The Limits of Literary Progressivism: Kesari Balakrishna Pillai and his Project of Modern Malayalam Literature
Panel:‘Vernacular’ Theorisations of ‘Literature’ in Modern South Asia
Literary criticism in the early twentieth century in Malayalam is usually considered to veer between neo-classicism and literary progressivism. The work of the influential critic ‘Kesari’ Balakrishna Pillai (1889-1960) has been usually classified as belonging to the second mold. Pillai made his reputation as a harbinger of modernity into Malayalam on his translations of figures like Mayakovsky, Flaubert etc, and the literary criticism he wrote on modern and ancient literature produced in Kerala.
This paper tries to step back from this categorization of Pillai’s works to assess something less obvious at work in his writings and translation: a material yet disjunctive historical vision that is at odds with his own model of the linear evolution of a provincial literary sphere through translations from around the world. I will argue that this is because of a fundamental aporia that comes from the impossibility of assimilating literary production in the vernacular into a progressive teleology of development along the lines of Western literary periodization: Pillai has to explain, for instance, why romanticism succeeds realism in Malayalam, instead of the usual order. In response to this, a disjunctive, comparative method that is at ease with this dissonance is developed: “expressionism” for Pillai is a combination of realism, romanticism and surrealism, all of which are needed simultaneously for the literary development of Malayalam in the present. His example will provide a different view of 1930s literary progressivism in India (which he engaged with) and the contingent and precarious definition of literary modernity often hidden in teleological accounts of the same.