Friday, August 31, 2007


Speaking in one of the sessions of the yearly cultural meet held at Heggodu last October, Dr. U. R. Ananthamurthy bemoaned that contemporary breed of Kannada writers is atrophied by a lack of creative energy and critical ingenuity. As to skill and workmanship, they have everything, but flashes, none he averred at the same time. Dr. Murthy likened literary creativity to sprouting of a seed which sucks the moisture as also the warmth of mother earth and sprouts. As much ritualistic as seasonal this process is, a literary work should get produced as much the same way as the iron heated, beaten and tempered before it becomes a finished product in a smithy. These images of ‘ seed ‘ and ‘ iron ‘ are inarguably patent demonstrations of literary creativity, but then has literature that flourished in greater part of the previous two centuries sustained its phenomenal importance at the stroke of 21st century too ?

Modern literature in Kannada during a vast and significant part of the 20th century elevated itself to new heights what with writers like Masti, Kuvempu, Bendre, Karantha followed by Adiga, Ananthamurthy, Lankesh and then Mahadeva, Tejasvi, Vaidehi, Mogalli Ganesh, Vivek Shanbhag and a host of many perceptive authors as varied as they are myriad enriching our tradition and culture. It is again possibly true that in variety and pervasiveness the present generation of writers does not match any of these, who could possess rather easily the ‘ warmth ‘ of time as also to use Eliot’s phrase ‘ individual talent ‘. The present creed does have the latter, but to quote Ananthamurthy again, they suffer from an enervating feeling of a lack of urgency as also time’s constraints. A great writer emerges perhaps only once in a millennium like Shakespeare !

An overview of world literature may help us enlarge this perception better. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Gorky, Gogol and many Russia’s most celebrated brigade of writers have underneath their works a critique of a barbaric civilization unleashed by the Czars and nurtured by a fiefdom which had pervaded the whole of Russia and an exploitative, oppressive quasi – political bureaucracy that had sucked the masses to the very marrow. This prompted Lenin to say, “ Tolstoy is the mirror of Russian revolution “. But after the revolution what grew was an ineluctable propagandist literature that did no less damage to the cultural as also literary scene than what Czars did to the body politic. Literature produced then propounded the leftist ideology and had become as nuanced as to eulogise and glorify the ‘masters of revolution’ in an organized state machinery which curtailed human freedom in favour of bread, yet not butter. Tolstoy was not just the mirror of revolution, but a prophet who could forebode its destructive and garrulous aftermath.

Two world wars taking place within twenty odd years of Russian revolution metamorphosed the whole of Europe as effectively and conclusively as it did Russia, Literatures produced in these years imbibed at the individual as also collective levels of human existence a feeling more of pacifism than of war coupled with a sense of helplessness and ‘angst’ which jolted the mind and body together causing rampant estrangement and nihilism. Sentiments and perceptions opposed to modern culture of war which believed in total annihilation were inaugurated through a language of literature which by its somber and modest presence took head on state sponsored tendencies of war and attrition. In a way literature of these days came to the rescue of a beleaguered people who were surrounded by hawks of war and proponents of doom! Literature in Brechtian terms ‘instructed’ them against a cataclysmic state apparatus. Kafka, Camu, Malraux, Thomas Mann and a majority of such writers in their works produced heroes of impalpable energy and resilience who stood against and ultimately succumbed to the system as gritty images of a common man’s wrestling with the state. European literature has undercurrents of a culture made possible and disseminated by French, Russian revolutions, the two world wars and the consequences there on.

Browsing through pages of British literary history would reveal the presence since Chaucer of a marked but less pronounced critiquing by a galaxy of writers emerging at different points of time of a state run berserk by kings and queens alike. All those years recognized as different ages and named after such writers as were thought prominent, were years of subjugation perennially done by the system, of a people who had been craving, at the same time growing from strength to strength in their desire, for self rule. Shakespeare in his plays could muster and improvise a crisis that was deepening inside a political and social sphere on his way to depicting a state fallen from grace of god as also of people. He discoursed on love and friendship in his sonnets and on their eternal, yet temporal nature. What helped Shakespeare was the time in which he lived as also a language which he used not very conscientiously. At a time when Greek and Latin were languages which had hierarchically appropriated the cultural landscape of England and hegemonised the upper echelons of the society, this colossus of a writer used English, the language of the common man then and scripted a vast theatrical scape of timelessness. It was again in Shakespeare that the timeless and temporal, the good and evil, the timid and courageous, the justice and iniquity and particularly the state and individual had become involved in a spiritual as also political struggle for supremacy and endurance. He didn’t perhaps leave anything to be said to the writers who followed him. Nor did they feel they had something to say other than what Shakespeare had already said Shakespeare II couldn’t just be born.

True, English literature and its arch critics may still pride in the past glory of Shakespeare which one might think is more than compensated by literary wizards such as Wordsworth, Keats, Eliot, Lawrence and others. But none of them cherished as Shakespeare did a truamatised and inglorious time. Despite their ‘individual talent’, they lacked a time reminiscent of Shakespear’s. Literature of the romantics wasted its power and energy only to be further enervated by a civilization that had held a colossal sway over mind and matter. Dickens and Blake may match Shakespear’s genius, but his ‘ripeness’ is unique only to Shakespeare.

America did really produce a great writer in Mark Twain. But then Meluille and Hemingway were great literary craftsmen thinking along the lines as do present day imperialists that power and knowledge alone would remain as ultimate values to be chewed and swallowed, if not digested for centuries to come.

Literatures by aboriginals of Australia reflect barbarism of white hegemony over their land and sea. The white writers though have written on this, have done so in a condescendingly ‘ philanthropic ‘ zeal or in a guilt born out of their unabashed appropriation of the aboriginal psyche, like Conrad writing about Africans in as much the same abysmal sympathy and intolerance. Without being aware great literatures produced over a period of time all over to a point incredulously kept supporting the state and its values. Like the kings of the past who got their hench literature men to write only about their wars, wine and women.
All art is anti-establishment, it is said. There indeed were literatures that tried to unleash themselves from the state’s subjugation and appropriation like the ones Pampa and Kumaravyasa produced despite working for a throne as they had physical and metaphysical compulsions in a crisis of commitment that was torn between the throne and the throng. But literatures produced now a days are akin to things in a globalised world manufactured and doled out by firms to consumers for instant consumption ‘a la’ ‘ ready to eat ‘ products.

Ananthamurthy was only hinting at this kind of literature.

Habib Thanvir, noted theatre personality in an interview to The Hindu some time ago had said, ‘the worst times have produced the best of art'. He was only trying to answer a query why great works weren’t forthcoming as they once were. Shakespeare had the ‘ worst ‘ time to drain out of which he built his plays bit by bit with a veritable spectrum of discourses on as far ranging issues as love and hate at one end and politics and civilization at another. He attained timelessness by probing its own vacuousnes and it is this sense of vacuity he probed has made him more modern and contemporary than topical.

Kannada literature in the first half of the 20th century reflected how colonial power in theory and practice devastated a native and indigenous culture by replacing it with a semitic and syncretic theo-political governance. Kuvempu created in his fiction little cultural texts of the collective out of which the individual tried to emerge and these texts deflected the colonial legacy by trying to anaesthetize it. Karanth too though in a different tale of human life subsumes in his novels relatively upper caste moorings of a modern ethos entering into the collective and decisively splitting it. Both these writers put to test rather obliquely a microcosmic ‘self' as against a macroscopic and homogenising ‘other'. Bendre’s was a disparately unique phenomenon. He entered into the ‘folk' to show how colonialism ruptured the consciousness of a people and countered it in his poems with images not drawn from far and wide, but from within the mystical and mysterious domains which were still not undone by the new colonial culture.
The crisis and conflict arising out of attempting to negotiate with the new culture found expressions in modern Kannada writers, Ananthamurthy and Lankesh to name only two who were as much influenced by literature and philosophy of western writers like Sartre, Camu and other existential thinkers as by that of Kuvempu and Karanth. But then, the warmth of ‘time' in which great writers world over regaled, producing remarkable quality of literary thought through their fictional and critical preoccupations has long ceased to exist to put pressure on the creative energies of present writers. Literature produced without the urge of time cannot carve itself a place as phenomenal as it could do once. ‘Tradition and individual talent’ alone would not bolster the ‘image’ of literature. Fine tuning of literary creativity has to be done by a prescription of time which was available to Shakespeare and other lesser giants!

Philosophy was once believed as the ultimate and decisive wisdom as much as mathematics which has had a hegemonical presence over all spheres of human knowledge and endevour even now. These two spheres of knowledge as diverse as they might seem at the outset coexisted in some of the greatest minds of the past. Euclid was as much a philosopher as he was a mathematician of unparalled reckoning. And Galileo was another. Mathematics and philosophy being knowledge based, elite-centred hegemonical texts were politically and socially canon forming with a view to sustaining the stranglehold over the subaltern minds which could not even aspire to know the basics of these disciplines. They had become an exploitative and coercive tool to subdue a consciousness which hibernated within the crevices of the suppressed majority.

Literature lighted these crevices to be able to reach a space hither to unexplored and unrecognized. This space was transfused and transformed into a fruition of an experience of the collective and ordinary. Literature could run into the space occupied by philosophy with its liberal humanist position and was slowly able to dislodge it by reaching out to a majority that was denied participation of any kind in disciplines such as philosophy and mathematics. Literature in fact did not need a homogenising and intellectual space as it originated from within the subterranean, voicing the concerns of a people who too for their appreciation of literature didn’t need to know other knowledge based elite centred disciplines. Literature thus dislodged philosophy from its pivotal and enviable position by democratizing and disseminating a trudged and trampled consciousness to which it gave an image of existence like a sparrow that weaves a web of nest to give succour and feed its offspring. Literature could not have been born in a more opportune moment.

Having made its foray into a world constructed and deconstructed by itself, literature in the new millennium these days seems without a rudder having lost out to other disciplines in a globalised context which leaves no choice to people but to imbibe reluctantly or otherwise a new globe culture. Literature seems as much impoverished as philosophy did when literature was beginning to emerge.

It could also be that literature save its fictional world is getting expressed through social sciences and cultural studies. These are the days of great social scientists and even one time important literatteurs like Arundhathi Roy and Tejaswi have taken up non fictional and philosophic discourses leaving behind their tales of human life. Arundhathi Roy in particular of late is largely focusing on the dangers of imperialist discourses with a counter discourse which is tempered with an activism of some sort alongside Medha Phatkar.

Literature with its erstwhile not so predetermined an approach as seen in social sciences’ repertoire of today appears, it has done with its agenda and cleared its space for newer disciplines. Wheel coming full circle cannot be averted.

Ananthamurthy’s concerns for literature expressed at Heggodu were possibly an understatement as he himself is looking beyond the territorial meaning and integrity of a literary text for probably fresher horizons of political and civilizational conflicts to be able to speak in an idiom which is at once antithetical to the literary ‘genre’ as such and also to his once cherished, but ebbed of late , phenomenal and hegemonical importance of literature.
Literature ‘perse’ does not exist now. It is rid of its canonical and phenomenal importance. We have stepped into a theorized and theoromised trans-national space trying to interrogate a globalised world view which was once done by a fictional ‘outfit’ called literature. Literature does have a small space with many writing poems and stories still. But then the contemporary reader has other ideas. At the personal level I would rather listen to a speech or read an article by Arundhathi Roy than browse through a novel of today by any other even of erstwhile greatness who would either celebrate the past or prescribe a gori future!

Times have changed; so should literature.


vishnu said...

absolute brilliance sir...the intricate implications of literature and the contemporary issues following it and the connection between the two has been analysed beautifully...very well written as well..hope to see more....

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