Beginnings

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Subcontinental writing in English is now a literature in the comprehensive sense of the term, but it started at the end of the eighteenth century without a core of poetry, narrative fiction or drama. Among its inaugural texts, Dean Mahomet's Travels (1794) was a combination of autobiography, professional memoir and cultural exposition in the form of an epistolary travel-narrative; C. V. Boriah's 'Account of the Jains' (completed in 1803, but published posthumously in 1809) was an ethnographic field-report based on an oral history; and Rammohun Roy's multiform oeuvre, produced between 1817 and 1833, consisted of works of journalism, social and political criti cism, philosophical explication, religious debate, scriptural translation and learned commentary. The surprising fact is that Dean Mahomet was a connoisseur of Persian poetry and probably learnt to write English verse after his migration to Ireland in 1784; that Boriah was trained in Sanskrit poetics and composed poetry in Telugu; and that Roy published texts in Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian and left behind a body of lyrical poems in Bengali. Despite their skills, however, these innovators did not highlight the aesthetic dimension of their works in English: instead, they emphasized the functional use of language and the instrumentality of prose, creating a literature of persuasion rather than a literature of the imagination.

The reasons for this rhetorical disposition were complex. Raised in the subcontinent's multilingual culture with multiple literatures and script-systems, Dean Mahomet, Boriah and Roy acquired their literacy in English 'on the job' in and around the East India Company, without the benefit of a formal Western-style education. They published their first writings in English for limited practical purposes but, as unprecedented participants in the colonial print-sphere, they found themselves engaged in a specific form of cross-cultural exchange. In this dynamic, their texts represented Indian understandings of India that stood at an angle to the representations of the British experience of India that had already accumulated in large quantities by the end of the eighteenth century. While Dean Mahomet and Boriah grappled with British critiques of subcontinental 'customs and manners' and developed tactful counter-critiques, Roy complicated the 'East—West dialectic' by combining aggressive, self-reflexive criticism of Indian society with trenchant criticism of Protestant theology and the finances of British India, among other things. Thus, their stress on the instrumentality of prose and their suppression of its imaginative dimension were linked to their efforts to change the epistemological basis of the representations and interpretations of India prevalent in this language. Such a change, as Roy argued, was itself part of the process by which Indians had to carry out a self-transformation and a counter-transformation in response to the changes that the East India Company had initiated on the subcontinent.

Indigenous poetry in English was born in this textual—political environment early in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and developed two distinct orientations towards it. In one direction, the poetry remained embedded within the larger subcontinental literature in English, and hence reproduced within its own textual formation the dynamic of critique, counter-critique and self-reflexive critique that had preceded it. In the other direction, however, it reacted to its antecedents by devaluing prose and elevating verse as the vehicle of indigenous expression, and launching an ambitious aestheticization of subcontinental discourse and experience, which transposed the conflicts between India and Britain (or East and West) from the social, economic and political planes onto the poetic plane. These two orientations proved to be seminal, because they shaped much of the development of poetry in the high colonial and postcolonial periods. But the objects of criticism and aestheticization turned out to be variable over time, changing with successive generations of poets, entering into new combinations, and even cancelling each other. The history of the poetry therefore became inseparable from the story of a series of aesthetic and critical positions that individual poets and groups of poets invented in order to deal with their particular circumstances and with the material and cultural conditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As the following discussion indicates, these positions opened up the poetry to a range of historical ironies and cultural ambiguities, as also to a variety of conflicts over language, literariness, identity, representation and originality.

Between 1825 and 1830, however, the incipient critical and aesthetic orientations of subcontinental poetry in English were entangled in ambiguous, multiple beginnings. Chronologically, the first indigenous writer to attempt a representation of the Indian poetic imagination in this language was C. V. Ramaswami, but his text, published in 1825, was explicitly a translation of an early seventeenth-century Sanskrit poem, Arashanipala Venkatadhvarin's Vishwagunadarshana. As a translation, it could not claim to be the first 'Indian poem in English', since such a category implicitly equates poetry with originality and associates the medium of poetry with acts of original composition in it. By these criteria, the first indigenous author to compose his own poems directly in English was Kashi Prosad Ghose, who published The Shair, or Minstrel and Other Poems in 1830. While Kashi Prosad's work was original in one sense, however, it imitated minor Elizabethan verse so closely that, in another sense, as Theodore O. Dunn noted retrospectively in Bengali Writers of English Verse (1918), it possessed 'no real originality either in the form of the poems or in their themes' (cited in Alphonso-Karkala, 1970, p. 45). In fact, The Shair failed to become the decisive inaugural text in the tradition for two contrary reasons: its originality in English was at best nominal and, at the same time, its textual attributes were not sufficiently Indian.

Placed historically between Ramaswami and Kashi Prosad, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio displayed greater originality than either, and a firmer command of English and its prosody. But whereas Ramaswami (like his brother, C. V. Boriah) was a Vaishnava brahman from the Andhra region, and Kashi Prosad was a well-to-do, high-ranking brahman from Bengal, and both therefore were indisputably indigenous, Derozio's identity proved to be equivocal. Although he was born and lived all his life on the subcontinent, his father was half-Portuguese and half-Indian, whereas his mother was wholly English — which made him predominantly European by blood. Moreover, he was raised in an English-speaking, Christian household, and was educated at a Scottish school in Bengal, where he learnt English and French and some German, Latin and Greek, and received a rigorous introduction to the literature of the European Enlightenment. In British India — as contrasted to the Dutch and French colonies in Asia, or the English colonies in the Americas — Eurasians, Christians of indeterminate descent, and even upper-caste Hindu converts to Christianity were often identified more closely with the European colonial community than with indigenous society. This made British critics reluctant to categorize Derozio as an 'Indian': E. F. Oaten, for example, in A Sketch of Anglo-Indian Literature (1908), suggested that he be treated as a figure in the British Romantic tradition, rather than as an Indian original.

But Derozio himself seems to have undercut the deterministic logic and black-and-white politics of racial identity. By the age of sixteen he had set about passionately Indianizing himself, conceiving original poems around Indian stories, characters and experiences, celebrating Indian 'ways of feeling', and building up more ambitious lyric and narrative pieces for inclusion in Poems (1827) and The Fakir of Jungheera, a Metrical Tale, and Other Poems (1828). Although he died before turning twenty-three, in a few years of astonishing creativity as a writer and a teacher (at Hindu College, Calcutta) he constructed a more complex and influential critical-aesthetic vision than most of his contemporaries. His poetry contained some of the earliest articulations of Indian nationalism (he was the first to use the phrase 'Mother India'); he developed an extended critique of Indian traditions (he was an outspoken critic of sati before Lord William Bentinck outlawed it); and he urged his students to transform themselves as well as their indigenous society radically (most of them became famous in the Bengal Renaissance). At the same time, he deployed a wide variety of metres and verse forms in short as well as long poems, and invented distinctive images, comparisons and analogies to naturalize and aestheticize the Indian landscape in the English language. Derozio probably failed to fulfil his potential and may be overrated as an original poet, but his innovations became models for the next two generations of subcontinental writers in English. The double irony was that a mestizo invented Indian poetry in English more successfully than his authentically Indian contemporaries; and that the indigenous poetic tradition in this language could launch itself only through his supposedly inauthentic racial-cultural hybridity.

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