Course on Literature in the Social Sciences: A Report
Barnita Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta
A Certificate Course on Literature in the Social Sciences was organized by the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata in collaboration with the Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Calcutta, from June 20-24, 2005 at the Alipur Campus of Calcutta University, to familiarize as well as to refresh teachers and research scholars, who were drawn from a wide range of disciplines, such as English and Bengali literature, history, mass communication, and political science.
The inaugural session was addressed by Amiya K. Bagchi, Director of IDSK, and by Bhaskar Chakraborty, Director of the Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities, Calcutta University, and both emphasized the generative richness of the course topic.
Jasodhara Bagchi Jasodhara Bagchi (Chairperson, West Bengal State Commission for Women, and Founder-Director, School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University), started off the lectures with a lively session on ‘Conceptualizing Literature in the Social Sciences’. She emphasized that literature was not simplistically to be seen as a mirror of reality, and spoke about ways in which literature and the social sciences can, and do, cross-fertilize each other. She discussed the critical and ideological projects of Matthew Arnold, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Auguste Comte, and Walter Pater to show how in the 19th century ‘culture’ and ‘literature’ were ideologically constructed as autonomous domains sealed off from social strife and tensions. She also sought to break down the apparent dichotomy between the concepts ‘culture’ and ‘development’, and showed that both hinge heavily on cultivation.
Malini Bhattacharya In her first lecture, Malini Bhattacharya (Honorary Professor, IDSK, and Member, National Commission for Women) analysed major aspects of the critical thinking of Raymond Williams, who, from the late 1950s, sought to give a new significance to the terms ‘culture’ and ‘communication’ to negotiate with the paradox of the creative artist confronting ‘mass culture’ as proposed in 19th century Romantic aesthetics and as developed by Arnold and other writers. The Leavisite ‘Scrutiny’ school of thinking brought this to a crisis in the 1940s and 1950s, and she discussed this context, in which Williams sought to develop a historical materialist method of analysis to explore these questions.
In her second lecture, Malini Bhattacharya analysed the concept of ‘realism’ in the context of the oeuvre of the Bengali writer Manik Bandyopadhyay. While in the post-modernist era realism is sometimes regarded as an outmoded embarrassment, the currency of this term coincided with one of the most creative phases in Bengali fiction, and became an insignia of creativity at a particular historical moment. She discussed Manik’s extraordinarily innovative fiction, including a detailed reading of his famous short story ‘Chhiniye Khae ni Keno’ (‘Why Didn’t They Snatch and Eat?’), with its bold and subversive depiction of the Bengal famine of the 1940s, and its bringing together of peasant exploitation and gender exploitation, and the exigencies of survival confronted by peasant women in particular.
Amiya Kumar Bagchi Amiya Kumar Bagchi spoke on ‘New Undertakings, Ruptures, Renunciation, and Affiliation: Themes in Bengal’s Social History Adumbrated in Four Fictional Tales’. The talk was based on an analysis of four classics in 20th-century Bengali literature, namely, Rabindranath Tagore’s Jogajog and Laboratory, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Adarsha Hindu Hotel, and Manik Bandyopadhyay’s Ahimsa. All written in pre-independence India, their social background is clearly that of colonial India. Bagchi discussed these works in an analytical framework which developed the ideas of Karl Marx and Joseph Schumpeter; in particular, he saw these works giving complex depictions of what Scumpeter had called ‘new combinations’ or innovations that break what Schumpeter calls the ‘circular flow’ of precapitalist economies. The complexity of the transition from one mode of production, feudalism, to another, capitalism, which Marx and Engels had analysed, are made concrete in the works Bagchi discussed.
Amiya Bagchi analysed the radical woman that Tagore had created in the figure of Sohini in Laboratory, and her amoral, dogged, commitment to the laboratory she is determined to build up successfully. In Hajari Thakur, on the other hand, in Adarsha Hindu Hotel, he showed, we see a figure who succeeds in becoming an entrepreneur restaurant-owner through his skills, and the loyal affective ties of daughter and niece-figures, who provide him with capital. In Jogajog, we see the tension between a decaying zamindar lineage and a money-making, upwardly mobile philistine family. Tagore, Bagchi said, romanticized neither side: but here too he created a free woman, Kumudini, who is defeated ultimately only by biology. Ahimsa by Manik Bandyopadhyay is about the stark tensions underlying the formation of a utopian ashram, by would-be renouncers of society; it refracts Gandhian politics, and shows that ashrams too require complex machinations and ruthlessness to succeed.
Sajni K Mukherji Sajni K Mukherji (Professor of English, Jadavpur University) spoke about ‘The Social Impulse in Charles Dickens’ Writing’. She focused on how poverty was viewed, and how a utilitarian, narrow-minded system of charity was institutionalised through a reformed system of workhouses in the 19th century, and ways in which writers such as Dickens responded. She found Dickens critical of utilitarian charitable plans, but also, ultimately, a believer in the notion that the virtuous poor should not take recourse to state charity, thus vindicating a utilitarian maxim. She also charted Dickens’ support of British colonialism in India. The subversive chartist writer GWM Reynolds, whose works were avidly read and translated in colonial Bengal, formed a subterranean locus of anti-colonial and anti-utilitarian polemics in her analysis.
Mandira Sen Mandira Sen (Director, Stree and Samya Books) spoke on ‘Publishing Dalit Narratives and Readers’ Response’. She spoke about the way the niche of publishing Dalit works has expanded enormously since 1992, when she started, and the many successful writers of Dalit protest writing, such as Kancha Ilaiah and Omprakash Valmiki whom Samya has published. The tensions and contradictions generated when the work of a marginalized, muted group comes into mainstream view were articulated by her, as was the exciting form and content of the new Dalit writing
Barnita Bagchi In two lectures on ‘Narratives of Education: The British Novel and Society’ and ‘Narratives of Education: South Asian Perspectives’, Barnita Bagchi (one of the coordinators of the course and Lecturer at IDSK) examined gendered narratives of education with an analytic interest in capturing the representation of women’s social capital in narrative forms, especially, but not limited to the novel. The first session focused on the ‘polite and commercial society’ of Britain from the 18th century onwards, where the rhetoric and practice of virtuous benevolence or ‘the circulation of social kindness’ and the emergence both of women writers and women educationists and social activists went hand in hand. Examining writings by 18th century educationist-writers such as Elizabth Hamilton, she showed how a small group of educated gentlewomen were working to advance the cause of mass education, while being simultaneously embedded in the socio-political exclusions of race, class, etc. of their time.
In her second session, Barnita Bagchi analysed writings by women such as Pandita Ramabai, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Jyotirmoyee Devi, and Ismat Chughtai in order again to understand how resourceful even sometimes ostensibly conservative women have been in staking claims to education and social change. She argued that re-reading women’s narratives with new analytic frameworks such as social capital helps us recover and reconceptualize the very active role that women have played, across history and culture, as social changemakers.
Subhoranjan Dasgupta Subhoranjan Dasgupta (Professor at IDSK and one of the coordinators of the course) gave three lectures. In his first lecture on ‘The Question of Authorship and the Importance of Bertolt Brecht’s play Calcutta, May 4′, Dasgupta used archival evidence to prove that this play bears the unmistakeable signature of Bertolt Brecht, and to that extent it is radically different from the earlier version, Warren Hastings, Governor General of India written by Lion Feuchtwanger. Moreover, Dasgupta argued, this play dramatising the role of Warren Hastings in India and his historic conflict with Nandakumar, occupies a crucial position in Brecht’s oeuvre because it underlines the emergence of the ‘political’ Brecht whose trenchant critique of colonialism here leads to his imminent Marxist position.
In his second lecture, ‘Reflections on Lyric Poetry in Neo-Marxian Aesthetics, with Emphasis on the Theses of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno’, Dasgupta first wove a connection between the two by stressing how Adorno urged Benjamin to revise his evaluation of Baudelaire’s poetry, a revision leading to the formulation of the famous concept of Aura. After analysing the elements which constitute Aura in lyrics-time, nature, history, memory-Dasgupta gave concrete examples of the auratic experience by referring to modern Bengali poetry, to the poems of Jibanananda Das and Bishnu Dey in particular. The exposition on Adorno’s thinking on the subject outlined how even the exponent of ‘negative dialectics’ traced the voice of protest against the prevailing scheme in immortal lyrics. It is this intrinsic aspect of protest, even lament, embedded in the structure of the lyric that invests it with the Utopian dimension.
Dasgupta’s last lecture was devoted to an examination of Khowabnama, the Bangladeshi novelist Akhtaruzzaman Elias’ remarkable text on Bengal Partition and the Tebhaga movement. A sheer genius whose fiction compares well with the best written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Gunter Grass, Elias was vehemently opposed to the partition of Bengal. Dasgupta first draw an intimate portrait of the writer, distinctive in many ways, and then evaluated Khowabnama where the Marxist Elias posited the valour and sacrifice of Tebhaga as the redemptive counter-factual of the divisive Partition. The lecture ended by highlighting the ‘poet’ Elias, whose novels read like impassioned prose poems when the struggle for human emancipation is the theme.
Sibaji Bandopadhyay In a lecture on ‘Empire and Literature’, Sibaji Bandopadhyay (Professor, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata) proposed that ‘Empire’ and ‘Literature’ are imbricated in the ‘history of the present’. He examined the career of capital in six stages, in the process examining the emergence of modernity and beginning of empire-building through colonization. He showed how Europe’s knowledge became the sole yardstick of judgment, a phenomenon we know as Euro-centrism. Foucault’s contribution to an understanding of modernity, particularly the disciplinarian aspect, was given a prime place in understanding the surveillance typical of modern times. In the second part of his lecture, he analysed children’s literature in a colony, namely Bengal. This exposition was attended by an examination of Mathew Arnold’s ideas on culture. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ideas on culture in Bengal, being a composite of western culture and some strands of Indianness, were compared with Arnold’s conception. He concluded by arguing how adventure stories for children would correlate with the career graph of capital in Europe. The legacy of such adventure stories remains powerful even today.
Udaya Kumar Udaya Kumar (Professor, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata) spoke about Caste and Literature, with a focus on late 19th century Kerala. He began with an explanation of the relationship between caste and literature. He pointed out two levels of the relationship: caste as a part of the content of literature and caste as the subject location from which literature arose. Then he moved over to a comparative analysis of the significance of caste and class. He drew attention to contradictory explanations of caste (an idea/a principle vs. a set of practices constitutive of identities). He made a special mention of L. Dumont’s contribution. After an exposition on the caste system in Kerala, he spoke about Chandu Menon’s Indulekha at length. The difficulties in relying on the text, like problems of particularity and translation, were pointed out.
Mihir Bhattacharya Mihir Bhattacharya (Retired Professor of Film Studies, Jadavpur University) spoke on ‘The Social Criticism of Mikhail Bakhtin’. His lecture developed an analysis of three principal themes in Bakhtin’s thought: the production of social meaning through speech, as discussed pioneeringly by Russian linguistics and stylistics, novelistic discourse, and the realm of the carnivalesque as a domain of inversion, freedom and subversion.
Tanika Sarkar Tanika Sarkar (Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) delivered the final lecture in the course, titled ‘A Historian’s Response to Literature in the Social Sciences’. After a methodological analysis of the rapprochements and the ruptures between the historian and the literary critic, she made a detailed analysis of Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath to bring out the sometimes troubled relationship between history and literature. Among the issues she unravelled in the complexities of Anandamath were its departure in factual depiction from the historical incident of the Sanyasi Rebellion on which it is based, its externalised depiction of a world of famine and forest, its explicit anti-Muslim polemics, and its iconization of a militant Hindu mother goddess, mother of a Hindu nation. She insisted that literature and history should each be accorded different strengths and weaknesses, and that there were both major congruences and major distinctions between the two.