The debate on whether art should be for art's sake and what should be an artist's role in society is an old one. In the 19th century, some artists began to argue that creative works possessed their own intrinsic value and must not be required to satisfy utilitarian or moral functions. French novelist and critic Théophile Gautier promoted the slogan 'l'art pour l'art' (that translated into 'art for art's sake'). In his 1891 essay 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism', Oscar Wilde wrote, "…the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman." In India, too, this has been a subject of much debate. And clearly the last word has not been said.
The issue was under the scanner again on June 28, when the Sahitya Akademi in Mumbai invited experts to speak on the subject of Contexts of Literary Culture through the eyes of Marathi, Sindhi, Konkani and Gujarati literature. The theme was a broad one and, as Prem Prakash, convenor of the Akademi's Sindhi advisory board pointed out, could be quite "confusing". But it also meant that each speaker offered completely different insights, studying the subject from various angles, ranging from discussions on classical texts to e-books. Through the varied discussions, one central point came through quite strongly – that literature certainly is a product of its time and context, linked intrinsically to society in multiple ways.
As K Sreenivasarao, secretary, Sahitya Akademi, explained during his welcome address: "A literary text or a literary work of art has ample contexts. First comes its writer. Then come the times in which the writer has created the work of art. And the ways the readers receive the work. We need to observe if the work represents a particular tradition, or if it is off the traditions. And in what way the culture, in general, the institutions of religion, state, and so on influences the literary work of art." He also referred to other aspects such as the publishers, reviewers and the market, and how they impacted literature.
Bhalchandra Nemade, convenor of the Marathi advisory board, Sahitya Akademi, spoke of how literary work was often controlled by 'visible' structures such as institutions, and by other 'invisible' influences. There is a tacit agreement, for instance, on self-censorship, and avoiding blasphemy. Referring to Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie, he added that those who break such social codes end up paying a heavy price.
Partition as a historical context in India cropped up time and again, with more than one speaker referring to Bhisham Sahni's novel Tamas, about the carnage that accompanied Indian independence. "Bhisham Sahni's all-time great literary text Tamas, Rajendra Singh Bedi's Ek Chadar Maili Si, Mohan Rakesh's Aadhe Adhure or Carmelin and Tsunami Simon of Damodar Mauzo are textual interpretations of a certain cultural texture. They underline social and cultural problems, although they are read on an individual's platform," said SM Tadkodkar, head of the department of Marathi, Goa University.
For Sindhi writers too, Partition and the subsequent loss of land was a defining moment. Namdev Tarachandani and Mohan Gehani spoke of its effects on Sindhi literature. Tara Mirchandani's story Gopu, for instance, reflected the reality of camp life and the bleak struggle for survival. It took more than 20 years for Sindhi to find its place in the eighth schedule of the Constitution, and with no land to nurture the language, the community found an increasing disconnect with its roots. "In this grim situation, a window of opportunity can be discerned in the domain of the Internet," Gehani said, speaking of sites such as www.sindhsalamat.com and www.sindhisangat.com.
Inevitably, the question of globalisation came up, with Marathi author Aruna Dubhashi observing that western values were being sought to be imposed along with the English language. "It is important that we preserve the central values of our literature and our multi-cultural society from this force of globalisation," she said.
So is there a last word on what Indian literature is all about? While most would agree that Indian writing is too vast to be reduced to quick definitions, Konkani author Bhushan Bhave came pretty close to summing it up. "Indian literature is one, though written in many languages," he said.
"It is unity in diversity. We may have varieties of food, dress, customs and so on; none of these differences come in the way of Indian-ness," he added. It is this diversity that provides the cultural landscape for Indian writing, providing it a context that few writers can ignore.