Critical approaches

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1530

There are basically three ways of approaching Indian English poetry: as an extension of English poetry, as a part of Commonwealth poetry, or as a part of Indian poetry. The first approach is largely outdated today, while the second, though still current, has gradually yielded to the third.

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When Indians first began to write poetry in English, they were outnumbered by Eurasians and Englishmen who also wrote poetry on Indian subjects. Hence, poetry by Indians was not distinguished from poetry by non-Indians. Indeed, both types were published by the same publishers, the Indian subsidiaries of British publishers such as Longman or Heinemann, or by the English newspapers and magazines of India, which were usually owned and edited by Eurasians or Englishmen. Most Indian English poets were educated by Englishmen in Anglophone schools; like other English poets, they studied English literature. Because India was a part of the British Empire, Indian English poets did not have a strong national identity, and their early efforts were considered to be a tributary of the mainstream of English literature. Anglo-Indian literature was the term used to denote their poetry, the implication being that this was English literature with Indian themes. The term referred primarily to the literature produced by Englishmen and Eurasians in India, though it also included work by “native” Indians. The first scholarly work on Anglo-Indian literature was Edward Farley Oaten’s A Sketch of Anglo-Indian Literature (1908), a condensed version of which was included in the Cambridge History of English Literature (1907-1914), edited by A. C. Ward. Oaten’s primary concern was with English writers such as Jones, Sir Edwin Arnold, and Rudyard Kipling, and Oaten made only passing reference to Indian writers in English. With India’s independence from Britain and the withdrawal of the British from India, Anglo-Indian literature, defined as literature written by Englishmen in India, more or less came to an end. On the other hand, literature by Indians in English increased, gradually evolving an indigenous tradition for itself. Consequently, Oaten’s approach became untenable in dealing satisfactorily with Indian English literature. Nevertheless, it continues to have a few adherents—among them George Sampson, who, in The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (1970), contends that Indian English literature is a tributary of mainstream English literature.

Another approach, initiated by scholars in England in the early 1960’s, is to consider Indian English literature as a part of Commonwealth literature or the literature of former British colonies and dominions such as Canada, Australia, the West Indies, and countries in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, based at the University of Leeds, has done much to foster such an approach. Later, academics in the United States attempted to see Indian English poetry as a part of a global literature in English. The journal WLWE: World Literatures Written in English represents this approach. These approaches are fairly useful when the focus is large and the scholar is located in the United States or the United Kingdom, but they share the problem that the literatures of the various nationalities have little in common and often belong to different traditions: for example, Nigerian English literature and Australian literature. Nor does such an approach serve very well when one literature, such as Indian English poetry, is studied in depth. It then becomes clear that labels such as “Commonwealth literature” or “world literature in English” simply help to provide a forum for these literatures in Western academia and that detailed study is still pursued by nationality.

The most widely accepted approach to Indian English poetry is to regard it as a part of Indian literature. This approach might seem the obvious one, but it took nearly a century to gain wide acceptance and is not without its problems. In the first place, there is no such thing as Indian literature per se: Indian literature is constituted of literatures in the several Indian languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, and Manathi. Most of these literatures, however, have their roots in the Sanskrit tradition of Indian literature which flourished from roughly 1500 b.c.e. to 1500 c.e. After the latter date, the regional literatures in the various Indian languages emerged. Hence, it is possible to argue that a unified tradition in Indian literatures does exist. Once that is granted, the task of the critic is to place Indian English literature into such a framework. Considering that English is not traditionally an Indian language, that is not easy, although at the time that Indian English literature began to emerge, there was a renewed efflorescence in the other regional languages of India as well. Moreover, the “renaissance” of regional literatures occurred under a stimulus similar to the one that caused the emergence of Indian English literature—namely, the impact on India of British rule, Western knowledge, and the English language. It is reasonable, then, to regard Indian English poetry as a limb of the larger body of Indian poetry, a creation of the same sensibility that has produced other regional-language poetry in India since the nineteenth century.

This approach was first propounded by Indian critics during the 1930’s and 1940’s, the most influential among them being K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, whose Indo-Anglian Literature (1943) was the first book-length discussion of Indian English literature. Iyengar used the term “Indo-Anglian” to distinguish this literature from Anglo-Indian literature and to suggest that it was a part of Indian literature. In his introduction to Indian Writing in English (1982), Iyengar mentions that the phrase “Indo-Anglian” was used “as early as 1883 to describe a volume printed in Calcutta containing ’Specimen Compositions from Native Students.’” Probably, “Indo-Anglian” was merely an inversion of “Anglo-Indian,” used to distinguish the poetry written by Indians from that of the Englishman. Alongside the term “Indo-Anglian,” “Indo-English” was also used by critics who did not like the former. Both terms were used until the early 1970’s, after which Indo-English gradually acquired greater acceptance. The term “Indian English” was used from the 1960’s as synonymous with “Indo-English.” It is being used increasingly in preference to other terms.

Henry Derozio

Henry Derozio (1807-1831) is generally credited with being the first Indian English poet. His father was of Portuguese descent and his mother an Anglo-Indian. Derozio was Indian not only by birth but also by self-definition. This was especially remarkable because Derozio, a Christian, was reared among Eurasians and Englishmen, and many of his Hindu Bengali contemporaries strove hard to identify themselves with the British. Derozio’s love for India is revealed in several of his poems. In his short life of twenty-three years, Derozio had a remarkable career as a journalist, a teacher at Hindu College, a leading intellectual of his day, and a poet. He has often been compared to John Keats.

Derozio wrote short poems for several magazines and newspapers of his day, but only one volume of his poems, The Fakeer of Jungheera (1828), appeared during his lifetime. A selection of his poems, published in 1923 by Oxford University Press, has subsequently been reprinted. As a poet, Derozio showed great promise, though he did not live to fulfill it. His poems reveal the great influence of the English Romantic poets, particularly Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. Derozio’s sonnets and short poems, such as “To India My Native Land” and “The Harp of India,” are his most accomplished works. His ambitious long poem The Fakeer of Jungheera is an interesting attempt to fuse the Byronic romance with the realities of the Indian situation. Despite the fact that Derozio’s output was uneven and meager, he is counted as one of the major Indian English poets for both historical and artistic reasons.

Kasiprasad Ghose

A contemporary of Derozio, the Indian English poet Kasiprasad Ghose (1809-1873), published The Shair and Other Poems in 1830. Ghose has the distinction of being the first Hindu Bengali Indian to write English verse. He continued Derozio’s efforts to deal with Indian subjects in his poems. An interesting example is his semicomic poem “To a Dead Crow,” in which Ghose uses the unglamorous, common Indian crow as a subject. The persona Ghose created for himself was that of the Shair, or the poet in the Indian Persian tradition, indicating that although he wrote in English, his stance was that of an Indian poet.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt

Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873), whose long narrative poem The Captive Ladie (1849) was published about twenty years after Ghose’s book, is an interesting figure in Indian English poetry. Dutt is remembered today not as an English poet but as the first and one of the greatest modern Bengali poets. After his failure at English verse, he turned to Bengali, his mother tongue. Dutt’s case is frequently cited by those critics who believe that Indians cannot write good English poetry and should write only in their mother tongue. Since Dutt, there have been several other poets who began to write in English but turned to their native languages after being dissatisfied with their efforts in English. Dutt is also interesting because, though he acquired fame as a Bengali poet, he was extremely Anglicized. He not only converted to Christianity but also married an Englishwoman and qualified for the bar in England.

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