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Riti Sharma and Judhajit Sarkar in conversation with Professor Ipshita Chanda

Questions: Today we are going to talk about Comparative Literature and its development in India in the last sixty years or perhaps even more, and that is the question we would like to begin with, whether to trace the beginning of Comparative Literature to 1956 when the first department was established at Jadavpur University by poet scholar Buddhadev Bose or much earlier 1907 when Rabindranath Tagore delivered his lecture on World Literature, or Viswa-Sahitya at the National Council of Education.

Ipshita Chanda: It’s not I suppose a coincidence that the first department of Comparative Literature was founded in what grew out of the National Council of Education, which had invited Tagore to speak about Comparative Literature, in 1907 and Tagore actually ended up speaking about World Literature. Now the National Council of Education has its own history claiming to provide a nationalist education as opposed to the colonialist education that was being given by the administration or by the British Rulers. The National Council was founded on the ideology of providing Indian people with a kind of education that they felt was not being provided by the existing institutions, which did not emphasise the nation. And in that situation in 1907 that’s just after the partition of Bengal or the attempt to partition Bengal. I think the idea of the Nation, as well as transcending the nation or not limiting the nation to some geographical boundaries and specific boundaries between different communities and groups. These were ideas which were coming up I think in ferment in the backdrop to the idea of nationalism per say. When Tagore spoke about World Literature of course when he was asked to speak about Comparative Literature it meant already that the National Council had some idea of the kind of plurality and the kind of possibility that Comparative Literature itself would afford in their nationalist agenda. And when Tagore decided, and he announced that he wanted to speak about World Literature rather than Comparative Literature he was actually pushing that idea of nationalism further than geographical or community boundaries and he explicitly stated there, if we limit ourselves to you know my field and your field, and make a distinction between these two, then the spirit of literature which is universal, somehow we fail to touch or we decrease our own literatures by putting them into nationalist frameworks which was in a sense a similar idea that was expressed in a different way in a different situation by Goethe who was trying to posit nationalism as opposed to French Imperialism in the 19th century. So the situation or the backdrop the structure of feeling I would say for a department of Comparative Literature in a very incipient way existed within the minds of those who were involved in the National Council of Education including Tagore himself. So the fact that it was founded as a discipline in Jadavpur University, which grew out of the National Council of Education, is in a sense the blossoming of history in one way. So there is this relation between the lecture that Rabindranath delivered and the founding of the department and I think also to a great extent in the beginning the early years of the department the emphasis on classical languages Greek and Sanskrit, and the emphasis on European literatures, was testimony to a particular kind of Comparative Literature that was practiced, unfortunately not in India, at that time naturally. But, using this model, I think opened up the founders of Comparative Literature as a discipline in India, to the heterogeneity of a European tradition, and to perhaps the antiquity of Indian tradition. And I think what happened afterwards, followed from that. I mean these are bits of history that before Gabriel Garcia Marquez got his Nobel Prize he was part of the syllabus, of the department. And I think that is the case with a number of Indian writers, that before they were honoured with the National awards, they were already part of the syllabus. I understand that Indian literatures were began to be taught as separate courses from the 1970s onwards. So in a sense this history continued, I mean the past and the present were in conversation in the syllabus in that sense.

 

Q: When I look at the history of Comparative Literature in India I generally find two trends, both of which you have talked about, one which is coming from Tagore and his lecture and the idea of a kind of national education or a nationalist education, and the germination, the institutional germination of Comparative Literature in 1956, which was heralded by people who we generally associate with the reception of European modernism in Indian languages or in Bangla specifically. So do you see any contradiction between these two trends, how have they interacted, in forming or in shaping the discipline of Comparative Literature in India, have they at all interacted or not, or how has been reflected or what has been taught, in the last sixty years.

I.C: Well, to talk about sixty years is demanding too much from me, I have been here since 1989, and in that period, several things have changed. I would think that perhaps I was at the cusp of some changes but some things had already changed by the time I arrived. And this contradiction that you are talking about on the basis of personal conversations, one must say that I am not a student of Comparative Literature. The funny thing is that I have spent my life trying to teach it, learning how to teach it, so all my learning was on the teacher’s side of the classroom, always. I have learned from that side. I have been taught by, in one class by more than forty students sometimes. And in a similar way I have learnt from talking to people who are there, from the very beginning from the day it began, as a matter of fact. Our folklore tells us that Nabaneeta Dev Sen was the first person to apply for the course in the M.A. and we have heard from her how she applied with a handwritten application, dictated by the then head of the department Buddhadev Bose, and thereby became the first student. So we were fortunate to have, we still have these people, actively involved with us. I think that is very important. And I stress that because this contradiction that you were talking about that is what I have found, discussed, with the students of the first batch of teachers, who were all as you say, modernist poets within their own rights, translators of European literature, critiques of European literatures, and I think very sensitive readers of European literature, which they tried to impart. Now at that point and I think that was the proclivity and we hear this said all the time that the modernist poets of Bengal came together to found this department so that they could read and teach the poetry that they wanted to write. So, I think that that joined Comparative Literature as a practice, with literature. And it afforded us a way, in the present of focusing on this as a complete structure of feeling. That these were the people who were trying to write I would say new poetry, in some way trying to come out of the influence of Rabindranath, and that somehow led them to the appreciation of all things Western. There was much to appreciate in Western poetry, one would think that a lot of exposure, but I would say they were limited by their class and by their education, which actually turned them towards a classical education in Sanskrit and a very modern exposure to contemporary European literature. And this was the amalgam that actually made Bengali modernism and immediately placed it at a distance from the general public in a sense, the reader in Indian languages. You have called this a contradiction I would say that again this is something which history demanded at that time. This is how history expressed itself through this particular discipline. Now there was nothing, and I think that is our responsibility, there was nothing that said that we should continue with this method or with this assumption or with this position that European literatures are the modern literatures that we will talk about whereas the classical is our tradition. The modernity in Indian literatures and the modernity in non European literatures actually became the focus of our study after this, that is I would say after when the students of the first batch actually began to study they went, rather sorry, they actually began to teach sorry, so they had their, they were all very influenced by modernism but  with Professor Manabendra Bandopadhyay that modernism was not limited to Europe it moved into east Europe and it moved into Latin America, into the colonies which were influenced by the modernist movements in Europe. The French Surrealist movement which had as an example the poetry of Aime Cesaire who was a native of Martinique. The anti-poetry of Nicanor Parra, or the poetry of Pablo Neruda all of this is part of modernism, and it is not part of European modernism in fact it is an influence on European modernism to a great extent. So in that way the rest of the world opened up perhaps through Europe and perhaps in opposition to Europe also because one of the most important things that I found when I came to the department was the focus on third world literatures and immediately as for everything we took the nomenclature “Third World Literature” from the existing academic categories that there were in the West. And we soon realised that calling ourselves the Third World you know distributing literature like that actually defeated the purpose and the first world would be some kind of a model and the third world would be some kind of a derivative. So, these ideas came to us along with the category so the questioning of the categories began and was sustained for a while but the difficulty was that we thought that we could discard the third world as a category and take on post colonialism which had the same problems as the Third world in a different situation. So I mean we have been in our own way trying to address the plurality that is that we live in and finally I think after having traversed all of these different areas beginning from modernism and expanding modernism and then looking at the dynamics between the first world and the third world, between the coloniser and the colonised and the post-colonial condition finally I think that I mean the literatures written in Indian languages as you said in the beginning, cannot, but be studied together. And if they are studied together then the method cannot be anything but comparative. So I will not say that we have actually started doing this here. But I think that at an all India level the coming of Comparative Literature in tandem with different single language literatures in the beginning this seemed to be self-defeating but it appears now that if we use Comparative Literature as a method or if we think in terms of conceptualising the method of studying literature as comparative then it is possible for us to not only study a literary culture but also contact between literary cultures which is actually the basis of formation of you know this discordant harmony that we can call Indian literature.

 

Q: In the honours course languages are taught to each of the students in the discipline of Comparative Literature. How far would you say that language study and understanding any classical language has been important in understanding the method that Comparative Literature provides, in terms of India?

I.C.: I think, this one of the things that the syllabus at some point this became a very important and it still is a very important part of the syllabus that an Indian language. Now the difficulty is that an Indian language obviously  means given the way that we are located and I think given the fact that we are a state university this somehow enhances this particular feature let us say, that we are more or less monolingual, or  maximum bilingual because we speak Bangla and English. And so the emphasis on an Indian language and its literature was automatically I would say confined to Bangla first and there is a lot of emphasis on Bangla because the we thought that you know Bangla could be used as a model like any other Indian languages the influences that there are on all Indian languages are there in Bangla as well, so one can study the process of the formation and then its use and flowering in different forms. Now along with that the teaching of Tamil as a language, we don’t want to teach in Tamil literature, I think was primarily to introduce the student to another aural world all together, different sounds and along with it, I think to train the ear in a way to familiarize itself with sounds and structures we would not in the normal course be open to. Now if we had had the resources then I think this could have been carried on and other Indian languages could have been offered. Now at this moment given that we have a School of Languages which does offer some Indian languages and gradually hopefully will be offering more, this is an option that we could try. We also have within the department as an alternative to Tamil we have syllabi prepared for Urdu and for Hindi which we have not been able to introduce but the syllabus prepared for Nepali that was introduced and that is in fact an alternative. Ideally the more exposure to individual languages there is for the student it is an ideal situation for Comparative Literature. But, practically this entails at some point the student knowing a language which probably the teacher does not know and I think that if this is a situation that we can work towards then it changes completely the dynamics of the discipline and I think the dynamics of the classroom as well. Because I have had the good fortune to teach one class of this kind where there were students from different languages coming from different parts of India, it was a course on first novels. So that class contained I think about seven or eight different language competences amongst the students and the method that the teacher followed and it was not a Comparative Literature classroom it was an English Literature classroom. So the teacher followed this method of the student who knew the language which presenting it everybody read translations but it would be presented by in fact virtually the student took the class. I was called in, nobody knew what I was going to do, but I thought that this the resource which I would want in a Comparative Literature classroom and so I did exactly what I do in a Comparative Literature classroom with the added resource that all the material which could be used to illustrate literary form and device and actually literariness came from the texts in their original languages. So that was a possibility we have not yet explored but yes.

 

Q: Thank you for introducing the word literariness into the discussion and we all know that when Roman Jakobson used the word for the first time in Russian was talking about literary studies and its role and what it is supposed to do. At this point I would actually like to take a detour and go back to a very basic question, still Comparative Literature is not a very well known name amongst the general public and there are a lot of well there are some misconceptions about Comparative Literature, which is also fed by popular culture at different times. So if you can answer this basic question which has been raised before and which has been answered time and again we have also seen that each time it has been addressed some new dimension of Comparative Literature has opened up before us , what is Comparative Literature?

I.C.: It’s a worthwhile thing that a new dimension has opened up every time we have tried to define it I think that the very basic thing that one can say regarding what is Comparative Literature in answer to that question is that it involves more than one entity because by name if it’s called comparative then you require two things to compare and stemming from that I think that Comparative Literature is or provides a particular acknowledgement and orientation towards the other. Now one might say that this is limiting it to a great extent but I would say that it actually frames the objective of Comparative Literature to begin with these two basic elements, one that it involves more than one entity and establishes a relations between two entities. So that is the basis of the method which we call comparative. And because there are two entities, one of those entities is obviously the reading self or the writing self, or the self as such and the fundamental characteristic of human consciousness is that it is consciousness of something that in order for consciousness to know that it exists it can only exist by being oriented towards something by becoming conscious of itself as difference from an other and it becomes conscious of another, as something other than the self. So at every stage the conceptualisation, the imagination, the positing of a self is located in relation to an other and that one puts as the situation of the self. The relative situation of the other. So anything that conceptualises engagement in these terms that the method is posited on a relation between two entities and the orientation that the self amongst those two entities has towards the other keeping in mind that it is impossible to posit a self without positing an other. These are I think the two kind of end points in between the space marked out in between is space for Comparative Literature.

 

Q: From whatever we have heard from you so far there are two things which come to my mind, and these are disciplinary realms perhaps and it seems that there are two aspects to Comparative Literature one in which the subject is taught to students in the classroom and the other end perhaps being something called comparative scholarship which uses the comparative method to pursue a particular kind of research. The vocabulary that you have just used to define Comparative Literature, is it the same kind of vocabulary that you will be also using when let us say an undergraduate first year student asks the same question.

I.C.: Yes certainly.

 

Q: And do you think it is going to be intelligible to that person also, in terms of the literature that he/she had studied so far? Because most of the literatures that we read during school days are limited to let us say one or two languages and in as it is natural to school education method rather not method but the theme the content is emphasised more than the method. So introducing the students to the method or the methodical aspect of literary education, before the student has been introduced to that kind of a methodical thinking, do you think that the vocabulary you are using will make sense to a beginner?

I.C.: Well that depend on I think the clarity and the skill of the teacher there is no reason why it should not be intelligible to a beginner because I think at the undergraduate level, also at the post graduate level, we are teaching literary texts, and if one is talking about literariness then what can be better than literary texts to illustrate literariness? Right. So the idea of literature is something that you teach in the current scheme it I think is taught in undergraduate first year second semester, where you have concepts and trajectories. So I mean parallel to that you have students that before that I think have read classical literatures of Europe and classical literatures of India, and in different languages  it’s not only Sanskrit as you are aware there are I think the Satakas are in Sanskrit, Silappdikaram. In the first semester there is Sangam poetry, there is Tamil, that is there also, then in the second semester you teach the medieval, rather the Indian middle ages, which is the entire stretch of Bhakti. And the whole of the literary culture that we claim today is Indian, which we can actually claim is Indian, is laid right in front of your eyes, you know. So there is no reason why it is not possible to understand inter-literariness the way in which themes and forms and repertoires of signification move, and the way in which they do not represent historical reality. Because it’s easy to demonstrate that Silappdikaram does not demonstrate historical reality because of the form of the thing. And you can immediately put it next to any literary piece which claims to be historical at a similar time and then show what are the tropes of a historical narrative. These are all claims so that is to be conveyed to the student that this is claiming that it is history, there is not qualitative difference in the language but except for the claim, and then that claim is substantiated by literariness. So I never think that it ought to be a difficulty. If it is a difficulty then like I said it’s an effort that is to be put in regarding clarity as far as the teacher is concerned. I don’t see that it is difficult at all.

 

Q: The way you have defined Comparative Literature just now I think immediately located the discipline to a particular place and time, by which I mean to say that where the discipline is practised that space and that location will give the discipline its particular shape. Comparative Literature as we know started in Europe as disciplinary practice, and then it moved to different places, it moved to the United States of America after the Second World War, but we have also seen that there has been a particular kind of reception of Comparative Literature in the former colonies. In the Anglophone colonies and the Francophone colonies across the world. So the way you have defined Comparative Literature that definition does that is it capable of including all these peculiarities that the discipline acquires as it moves into places, and how does it adapt to the holistic let us say framework or idea or spirit of Comparative Literature?

I.C.:  I’m not certain that one could call it holistic per say but the basic requirement would be the same anywhere that we are studying the relation between two or more entities, otherwise there is nothing to compare. And there has to be basis for comparison now one can’t say that difference is the basis for comparison. So the basis is necessarily in similarity. However similarity can be dealt with and this brings me to the second point that similarity can be engaged with in different ways it can be engaged with directly and the way in which we engage with similarity decides how we engage with difference. Because difference actually individuates the other, from the self. It is because the other is different from the self that the other is the other.   And so the relation between the self and the other is basic to the practice of Comparative Literature now what that relation is, is crucial, it addresses I mean I would say that it decides the ethics and the aesthetics of Comparative Literature. If we decide that the relation between the self and the other is one of appropriation or one of assimilation then the perspective that we have of Comparative Literature what we think is the practice of Comparative Literature is directly influenced by our perception of the other. And if we think that the engagement with the other, is an attempt to understand difference it is an attempt to subdue I would say the self before difference to open oneself to difference then that entails a completely different method. The reason why I am saying that I would not say that it is holistic, is because at least these two different relations are possible. And I agree with you when you say that different ways of practising Comparative Literature exist, but those different ways cannot exist without these two basic tenets that it is a relation between two entities and the attitude of one entity towards the other decides the entire method. So it’s not holistic so much as you know a methodical regulation so to speak so that the method you get if you think that the other is to be appropriated is completely different from the method you get if you think you are going to engage with the other. So what that requires first is a clarity about your own position. As the practitioner or even as the student.

 

Q: Generally what happens at least what has been happening in the past let us say 50 or 60 years that Comparative Literature has existed in India we have seen that these relationship between the self and the other being the other entity that you are saying is at the crux of comparative literary practice have we actually given our self in India the chance to well individuate this relationship to allow it to acquire its own spatio-temporal dimension in India or has there been an influence of models which are not always local to us which are not always “indigenous” to us which in many occasions we have noticed have arrived from the practice of Comparative Literature either in Europe or the United States?

I.C.: Yes that is true and in fact we did speak about you know labels like third world literature and post-colonial literature. And these actually came to us as you rightly point out from Comparative Literature practitioners in the west. Some of them actually tried to in fact all of them tried to grapple with their position in Western academia that was a mistake that we made because their position in Western academia is absolutely not our position anywhere. Not even in western academia. So I mean it took us a while to realise the futility of jumping on to literally the bandwagon. I mean one can say all of these things in hindsight but I have done a fair amount of criticism of post-colonial of the very concept of post-coloniality in a post-colonial studies reader, in an encyclopaedia of post-colonial studies and I’m sure that in those five hundred pages, those three lines that I have written will not really matter. Because they are aimed at western academia unfortunately we acquire them as state of the art technology coming from the West. That is our problem. So that is where your question about whether it has been located and the practice is peculiar or unique or special to India not yet for the simple reason that we have gone through all of these learning stages of you know dispensing with categories that do not address us or our situation in any way. And now I think that  given the monumental work done by for example Professor Sisir Kumar Das, that kind of bringing the different languages and the resources of the different languages within the  covers of a single book actually proves that it is possible to do and using of that book in teaching and as a base for scholarship, as a base for research I think has begun and is catching on gradually with I think younger people thinking in terms of languages and Indian languages rather than post-coloniality and third world literatures. So, this is perhaps the next you know the next project that the practice of Comparative Literature in India has and I think it is a crucial project for India. Because the plurality that is inherent in Indianness, something which is under constant I wouldn’t say negotiation that is a very mild term, we have to protect it constantly, in the current situation. So that is what Comparative Literature actually is predicated upon the relationship between the engagement between the self and the other without appropriation without assimilation, by respecting difference. So Comparative Literature as an idea and as a practice is of crucial importance today.

 

Q: Since you have brought up the question of Comparative Literature in relation to plurality and also pointed out the fact that in India plurality is not just something that has been given to us historically but is also something that we have to constantly protect through our disciplinary practices through our understanding and research on literature. From here I would like to go to two different directions which I think are interrelated, one is your critique of post colonialism and we have read form your work, your work particularly on the Literatures of Africa where you have stated regularly after Ngugi Wa Thiong’o that we should discard the term ‘post-colonialism’ and if we have to use any such term neo-colonialism perhaps is a better expression. And we also know that in the late 1970s Ngugi Wa Thiong’o had proposed a different model of literary education for the former colonies so how does how do these two things relate in your practice of understanding literature? One is the model of literary education envisioned by intellectuals like Ngugi, and the critique of post colonialism categories related to the understanding of literatures coming from the ex-colonies. How have these two things interacted in shaping your ideas of Comparative Literature and Indian Literature?

I.C.: Yes, since my doctoral work was on different three African playwrights, Ngugi being one of them, three Anglophone African playwrights from three nations. And the similarity that I started with was English as a language and that had connections to English as a language in my own way the history of English being an establishment in the former Anglophone colonies which is exactly what Ngugi was writing against, and Ngugi and his collaborators Taban Lo Liyong and Henry Owuor-Anyumba, in the Nairobi Literature debate. The idea then was to expand, I mean I don’t think we took it seriously enough to start with because I remember when it came, when I came to the department it was one of the things that was being talked about and Sibaji da (Professor Sibaji Bandyoapadhyay) in some context suggested that this should be put up on the notice board, on the English noticeboard.

 

Q: I think we are referring to the Abolition of the English Department?

I.C.: Yeah, on the abolition of the English Department. So, none of that was done instead we espoused post-colonialism. So it is not as if we did not know and it was not as if it was unavailable to us I think we just did not appreciate the importance. And now twenty, twenty five years later I’m not certain because you see we have done all those things under different names. It would have been called literary studies that is the inclusion and I am saying inclusion in a very I think in a very self-conscious manner because to say to include orality means nothing, because all African verbal art until the coming of the coloniser was oral. So if we are talking about verbal art, then the entire tradition of African verbal art is oral so including orality we are doing no-one a favour. And the same thing is with respect to us, that we have forgotten that our culture is an interface between the oral and the written and that has persisted since like 2000B.C. So, I mean the very idea of introducing Literature as a category as a concept that is related to writing and is related to the printed book which is how it is thought of and taught in the most state of the art English Departments in the country. Whether you include blogs and whether you include graphic novels and all of that these are all add-ons that. But the basis that Ngugi posited included oratures, had oratures started from oratures, and then the writing that was there that began in Europhone African languages, as Ngugi calls them all influenced by the oratures on the one hand and the literary culture of the coloniser and the cultural policy of the coloniser on the other. So there is from the very beginning within what one would call a single literary work the existence of more than one culture. I mean the very existence of the work itself is dependent upon the amalgamation of more than one culture. So, in that sense a thinking, I mean postcolonial theory brought in hybridity and it brought in nationalism and also it posited a derivative idea of the self all of these concepts rather most of these concepts would have been completely foreign to a number practitioners in the Indian languages.  Because they have absolutely no contact with the situation in which these concepts were brought in, in order to study the texts that were produced in some other situation altogether.  So the label post-colonial is a descriptive label you can say that this is written in 1948 therefore the coloniser has left that’s the only reason why this can be called post colonial. Not any other thematic or formal element which was not already there and which did not benefit or respond to the influence of the coloniser, even by shunning it. By not even bothering about it, by going back to what Sisir Kumar Das calls the inherited text, that already exist within our literary culture. So I would just say that you know Ngugi’s nomenclature replacing the postcolonial with the neo-colonial, the neo-colonial is the situation in which literature is produced and studied, you know, and the neo colonial situation regulates our relation with the other. So in that sense it influences literature, I would like to say reiterate in no way does it reflect the historical reality of neo-colonialism. We can at the most say that post-colonialism does not reflect any historical reality except the one of date, that after 1947. Whereas neo-colonialism actually explicates a structure of feeling, which we would rather not call neo colonial, because we think that we are decolonised.

 

Q: So you spoke about certain Western academic terms and techniques which have been acquired in the Indian academic situations. How far along would you consider departments and centres under gender, under refugee studies, any form of a quantitative marker which is associated with a notion of identity hampering or anyway convoluting the idea of Comparative Literature? Or Literature as it is taught in India?

I.C.: Yeah, I mean what relation do you put between a gender study centre and literature for that matter?

 

Q: The fact that they are being used as formal elements within a literary text.

I.C.: There is within literary studies the proclivity I think following from Barthes "From Work to Text", where he talks about different frames of reference within which the literary work can be placed where he is just saying that a single text need not necessarily have a single center, which is what, I think Derrida also says , that structuralism posits a center but the positing of that center and the construction of that center structure are all historical, they happen at a particular point in time for particular specific reasons. Now, if we read literature through theory, then I am not really certain why, what we are asking for because while we are able to fit the theme of literature into various theories. Because themes deal with human relationships in society and gender is one of those relationships, in fact so is race and so is caste and so is class, these are all social relationships within which human beings live and these social relationships impact their lives and their ideas of self so, we understand them as the basis of aspects of human identity. And all these aspects I think come into play in Literature, so if we are reading a text, from a particular frame of reference then the other possibilities that there are,maybe elided completely. So where on the one hand it is not possible or I think that it is not possible to use literature as a historical document. On the other hand it is also not possible to reduce a literary text to a particular theory to being explicated by a particular theory. How people in gender studies or people in where else, people performance studies etc, how they use literature is I think related to what they think they are doing. As far as Comparative Literature is concerned. I’m not saying that I don’t see the necessity of theory but I’m saying that theory itself is a particular way of engaging with the other it channels that engagement towards a particular goal, and if the engagement is channelled in a particular goal then your relationship with the other is also fixed. And your conceptualisation of the other is also fixed, so how that actually translates into comparative literary practice is really not clear to me.

 

Q: Would you consider Comparative Literary practice as it is envisioned in India is a part of a daily lifestyle which every particular person inside this geographical area has been practising for all this while?

I.C.: Yes without I mean, without being conscious of the fact that we are, we are in fact bilingual, trilingual, and it is not possible for us to exist within society without coming into contact with visible and palpable difference on a regular basis.  So, Comparative Literature demands a relation between two entities and it posits as an ethics of a particular kind of relation, now this particular kind of relation that it posits is a relation of understanding and engagement. That is one of the ways, i think perhaps that is the only way, in which, or through which we are able to live in a plural society. Mainting the plurality and making that plurality a part of our identity. So in a sense if we could see our identity as based not only in community in a single community but in the relations between communities, because our daily lives are also lived through relations between different communities, through active and constant engagement with difference.

 

Q: If I have understood you correctly, to what you have said regarding straightjacketing literature to identitarian categories, or to use an identitarian basis for understanding literature, as far as I have understood you have perhaps tried to talk about plurality as opposed to this tendency of putting literature into certain categories of identity. How do you think the practice of Comparative Literature in India engenders or helps to protect this plurality, and how does one do that through literature? Related to this is another question, regarding the language of Comparative Literature in India, because of we are trying to talk about protecting plurality through  the means of literature or through the means of studying literature  there is necessarily a question of in what language we are trying to impart that sort of a vision. From the history of Comparative Literature in India I think English still has played a very dominant role in that, and if we look at the publication history of comparative scholarship in Indian languages, we still see a great lacunae there. How do you think the future of Comparative Literature can be imagined with respect these current problems that we have now at our disposal?

I.C.: Yeah I mean there are already for at least the five to six years that I am aware of and probably there has been this for a longer time than we are aware of. One of the things that I think we can think of as not exactly as a barrier, but as our inability to see certain things with clarity the, addition of Comparative Literature to a single literature. Initially, that happened mostly with European Language departments there still are some, for example in Calicut University, Russian and Comparative Literature. In Kasaragod the Central University of Kerala, I think English and Comparative Literature. Now, the only other model that there is which does not call itself Comparative Literature is the Modern Indian Languages department in the Delhi University. And the practice of Comparative Literature in a language other than English I can think of two instances one is the department of Hindi in Mahatma Gandhi Antarashtriya Hindi Viswavidyalay at Wardha, who have actually produced a book, a textbook for Comparative Literature in Hindi, which had already been done earlier by Professor Indra Nath Chaudhari. So, this is the second time that something of this kind has been done, after a long gap, and Professor Chaudhari has written in this book also. Saiddhantik Paripreksh, yeah, exactly, so the context of theory or method for that matter. And that is important because there is a background for a way in which Comparative Literature has been practised across the world as well as a review of what we understand as core books in Comparative Literature most of them European. Against this background there are specific essays about approaches or what we call approaches that is historiography, genology, thematology. That is the subjects of study that we consider when we take two texts together. So the other is the current kind of effort that is being made by the Hindi department at Presidency University who have within their rubric actually introduced Santhali as a certificate course and plan to introduce Urdu as well as Nepali. And have this as a base for doing comparative work so this actually moves the focus from English to other languages as a beginning. I’m not certain that this is not being done in other languages. For example I do know of one person, Professor Sridhar who retired from the Central University of Hyderabad, the Department of English, who is currently writing a book on first novels in all Indian languages. He is writing it in Telugu. There must have been several such attempts in different languages across India that one of the most important things we need to do immediately is to bring these together at least to have them as an archive for our own knowledge. So in order to see that it has already been done and also to you know sort of encourage ourselves to proceed with this kind of work and, ultimately sometimes the language of our conversation, is English. But, that does not mean that the very thrust and the orientation and the regulation of our conversation should come from other academic rather from other areas from areas other than Indian literatures. We have also an attempt made by Sahitya Akademi for a critical series that is to translate a number of critical essays on literature from Indian languages well into English, just to make it available. So all of these all the translations that have been done by different publishing houses for example of Dalit literature from Malayalam into English from Tamil into English, from Bangla into English. That has not yet, it’s not yet out, it is ready, in the process of being done. All of these and I think all the translations that Sahitya Akademi does, across the twenty two twenty three languages that it functions in. All of these have already found a corpus out of which we can teach Indian literatures, despite the difficulty in language. Because it’s true that none of us is going to be able to master twenty three languages, so our access, to literature in the original and our dependence on translation to teach Indian language literatures through a comparative methodology is taken for granted. We have to accept these two basic facts and work our method around it and try and make more and more material available for let’s say a non-English classroom.

 

Q: Fact that you have travelled across the length and breadth of India teaching and working alongside other scholars from other departments of Comparative Literature, how would you speak about your experience in these particular places where Comparative Literature is being taught?  Are they being taught in a very different manner is the approach different to Comparative Literature, in for instance Rajasthan or Hyderabad, as compared to Jadavpur University? Standard of teaching, the method of teaching?

I.C.: Yeah the method is what one can talk about, standards I don’t think have anything much to do with the discussion per say. It is true that I think the same goes for Rajasthan’s also, that everywhere we have a sort of you know division between literature and other kinds of art, and somehow we have this understanding that when we teach other kinds of art we are actually teaching Culture Studies. Now, to locate any creative text within a chronotope, within a time-space continuum, is also to locate it within a particular tradition and to understand how it affects that tradition, how it inflects that tradition takes it forward, rejects it completely, does something new, whatever, so this continuity is part of Comparative Literature. Location, situation and the consideration of the chronotope, one can’t do Comparative Literature without it, but at the same time that is not all there is to it. Because ultimately the literary text is to be considered as a literary text, located within a literary culture no doubt, but the text is singular it is unique and every reception of it, is also singular and unique. So this I don’t see any great difference between us, we equally you know veer towards culture studies and there are the anxieties amongst us regarding how one can apply the ideas or the methods of Culture Studies which actually follows the method of Comparative Literature by locating the text within a chronotope, locating it within the process of tradition, all of these things even if Culture Studies doesn’t do it, Comparative Literature does. So Comparative Literature is geared towards looking at culture as a process, and that product as the result of that process. And we do that as much as other departments across. The difference that I find is the accessibility of more languages, and that accessibility i think those departments can use as their strength. Not that they have effectively done it yet, it is not part of the syllabus, in fact most of the syllabi are modelled on ours, to a great extent. This distinction of thematology, genology and historiography which we have had for the last well twenty years. I think it is time that you know we announced to the world that we will teach all of these in each of these slots, I mean when we are teaching thematology we cannot leave out historiography we have to teach genology and thematology and historiography together. Because I mean you separate, if on the one hand you say that theory reduces the text, on the other hand you are disassociating the theme from the form, so there is no literature left.

 

Q: This goes in fact against the spirit of Comparative Literature perhaps. I have two more questions with which we may conclude this discussion, one is that some ten fifteen years ago, there was this world wide clamour about the death of Comparative Literature, and you have responded to this and I remember one of the very pertinent statements in the article written by you ‘Can the Non-Western Comparatist Speak?’ was that if Comparative Literature dies in India it will not die out of some epistemological collapse, but out of malnutrition. After fifteen years do you think some changes have been brought into force in India?

I.C.: Yes all the central universities that started since then have in some form or shape Comparative Literature in the curriculum. Whether it is with English whether it is with the culture studies in some places and separately as a center, I think the last one that started was at Viswa-Bharati, the Center for Comparative Literature in Viswa-Bharati is about four years old now. So that change has happened and I don’t think that, I mean we did not know those changes were really going happen, I mean the suggestions which were made to the UGC regarding introducing a post in Comparative Literature in all literature departments regardless of whether they were Indian Literature or any other literature has not fructified, really, nothing has come of that. But instead of that we have this which actually has taken Comparative Literature to different parts of the country, as Central universities have a much larger catchment area. They have students from across the country so, these I think are very positive things. Now it is up to us, to clarify what we want, whether we are going back into the old and I think tired formations of World Literature or postcolonial literature or whether we are going to replace them with some new formations which unfortunately have the same structure as the old ones. For example, Culture studies and Performance studies and orality studies, I mean it’s difficult for me to understand how we can study Orality in India without the fact that writing and orality exist side-by-side. So if we do orality studies what are we going to do about literature?

 

Q: My last question is regarding plurality and I would like to go back to the question of the relation between Comparative Literature and plurality especially at this time when we are, the plural nature of Indian society perhaps is at great crisis. How do you think or what do you think is the role of Comparative Literature in such a situation with respect to the protection, nourishment and continuation of the idea, the spirit and practice of plurality in our everyday life which feeds into our cultural activities also.

I.C.: Yeah, I mean, I think we have talked about this before, that our daily existences assumes plurality. We talk in one language at home, in fact we talk in two languages at home depending upon several factors and when we are outside perhaps we hear more than one language all the time. Now our attitude towards these many languages and our knowledge of the cultures from which they come both are actually posited on our knowledge of our own culture and our attitude towards our own culture. And there is I think amongst us also, this idea that somebody’s non-something, as in a non-Bengali, or another person is kind of South Indian, or non-North Indian. Now, while there are some large similarities some very general kind of similarities which perhaps can be traced back to history but again history is written in, I mean history is written by one person and that one person is also located somewhere, so he has a structure of feeling within which he writes and its a discourse of the past, and its discourse of the past which is seen from the present. From the perspective of the present, so the relation between one unit and another, one entity and another, when it comes to India that it’s a multifarious relation, it’s not a single relation at any given point of time. The first thing that we need to understand and appreciate is that. We perhaps do it all the time in our daily lives, but to introduce it into our thought when we already have such a strong base in I think what I think we are beginning to realise the difficulties of that, the strong base in identity politics which we have. Where we all where our identities is gradually becoming more and more politicised so if wrong has been done to a person why should it be the question whether he is a Dalit or not. If he is a Dalit, then it is wrong, if he is not a Dalit then it is no longer wrong?

So our identities don’t legitimize any kind of division, distinction or discrimination. Even if we are underprivileged, and in fact the heirarchisation of identity is something that we can only address with or through plurality. And so that is as you rightly say a very important juncture at which Comparative Literature can contribute, but i think, i don’t think that it is only Comparative Literature that will contribute to this the entire range of subjects that come under the humanities it is necessary for the Humanities discipline in India to relate themselves to the situation in which we find ourselves.

 

Q: In fact I remember you saying this once that identity politics in fact goes against the very spirit of the humanities.

I.C.: Yes, one would like to think that the humanities include all kinds of human beings, so critical humanism means the taking of a critical position from a humanist position. A humanist position has been criticised in the past as a liberal position that it is devoid of politics. Humanism has been criticised as male and hegemonic, all of these have happened, and so all of these critiques are now part of our discourse of humanism which is why we think of it as criticism.

 

Q: In the past you have been associated with a lot of performances, productions like Picture abhi baki hain, Electric Ramayana, also very recently the Chughtai natak. How would you relate your scholarship with these particular literary engagements?

I.C: No, I mean that my scholarship whatever it is I don’t think that this there’s anything scholarly about whatever I do, I think most of it is quite polemical in the sense that I think that this is what Comparative Literature is...please listen that kind of thing, and from time to time that is substantiated by literature.  But the plays again those are not plays that I did, there is always at every point there was a group of people, the plays just came together because the people came together. And it’s true that Electric Ramayan actually I realised when I saw the first production that it was the result of our reading Iliad and Ramayana as epics in the narrative mode. And, while we were doing it we discovered or i mean there was nothing to discover it was there waiting to be pointed to that inherited texts, what Sisir Kumar Das calls as ‘Inherited texts’ whether it is in terms of theme or form a repertoire of signification a repertoire of particular character, they exist in our literary culture and in our daily lives. So the story of Ram or the story of Surpanakha to punch that with the story of Helen, and you know make something which is enjoyable as well as something that actually illustrates the method that one practices when one is doing Comparative Literature, that is the scholarship that you are talking about, which relates to the way in which themes and genres and signs and images, and characters, move across time and space. So if we take India for example as a geographical area with a literary culture i think that is what Sisir Kumar Das talks about to what he says as an integrated history of Indian Literature. He means that each of these has each of these language literatures has some basis of similarity which can be attributed to their being Indian that is for example the history of Bhakti, as a movement which is Pan-Indian, with similar concerns and proclivities and similar forms of expression but in different languages addressed to different deities and placed at different times, within that entire period of the Indian middle ages. Now the figure of Ram undergoes a change because of the Bhakti movement that you have Ram as a character to whom one is devoted, as opposed to Ram as the hero of the kavya in Valmiki. So this change in itself is amenable to being studied through a comparative methodology, and what we were doing in the play was just representing these changes and relating it this moment where all these figures are I wouldn’t say disputed but all these figures are at the center of our conception of our time and of our selves. So it is in a sense enacting our I wouldn’t say only critique but enacting out response to the present moment, using the resources of again, to say using the resources of literature is not to say it completely because there is a whole tradition of Ramkatha, a whole tradition of performances which are based on the Ramayana per say, whether it is what we call classical or whether it is what we call folk, that is that which is patronized by the people as opposed to that which is patronised by the court. All of these different forms of performance have all of these characters and these stories retold in very topical situations. For particular purposes. The aim of Valmiki’s Ram, is not the same as the aim with which Tulsi picturises Ram, and then it is not the same again with the other representations of Ram, for example by Satinath Bhaduri in Dhorai Charit Manas, which is based upon the story which is based upon the you know the structure of the Ramcharitmanas. It tells the story of a poor untouchable, marginalised Indian who becomes an Indian, the process by which this individual becomes an Indian in a situation in which Indians are fighting for freedom. So the existence of this I wouldn’t call it the other voice because it may be other to me, but that is the voice of India, so, all of these voices together are the voices of India, that is all that we have tried to perform and we have had a you know great fun actually doing it because we’ve seen how it relates to our lives and to the audience. The literature is not something that one keeps away from people, the literature does not allow you to keep it away from people, it’s not even taking literature to the people, it’s using the literature in order to make connections.