Literary History, Region, and Nation in South Asia Introductory Note
Literary history is back on the agenda of critical studies in the humanities. There are many reasons for this recentering, but among them I would highlight the following. We have come to recognize, albeit late in the day, that the histories that construe the complex processes by which texts are created that come to count as "literature," are, like all histories, political stories, with particular relevance to the self-understanding of communities, regions, nations. Narratives of the nation in particular seem to require—or turn out to be mere distillations of—the narrative of their literatures. But we can put this more generally: literary history has begun to recognize and to foreground the fundamental sociality of literature. It is particular social groups seeking a voice that create new languages, texts, and definitions of the "literary," and social groups that, in writing the histories of how all this happens, are writing the histories of themselves.
There are few in-depth analyses of such historical phenomena as these for any cultural region of the world, and fewer still that marshal comparative evidence; none can be said to address truly long-term change. In part this last absence is due to the relative novelty of literacy, and it is literacy that allows not only for diachronic cultural analysis, but in an important sense—transcending the etymologies of the Latinate words we are using—for the idea of literature itself. South Asia offers a cultural arena in which these processes can be studied more complexly than anywhere else. For it is a fact, though rarely acknowledged, strikingly untheorized, and hardly exploited, that South Asia has a longer continuous multilingual literary history, over a vaster spatial expanse, than any other cultural area in the world.
However, the models of literary history as this discipline has been and continues to be practiced in South Asian studies exclude, as a rule, most of the crucial issues:
how literary languages are created, how their histories are narrated, what social and political conditions are pertinent to both. The standard organizing paradigm of South Asian literary history remains defiantly and stubbornly positivist chronology, one typically unaware of its own presuppositions and stipulations. Works and authors, rendered canonical by aprocess that is tacitly naturalized, are simply linked by a chain of temporal moments, and succeed each other in what is presented—often with the organicist tropes of birth, flowering, decay—as a natural process. This is true for the many and ambitious literary histories of the past thirty years, including
Social Scientist, Vol. 23 Nos. 10-12, October-December 1995