Kavitā and Sāhitya in early 20th C. Hindi literature
Panel:‘Vernacular’ Theorisations of ‘Literature’ in Modern South Asia
In Literary Cultures In History, Sheldon Pollock forcefully insisted that the argument that literature can be anything is an ahistorical essentialism. Scholarship since has had to take into account how literature was conceptualized at a particular time and in a particular place – to not equate textual materials with literature and to not take language or region as self-evident categories – it has had to try and work out the ‘emic’ perspective on what ‘literature’ is. The importance of this corrective in the study of pre-modern literature is self-evident. What strikes the contemporary reader of early 20th C. Hindi literature, however, is how unformed, contested, and un-self-evident, the concept of ‘literature’ and ‘poetry’ is for critics and poets such as Sumitrānaṁdana Paṁta, Hazārīprasāda Dvivedī, and Sūryakāṁta Tripāṭhī ‘Nirālā’.
Using Paṁta’s preface to his volume of poems, Pallava (1926), as a pivot, I will delineate the wide-ranging exchanges between the three figures mentioned above, and how they seek to build a modern poetry and poetics from scratch, using sources as diverse as the Vedas, Kalidasa, Wordsworth, and Tagore – and with the nation that is soon to come into being on the horizon. Hindi is appreciated by Paṁta and ‘Nirālā’ precisely for not having a history, unlike Braj and Bengali, while Dwivedi tries to mediate between Hindi’s past and its present. In doing so, I will build on scholarship on the early 20th C (Sujata Mody, Guriqbal Sahota) and more broadly, on modern writing as writing ‘from the ground up’ (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy).