. The last 25 years have brought these movements to the mainstream, especially through translations in English and Hindi.
The first group of these writers can be called “progressive modernists” as they combine a modern sensibility with a progressive outlook. Their writing is also informed by an awareness of the complexities and paradoxes of life in our times as also their urban experience. Poets from Kunwar Narain, Kedarnath Singh and Mangalesh Dabral to Varavara Rao, Joy Goswami, Surjit Patar and K.G. Shankara Pillai and fiction writers from Mahashweta Devi and Krishna Sobti to N. Prabhakaran and Ambikasuthan Mangad can be cited as random examples of this new writing.
Another imagined community is that of women poets, scores of whom have emerged with strong feminist inclinations in the last three decades in several Indian languages. Though India has a tradition of women’s writing extending from the Buddha’s times, a literature consciously committed to the cause of women’s emancipation, taking gender as the organising principle of experience and body as central to their language is a rather new phenomenon. It can be said to have begun with poets like Amrita Pritam and Kamala Das and has now several spokeswomen from Mallika Sengupta, Anamika and A. Jayaprabha to Salma, Pratibha Nandakumar and Savithri Rajeevan and includes several fiction writers from Nabanita Dev Sen and Mridula Garg to Sara Joseph and K.R. Meera, besides scores of others from all Indian languages.
These writers challenge the norms of the phallocentric discourse, interrogate patriarchal canons and try to forge idioms adequate to express the specifically feminine experiences of pain, solitude, desire and pleasure. But women’s writing is no monolith; it includes urban Muslim women like Imtiaz Dharker, exiles like Meena Alexander and Dalits like Gogu Shyamala, Bama and Prajna Lokhande, who reflect their specific community experience within the broader framework of women’s writing.
Dalit writing has been mainstreamed in Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi and Gujarati and has emerged strongly in Bengali, Oriya, Punjabi, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. It is no more a mere expression of the despair and indignation of the Dalit communities, who had been relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy for over 30 centuries, but an assertion of Dalit values and of the community’s rightful claim to all the privileges democracy gives its people.
The movement has produced extremely innovative poets from Namdeo Dhasal and Arjun Dangle in Marathi to S. Joseph and M.R. Renukumar in Malayalam besides fiction writers and memoirists like Lakshman Mane, Laxman Gaik-wad, Sharan Kumar Limbale, Joseph Mcwan and Meena Kandasamy. The Dalit poets have created their own aesthetic that often goes against the injunctions of traditional poetics, using expressions that used to be dismissed as gramya (rustic), chyutasamskara (culturally corrupt) and ashleela (obscene) and questioning rules like dhwani (suggestion) and ouchitya (propriety). They have brought into poetry a whole new lexicon rich with community dialects, slangs, street language and rarely known sayings and usages. They have redrawn the map of Indian literature by discovering and exploring many so far unlit areas of experience. Along with Dalits, tribal communities have also woken up and begun to claim their rights for land and life and retrieve their history from amnesia. They have realised that they we
re the first poets, philosophers, cosmologists, myth makers, artists and scientists. They have also a history of armed struggles against foreign invaders.
Vinayak Tumram has defined the new tribal literature as “the verbalisation of the primal pain of the maimed life of the adivasis”. The new tribal writing opposes the varna system that pushed them out of society and upholds the ideal of an egalitarian, non-hierarchical, non-exploitative and non-violent society. Prakriti, sanskriti and itihas (nature, culture and history) equally inspire their writing and they celebrate the positive tribal values of camaraderie, sharing and concern for nature.
Languages like Marava, Bodo, Bhili, Mundari, Santali, Gondi, Garo, Gammit, Bhartruhari, Mizo, Lepcha, Kokborok, Tenydie, Nagamese, Adi and Ho have thrown up a lot of new writing that connects with the specific oral traditions through their mythopoeic imagination and yet are distinctly contemporary.
Narayan, Anil Bodo, Ramdayal Munda, Nirmala Putul, Mamang Dai, Paul Lyngdoh, Easterine Kire, Bhujang Meshram and Vinayak Tumram — some of whom write in English — are only some of the champions of the new tribal writing of dissent and assertion.
This is the period of the “flowering of the backyard” — to borrow a phrase from U.R. Anantha Murthy- in Indian writing. It is not confined to literature; it is a reflection of the democratic aspirations of the subaltern sections of the Indian people, a collective step towards fuller democracy. They are going to inspire Indian people’s final battle against the tyranny of communal, capitalist and authoritarian forces.
(Poet, critic and translator, the author was the Secretary of Sahitya Akademi from 1996 to 2006. He was Director and Professor of the School of Translation Studies and Training at IGNOU in New Delhi.)