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).

As mentioned, the work the MCLI is doing with South Asian vernacular literature is vital. In the Sanskrit-dominated field of South Asian literature, it is imperative that the space for vernacular literatures is opened up. Yet, it is also worth noting that the MCLI is a collection of pre-modern vernacular texts. It often seems to me that much of the already-limited scholarship on South Asian vernacular literature is dedicated to the study of texts that were written prior to the 1800s.

The Invention of Private Life is a collection of eleven essays that are primarily centered on the reciprocal relationship between (Bengali) literature and modernity. The central argument of this text is that literature is essential for understanding modernity in India. Kaviraj remarks in the introduction of his book, “Modernity introduced new literary forms to Indian creative writers — such as the novel and the autobiography; but literature also served as the great field of reflection on the nature of modernity, and its cognitive and ethical exploration. It is in Indian literature that much of the interrogation of modernity happens” (2014: 4).

By reading certain novels, an autobiography, lyric poems, dance dramas and even a Hindi film song, Kaviraj argues that certain ideas such as love, nationalism, humor, and the self were transformed within and because of the advent of these new forms of literature. For example, in the book’s fifth essay, using the works of the renowned Bengali artist and writer Rabindranath Tagore, Kaviraj argues that with the emergence of modernity, the ideals of love shifted from the erotic shringara love, found in Sanskrit literature, to the more emotional and romantic concept of prema, seen in dramas such as Raktakarabi (1926), Shyama (1939) and Sampocan (1939). Similarly, in his essay ‘The Invention of Private Life: A Reading of Sibnath Sastri(from which this book gets its name), Kaviraj analyzes how the modern genre of the autobiography revealed “the historical invention of a private sphere, of a private life for individuals, a conceptual space in which they are sovereign, subject to some rules of sociability” (Ibid: 334). Kaviraj also notes that this autobiography of Sastri “is so historically significant precisely because this morally excruciating tragic drama was played out in innumerable families’ internal lives. It was the norm in those modernizing times, not the exception” (Ibid: 6). This modern literary form of the autobiography imagines the self as an autonomous private space, which is nonetheless, to some extent, informed and influenced by the rules of the public.

An essay that highlights Kaviraj’s process of reading literary works is ‘A Strange Love of Abstractions: The Making of a Language of Patriotism in Modern Bengali’. This piece focuses on the song Vande Mataram (“I Salute You Mother”), which was written in 1882 by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay as part of his novel Anandamath. As the official “national song” of India, Vande Mataram is familiar to most Indians; but Kaviraj offers a complex and controversial history of this much loved song. Through the theories of Durkheim and Gadamer, he underlines the various possibilities in the meaning of the song. Besides, Kaviraj also narrates three distinct stories that illustrate how the song enabled the production of ‘nationalism’ in Bengal, along with a specific idea of the Motherland that served as both anti-British and anti-Muslim.

Thus it is, that Kaviraj considers these literary works as sites to discuss the turn to modernity in its diverse manifestations; not limited to Indian nationalism, but also including ‘modern’ love, humor, and the self. I find Kaviraj’s work, which explores the transformation of a vernacular literary culture in its interaction with modernity, indispensable to the study of non-Western modernities. Like Sascha Ebeling’s work on modern Tamil literature and Francesca Orsini’s on modern Hindi, Kaviraj’s The Invention of Private Life is an important contribution to the study of modernities as well as literatures in South Asia.

I conclude by contending that Kaviraj’s work leaves the reader with a few lingering questions. The first is his choice to end the book with the essay, ‘The Second Mahabharata’, which is an exploration of a reading of the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata by the philosopher Abhinavagupta (975-1025 C.E.). This essay does work through broader themes found in this book, such as the processes of reading texts in their historical context as well as through theoretical frameworks. Yet, one cannot help but wonder why this essay on a pre-modern reading of an ancient Sanskrit epic is included in a book whose introduction is titled, ‘Literature as the Mirror of Modernity’. A final broader question revolves around Kaviraj’s use of the word ‘invention,’ a term which suggests the creation of something that is radically different from what preceded it. In his essay, ‘The Two Histories of Literary Culture in Bengal’, Kaviraj discusses different forms of pre-modern Bengali literature and the emergence of modern Bengali literature; yet, I wonder if the literature of modern Bengal can be conceived of as ‘invention’ — as a radical break from the past — in the way the title of this book seems to suggest.

About Sohini Pillai

Sohini Pillai is a second-year Masters student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on Hindi and Tamil tellings of epic literature in South Asia.