AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 538

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Session 538: Language, Literary History, and Forms of Politics in Modern South Asia

Organizer: Neilesh Bose, St. John's University, USA

Chair: Rama Mantena, University of Illinois, Chicago, USA

Discussant: Rama Mantena, University of Illinois, Chicago, USA

This panel investigates literary criticism, literary history, and conceptions of language within modern nineteenth and twentieth century South Asia. As pre and early modern South Asian literary studies boast a wealth of analysis linking polity, power, and social practice with changes in literary genre, patronage of literature, and the readership of literature, modern South Asian histories of language and literature remain mired in normative prisons of nation and region. The panelists consider the socio-political and aesthetic dimensions of language and literary history in modern Tamil, Urdu, and Bengali, three languages with ongoing relevance for both nationalisms as well as trans-regional commitments across nation and state boundaries. Neilesh Bose’s paper confronts Bengali Muslim literary history in the twentieth century inter-war period, with an aim toward understanding the Bengali Muslim understandings of language and literature outside of the frameworks of incipient nationalism or decolonization. Bhavani Raman analyzes historical periodization in Tamil literary history and their links to colonial land settlement in the early nineteenth century. Finally, Kavita Datla’s paper examines the intellectual forces behind the creation of Osmania University in 1918 and the construction of Urdu’s literary past by Hyderabad-based writers and critics. This panel aims to generate discussion of the range of literary practices in the modern period of South Asian history while confronting the looming presence and challenges associated with colonial modernity, nationalism and national identity within South Asian literary cultures.

Bengali Linguistic Identity, Dhaka University, and An Alternative Inter-War History of Bengal
Neilesh Bose, St. John's University, USA

This paper examines the nature of twentieth-century inter-war Bengali literary history, from the vantage point of Bengali Muslim intellectuals and literary critics from the formation of Dhaka University in 1921 through the outbreak of World War II in 1939. During this “inter-war” period, Bengali Muslim intellectuals began to forge new paths in the formation of Bengali linguistic and literary identity through the creation of literary societies, like the Muslim Sahitya Samaj/Muslim Literary Society (MSS), and a range of attempts to conceptualize folklore through research into the Bengali Muslim pre-modern literary past. During this historical period, Bengali Muslims were creatively claiming a range of literary and linguistic innovations regarding the content of Bengali literature, the nature of literary criticism, and the role of Islam in modern Bengali literature. When mentioned by scholars of modern Bengali history, these movements often become relegated to a pre-history of the movement for Pakistan in the 1940s. Rather than condense these developments into a narrative of the “nation,” I aim to understand the precise intellectual ancestors and compatriots to the drive toward Bengali Muslim literary distinction in this period. Rather than replicate their Bengali Hindu counterparts of earlier eras, or their Urdu-speaking Muslim intellectual counterparts in other parts of India, inter-war Bengali Muslim debate about literature, a Bengali Muslim “folk,” and relations with Bengali Hindus, offer a unique perspective into South Asian literary modernity, and consequently, the creative construction of a regional identity before the appearance of formal decolonization and official state-directed nationalisms.

Periodization and Literary History in Tamil
Bhavani Raman, University of Toronto, Canada

This paper considers historical periodization as a mode of establishing cultural proprietorship in the writing of Tamil literary history from the mid nineteenth century. Literary histories are usually taken to illustrate processes of textual canonization. However scholarly investments in determining the historical periods of textual production in Tamil also generated diverse temporal taxonomies for Tamil history. Furthermore, unlike previously extant textual arrangements consolidated in courtly, liturgical, dissenting, and schooling traditions of the Tamil region, the insertion of texts into historical time posed new problems for ordering Tamil literary texts. Using Professor K. Sivathamby’s critical essays on periodization in literary history as a point of departure, this paper examines how the temporal templates of literary history were intertwined with those generated in the course of early colonial land settlement. Temporal templates provided the interface between claims to literary and territorial proprietorship and illustrate, in turn, how historical periodization was important to arguments for political sovereignty in Tamil.

Urdu Nationalism: Nation, Region, and Literary Variants
Kavita S. Datla, Mount Holyoke College, USA

This paper examines the literary and intellectual agendas of a group of scholars brought together to establish and run Osmania University, India’s first vernacular university founded in 1918 in the Nizam’s Hyderabad. It will explore the scholarly efforts of these intellectuals to investigate and retell the story of Urdu’s literary and linguistic past, focusing in particular on the ways that these scholars understood the existence of literary variation, both as a matter of style and as a matter of regional difference. In a period when Urdu language advocates were making a case for Urdu as a national language, and involved in efforts to standardize the language, this paper presents the ways that Urdu intellectuals explained linguistic and literary variation. By attending to the arguments of these new literary and linguistic histories, this paper argues, one can better understand how nationalism transformed the ways in which the Urdu language was understood, how nationalism made claims to different regions, and the kinds of claims that regions made to national patrimonies.