Prachi Deshpande is the author of
Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and
Identity in Western India, 1700–1960
(Permanent Black and Columbia University Press, 2007)
She worked for a longish stretch as an editor with the review magazine Biblio and was for some years assistant professor of history at UC Berkeley. She is currently with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences at Kolkata.
She responds here to some of the questions earlier posed to Anne Feldhaus and Christian Lee Novetzke.
Q1) An influential view of the current state of historical and literary scholarship pertaining to India is that of Sheldon Pollock, who remarks:‘the number of citizens capable of reading and understanding the texts and documents of the classical era—or precolonial or premodern or pre-1800 era, all equivalent terms for my purposes here—will very soon approach a statistical zero. India is about to become the only major world culture whose literary patrimony, and indeed history, are in the custodianship of scholars outside the country: in Berkeley, Chicago, and New York; Oxford, Paris, and Vienna. This would not be healthy either for India or for the rest of the world that cares about India.’ Does this critique also apply to Maharashtra, and to what degree?
A1) Pollock is speaking of a decline of scholastic philological skills due to an institutional apathy. The decline and apathy are real enough. But for all the attention to the historical contexts within which it has occurred, his critique ultimately privileges the institutional, and now globalized, world of English-language scholarship. To me it is impossible to separate the specific problem of linguistic ecocide in classical studies from this deeper privileging of English, and its history of dominance over contemporary Indian languages in our entire institutional and educational set-up. For all the superficial provisions for “vernaculars”, our education system continues to be predicated on an alienation from working in Indian languages rather than on them. This gap between those educated in English and Indian languages has only widened in recent decades. Pollock mentions the erosion of English skills in this context, but completely ignores the inability or refusal among English-language scholars to make our contemporary Indian languages viable sites of our scholarly thought and critical debate, and spaces to which they can and must bring global debates; this is the nub of this problem.
Unless these languages are strengthened institutionally and prioritized in our scholarly practice beyond the acquisition of reading skills for archival work, scholarly work in the ‘vernaculars’ will consistently fail to catch up with global trends or ‘fit the bill’, classical languages and pre-modern studies will remain resources of symbolic power for political and cultural agendas, and those who can study these through English will prefer to do them abroad, where the economic and institutional resources, not to say exposure to theoretical tools, are more easily available. Speaking of ‘citizens’ and ‘patrimony’ in this regard, where the system itself is geared towards strengthening the global knowledge economy, is not only futile, it is also disingenuous.
Speaking of Maharashtra, I do not know the exact institutional fate of Prakrit or old Marathi today, but Modi script classes are witnessing a recent resurgence in Pune, with people of all ages and backgrounds flocking to them. Of course, this interest is fuelled by the popular interest in Maratha history, and a variety of non-University spaces sustain it. Independent scholars working mostly in Marathi have always had a strong hand in shaping modern Marathi literary and historical discourse, and this ‘amateur’ interest sustains these skills even today, whether old Marathi for interpreting devotional texts, or Modi documents for various regional narratives. For all its overt politicization and increasingly raucous interruption of the scholarly world, this non-scholarly domain underscores the need for the ivory tower to confront the multiple worlds and ground realities of literary and historical study in India and seriously engage the idea of situated knowledge. Many leading scholars of Maharashtra have been ‘bilingual’, writing both in English and Marathi not simply in the sense of translation, but also in engaging the scholarly as well as popular domains. Any meaningful discussion about language study and its implications will have to include this bilingual practice, its mechanisms and challenges, instead of contrasting an imagined, pure scholastic philology against a sweeping scenario of crisis and incompetence.
Q2) Who are the major Marathi scholars you feel the English-speaking world doesn’t know about but should.
A2) Apart from, of course, Ra. Chi. Dhere, I would mention the critics Ra. Bha. Patankar and Narhar Kurundkar, the historians T. S. Shejwalkar, Kru. Bhi. Kulkarni and Na. Ra. Phatak, the anthropologist Durga Bhagwat, Sadanand More for religion and philosophy, and two of the finest writers on linguistics and grammar, Ashok Kelkar and K. S. Arjunwadkar. But one of the most important thinkers and writers of modern Maharashtra that deserves greater attention simply for the wide-ranging impact he had on a number of modern disciplines is Vi. Ka. Rajwade.
Q3) If you had to recommend five Marathi classics (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, any genre at all) to the non-Marathi world, which would these be and why?
A3) There are classic, but well known examples like Tarabai Shinde’s Stripurush Tulana, Phule’s Shetkaryacha Asud, Lakshmibai Tilak’s Smritichitre, or even Tukaram’s finest poetry and the best of contemporary poets like Namdeo Dhasal. Instead I would recommend five that don’t often figure in non-Marathi discussions and which are very dear to me –
1) Antajichi Bakhar by Nanda Khare: a 1990s historical novel set in the times of the Maratha raids in Bengal in the 1740s and 50s, written in a reinvented style of the 18th century Marathi bakhar. It is a superb critique of Maratha power as well as colonialism, and is possibly the best Marathi historical novel out there.
2) Indhan by Hamid Dalwai: a fine, restrained and linguistically rich novel from the 1960s that lays bare the destructive fires that burn within all of us and consume our communities.
3) Rujuwat by Ashok Kelkar: Marathi linguistics at its colossal, erudite and humorous best, a collection of essays from the past few decades.
4) Asa mi Asami by Pu. La. Deshpande: this is difficult to characterize by genre because he performatively read it on stage before it was available as text. Through the frame of the autobiography of an ordinary man, it is one of the most empathetic, and funny explorations of post-1947 middle class urban life.
5) Hindu: Jaganyaachi Samruddha Adagal by Bhalchandra Nemade: a tremendously exhilarating, and linguistically extraordinary journey through the millennia of Indian history and memory, published in 2010.
Q4) Name five books OUTSIDE your disciplinary area that have meant a great deal to you in some deeply personal way, or constituted you in some defining way.
A4) It is difficult to put any significant work of critical theory outside my disciplinary area nowadays, so I will focus on some literary works: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions, Iravati Karve’s (Marathi) Yuganta, the Kannada poetry of Purandaradasa, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and Jose Saramago’s History of the Siege of Lisbon.