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44 | ‘Vernacular’ Theorisations of ‘Literature’ in Modern South Asia

The panel discusses 'vernacular' theorisations of literature in the 19th and 20th centuries. We ask what ‘modern’ ideas of literature, literariness, and literary history were and how they were generated by synthesizing disparate vocabularies – Sanskritic, Persianate, Western – in inventive ways.


· Judhajit Sarkar Universität Heidelberg (Heidelberg, Germany)
· Anirudh Karnick PhD Student, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, United States of America)


· 07/26 | 15:30-17:00 UTC+2/CEST
· 07/26 | 17:30-19:00 UTC+2/CEST
· 07/27 | 15:30-17:00 UTC+2/CEST

Long Abstract

In the introduction to Literary Cultures In History, Sheldon Pollock forcefully insisted that the argument that literature can be anything is an ahistorical essentialism. Scholarship about literary South Asia since has had to take into account how literature was conceptualized at a particular time and in a particular place – to not equate textual materials with ‘literature’ and to not take language or region as self-evident categories. It has had to try and work out the ‘emic’ perspective on what ‘literature’ is.

The importance of this corrective in the study of ‘pre-modern’ literatures is self-evident. However, what strikes the contemporary reader of ‘modern’ South Asian literatures (roughly from 1850s onward) is how unformed, contested, and un-self-evident, the concept of ‘literature’ has been for critics, poets, and historians of even this period. While old forms were retooled and new forms forged during this time-frame (the novel, lyric poetry, the satirical essay, life-writing), a rich meta-discourse also emerged about these practices in the histories of literature and language, prefaces to poems and fiction and other kinds of para-texts. This meta-discursive language drew on Sanskritic, Persianate, and ‘Western’ vocabulary, but interpreted and synthesized these in inventive, sometimes idiosyncratic, ways, besides foregrounding corpora and authors formerly outside the pale of ‘literature’ (e.g., Kabir in Hindi; Lalon Fakir in Bangla).

We solicit relevant contributions from scholars working on such ‘vernacular’/‘regional’ conceptualizations of literature, literariness, literary history and aesthetics in the context of modern South Asia.