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Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Study in Legacy

The colonial English idea of the canon, applied to Hindi at a time when Dalit and feminist literature challenge its unity.

Written by Alok Rai | Published: February 23, 2019 9:43:18 pm

The Hindi Canon
Mrityunjay Tripathi (Author), Shad Naved (TRANSLATOR)
Tulika Books
200 pages
Rs 2,004

The debate regarding the formation of the English “canon” has been crucial to the development of English studies during the last three or four decades. The “innocent” canon for the (in)discipline of “English literature” — classics for the feeble-minded, as it were, for women, workers and dusky colonials — had been put together in the age of high-Victorian confidence. It was in confident alliance with the nationalist-imperialist project, in which a small set of white males managed to pass off their class interest as civilisational and universal. Because, of course, a canon isn’t worth much if it isn’t broadly accepted as universal. Which is exactly what happened when research opened up for inspection the history of the making of that canon.

Mrityunjay Tripathi’s Hindi account of the making of the “Hindi” canon has now appeared in an English translation. Considering that the process of “standardisation”, and so canon-formation, is practically constitutive for the emergence of modern Hindi, this albeit belated study of Hindi canon-formation is both remarkable and welcome. However, I am not entirely convinced about the rationale for the English translation of a work that is, in effect, a Hindi “translation” of an English concern. Thus, Tripathi’s Hindi original has a long introductory section on the background of the English canon debate — which is understandably omitted in the English translation. But it is also a pity, because it effectively abbreviates the distance between the moment of the problematisation of the canon, and the dissolution of the very possibility of a canon in the cacophony of identities. There is, necessarily and productively, a tension between the universalistic claim of a canon, and the conflicting claims of particular perspectives, of identities. But when this tension erupts into warfare, or fragments into sulky ghettoes, then the debate has lost its creative potential.

So far, so English. The basic narrative of the Hindi canon story is really quite simple, and Tripathi does an efficient job of setting it out. So, after some historical gesturing in the direction of John Gilchrist and Garcin de Tassy, and the Mishra Bandhu, he gets into his main story: so, in the beginning there was the pioneering codifier Ramchandra Shukla, and then there was a Nand Dulare Vajpayee, and, then came Hazari Prasad Dwivedi… And so into the present, with Namvar Singh (who passed away on 19 February 2019) and Muktibodh. I’m glad it’s all there, and done competently, but the debate has, in a sense, barely begun.

Thus, there is a lazy and self-righteous anti-colonialism which might be the most accessible legacy of the intellectual muddle called “post-colonialism”. One of the most pernicious effects of this postcolonial anti-colonialism is that it concentrates all agency in the hands of the colonisers — bad Gilchrist, bad Grierson! — while we happily beaming natives can bask in the glories of our gratefully received “navajagaran”! I suspect that Tripathi is, to some extent, conscious of this danger, but the political compulsion of signalling one’s progressive anti-colonialism and, even deeper, the seduction of Ramvilas Sharma’s influential “navajagaran” hypothesis, proves ultimately irresistible.

In his 1977 book, Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi aur Hindi Navajagaran, Sharma offered the Hindi-wallahs absolution — amnesia — from the fiercely contentious and eventually blood-soaked history from which modern Hindi had emerged in the aftermath of 1857. The mythical maternity of Sanskrit lay in the distant past, but here was a flattering account of that modern history as a kind of cultural and spiritual awakening, a renaissance that was simultaneously progressive, anti-feudal and straining towards the future, and, which also offered a connection to the much-missed, much-needed golden past. It was a kind of Brahminical Marxism, but I’m not likely to gain many Hindi friends for saying so!

So, Shukla’s canon is “heart-stealingly” (to use the present English translation of the original “manohar”!) steeped in Brahmin-love — and I shudder to imagine the Hindi classroom of today, in which the poor teacher has to dish out this obscurantist rubbish to Dalits and OBCs and, God forbid, women! Tripathi’s contortions, in seeking to accommodate this kind of thing in his broadly navajagaran account are, in some sense, indicative of what is the biggest skeleton still lurking in Hindi’s historical cupboard: “In this milieu, along with its anti-colonialist essence, the goal of eradicating social ills also became central to the pioneers of the Hindi reawakening during these decades. The contradiction is that in their fight against social ills in order to resist the British, these intellectuals had to turn backwards and seek to adopt its values and systems in the shadow of the ancient village society.”

Hindi academics and intellectuals aren’t unaware of the problematic nature of the navajagaran hypothesis. Satyaprakash Misra and Vir Bharat Talwar, to name but two, have written in criticism of it. But its apparent immortality is reminiscent either of the deep Hindu belief in rebirth, or of a line from an old song: “He’s dead but he won’t lie down!” However, what needs to be understood — within the Hindi academy, of course, but also outside it — is the nature of the investment in the navajagaran hypothesis, in the bad history that is sought to be camouflaged in it, glamorised by it.


As with almost everything else in our wonderful country, caste holds the key. So, poor Kabir finds himself excluded from Shukla’s confidently Brahminical canon — lower-caste, and probably a Muslim to boot! By the same token, including Kabir, and locating him high in the hierarchy, is an important move in the canon debate. So, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, and those that follow him. Finally, the matter of Kabir provides a fitting point at which one may in passing note the current condition of the canon debate — because whereas the early-Brahmin canonisers were loath to include Kabir, the current Dalit appropriators of Kabir are vociferous in seeking to deny him to the savarna high priests of Hindi, and want to make him the exclusive property of the Dalit canon.

So, finally, Tripathi’s book is both annunciation and obituary — the canon is dead, long live the canons!

The writer taught at the Department of English, Delhi University

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