Varieties of Cultural Chauvinism and the Relevance of Comparative Studies
Though the scribal tradition is relatively recent amongst most indigenous communities of northeast India, written literature in Asamiya dates back to the 14th century, and Manipuri written literature also has a long and turbulent history of domination and displacement which goes back at least 4 centuries. However, as in the case of all face-to-face communities, there is a vibrant oral tradition in northeast India which includes songs, animal fables, folk-tales, myths, riddles, proverbs and ballads. In the new secular literature that has emerged from the indigenous communities of the region, the oral has been imaginatively fused with the written and there is a resistance towards any attempt to prioritize the one over the other. As in the case of the great Indian epic tradition, the telling and retelling of folk narratives has infused a new dynamism into them and opened up exciting possibilities for the creative enterprise of “writing orality.“ The project of democratization of literary criticism by taking it out of seminar rooms to public spaces, as suggested in Mohanty’s interview, would also involve giving more space to the oral over the written. For, the discussion of a literary text in a non- academic gathering would entail the exercise of reading out from the text, and in that process, making the text more acceptable to the audience. The aspects of the text that would be highlighted in the oral presentation may be immediately recognizable by the audience because of their relevance to the present times, or because they would have resonances of other oral texts with which the audience would be familiar through the katha tradition. Such an exercise may help to reduce the force of cultural chauvinism and intolerance towards cultures other than one’s own.
The model of critical comparatism put forward in the CML volume edited by Satya P. Mohanty needs to be vigorously and creatively adopted in literary criticism as well as in the discussion of other forms of fine art if one wishes to move out of narrow sectarian grooves that classify art only in terms of regional boundaries. It is easier for an art critic to adopt such a comparative method which crosses all national or linguistic boundaries because the visual arts have a more universal language. But a literary critic, because s/he is dealing with a language which is generally defined by national boundaries, has to negotiate with complex issues that are embedded in regional or national prejudices. That is why literary criticism so often falls into the monolingual chauvinistic mould and that is why it is so important that serious efforts must be made to release it from this groove and take it forward to the ideal level of a truly “world literature“ as envisioned in Satya Mohanty’s interview. Ayappa Paniker ’s model of doing cross-cultural comparative studies through “textual clusters“ could be ideal for understanding people’s perception of socio-cultural movements. For example, the focus on the literary texts produced across the country during the Bhakti movement of the fifteenth- sixteenth centuries could bring out the wonderful elements of cultural fusion across traditions that created new communities which broke all barriers of race, caste and gender. Parita Mukta’s work Upholding the Common Life: The Community of Mirabai, OUP, 1997, is one such study; it focuses on the creation of cross-cultural communities that sought to look beyond narrow local prejudices. The CML project has shown how it is possible to study different texts in regional languages produced during the colonial times in order to analyze the socio-political concerns of common people across colonial India and finding similar resonances in texts produced in other colonized regions of the globe. There could also be a similar project on a cluster of texts on the theme of the Freedom Movement and the Partition in order to focus on the identical ways in which the folk memory creates new subversive images and metaphors about political personalities and events.
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