Workshop on Indian Literature as Comparative Literature: Regional Modernisms and the Idea of Indian Literature

Research Questions

The longstanding assumption that the diverse regional literatures of India all fall under the category of “Indian literature” has led to very little comparative analysis between them  [1]. Not only has “Indian literature” remained the unquestioned, overarching category defining these literatures; but also, the presumption of a shared geographical and cultural proximity across India’s diverse regional literatures has overshadowed the ways in which context-specific literary movements, themes, and strategies have channeled, as well as shaped, nationally- and internationally-circulating genres and literary trends. In contrast to the dominant perception that regional literatures necessarily derive key literary features from the umbrella category of “Indian literature,” this workshop proposes to study Indian literature as a field of comparative literature. How would “Indian literature” look differently were it imagined as constituted from the regions? What comparative methodologies of literary analysis might be most appropriate for understanding shared literary trends and movements in different regional Indian literatures? And, how might these comparative methodologies not just contribute to an improved field of Indian literary studies, but also offer new approaches relevant to the study of comparative literature more generally?

This project proposes to examine these questions through the examination of regional literary modernisms, which arose in varied and asymmetrical ways across regional Indian literatures during the late colonial and early postcolonial periods. A striking feature of regional Indian literatures is their common engagement with modernism, a literary aesthetic that dominated world literature in the mid- 20th century and sought to break with the past through experimentation with new literary forms and symbols. But, explanations of regional Indian writers’ modernist outlooks have tended to assume that modernism emerges across these contexts vis-à-vis a shared engagement with “Indian literature,” as if there were an already established pan-Indian literary modernism that then filtered into regional literary movements (see, for example, Das 1995; Gopal 2005). In contrast, this project argues that regional modernisms should be understood in relation to regional language and identity, as well as larger world literary trends, which were unevenly incorporated into something that came to be characterized as “Indian.” Understanding regional Indian modernisms in this way has the potential to reconfigure how we understand the Indian literary canon and will address the glaring lack of comparative analysis between regional literatures in India. It will also respond to recent calls within comparative literature more broadly to view modernism as a geographically situated, “open-ended, still continuing process” (Dharwadkar 2008: 137).

Increasing opportunities for travel and education abroad, expanding translation efforts between regional languages and English, and a growing international publishing market suggest that the development of modernist thought in regional languages was in fact a multidimensional process. Recent scholarship on late colonial Hindi literature has begun to make these more complex circuits of literary production evident. Dalmia (2012), for example, shows how Hindi poets at the time engaged in complex ways with key Western thinkers such as T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence as they undertook their own modernist experiments to complicate settled binaries between words and images, form and content, fiction and reality, and the artist and his artwork. My own research on literary modernism in the South Indian language of Tamil reveals, in contrast, how authors viewed the short story genre as the ideal vehicle for modernist experimentation during the same period. Such variations in genre between two major Indian literatures suggest that generic form might provide an important line for understanding divergent, rather than overlapping modernist efforts in India. A comparative literature of India rests on identifying similar variations in other pan-Indian literary trends, such as social realist fiction and Dalit writing.

Project Description, Timeline, and Outcomes

The “Indian Literature as Comparative Literature” project will consist of two workshops – a two-day workshop at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and a two-day workshop at the French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP), India—that will bring scholars of modern literature in regional Indian languages into conversation with one another to develop new comparative questions and methods of analysis. Both workshops will examine the rise of literary modernist movements in regional Indian languages through four panels, focusing on such themes as the use of genre, the theorization and role of translation, the evolution of literary criticism, and regional identity and language politics. Each workshop will conclude with a roundtable discussion based on these panels that engages specifically with the development of methodologies for undertaking comparative analysis between regional Indian literatures. Holding a workshop at each institution will enable the project to engage with leading scholars in both India and the US and reach out to the literary communities based in each location. The workshops will, therefore, mirror each other in organization and thematic content.

The first workshop will be held at the Rutgers in September 2013, and the second at IFP in January 2014. Each workshop aims to include leading regional literature scholars and will focus on some of the following languages, depending on availability and the ability to secure supplemental funding: Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. Upon their completion, the workshops will lead to the publication of an edited volume that examines regional literary modernisms and theorizes frameworks for comparing these movements across the diverse linguistic and cultural regions of India.

Proposed Workshop Attendees

Workshop 1 at Rutgers:

  • Vasudha Dalmia, Professor of Religion, Yale University
  • Kannan Muthukrishnan, Researcher of Indology, French Institute of Pondicherry
  • Satya Mohanty, Professor of English, Cornell University
  • Francesca Orsini, Reader in Literatures of North India, School of Oriental and African Studies
  • Kumkum Sangari, Professor of English, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
  • Snehal Shingavi, Assistant Professor of English, University of Texas, Austin
  • Krupa Shandilya, Assistant Professor of English, Amherst College
  • Anjali Nerlekar, Assistant Professor of AMESALL, Rutgers University
  • Preetha Mani, Assistant Professor of AMESALL, Rutgers University

In addition, discussants from English, Comparative Literature, and South Asian Studies at Rutgers and other nearby universities will be approached at a later date.

Workshop 2 at the IFP will feature approximately 10 renowned authors and academics focusing on at least four regional literatures, including Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada.

Works Cited:

-  Dalmia, Vasudha, ed. 2012. Hindi Modernism: Rethinking Agyeya and His Times. Berkeley: Center for South Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

-  Dalmia, Vasudha, and Stuart Blackburn, eds. 2004. India’s Literary History: Essays on the Nineteenth Century. Delhi: Permanent Black.

-  Das, Sisir Kumar. 1991. A History of Indian Literature, 1800-1910: Western Impact: Indian Response. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

-  Das, Sisir Kumar. 1995. A History of Indian Literature, 1911-1956: Struggle for Freedom: Triumph and Trajedy. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

-  Dharwadkar, Aparna. 2008. Mohan Rakesh, Modernism, and the Postcolonial Present. South Central Review 25 (1): 132-162.

-  Gopal, Priyamvada. 2005. Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence. New York: Routledge.

-  Mukherjee, Meenakshi, ed. 2002. Early Novels in India. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

-  Pollock, Sheldon, ed. 2003. Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


  • Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures, Rutgers University, USA
  • Department of Indology, French Institute of Pondicherry, Pondicherry, India


Rutgers University, USA


[1] Apart from a handful of publications (see, for example, Das 1991, 1995; Mukherjee 2002) supported by the Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters, only two major scholarly comparative studies of regional Indian literatures currently exist: Sheldon Pollock’s Literary Cultures in History (2003) examines trends in pre-modern regional literatures, emphasizing overlapping methodologies of literary analysis above cross-regional literary connections. Vasudha Dalmia’s and Stuart Blackburn’s India’s Literary History (2004) focuses on the writing of literary history across regional languages rather than on literary trends.