Book Review on G. N. Devy’s After Amnesia Navdeep Kaur

G. N.  Devy  is  a  prominent  name  in  the  Indian  Literary Criticism.  He  is  the  present  chairperson  of  People’s Linguistic  survey  of  India.  His book After Amnesia which is subtitled  as  “Tradition  and  Change  in  Indian  Literary Criticism” is categorized into three sections “tradition and Amnesia”,  “A  Never-ending  Transition”  and  “After Amnesia”. The book is an original research on the plight of bhasa Literary Criticism since the beginning of nineteenth century  when the transitional change in the Indian Bhasa Criticism,  which  began  from  the  fourteenth  century, was grafted  with  the  colonial Euro-centric Criticism. The book deals with the ‘memory disorder’ in bhasa critics who are unable  to  trace  the  relationship  between  the  modern Indian Criticism and bhasa criticism pre-British era. First it defines the crisis of ‘cultural amnesia’ in Bhasa Criticism, and   colonialism   is   seen   a   culprit.   Secondly   it   travels through  the  transitions  in  sociology  of  bhasa  literatures and   reaches   at   natives  attempts  to  revive  the  bhasa criticism.

In  the  first section, Devy takes the great pain to research how  different  dialects got accreditation and transformed into  fully  developed  literary  languages. Devy  prefers  to use ‘bhasa’ over ‘Indian’ keeping in view the diversity of languages    that have    fully    developed    into    literary languages.  These  languages  such  as  Marathi,  Gujarati, Sindhi,  Punjabi  etc.,  broke  away  with  the  Great  Indian Sanskrit  Tradition  and  emerged,  by  the  15thcentury,  as independent  literary  languages. By  this time, Sanskrit had already  touched  the  peak  in  language  and  linguistics  in scholars  like  Panini,  Vamana,  Bhoja  etc. Of course, bhasa criticism imbibed many a foreign trends for its continuous development  yet  the western influence during the British era on the native took away the very vitality of the criticism even though bhasa literatures kept on flourishing.’

Devy  sets  his  focus  on  colonial  period  in  which  Indian Literary   tradition   cuts   itself   from   the   past   and   sees western  thought  in  Theory  and  criticism  as  the  fresh beginning. The author calls this trend as cultural amnesia whereby modern Indian   bhasa   intellectuals   become incapable of tracing the roots of bhasa criticism not in the 15thcentury  intellectual  thought  rather  in  western  Euro-centric theory and criticism. Amnesia is a mental disorder whereby patients tend to forget events of the recent past. Similarly,   Bhasa   Literary   Criticism   and  theory  tend  to ignore  the  history  of  literary theory of period just before the  beginning  of  the  British  rule,  resulting  in  damage  to ‘literary history of five to ten centuries’. The essay focuses on  how  the  pressure  exerted  by  the  colonialism  on  the native  intellectual  thought  took  away  “healthy  relation between modern bhasa criticism and its history”.

 Devy  lists  many lethargic and non-productive tendencies of   modern   bhasa   critics   who   attempted   in   futile   to delineate  the  outline  of  Indian  literary theory. He holds a grudge  against  those  Indian  critics  who  applied  western theories forcibly on bhasa literature without conditioning them in   Indian   context.   But   basically,   he  blames  the colonial  policies  such as ‘Doctrine of Lapse (1848)’ that disoriented and denigrated Indian bhasa literary heritage so  that  modern  bhasa  critics  look  upon  western  Euro-centric theories as fresh beginning.

G.N.Devy  delves  deep  into  the  paradoxes  and  resultant sickness  that  modern  bhasa  criticism  is  suffering  from. Indian intellectuals whereas looked down     upon colonialism as  evil  on  the  other  hand,  became  complete parasite  on  western  knowledge  and  look  upon  it  as  an ideal  for  the  modernization  of  bhasa  literary  criticism. Through the introduction of education, Devy records, the British produced “many undesired tendencies” in bhasa literature.   It   discouraged   exchange   of   ideas   rather presented  Western  Literary  knowledge  as  superior  by orientalising    the    Indian.    Many    a   Indian   intellectual revolted  against  this  “universalizing”  trend  of  western canons,   for   instance,   Sudhir   Kakar   in   the   field   of psychology endorsed cultural based child psychology.

On  the  other  hand, modern  Indian  critics,  though,  admit that  India  has  a  glorious  Sanskrit  tradition  of  literary criticism  but  could  not  find  a  relationship  between  the past   and   the   recent   history  of  criticism.  They  fail  to understand the history always filters through ages adding and   abstracting.   They   fail   to   see   the   modern  Indian literary  criticism  as  result  of  past  native  bhasa  literature criticism.  This  total  forgetfulness  of  15thonward  literary bhasa   literatures   is   the   amnesia   that   modern  Indian criticism suffering from. He writes:

“If  modern  India  can  connect  itself  emotionally  with ancient  India,  whereas  it  cannot –or  does  not  want to-relate    itself    to    the    pre-British    past,    the phenomenon  will  have  to  be  described  as  a  disorder in the culture’s  psyche.

”Second essay “Ever Ending transitions” is more focused on  the  sociological  changes  that  help  the  emergence  of bhasa literature and decline of Sanskrit tradition of literary criticism. For that Devy formed a historiography of bhasa literature.  In  such  an  endeavour,  Devy  admitted  having faced  many  difficulties  such  as  lack  of  reliable  material prior  to  British  period  that  throws  light  on  the  Indian sociological set up and literature. Moreover British period is like “epistemological stumbling block” to know the pre –Britishpast.  Following  the  illogical  course  that  history  of bhasa  literary  criticism  took,  Devy  records  how  different languages  like  Gujarati,  Kannada,  Mathari,  Bangla  etc., developed  faster  than other languages, reason being the official  patronage  of  these  languages.  Regionalism  was promoted with advent of Islamic rules in India which later on  became  a  major  cause  of  decline  of  great  Sanskrit tradition.

Bhasa   literatures   emerged   as   a   revolt   against   the brahmanic monopoly since Sanskrit used different dialects only  to  emphasize  social  hierarchies.  Therefore, in bhasa literatures  can  be  seen  a  reflection  of  transition  that Indian   society   was   undergoing.   Emergence   of   bhakti movement   is   a   great   testimony   to   this.   Most  bhakti literature,  from  14thto  18thcentury, is written in regional languages.  Inspite  of  the  fact  that  the  printing  press –a gift  of  Colonialism –helped  bhasa literature to touch the skies,  it  remains  a matter of concern why bhasa criticism could  not  flourish  as  fast  as  literature.  Devy  finds  many reasons  for  it  such  as the masculine/ aggressive attitude of  colonial powers, their intentions to preserve their own cultural identity, their negative attitude towards India arts and architecture.

In the third section “After Amnesia”, Devy challenges the accepted  relationships  between  Indian  Renaissance  and Colonialism, and between Modernization and Westernization.  Renaissance  in  Indian  context,  according to  the  author  didn’t  mean  an  organic  relationship between  the  east  and  the  west  rather  a  ‘hotchpotch mixture  of  ideas’  which  got  market  value  in  the colonialism. There remains a tussle between Indian critics and    Indologists    (western    authors    mastering   Indian subject)  on  the  efforts  of  self  definition.  Westernization promoted ‘social climbing’ rather than modernization, -an Indian   who   got   masters   in  English  could  service  the colonial  powers  in  many  different  ways  and  improve  his relationships  with  the  colonizers.  Therefore,  for  Devy, western trends created material betterment, which further ‘perpetuated the colonialism’. In the last, Devy highlights three Indian Renaissance Writers –Rabindra Nath Tagore, and  Ananda  Coomarswamy  and  specially,  Sri  Aurbindo who  in  a  way  rejected  western  thought  and  appealed  to have “correct sympathy to appreciate bhasa Literature”.

The book draws heavily from south-west Indian languages which  leave  a  reader  from  the  north  India  perplexed.  In the  three  sections,  his  focus  on  bhasa  literatures  and Criticism  remains  on  Marathi,  Gujarati  and  Tamil.  Due  to the lack of knowledge of these bhasa literatures, one feels paralyzed   to   better   review   the   book.   Overall,   it   is   a genuine  and  a  rare  research  done  by  an  Indian  who  is deeply   concerned   why   the   modern   critics   could   not appreciate the native bhasa criticism and develop a theory based on the native thoughts.

Title: After  Amnesia
Author: G.N.  Devy
Publisher: Orient Black Swan
Available: Amazon

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