I must confess that, at the beginning, I was rightfully wary of picking up one more book presumably documenting how colonial modernity charted its course through literature produced during the so-called Bengal Renaissance, but I am happy to say that my w(e)ariness could not have been more misplaced. Rosinka Chaudhuri’s attempt is a breath of fresh air in the suffocatingly overpopulated discursive domain of studying nineteenth century Bengali literature to make, now somewhat commonsensical, points about the Bengal intelligentsia’s complex interaction with the British colonial milieu. And, as I will elaborate one after the other, Chaudhuri’s study is novel on not one, but four counts—the methodology it adopts, the objective it pursues, the objects it takes up for study, and the contribution it makes to existing scholarship.
First, one cannot but marvel at the declared methodology adopted in this work, which is citational and quotational. In fact, the book begins with a passage that is practically an ad verbatim reproduction of the introductory paragraph of Michel Foucault’s The Use of Pleasure, the second volume of his History of Sexuality, with only minor changes in certain words and phrases—like ‘sexual behaviours’ in the Foucault passage replaced with ‘Bengali poetic practice’ in Chaudhuri, ‘sexuality’ with ‘poetry’, ‘medical’ with ‘literary’, and ‘western’ with ‘Indian’—with the original Foucault passage provided in a footnote on the same page, to enable the reader to see how intertextually referential this book is right from its outset. Chaudhuri goes on to say, ‘In defence it might be possible to mention the well-known fact that Walter Benjamin’s “greatest intention”, as mentioned by Hannah Arendt in her introduction to Illuminations, “was to produce a work consisting entirely of quotations”; an extremity to which it would be near impossible to aspire’ (p. xvii). And, it is this fascinating impossibility that the book strives for, by seeing to it that almost its entire contents and its title itself are but quotations. The book comprises seven chapters, out of which all but one—Chapter Three, spanning less than 30 pages—are reproductions of material previously published by Chaudhuri in diverse books and journals, and an underscoring of the same in a ‘Copyright Statement’ (pp. 325-26) makes the reader aware of this deliberate citational strategy where 90% of the book is a long quotation of the author’s own works. The same follows for the title of the book, ‘The Literary Thing’ being the title of a 2007 article by Pierre Macherey, an article that Chaudhuri elaborates upon in detail in her ‘Introduction’, thus highlighting once again her deliberate quotational strategy. All this—that the book’s title is a quotation, that its bulk is reproduction of already published material, that it begins with a longish, slightly morphed, Foucault quote without quotation marks, and that it makes a virtue of the impossible ideal of producing a work entirely of quotations—is striking not only because it seems novel in a world where vain claims to ‘originality’ often mark intellectual production, but also because it is the intertextual, the referential, the iterative that best characterizes literature for what it is—l’iterature, as it were. The primary value of Chaudhuri’s work lies in this methodological attempt of it to bring to life the literary process itself as it discusses ‘the literary thing’.
The second thing noteworthy about this book is its handling of the very objective of the study it embarks on—to see what literature does, or why literature matters, or what literature is—the ‘literary thing’, as its title, and the Macherey article that it is borrowed from, suggest. Over the last half a century or so, Literary Theory and Criticism, probably in reaction to the overly liberal humanist and ahistorical ways that immediately preceded it, has been primarily interested in exposing the political and ideological roles that literature and culture play, often at the cost of the ‘aesthetic’ and the principle of enjoyment, that actually mark the literary and cultural forms as distinct from other modes of discourse. Needless to say, the study of literary production of the Bengal Renaissance in the now much-anthologized and much-canonized studies by eminent historians and political scientists has undergone the same fate, literature being used as a medium to make grand social scientific points, with scant regard for the ‘literary thing’ itself. And, this is where Rosinka Chaudhuri—a student of literature and not a social scientist—scores, invoking, through Macherey, a post-theoretical ‘third path’ of fusing the aesthetic with the political, at a distinction from ‘current intellectual orthodoxies’. To quote, ‘Negotiating a third path … Attempting a reconciliation between the two extremes, he (Macherey) insists on the materiality and immateriality of literature at the same time, joining Bourdieu and Blanchot in an impossible contortionist leap of acrobatic proportions in his suggestion that it would be unfeasible to divide and separate these two aspects in the constitution of the literary, that we must attend to both, … In some sense, perhaps, this desire to bring the materiality of the field of the text into conjunction with the immanent immateriality of the aesthetic impulse of literature belongs to a time “after theory” … It stems from an unease with the current state of criticism, a discomfort with positions perceived to have become dogmatic, a disinclination to completely accept current intellectual orthodoxies’ (pp. xxxv-vi).
The third whiff of freshness that Chaudhuri brings in is in the choice of the objects of her study—poetry (and literary criticism) produced in Bengali between 1831 and 1881 by the likes of Iswarchandra Gupta, Rangalal Bandyopadhyay, Michael Madhu-sudan Datta, Hemchandra Bandyopadhyay, Nabinchandra Sen, and the earliest works of the nineteen year old Rabindranath Tagore—and this on two counts. First, she chooses to study poetry—a genre mostly neglected in the numerous studies on literary production of the Bengal Renaissance—and not novels, or drama, or prose, or even art, which have been the mainstay of well-known studies on the period. As she says, ‘In academic discourse, the coming together of the birth of the novel, the concept of history, and the idea of the nation-state under the sign of the modern has led to … a collective blindness towards the forceful intervention of poetry and song within those parameters. Thus, while Meenakshi Mukherjee edited Early Novels in India … no such corresponding volume exists on regional poetry, which has seen very little critical work in English on the subject. Dipesh Chakrabarty, a critic unusually sensitive to the literary in the domain of the social sciences, paradoxically elides any mention of it in a chapter devoted to poetry in his book Provincializing Europe … Similarly, Partha Chatterjee, in his introduction to The Nation and Its Fragments, discusses the shaping of critical discourses in colonial Bengal in relation to drama, the novel, and even art, but ignores completely the fiercely contested and controversial processes by which modern Bengali poetry and literary criticism were formulated’ (pp. xxi-ii).
Secondly, Chaudhuri, in delineating how poetry of the period would have contributed towards building a Bengali literary culture, deliberately chooses poets who are relatively marginal to Bengal’s own construction of its poetic tradition (after all, considering that the Tagore she chooses is but a teenager and not the mature institution to come, Michael Madhusudan Datta seems to be the only one among the poets she discusses who has secured any sustained academic engagement, at least in English). She says, ‘The focus, whether in Saidian postcolonial analysis or traditionally, has been on the “great” writers of the past; however, the emphasis here will mostly be on the minor poets rather than on the grand diachronic sweep of the canon … because the figures discussed here (most, not all) have generally been regarded as being in the minor key even in the culture to which they were specific. The emphasis here, therefore, will be on demonstrating the importance of the less important to the constitution of a literary culture in particular and to the cultural sphere at large’ (pp. xviii-ix). Thus, Rosinka Chaudhuri, in choosing the neglected form of poetry and also mostly marginal practitioners of the form of the chosen period as her objects of study, brings in a third level of novelty to the book.
The fourth and final register on which Chaudhuri brings in a fresh perspective in her study is what can be extrapolated as the contribution of this work to existing post-colonial scholarship. Though she clearly says, ‘There is no great political or historical continuity that threads the chapters here together; no one teleological project to join the particularities of each situation into a meta-narrative of nation or modernity, no ‘grand synthesis of unprecedented scope’ then, either attempted or accomplished in these pages’ (p. xxiii, the quote within being a dig at what the blurb of Sheldon Pollock’s 2003 Literary Cultures in History claims itself to be), two thetic points, marking significant supplementations to postcolonial thought, do emerge from the book. First, in contradistinction with the postcolonial commonsense of literary cultures in colonial contexts emerging only through western influence, in the ‘empire writing back’ mode, she shows through her study of Bengali literary historiography of the period, or what she calls the ‘history of literary history’, that the desire for the ‘authentic’—the khâñmibângâlî-kabi (pure Bengali poet), what Bankimchandra would purportedly describe Iswarchandra Gupta as (p. xli)—played a greater role in generating the ‘vernacular modern’. She says, in a direct refutation of Partha Chatterjee’s suggestion of English having emerged in the nineteenth century as ‘the dominant language of the modern’ and Indian languages being reduced to ‘vernacular non-modernity’, that such a view ‘is historically blind to the great alliance between the vernacular and the modern in the colonial period … it is a fact hardly ever acknowledged that the English language in India was certainly not the only ‘dominant language of the modern’ at the time, as powerful regional languages also forged, simultaneously, a vibrant vernacular modern’ (pp. xxix-xxx), and that ‘Any attempt to study the literature or culture of nineteenth-century Bengal must necessarily deal, right at the start, with the shibboleth of “western influence”, a category that needs to be rethought in light of the mutability of history, memory, tradition, and inheritance’ (pp. xlii-iii). Secondly, and more importantly, Chaudhuri clearly shows—again at divergence with some of her more luminous predecessors—how this study has to be treated as limited to its time and space, and cannot be taken as symptomatic of the whole of India or, worse, the whole of the postcolonial world. She says, somewhat ironically, ‘This book, then, cannot have a grand theme in the manner that is so popular among important Indian thinkers, historians, or social and political scientists; consequently, it is not about the idea of India, or imagining India, or producing India—in fact, there is no “India” here except as it is located in the regional, the particular, the individual, and the ordinary’ (p. xxxiii). This admission is indeed what is probably most remarkable about this book.
While the elaborate 52-page long ‘Introduction’ to the book—from where the review above has copiously quoted—does set its agenda, the points made therein are borne out more succinctly in the six chapters that follow: the first is on the reception of the eighteenth-century poet Bharatchandra Ray in the nineteenth-century Bengali literary sphere; the second on Iswarchandra Gupta’s very material and physical urban poetry; the third on Rangalal Bandyopadhyay’s manifesto (the Preface to his Padminî upâkhyân)for a modern Bengali poetry aimed at an eradication of the ribald public culture of the times; the fourth deals with the celebrated case of the cosmopolitan Michael Madhu-sudan Datta’s conversion and anxiety about writing in Bengali, while adding a part on the later Marxist reception of the same; the fifth and sixth chapters deal with the ‘Hindu nationalist’ poets Hemchandra Bandyopadhyay and Nabinchandra Sen respectively; and the final chapter is on the early ‘political’ poems, much in the ‘Hindu nationalist’ mode, of the young Rabindranath Tagore, far from his later cosmopolitan avatar, a phase marked by a distinct closure with his 1882 poem Nirjharer Svapnabhanga, a poem in which apparently Tagore finally finds his own poetic voice, and in discussing which in detail, Chaudhuri ends her book. The chapters are copious, erudite and cannot be discussed in any further detail in this short review for the sheer range of scholarship they demonstrate.
Let it suffice me to end here by reiterating my deep appreciation for what Rosinka Chaudhuri has done here—bringing in a breath of fresh air, a poetic one at that, to the stifling body of commonsense that has come to rule much of the ever-burgeoning body of work on the Bengal Renaissance. A must read for all.
Saugata Bhaduri is Professor at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.