Literature and Modernity: A Review of Sudipta Kaviraj’s ‘The Invention of Private Life’


Like many students of South Asian literature, I was delighted when the Murty Classical Library of India (MCLI) was launched this January. The MCLI –– whose general editor is Sheldon Pollock –– is a collection of South Asian literary works in over twelve different languages. Although some of the volumes in the MCLI will be Sanskrit works, the library’s vital contribution will be rendering available texts that belong to vernacular South Asian literary traditions such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, Sindhi and Punjabi. The importance of making vernacular works of South Asian literature more accessible is paramount. As Rohan Murty, the founder of the MCLI, points out, many students in India today are more familiar with Robert Frost and Shakespeare than they are with Indian classics.

In a certain sense, the MCLI is complemented by Sudipta Kaviraj’s new book, The Invention of Private Life: Literature and Ideas, which also draws our attention to the importance of South Asian vernacular literature, specifically Bengali literature. In this book, Kaviraj offers a set of critical reflections at the intersection of literature and political theory. In the introduction, Kaviraj describes how he once thought that his scholarly penchant for both literature and political theory was “simply an accident of taste”, and that these two academic interests were unrelated to each other (Ibid: 2). But, as is evidenced in these diverse essays, Kaviraj has since then begun to see literary works as sites of formations and articulations of nationalist ideas as well as other political and social forces. Throughout this book, Kaviraj uses the theories of Bakhtin, Taylor and Danto, among others, to examine and analyze the different Indian literary works that he discusses. Yet, despite approaching many of these pieces of literature with questions of political and social theory, Kaviraj’s “sense of textual pleasure” for these works clearly comes across in his essays (Ibid: 8).

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Ekalavya Retold

2011_79_Strm1The story of Ekalavya is one of the many stories in the epic Mahabharata about the Bharata dynasty, and Vyasa is regarded as its author. Vyasa told Ganesha that he had to take the time to understand everything before he wrote it. It is the longest Sanskrit epic and was completed around 4th century CE.

Ekalavya is the son of a tribal chief. He wants to be an archer and wishes to become a disciple of the guru (or teacher) Dronacharya (Drona). Drona is the royal teacher to the Pandava and Kaurava princes. He is a Brahman and Ekalavya is a shudra. Drona refuses to teach Ekalavya, because Ekalavya wasn’t a kshtriya (warrior). Ekalavya returns dejected to the forest. He makes a clay figure of Drona and practices alone in front of it. In time, with practice, he becomes an excellent archer.

One day, when he’s practicing in the forest, the incessant barking of a dog disturbs him. He shoots arrows into the mouth of the dog without injuring it. When Drona sees the dog with its mouth full of arrows, he is amazed at the skill of the archer. Along with his disciples, the Pandava and Kaurava princes, Drona looks around the forest for the archer. When they come across Ekalavya, Drona praises him and asks him how he learned the art of archery. Ekalavya tells Drona that he learned it from him. He explains that he practices in front of a clay figure of Drona and he considers him his teacher. Continue reading Ekalavya Retold

Sanskrit 2012

sanskrit_03232012This January, roughly 2,300 years after the composition of Pāṇini’s definitive Sanskrit grammar, scholars congregated in New Delhi to present papers on the massive and enduring cultural system represented by the language. The World Sanskrit Conference, a triennial event that brings together two worlds: one in which Sanskrit serves as the language of imagining truth, beauty and power, and one in which Sanskrit is an object of study and fascination. It confirms that these two worlds are less discontinuous, historically and geographically, than they might seem. Continue reading Sanskrit 2012