PUNE: Today, when globalisation seems to have taken over every form of art and culture everywhere in the world, there’s still one form of writing that thrives on being different, driving home the idea that every country, and every local community within that country, has different cultures and different histories. These marginalised cultures which flourishes away from the mainstream, were called subaltern’ by Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci.
Starting February 25, writings from the subalterns will be the focus of attention at a two-day national seminar on Indian Writing in English (IWE) and in English Translation organised by the Department of English, University of Pune (UoP).
“By focusing on subaltern expressions in Indian writing in English, the seminar not only makes a case for subaltern literature and its rise in the second half of the 20th century, but also emphasises how this enables turning away from white western supremacy in literature towards embracing the new subaltern voices that have recently emerged,” says professor B S Korde, head of the department of English UoP.
Usually, mainstream literature has a pre-existing, pre-compiled traditional literary history in the form of major written and oral traditions from ancient times, and latter-day writers, artists, and critics depend on these forms.
“However, if you talk about tribal literature, folk literature, Dalit literature or Dalit women literature, which form the major part of subaltern literature, these literatures need to create their own philosophical base. Nothing is given’ to these literatures,” says professor G Manoja from Andhra Pradesh, one of the participants of the seminar.
Thus, subaltern literature, unlike Marxist literature, does not talk about the class struggle between the rich and the poor, but the struggle between castes, seen from the point of view of the lower caste, the have-nots, the minority, the marginal, the subaltern. “The entire ideology of subaltern literature revolves around this,” says Rahul Pungaliya, lecturer of English at the Abasaheb Garware College. Initially, subaltern literature concentrated on the study of peasant and tribal insurgency in South Asia. “Their main argument was that colonial, nationalist and Marxist historiography of this region had ignored the importance of such insurgencies,” Pungaliya adds.
In recent times, during discussions about Indian society and history, the idea of subaltern has been represented in a more modern form. But, whether subaltern literature should be created by those belonging to the oppressed backward communities or whether it should be about them, is the question that needs to be addressed first.
Says Pungaliya, “Authentic subaltern literature will be written by those who have suffered the marginalisation. It can be studied by all but created only by the subaltern class itself.” He substantiated the argument by citing a few examples from Indian Writing in English. “If you look at Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Coolie’ or Raja Rao’s writings, it is about the suffering of the Dalit and the downtrodden, penned by the upper caste writer. That’s why it lacks perspicacity and authenticity. There is a charitable attitude towards the suffering of the oppressed class, instead of pain and anger, which you find in regional Dalit literature.”
“Like the pulsating, robust and yet angst-driven African-American literature in the US, Dalit writing is characterised by a new level of subaltern pride, militancy, creativity and above all, the use of the pen as a weapon,” says Arpita Mukhopadhyay, a participant from Kolkata. On her paper in the seminar, Mukhopadhyay is going to stress on social exclusion as reflected in Dalit woman writing.
This Dalit literature, which looks at history and current events from a Dalit point of view, has come to occupy a niche in the body of Indian literary expression, says Anil Adagale, a lecturer of English at the Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce.
Similarly, tribal literature has also chipped in to lend a new subaltern perspective to literature. Explaining its contribution in subaltern literature, Pungaliya says, “If we consider poetry of adivasi poet Waharu Sonawane or the prose of adivasi novelist Anjubai Gavit, they have used for the first time tribal languages creating alternative to the standard Marathi. Even though their work is yet to be translated into English, they still prove to be radically new voice in literature.”
However, despite all this progress in subaltern literature, it still continues to face challenges from different quarters.
For R Raj Rao, professor at the department of English, UoP, this form of literature does not often find space in the academic syllabus. “While we at the university are making an effort to bring about an awareness and promote it, I do not see this happening as much across the country. Academically, the challenge is to compete for space in the syllabus with English literature. I think the challenge is to create awareness. Organising seminars and workshops will definitely help. I also feel there is resistance among the faculties in the English departments too. Professors do not want to teach what is new mainly because they do not have the material or whatever reason it might be.”
Korde added, “Writers in subaltern literature of any form are often criticised. A lot of writers have been discouraged for such writing in the past. But I believe, criticism should be taken in the right spirit and in no way should it oppress the writer and their thoughts. Writers should only take encouragement from the criticism and with a tough mind, should move on.”
22 Feb 2009, Umesh Isalkar & Swati Shinde, TNN