[REVIEW] “A Cosmopolitan Breadth of Vision: A Review of Essays and Lectures on Indian Literature and Aesthetics” by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

{Written by Sucharita Dutta-Asane, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

H.S. Shivaprakash (author) and Kamalakar Bhat (editor), The Word in the World: Essays and Lectures on Indian Literature and Aesthetics, Manipal Universal Press, 2019. 292 pgs.

In reviewing a book of essays and lectures on Indian literature and aesthetics, let me begin with lines from a wholly different kind of book.

The most important element of the word recognition … lies in its first syllable, which harks back to something prior, an already existing awareness that makes possible the passage from ignorance to knowledge: a moment of recognition occurs when a prior awareness flashes before us, effecting an instant change in our understanding of that which is beheld. Yet this flash cannot appear spontaneously; it cannot disclose itself except in the presence of its lost other. The knowledge that results from recognition, then, is not of the same kind as the discovery of something new: it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.

—Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

The Word in the World: Essays and Lectures on Indian Literature and Aesthetics is a call for such recognition apropos the world of Indian literature. The ideas in this compilation take shape, find iteration and movement in different contexts across thirty-five essays organised in four thematic sections: “The Bhakti World,” “The Kannada World,” “The World of Drama” and “The World of Indian Cultures and Literatures.” These cover topics related to medieval literatures, their consonances and dissonances with subsequent practice; Kannada literature and culture; the history and aesthetics of theatre in India and questions of “transitions,” “translations” and “transformations.”

It is apt that a book that looks closely at literary and linguistic currents, cross-currents, connections and continuities begins with a movement that was an amalgam of all these and more, far-reaching in its influence, originating in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and reaching as far into the north as Punjab. In this first section, H.S. Shivaprakash brings to his discussion the rigour and insight of lifelong engagement with Bhakti poetry, especially with Kannada Vachanas as a socio-cultural protest movement. However, Bhakti poetics—as lived poetry rather than versified, as poetry in action rather than stringently codified—hasn’t received the kind of attention that Sanskrit or Tamil poetics has. The spirituality of the Vachana poets is not divorced or distanced from their world of labour but derived through it, moving away from temple worship to a more trenchant socio-political slant and Nirguna Bhakti, to the body as the place of the sacred; this gives rise to its own meta-poetics that the writer engages with.

He traces continuity from Bhakti poetry to contemporary writing: the image of Akkamahadevi, the 12th-century woman saint, in Kannada feminist poetry; the poetry of Palkurike Somanatha (13th century) invoked by Telugu leftist poets; A.K. Ramanujan and Dilip Chitre, whose poetry carried the influence of the Bhakti tradition. To this idea of continuity, he adds a probing comparison of the degrees of rebelliousness seen in the various Bhakti movements—the Kannada and Tamil Shaiva Bhakti traditions, Kabir’s Nirguna Bhakti and that of the Varkharis, both Vaishnava movements more radical than those of Karnataka or of Tamil Nadu.

This constant fanning out from the individual and the regional to the national and the global and vice versa forms part of the essential premise of these lectures. At a time when regional and national identities seem to be in a tussle for dominance, it is important to be reminded of this cross-pollination of cultures and their influences on one another.

The second section takes a close look at the world of Kannada literature from the ancient times to modern practices. It raises important questions regarding the limitations of historiographic models and their linearity, which makes them restrictive and exclusionary. The argument loops back to the Bhakti tradition, successful in overthrowing the restrictiveness of patronage and vocabulary and in thus revolutionising society as well as the idiom of devotion and its performance. The section takes a hard look at modern Kannada poetry, its shift from being transitive to intransitive and the problems inherent to such repositioning.

In the third section on theatre, Shivaprakash calls out the exaggerated focus on form at the cost of honesty and the inherent raw energy of theatre. The privileging this brings to a clutch of expressions, according to him, is exhibited in the pre-ordained hierarchy of modern playwrights. He analyses the importance of rasa and bhava with an illuminating insight into its production in his own play The Bride. He traces the continuum and growth of Indian theatre from ancient Sanskrit drama to the evolution of modern urban theatre, offering an interesting description of how poetry can be reimagined and executed on stage through the example of K.S. Rajendran’s staging of Kalidasa’s Vikramorvashiyam.

The fourth section explores the “currents and crosscurrents” of Indian regional cultures and the multilingual interconnectedness of South Indian cultures among themselves as well as with the rest of India. He explores the “transitions, translations and transformations” that arise out of this exchange through the example of Andal’s Tiruppavai that “appeared between the twilight of the heroic age and the dawn of the devotional age,” marking the “transition from the Sangam to the Bhakti period in many ways.”

This constant transition-and-transformation that has enriched Indian cultural and literary engagements down the ages provides a gateway to experiments and renewed efforts to revitalise literary practises, but outside the rigid domains of classrooms and lecture halls, in the “doing” rather than just learning within an externally imposed framework.

The essential idea of cross-cultural traffic is encapsulated in the image of the Nataraja, the many responses it has evoked, its reception across various media and, especially, French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s response to it. In 1911, Rodin received a set of images of the Nataraja bronzes from the Chennai Museum. His brief was to write a piece on them for Ars Asiatica. Rodin the sculptor responded with poetry, an art form he had not practised till that point. He brought together the aesthetics of arts in their related homogeneity and complexity in his response to the images of Shiva’s cosmic dance, without, perhaps, prior knowledge of the mythology of this image. Shivaprakash touches upon this cross-cultural aesthetic in the chapter “Through Each Other’s Eyes: Rodin and Nataraja,” one of the most evocative chapters in the book that brings together many of the ideas of the earlier chapters, a tribute to the universal element of art that transcends all attempts at commodification and restrictiveness in time, and historical and geographical boundaries.

The “transitive dimensions of text and performance” forms a connective thread that arcs through the book, his involvement with Vachana poetry, with theatre and with translation, bringing an involved perspective and insight rather than that of the academic observer. Shivaprakash’s approach to art and aesthetics is one of interconnections, not isolation—of “recognition of forgotten kinship between different genres of art, paving a deeper understanding of interconnections between the arts, on the one hand, and those between arts and our life conditions.”

As a playwright, poet, translator, teacher, avid traveller among geographies, languages and ideas, Shivaprakash brings to his discussions a cosmopolitan breadth of vision and a practitioner’s depth of knowing, of doing. The multilingual perspective compels the rethinking and re-imagining of Indian literature as a whole and in its regional and intra-regional variations. His tone is of the searcher, the artist on a quest, and the questions that arise are organic to such endeavour.

Written sans academic jargon and theoretical compulsions, the lectures and essays are trajectories of exploring and understanding the poetry and poetics of literature and performance engendered by the times, tracing a process of reading, assorting, sifting and arriving at conclusions that is at the heart of all quests.

Kamalakar Bhat, poet, literary critic and teacher brings to the book his scholarly editorial intervention in its brilliant thematic structuring and creativity in the section titles. The latter set off the book’s idea of pluralities and interconnectedness that simultaneously contain, and nurture, the seed of uniqueness. The sections and ideas interloop, reflecting back on one another, extending and deepening the ideas and examples from across poetry, theatre and literature as performance, the reciprocal flowing out of the individual into the universal, much like the metaphor of the Mobius strip that Shivaprakash refers to.

As a compilation of the writer’s lectures and essays delivered on different occasions across different times, there is a natural overlap across some of the chapters; the repetitiveness does not grate but serves as reminders. However, a few of the essays seem dated and the book would have benefited from an additional chapter regarding the context and the timeline of the essays, the evolution of the writer’s complex thoughts, especially in view of the fact that much of writing, literature, translation and its audience has changed over the last two decades.

Once in a while an idea or a book comes along that presents the zeitgeist of another time and by doing so, reminds us of possibilities in contemporary times. This book is one such reminder, a moment of recognition of the connections, continuities, currents and cross-currents in our rich and varied literatures and linguistic cultures.

How to cite: Dutta-Asane, Sucharita. “A Cosmopolitan Breath of Vision: A Review of Essays and Lectures on Indian Literature and Aesthetics.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 5 Oct. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/10/05/indian/.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane is an award-winning writer and independent books editor based in Pune. Her debut collection, Cast Out and Other Stories, was published by Dhauli Books in 2018. In 2013, Sucharita received the inaugural Dastaan Award from the Pakistan based Papercuts Magazine for her short story “Rear View”. In 2008, she received the Oxford Bookstores debuting writers’ (second) award for Jungle Stories. Her stories have appeared in various literary journals and online fora including Bhashabandhan Literary Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Bangalore Review, and Open Road Review. Sucharita teaches courses in Writing and Editing at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, and Flame Liberal Arts University, Pune. From 2017 to 2019, she was the editor of the online literary journal Kitaab.

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