Musings on Classical Literary Culture

I have to give vent to what has been bothering my mind for quite sometime now. I hope that the underlying fervor appeals to the like-minded.

With a view to retain and sustain our cultural tradition among the upcoming generations, we induct them into classical music, classical dance, yoga, ethical values that are at the core of our religious practices etc. Of late these practices are gaining acceptance among the middle-class and affluent urbanites (or cosmopolitans). Non-resident Indians overseas have begun to think of these pursuits as inevitable and have made it a point to inculcate them. Prevalent mostly among the ‘forward’ castes hitherto (say four to five decades back), these pursuits have since found endorsement among the economically well-to-do and the socially-conscious belonging in other castes too. This surely is a good development. It has found way into countryside as well. Some may look upon this fondness for tradition skeptically, scornfully, distrustfully and apprehensively. Many have variously delineated such ‘package cultures’ as being conceited escapist maneuvers and cheap (not financial but of taste) tactics at imbuing newfangled etiquette for fueling egotism of social status, for wriggling free of inferiority complex and for displaying distinctiveness despite suffering from acute identity crisis. Even as such vehement counterarguments flaunt cynicism, arrogance and contradiction, they matter-of-factly profess to an amount of damage-control endeavors and genuinely address culture-consciousness issues. The world is by nature a mélange of the benign and the malignant. I do not intend to delve into these. I only chose to mention them with a view to countermand the impediments that may be posed by the various interpretations of such contentious issues to the deductions in this essay.

In the multitude of lower-middle and middle-class families that I am acquainted with, I have noticed the parents sincerely aspire and strive to instill our cultural values in their children by imparting them classical music, dance, ethics, Yoga etc. There have been quite some instances of many a progeny living up to the call of such initiatives, learn the different arts, imbibe a few of the many strains of our culture and vibe with the tune of values. To dub all such fine and fairly successful efforts as ‘package culture’ or as facile escapist vents (say, in the matter of the predicaments of non-resident Indians) is plain negationism.

I have noticed that quite some efforts at such revival of culture - especially on the part of parents - at imbuing traditional artistic values into their progeny, have mostly (more than 90%) sought after music, dance, painting and such fine arts; sought and propagated. Though parents and children have exhibited proclivity towards sports, gaming, formal education etc., these pursuits have not found their way to the hold-all of India’s renowned and accepted traditional culture. It may be noticed that painting is not accorded status at par with classical music and classical dance (and to some extent religious practices, legends etc.) as being symbolic of our tradition. I have often noticed and am perplexed by the glaring indifference meted out to literature by this class (be it parents, children, elders or teachers). Why haven’t they cherished it, pursued it, imbibed it? Many would have noticed this. Hence my disillusionment at the utter neglect of literary studies in general and Indian languages in particular on the part of the younger generation, especially the urban children. The fact is that our children (the youth, and their parents even) are uninterested in literature – especially in the Kannada country and its neighbors. But that is not the case with English. Some aver that they are very interested in English literature. Nevertheless, the fact should not be lost sight of, that though our children and youth (even the elders aged around 50 – these are educated in the post-independence era) are fond of English language, they have waddled only in such bland literature as thrillers, romances, comics, pulp fiction, humor, and periodicals. True, besides these they are interested in treatises on personality development, various denominations of philosophies, nature, environment, adventure and the like: Success-stories all the more! Recent generations have evinced interest in finance, national-international issues, politics and sports. Vis-à-vis the extent to which English language has permeated in the towns of our nation, the percentage of readership of serious English literature is meager. But with Kannada, this volume is quite significant. Nevertheless, the literary pursuit of this exclusive class is confined to gathering information and has not reached out to linguistics.

In summary it may be said that linguistic and literary pursuits in recent times – which, among modern day urbanites, may be conceded to be quite significant in the matter of English – have inclined more towards content and information than towards language and stylistics. The curriculum of our academia tows the same line. In the final analysis, the languages and their literature are imparted only to serve as utilitarian tools and are neither looked up to for their intrinsic value nor for their potential at congruent auto-fulfillment. It is not so with classical music and dance. Currently, the learning of different languages (Kannada, English, Hindi, etc.) is mandatory through primary and secondary schooling (to some extent even in collegiate education); classical music and dance aren’t. Yet, to many, the feel of culture is in the classical music and dance rather than in the study of languages or the different forms of literature. Even today it may be noticed that the attendance of youth (though turnouts of English academia) at classical music-dance concerts is much more than at literary events. Especially, the quantum in sales of pure literature books in any language is no match for the sales of audio recordings (cassettes/ discs) of classical music. Alas, it is a mystery that pure literature is not looked up to as an art; as the manifestation of the refined (susamskrita) mind. The emotional utility, and more importantly the aesthetic enjoyment derivable from language and literature are lost sight of; what seemingly remains is their transactional and informational dimension.

The issue is not as simple as described by me. Neither is it an offhand accusation. The debate needs to be pursued a bit more critically.

The creation and propagation of classical literature

Given that the necessary fundamental elements needed by applied arts and useful crafts are firmly embedded in the classical arts, it is typical of them that they, despite lacking in auto-utility and auto-applicability, stream elixir vitae into those other art forms, just as sunlight imparts kinetics to everything, though unto itself it is inactive. Also, they are thoroughly capable of eliminating revelry of selfishness typical of extreme sordid indulgences from the hearts of the subscribers and connoisseurs, and of eventually begetting peace of mind and utmost harmony typical of delectable culture. Another trait of theirs is their ability at synthesizing space and time. The classical arts are impassive and supernatural in so far as form oblique expression is concerned, even as they are universal in purport (enjoyment and suggestiveness). For example, just as it is true that the enacting methodology of classical dance (stylized movement of arms and hands, stylized movement of the legs and torso, stylized standing postures etc.) or the methodology of classical music (the gamut of musical scale and microtone of musical note-beat and pitch-rhythm) has not drawn from situations of any locus or time, it is similarly true that the imagery, prosodies of verbiage/meaning, meter, finesse of grammar, congruence of syntax and such portrayal methodology transcend the confines of time-space.

Language being the vehicle of expression of literature, the precept shall not be lost sight of, that the subject matter of literature is redolent of time-space by default. But such trespassing shall be abhorred in non-classical and quasi-classical literature and not in chaste classical literature, the reason being that such genres are biased towards and arrogantly uphold umpteen non-aesthetic (perverse even) aspects, and especially lack bliss of enjoyment and such exalted values of pure art that serve as haven to the mind. But it is not so of classical literature. Herein, all objective commitments endeavor to harmoniously gel with taste (art-experience/aesthetic pleasure), and as our minds gain on relish, they fade out gradually. Those desirous of looking for explicit instances may comparatively evaluate present-day theater vis-à-vis our traditional classical theater, classical music vis-à-vis semi-classical songs that endeavor to promote such non-aesthetic values as sociological-political campaigns and devotional (bhakti) cult and distinguished and chaste classical literature vis-à-vis non-classical or semi-classical compositions biased towards religious reformation in any period.

Eleventh century manuscript of the Devimahatmya

Connoisseurs are well aware that pure classical literature causes to transcend the bounds of its own impeccability and inferences. Therefore it does not adhere to any specific space and time; undoubtedly it rather gels with all of space and time. Herein, the rules & regulations of the basis of their form – of loyalty to the form rather – may seem unnecessary, systemically antagonistic to contemporary time-space or even vulgar display of perspicacity. In order to grasp the philosophies at the core of these compositions, it is necessary to evince interest in the study of the different aspects of literature – language, grammar, prosody, meter, encyclopedia etc. All this may seem futile. But it is obvious that literary activity that confines itself to anti-aesthetics appeals only to those that pursue faculties which are beyond pure linguistic medium such as Sociology, Humanities, Political Science, Economics, and Anthropology. The only difference is that earlier on it catered to religion, devotion (bhakti), sovereignly eulogy etc. If the propensities, complexities and intricacies of these two pure literary media are accorded prime consideration, and universal feelings are discerned and appreciated, all and every non-aesthetic agenda of theirs would turn relevant, morph into strain of enjoyment and would reflect and gel into the inherent enlightenment. But as present day so-called-famous litterateurs haven’t the faculties to hold such classical, per se aesthetic values in high esteem, and also as they are, either out of disinterest or inability, averse to aesthetic creativity achievable through the linguistic parameters of lexicon, meter, grammar, prosody and such, appreciation, conferment, prominence and pursuit accorded naturally and inevitably to classicality here is no match for the same in other art forms. Besides, in the other art forms, the artists upholding traditions of the respective arts and the values therein are accorded leadership positions, unlike in literature wherein it seems that writers working towards non-aesthetic commitments are pushed into limelight. The wise are perplexed to note that non-aesthetic commitments that hold no significance to a classical musician or dancer should mean a world to the litterateur. Unless he breaks free of the cocoon of transactional linguistics and arch-materialism, a true litterateur shall not transform a la moth to pervade the resplendent and infinite skies. Thus, the challenge to transcend transactional linguistics and arch-materialism, by adapting these very platforms atypically, isn’t as intricate and arduous in other art forms as it is acutely and gravely typical of literature. Hence many have not applied themselves to understand the nexus thereat. Hence, the profound artistry at the core of classical literature has not empirically and causatively appealed to the common man in general, and our youth and children in particular.

But the major reason for such ignorance is repugnance – of people’s sensitivity – towards pure classical literature as also towards the techniques of its creation & enjoyment. Truly, our people are ably sentient at relishing classical literature broadly and comprehensively. We need only to tutor them the gamut of technicalities of its structural nuances. Also, they need to be told as to how it could be developed as a value, as curriculum and as to its potential and need in the composition of classical literature. But alas, the gamut of forms and attributes of classical literature (viz. lexicon, meter, grammar, prosody etc.) have been pushed to the confines of uninspiring research and post-factum studies that may be reckoned at par with post-mortem surgery. Even this is on the wane. By and by they are being inevitably paraded before select immature and imbecile that are disheartened from unsuccessful attempts at obtaining enrollment into other faculties. No education shall be so called unless it is functional and endearing; it rather shall be cadaverous. Therefore, our education system merits overhauling.

Such reformation calls for teachers who have an eye for aesthetics, are scholarly and are capable of imparting tuition with singular love. To be reminisced here are the distinguished teachers during the renaissance era of Kannada literature who have tutored accomplished litterateurs/writers of this country. There is no need to emphasize that preparedness rather than commitment is of significance in such teachers. Only the ingenious that have wallowed in language in their distinctive way and are able to express language in all its finesse need to be initiated into this.

Rendition of gamaka and informal study circles that cogitate on literary titillation have to an extent striven in this direction in Karnataka. But more laudable are the flavor, tidiness and substantive values in avadhana (the literary art/feat that involves spontaneous versification, exchange of wits and total concentration), extempore poetics, composing a classical epic, theatrical endeavors such as bhuvanavijaya-indrasabhe (poetic/scholastic semi theatrical forms) of Andhra country.

That was just an adumbration on the need for cultivating and propagating zestful classical literature. It merits extensive cogitation.

Translated from Kannada by Ranganath Prasad

(The original article is from the anthology Kalakautuka.)

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Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.