Fragments of Our Literary Past
I think what struck me when I read accounts of the development of a national literature after the independence of Greece from Turkish rule was the attempt to synthesize literary traditions existing in the nation with modern ideas and institutions. Hence writers and poets mine not only the classical metres and make allusion to their themes in a contemporary framework, but also draw on Byzantine literature, folk songs and myths, the dialectics of the emerging urban with the timeless rural traditions, etc. Granted the ethnic and religious homogeneity and a uniform sense of nationhood allowed for a comprehensive understanding of the subjects and purposes of national literature. At every point in its development, Greek literature seems to draw on ideas and literary movements that develop in other nations(primarily Western Europe), mediated as they are by existing literary conventions.
In my very limited exposure to Indian literature in primarily four languages, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and English, my contention is that we have not been particularly successful in either of the two tasks that have been undertaken by Greek literature. There is enormous variety in each of the literatures I'm familiar with, so generalizations can be absurd at times. However, it can be safely said that each has had a rather troubled and fragmented relation with the themes and conventions of our literary past.
In the case of Bengali literature, the early works in an attempt to develop a literary convention that's seen as a worthy successor of the classical literary works in Sanskrit, focussed on reworking themes such as historical romances and classical Sanskrit love poetry. This went parallel with the substantial Sanskritization of the language during this period, as Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyay has noted. Later works focussed on documenting an idyllic rural landscape, even as the authors themselves have made the transition to an urban milieu. In this effort, they are not unlike the Greek authors of the 19th century, seeking to preserve what they feel would be trampled by inevitable modernization. However, in post-Independence Bengali fiction the scene shifts firmly to the urban, all that troubles modern life, work, love, the ennui of urban life. And somehow the past is not referenced as much, it ceases to exist in the present. Perhaps it peeks out, once in a while, in the works of writers like Buddhadeb Basu and Jibananda Das, but on the whole, the literary connection, the continuity in the world of ideas seems to have dimmed.
In Hindi and Urdu, the trajectory has been slightly different. What has been denoted Hindi literature drew initially from a fair bit of Sanskrit classical poetry and drama. Nationalism was a pet theme, and a lot of early work was quite rhetorical. But certainly the existence of the new emerging literature was justified with references to the past, as a successor to an established legacy. The legacy of Urdu though, and initially it was simply poetry, was different. Early Urdu verse draws heavily from Persian poetic conventions, employing the same tropes at times, drawing on timeless themes. Later works move to more familiar domain, life in the villages, oppressive, the world of women, the aspirations of the young. And yet, at this moment, somehow a reference to the past is no longer so apparent. The very rich and vibrant poetic traditions of the past, the poetic metres of Brajbhasha and Awadhi remain relatively unexplored. Traditions do not figure as literary language itself, rather only as encumberances that must be overcome. The structure and forms of the past are not engaged with. Unfortunately, not only is the link with the past loosened, but there is less incorporation of ideas and paradigms from other sources, whether other regions of India or other nations. The only Western idea that seems to make its presence felt is Marxist ideology. And of course it sits uncomfortably with a poetic form that revels in bourgeois imagery. Some of the worst poems of Sahir and Faiz are their overtly Marxist work.
But I think that the failure to engage with the past is most pronounced in Indian writing in English. Although there were Indians writing in English through the 19th century (Michael Madhusudan, Toru Dutt), and also at the beginning of the 20th century, the real surge in such writing came in the post-Independence era. A lot of post-Independence fiction in India deals with contemporary issues, mostly within an urban setting. The few books that do unfold in an historical setting are more often than not based in the British India of the 19th century. The past that Indian writing in English engages with is a very recent past, not only in substance, but in literary forms as well. How truly innovative it would have been if the forms that are strewn across our literary past, the ballads, the celebration of seasons, the odes, the metres, had been evoked by Indian writing in English, to internalize the literary heritage of the nation within modern variants. But I don't think that synthesis of themes and forms has taken place within modern Indian literature.
Though certainly, Indian writing in English has succeeded where the others have been inadequate. It has engaged more vigorously with the world of ideas and literary trends outside national and linguistic boundaries, if only because the state of translation into other Indian languages is oh so dismal. But certainly none of the contemporary literatures succeed very well in integrating the concerns and themes of the past with ideas and frameworks that ar brought forth by a global literary community.