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"Social Prosperity" through Literature: Ramchandra Shukla, Literary Theory and the Construction of a Democratic Nation State

id: kniom


· Philipp Sperner LMU Munich (Munich, Germany)


‘Vernacular’ Theorisations of ‘Literature’ in Modern South Asia


When the leading Hindi critics and authors of the late 19th and early 20th century discussed the role of Hindi Literature for the construction of a national community, they participated in a project of restructuring the underlying social epistemology. Literature was thus not simply a tool to ‘arouse a feeling of national unity and belonging’ (as it was put so often at the time) but a method to ‘create’ the kind of sentimentality and conception of personhood that would allow the perceptibility of such feelings in the first place. As such, these questions about the role of literature directly influenced the specific entanglement between democracy and nationalism in 20th-century India.

The writings of ‘Acharya’ Ramchandra Shukla, a central figure of Hindi literary criticism, provide a particularly fruitful ground for an analysis of these shifts and entanglements. For him, certain forms of literature could facilitate an awareness of the radically different other as an object of love, care and devotion and thus bear the potential for an increased social prosperity (lok-maṅgal). In order to define this “Indian notion of responsibility” (Milind Wakankar), Shukla developed a decidedly modern and “rationalized” understanding of the Bhakti tradition as an anti-individualistic form of interiority. It is this concept of an anti-individualistic interiority, I argue, that reveals the deep ambivalence between democracy and nationalism in Shukla’s thought; between a more radically open notion of transformation and literary potentiality on the one hand and a more narrowly targeted and even parochial notion of a national social transformation as the duty of literature on the other.