Introduction: Regional Literatures of India-Paradigms and Contexts

By Nalini Natarajan

Nalini Natarajan

Nalini Natarajan is a Professor of English, College of Humanities, University of Puerto Rico in the US.  With teaching experience spanning over a period of more than three decades, Natarajan is an established academician who specializes in women's studies, postcolonial theory, world English literatures, and 19th century fiction. Her background and domicile encouraged the development of interest not only in India but also in regional languages and cultures, British native and imperial culture in the nineteenth century, feminist theory, and Caribbean and Latin American subjects. She is an innovative academician who has recommended original courses in these areas of study. She has also contributed towards the promotion of popular forms of inter-cultural music and dance. Her other interests include traveling, memoir-writing and cooking.


  1. Atlantic Gandhi: The Mahatma Overseas (Sage, 2013)

  2. The Resonating Island: The Caribbean in Postcolonial Dialogue (Terranova, 2014).

  3. The Unsafe Sex: The Female Binary and public violence against women (Oxford University Press, Delhi, NY and London, forthcoming.)

  4. Woman and Indian Modernity: Readings of Colonial and Postcolonial Novels in 2002

  5. Handbook of Twentieth Century Literatures of India in 1996, which received the Choice Outstanding Academic Book Award. She has also contributed articles in many other books

  6. 'The Resonating Island ' published by Terranova Press —a series of intercultural essays on the Caribbean and South Asia. 



Handbook of Twentieth Century Literatures of India


Handbook of Twentieth Century Literatures of India makes a contextual survey of the major regional literatures and trends of contemporary India, keeping in view the country's diversity and heterogeneity. The book focuses on regional literatures, that is, literatures written in languages other than English, about which the general reader does not possess much knowledge. Therefore the hand-book aims at introducing the reader to post-1900 literary works from India, focusing on the published literature of the 20th century, with the intention of initiating discussions on regional literatures. Though the book does not claim to be all-comprehensive, efforts have been made to incorporate all major literary trends. The chapters and bibliography serve as introductory tools giving an overview of the broad trends in the literatures. Each chapter deals with a particular region leading one to make comparative study of various literary traditions. The chapters are organized on the basis of social and historical events, literary forms, or broad descriptive or analytic trends.

The book concludes with chapters addressing specific aspects like sub-cultural literatures, or the interplay between literature and film.  Extensive bibliographies of primary works and secondary works are authentic records of the achievements of Indian writers and the rich literary tradition of the region.



Introduction to Regional Literatures of India- Paradigms and Contexts


Scope of the Book

Nalini Natarajan gives us an insight into the purpose of bringing out a reference book on 20th century regional literatures in languages other than English. In the recent times certain sectors of regional literatures have come to be considered as areas of progressive critical interest. She cites as examples Spivak’s translation of Mahasweta Devi’s work ‘Imaginary Maps’ (1995), Kalpana Bardhan’s ‘Of Women, Outcasts, Peasants and Rebels’ (1990) and Susie Tharu and K Lalitha’s ‘Women Writing in India’ (1992). Aijaz Ahmad’s essay in the book ‘In Theory’ (1992) discusses the conceptual problems associated with the study of regional literatures in metropolitan and Indian academic contexts.

The aim of the book is to initiate a discussion of regional literatures and place them within the larger archive of works for a more accurate comprehension of their importance. Considering the enormous linguistic diversity, Natarajan refrains from making claims about the book being a comprehensive study. Yet attempts have been made to include all major literary traditions. Moreover the book also includes chapters on the two subcultures- Dalit and Parsi.

Literary history was ignored because of an exaggerated faith in the autonomy of the literary work. However the importance of placing authors and works within an appropriate framework that reflects the changing socio-historical, literary productive conditions of modern India has come to be recognized in the recent times. Natarajan also discusses the problems in surveying regional literatures in English, which is a colonial language. Reduction and homogenization will be the result of any effort made towards representing local culture through the medium of a dominant one. Moreover it will also result in the appropriation of regional cultures by dominant ones in conditions of “asymmetry and inequality of relations between peoples, races, languages” (Niranjana’s ‘Sitting Translation’)

Setting out the aim of bringing out a volume like ‘Twentieth Century Regional Literature’, Natarajan emphasizes that the work is intended as an invitation to explore regional literatures rather than comprehensive information on them. The books also studies the possibilities for English within the Indian academic arena. The method used is that of transliteration and translation of titles have been sparingly used, mainly for the purpose of understanding the context.




Speaking about the organization of chapters Nalini Natarajan says that each chapter has a brief introductory section that is followed by the body which is divided on the basis of socio-historical events or literary genres.

Bibliography posed difficulties due to the non-availability of a uniform standard for bibliographic information in India. This section hence puts together information gathered from various sources including catalogues available in the metropolis.

Contexts and Paradigms

The chapters represent a number of ideological approaches to literature. Natarajan cautions the readers against applying first world terminology to third world contexts, citing the importance of contextualizing any approach.

Natarajan mentions at the outset that printed regional literatures are “construct” rather than “transcendent” like the oral and written literatures which have a longer tradition in India. The “construction” of the printed literature is attributed to the colonial, nationalist, regional-chauvinist and other ideologies. Though the readers are sensitized to the imposed languages like English, as a result of colonial discourse analysis, such “construction” in indigenous languages is often unidentified. In actuality regional literature is also the result of a certain nexus of cultural, economic, political and other factors. Natarajan introduces the readers to some of the paradigms or constructs –materialist, generic, disciplinary, hermeneutic- as entry points. She mentions Greg Bailey’s formulations, an intellectual paradigm, to establish meaning in a mass of cultural data (Bailey: “On the Deconstruction of Culture in Indian Literature”). However this poses difficulties entailing from heterogeneous culture being forcefully made to fit into such ideologically imposed models. These models or paradigms reflect the variety of historical or cultural ideologies or represent borrowed literary genre or mode. They may also reflect the academic or market place factors underlying Indian Literature.  



Literary Discourse

Natarajan warns the readers about the dangers of unconsciously ignoring the power and seductions of literary discourse. This is because of the theoretical concern with the sociality, historicity and materiality of literature. Instead of idealizing literature one should read it keeping in view the various layers of interpretation- aesthetic, poetic, material, socio-historical and philosophical. For a total comprehension of the complexity of literature’s effects, it is important not to confine oneself to a single mode of interpretation. The various constructions reinforced by Indian regional literatures include those of national identity, redefinitions of gender and so on. These constructions result mostly from different historical moments and incidents. Discussing the genre ‘domestic novel’. Natarajan points to the popularity it enjoyed mainly due to the time in which they were introduced in India. The time, according to her, was favourable as the genre allowed a treatment of emerging subjectivities, which were politically useful to buttress social reform movements. Tripathi (Gujarati 2009) drew inspiration from the Victorian melodrama (Ms. Henry Wood’s ‘East Lynne’ and also the myth of Sita, to produce a narrative of Hindu womanhood in his ‘Saraswatichandra’. The husband in the novel represents western style modernization, while the wife represents the long suffering Hindu woman who nevertheless has a moral authority indicative of Hinduism’s resilience.

Natarajan also points out that literary works do remain silent not only about the profoundly material and social, but also about the literary aspects of public and private life. The genre of the ‘polite novel’ had little scope for social protest associated with the progressive writers manifesto after the 1930s. Natarajan attributes the popularity of the polite novel to the socio-political agendas of the time. She also recommends a process of reading that will facilitate the deconstruction of the perceived meaning to recognize the place of the literary in Indian culture. The power and seductions of literature and its ability to both conceal and promote ideology and also the possibilities it offers for multiple and ambivalent reading practices have a special significance in the modern Indian context. Natarajan proceeds to discuss in the introduction factors of market production and pedagogy. This is particularly important as the market and the classroom constitute the two major sites for the dissemination of printed literature.



Regional Publishing

Literature is both a marketable commodity and a pedagogical unit. British presence was a strong influence in the construction of regional (vernacular) literature. It becomes important to study and analyze the aspects that characterize and influence regional literary production, like the publisher, readers, writers, interregional hierarchies that decide the genres to be imitated, translations etc. Regional literature was mostly written in the ‘elite’, standardized literary language. It served two purposes: (1) promoting the aims of the colonizers (2) promoting the aims of the Indian nationalists.

From the 18th to 19th and early 20th Century, regional literature helped in consolidating Christian and colonial influence through translated versions of the Bible and promotion of British legal and administrative system.

But literature was equally important in the nationalist/patriotic cultural resistance to British rule. The second phase saw the beginning of the nationalist movement with the formation of regional/national print communities as against the previous phase of literary production that favored the colonial rule. But this was different from the print communities in modern Europe. The regional literature became an integral part of the wider anti-colonial pan-Indian movements through inter-regional language translations. This led to the emergence of a nationalism that transcended linguistic divisions.

The vernacular press also facilitated the formation of a Hindu reading public as part of their anticolonial activities. The religious indoctrinations pertaining to Christianity in the earlier phase gave away to a religious propaganda of Hinduism in modern fashion, yet retaining and strengthening traditional beliefs. E.g.: ‘Panchangam’ was in wide circulation.


  • Flaws

Regional publishing had a very limited and local aspect, stronger than religious affiliation, leading to a hybridity in the early stages of publishing history. It had its advantages, but then it also fuelled local communal sentiments. Published literature dealt with religious and domestic themes in the context of the framework of national identity. E.g.: ‘Neel Darpan’ by Dinabandhu Mitra deals with the theme of exploitation of rural Bengali farm labourers by the British indigo planters. The rise of regional literature coincides with the rise of high Hindu culture. At the same time Urdu also played a crucial role in the construction of Muslim identity.

  • Hierarchy within Indian Languages

Bengali gained an upper hand due to a longer history of British presence. Assamese were marginalized due to the larger Bengali-speaking bureaucratic cadres. Bengali translations led to the translation of English literary works in other regional language too. The division of Hindi and Urdu literary/cultural areas was more political. Hindi formed more publishers leading to many Urdu writers switching to Hindi (E.g.: Premchand).

The Classic Tamil had an anti-Brahman cast. There was also a kind of cultural homogenization whereby regional literatures assimilated the traditions of upper caste Hindu society and courtly Muslim society. The direct effect was the construction of a systematized, grammatically correct, elite vernacular that sidelined dialectical variations. Other groups marginalized were those in the borders between regions where multi-linguality was common. The unifying effect of print capitalism saw the negation of the regional diversities of culture. The power of media was such that many popular writers also turned to films/cinema for popularizing regional literature (e.g. Girish Karnad/ Kalki).



Regional Literatures in Indian Academic Scene

The major conflict in the academic scene is that the regional language departments are forced to take a defensive position against the dominant English department.

Sisir Kumar Das in his introductory essay “Muses in Isolation” to ‘Comparative Literature: Theory and Practice’ emphasizes the importance of English in controlling patriotism from moving towards regional chauvinism. Das also writes about the need for English literary study to work in close association with regional literatures, i.e. use English not as an imperial language, but as an instrument to help complete and final decolonization.

The desire of the scholars is the creation of an ‘Indian’ literature that is free from regional chauvinism. There is a search for a commonality in regional literature that will embody Indian spirit. Uma Sankar Joshi emphasizes the superiority of commonality over the individual aesthetic quality. Indianness is that commonality and that is supreme importance. Literary nationalism should attempt to keep in check regional chauvinism.

Many regional literary traditions have been accepted into the modern literary genres of narrative, poetry and drama. Some are pan Indian, but some very specific and regional (E.g. ghazal (Urdu), Atta Katha (Malayalam). Modern European literary forms offer models which will help regional writers organize literary representation and enable comprehension of regional Indian literatures.



Western literary Genre

It is not possible to ignore the influence of the discourse of English literature and western humanism on Indian literature. E.g. Bible, Works of Wordsworth. The literary historiography of modern Indian literature is constructed on the notions of sensibilities and cultural and literary expectations shaped by English literature. The pedagogic methods of English literary studies influence the study of Indian literature as well. Division on the basis of genre works historically as well. Romanticism and realism in Indian literature for example denote the assimilation of western ideological and cultural forms. But they also reflect political and social movements in India. There is a time lag in the transference of these ideologies to India, as the influence of Romanticism. Modernism occurred starting from the late 19th C and extending up to the 1940s.

What earlier was strictly between the writer and the reader gained a wider significance when the influence of western ideology and genres started affecting socio-historical formations. In some places regional literature is free from the constraints of Western genre. But at times English becomes inadequate in translating regional/folk cultural idiom (E.g.: like the intervention of the Hindu symbolic in psychic life). That proves that a rethinking in contexts is important. Hence notions of genre and canon are important and cannot be ignored. But at the same time they cannot be relied upon completely. Hence there is a need to problematize genres.


Attempt has been made to distinguish regional Romanticism from western Romanticism. The influence of Romanticism was late to arrive in India and happened during the early decades of the 20th century (period of Aasan and Vallathol in Malayalam). There were ideological distinctions too. Aijaz Ahmed mentions the associations between “obscurantist tendencies of European romanticism and “high Brahmanism” in the Oriental constructions of India in the late 18th and early 19th Century. There was a reaction against Brahmanism and other local elitisms. For example Hindi ‘Chayavad’ was a reaction against the earlier mode ‘Khadiboli’ Assamese ‘Jonaki’ writing, with its lyrical descriptions of landscape was a vehicle for reform and nationalism. Tamil romantic poetry was used to affirm nationalism. Thus the regional counterpart of English Romantic literature strove to replace traditional caste and linguistic orthodoxies with a new middle-class ideology- anti-colonial nationalism. All these attempts at revolting against literary forbears can be characterized under the all-inclusive umbrella term “Romanticism”, but they were actually distinct or local manifestations.

The term “Romanticism” as used by Mahatma Gandhi has a special significance and is more of an extension of the concept as used by Carlyle and Ruskin, “the Romantic critique of industrialism”. The anti-industrial and anti-colonial thrust influenced writers like Betai, Umashanker Joshi (Gujarat), Subramonia Bharati (Tamil), the Jonaki writers (Assamese). Instead of being a literary attitude, Romanticism in India was a program for national autonomy and social uplift. The acceptance of this literary genre was a complex historical transaction more than the decision of individual writers. The Indian version of Romanticism was more of a social commitment, with liberal realism giving way to more progressive realisms.



Genre: Realism

Realism in the Indian context is all about the formation of reading public attempting to construct identity in anti-colonial struggle and nation-building. However this turned out to be an affirmation of an “Indian” cultural specificity which was middle-class and Hindu. In the Indian context, realist novel’s focus on growth (bildung) and individual freedom turned to the economic conditions of uneven capitalism. Contradictory forces like the co-existence of      (1) pre-modern methods of production and capitalist exploitation (2) repressive post-colonial state apparatuses and liberal humanist ideologies (3) Official secularism and reconstruction of mythological symbolics/religious study (4) Modernizing forces and reactionary practices, were all dual realities that produced a multiplicity of subject positions that the realist novel could represent. According to Kalpana Bardhan literary revealed the nuances of the complex relation between the dominant and the dominated.

The themes usually dealt with in regional language novels are ‘Pan-Indian’ – landlord/tenant relationship, economic exploitation of labourers, untouchability, natural calamities, politics corruption, partition, lives of tribal communities and so on. It is also important to distinguish between a middle-class realism that sentimentalized poverty and a more progressive realism in writers like Mahasweta Devi (Bengali). Regional crises and partition constitutes the themes represented in regional fiction. Dalit writing was more of an attempt at self-representation of the sidelined groups.

Another noted feature was the emergence of women within new constructions of domesticity. The typical 19th century regional novel depicted conflicts between the restrictive social norms and half-expressed desires to achieve selfhood. The scope of such novels was limited and insular and they dealt with local issues like child-widowhood in Maharashtra or courtesanship in Lucknow.

The novels of the 20th century were influenced by the national movement and offered a wider platform for action. The movement between local/family space and larger national space is visible in works like Kalki’s ‘Thyagabhoomi’ and the stories in Tharu and Lalitha’s collection. Thus Realism in the 20th Century covered greater inter-regional mobility bringing with it new perceptions of the city and consequent alienations. This paved the way for diasporic publications with a large reading public. Kalki, Ananta Vikatan and Kumudan were the pulp periodical Tamil magazines that brought regional arts to diasporic population along with organizations like the Tamil Sangham. Humanist and Progressive realism also contributed to the consolidation of print and film communities.

Films have a role in the insertion of Western-style subjectivity under the influence of personal feelings or opinions. But they also made use of Indian images, though it is often alleged that films reduce the subversive potential of the original novel.



Aesthetics and Ideology

It is important to consider how aesthetics and ideology influence each other in regional literatures. The emphasis was more on individual freedom rather than radical social transformation. Again, importance was given to lyricism and romantic aesthetics rather than socio-economic co-ordinates leading to alienation from real issues. The poet Uma Shanker Josh discusses the dangers of western-style aestheticism in his book ‘Indian Literature: Personal Encounters’. Western aestheticism with the lyric genres ode, elegy, monologue and sonnet facilitated the celebration of ‘personal love’ in a rigidly stratified society. According to Terry Eagleton classical, idealist aestheticism disengages art from its material referents, by cutting the bond between use and pleasure. The appeal of aestheticism in India cannot be separated from the colonial methods of hierarchizing languages and cultures.

Standard vernaculars helped in establishing regional literatures. It is pointless to stress the universality of western psycholinguistic models, as it is inapplicable in a multi-lingual colonized society. Here the mother tongue is not the language of power. It has to contend with the colonial language English and also the other languages in various degrees of prominence. It is even rejected in the pursuit of English and more dominant tongues.

Peter Brooke makes a distinction between poetics (rules) and aesthetics (beauty). Poetics reflect the norms of an imposed culture (Lacanian Law of the father). Aesthetics is more of an emotive activity resulting from a multi-lingual’s attachment to the cultural productions in one’s mother tongue which is the first language of infancy. It is an in-between stage or a semiotic phase between ‘imaginary’ and ‘symbolic’, somewhat similar to Kristeva’s sense of a “female semiotic”.

The mother tongue is not in actuality associated with this “other” semiotic phase between imaginary and symbolic. It is, on the other hand, the upholder of a patriarchal, feudal-casteist or courtly tradition. On close adult semantic scrutiny, it will be revealed that compositions in the mother tongue are constructed within Brahmanic/Puranic linguistic and social ideology of caste and gender.

 Discussing Tamil literary productions, Nalini Natarajan asserts that much of Tamil literature happened within the linguistic politics of the “divide and rule” to further its constructions of the race. The courtly origins of the ghazal has been conveniently obscured in favour of its emotive force. Hence she reiterates the need to study the aesthetics of regional literary creation from a perspective that is different from the idealist/materialist binarism (dichotomy) and the Western psychoanalytic model. The colonized multi-lingual consciousness occupies a different semiotic space. The lyrical, sensuous and aesthetic literary language play a part in the formation of Indian multi-lingual cultural subjectivity.

Philosophical Constructs in Reading Regional Literatures

The cultural interpretation (hermeneutics) of regional texts has a philosophical dimension. There was a lot of reliance on western, Post-Enlightenment archive earlier. Girish Karnad in his play ‘Taladanda’ has fictionalized a 12th century poet community in Kalyan, whom he calls “the founders of Kannada literature”. It is their “philosophy and devotion” that spear headed social reform movements. His novel treats the theme of atrocities committed in the name of caste and religion in the past. Yet it provides a very culturally specific problematic for those cultural analysts of India attempting to connect a relevant past with contemporary realities. The same is summarized by Karnad in his work as the connection between Sanatana (dogmatic tradition) and bhakti (radical liberal). The narrative also shows the conflicts and orthodoxies of the past that prevent the recovery of a pristine or original history advocated by the proponents of Hindutva.

The potentially radical role of literature is evident from its connection to violence on various occasions. Karnad has always made use of history, fiction and their interpenetration to reinterpret the cultural motifs from both Hindu and Muslim traditions. Apart from Sanatana-bhakti, Indian cultural production can be placed in the philosophical paradigm of pravritti-nivritti (renunciation-worldliness). This view was of aesthetic versus man put forth by Louis Dumont has dominated Indian studies and constructed a certain Indian culture as an object of study. However folk epistemologies and those of other minority religious communities are omitted in the foregrounding of Hindu philosophy, which is itself imbued within Oriental categorization. The Dumontian model is challenged by Vijay Mishra’s characterizing of Indian society as decentred.  

      Nalini Natarajan concludes by saying that the terms, concepts, modes or genres are not absolute concepts. They are signifiers that organize cultural data and assign meanings. The signifiers however still remain influenced by the intellectual force dominated by the West.

 The study of regional literature should therefore involve the identification of the “indigenous” from “metropolitan” and the discovery of more representative and democratic indigenisms. Nalini Natarajan also recommends a comparative inquiry juxtaposing Hindu subjectivity, with Iqbal’s concept of ‘khudi’ (self-hood) or Bhai Vir Singh’s concept of the ‘ideal Sikh’ or Dalit explorations of subjectivity.

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