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Hindi Literary Criticism and the Challenges of Developing a Social Aesthetics in Colonial India (1920-50) A Survey of Premchand, Ramchandra Shukla, and Ramvilas Sharma

Sikandar Kumar, History

My paper addresses the emergence of the discipline of Hindi literary criticism in colonial India in the 1920s and 1930s and later developments in the 1950s. I focus on the writings of three eminent scholars and writers who I believe were integral in advancing a perspective on Hindi literary and linguistic development which reflected a commitment to social levelling and harmony. As a sophisticated body of scholarship has shown, the inter-war years in India implicated language and literature within a fraught religious sectarian politics (communalism) whereby Hindi was unalloyed from its entanglements with Urdu, Braj Bhasha, and other languages and dialects. In this paper I will engage with some of the writings of Shukla, Premchand, and Sharma to interrogate how they weaved together their literary interests with ethico-political concerns. I am particularly interested in how these writers cast past traditions of Hindi: why were certain traditions such as riti and ghazal associated with the decadence of feudal paternal/patrimonial power and others such as Bhakti affirmed? While contemporary scholarship has offered a sophisticated critique of these literary movements and the narrow-mindedness of their canon making vision, I will suggest that we can discern an impulse within these writings to fashion a literature and an aesthetic code that was bent towards social harmony. Even though these writers and their literary efforts might not have been unstained by the communal politics of the time, by drawing on the writings of the later literary critic, Ramvilas Sharma, I argue that it is only by paying attention to conversations within Hindi academic discourse that we might discern and strengthen this social-ethical impulse; an impulse which might otherwise be easily usurped by Hindu right wing discourse.