Democracy In India Part 14: Marathi literature vibrant but its Muslim writers shying away from challenging religious orthodoxy
Maharashtra is an intellectually alive state with a vibrant literary tradition. Therefore, I decided to examine the influence of democracy on Marathi literature and its political impact.
Editor's Note: As the Indian Republic turns 70, Tufail Ahmad begins a journey through the country to examine the working of democracy at the grassroots level. Inspired by the French author Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured America and wrote Democracy in America, the author — a former BBC journalist and now senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute — will examine how sociological realities of India and the promise of democracy interact with each other in shaping the lives of the Indian citizen. This report is the fourteenth in a series called "Democracy in India".
Solapur: Maharashtra is an intellectually alive state with a vibrant literary tradition. Therefore, I decided to examine the influence of democracy on Marathi literature and its political impact. In this context, democracy is understood as a movement of rational and democratic ideas as well as the rights of individuals and oppressed communities.
Pramod Munghate, professor of Marathi literature at the RTM Nagpur University, traced the origins of progressive ideas in Marathi thought from 12th Century to the 1940s in the poetry and writings of Sant Tukaram and Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, among others. He said: "Phule is the first writer in India to think beyond religion, to think that Brahmanism was made to exploit the poor." He cited Phule's books such as Gulamgiri for their message of equality and democratic rights.
In Nagpur, noted Marathi litterateur Loknath Yashwant told me that traditionally, Marathi authors wrote about the moon and flowers. He added: "Marathi literature lacks substance. India cannot win a Nobel Prize in literature for another 2,000 years. If we get a Nobel for literature, it will be for Dalit literature."
However, he also noted that a new generation of Marathi writers such as Namdeo Dhasal and Gangadhar Pantawne emerged, drawing inspiration from the black movement in the United States, Babasaheb BR Ambedkar in India and anti-colonial protests in African countries.
During the first few decades through the 1970s, the first-generation writers expressed the problem and sadness of the last man, the oppressed man, Loknath said. While Ambedkar definitely spawned a new thinking among Marathi writers, it's also the case that his mind was nurtured in the democratic intellectual environment of the US, where democracy grew from below, unlike in India where it was imposed from the top and it is seeping into Indian consciousness slowly.
In conversation, Loknath did not interpret the new trend in Marathi literature in terms of democracy. But it's clear that democratic ideas about the rights of suppressed communities found a place in Marathi literature soon after the Constitution—which is a movement of ideas rather than merely a book—was written and began to be implemented. The pre-1990s second generation and the post-1990s authors in Marathi showed visible democratic influences.
"All the three generation of Marathi writers raised the issues of Dalits," Loknath said, adding that the second-generation authors became more refined and reasoned. So, while the first-generation Marathi authors carried a baggage of religious influences in their writings, religion's role started disappearing from the writings of the second-generation writers who raised the issues of Dalits and in doing so imbibed some Buddhist influences, he said.
During the conversation, I began to think that the Marathi writings about the moon and flowers were killed by democracy. In the post-Independence period when Dalits started to go to schools, awareness of human rights began and Dalit writers emerged, Loknath said, and added that earlier Dalits were not even allowed to eat ghee by upper castes. Now, the writings on Dalit issues by Dalits and non-Dalits stood out, and the traditional writing in Marathi was dead, he added.
Till the 1940s, Marathi writing was mainly in the hands of upper castes who used to work for the British, Munghate said, and added that the introduction of democracy increased the scope of education for all sections of people. Post-Independence, the government's welfare programmes for the Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes became a new subject for Marathi writers, Munghate said, adding that Dalit sahitya (literature) emerged which was distinct from the panditi sahitya (priestly literature) in Marathi.
"The emergence of Dalit writers is due to the Constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Congress governments' liberal approach towards all sections of people," Munghate said and noted that such authors wrote autobiographies and poetry, which was a new trend in that autobiographies were written previously mainly by celebrities. Now, non-celebrities authored autobiographies of literary merit which were translated into other languages, he said and cited names of writers such as Narayan Surve, Daya Pawar, Laxman Mane and Namdeo Dhasal who came from humble backgrounds.
However, the first few decades post-Constitution constitute a period in which no democratic awakening, barring exceptions, can be seen in the literature of regional languages in India, other than Marathi. As a result, democratic awareness about the suppressed communities emerges from Marathi literature and flows into other regional literature, not the other way around.
Yashwant Manohar, a noted Marathi writer based in Nagpur, stopped using the term "Dalit" and uses the term Ambedkarite sahitya for writings on these issues. In the 1960s-70s, there was vidroh (revolt) against caste and religious texts in Marathi, he said. "It is true that this revolt was not there in other regional languages, but authors in these languages were watching this explosion—Ambedkarite sahitya—on Maharashtra literary scene. They too started seeing Ambedkar as a source of inspiration," Manohar said, adding that the revolt in Marathi was led by Ambedkarites.
In subsequent decades and especially post-1990s economic reforms, new themes emerged in Marathi literature, such as women's liberation, the economic impact of liberalisation, ills of globalisation and so on. Sujit Jadhao, a PhD scholar researching realism in post-1990 Marathi literature at the RTM Nagpur University, said, "Marathi writing is no longer just for entertainment. Earlier, Marathi authors did not raise issues of women's rights and the rights of the LGBT community. But, now it's possible to write about these issues in Marathi."
I asked Jadhao: Why is it possible now? "Because now there is greater freedom in society. Earlier, no one could speak against parampara (tradition). Earlier, Marathi literature presented women as meant for men. Now, women are seen as independent," he said. "Marathi literature shows how the individual has emerged and there is greater freedom." Jadhao gave the example of Virangi Mi! Vikumat Mi!: A novel by Anjali Joshi which explores LGBT rights. Post-1990s, Marathi literature predominantly shows how globalisation impacts rural values.
Unlike the states in north India, I detected that there exists a vibrant intelligentsia of Muslim authors in Marathi. In Nagpur, Yashwant Manohar narrated a story. He went to a mushaira (an Urdu poetry session) where he read his poem on Malala Yousafzai, the Muslim girl from Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban. "An Urdu poet asked me: How is it that we did not think of writing a poem on her, but an Ambedkarite writer like you thought of it?"
This observation by the Urdu poet is significant and perhaps reflects a general, not total, inability of Muslim writers to confront religious orthodoxy in their societies. Akram Pathan of Nagpur has written four books in Marathi on Muslim literature. His books are part of the syllabus in universities. King Adil Shah of Bijapur is the first ruler in Indian history who gave the official status to Marathi as the state language, Pathan said and added that about 42 Muslim saints wrote in Marathi from the 12th Century.
In post-Independence era, from the womb of the Marxist and Ambedkarite movements, emerged Marathi authors and activists such as Hamid Dalwai, who led a reform movement against social ills such as triple talaq, and Shaheer Amar Shaikh who was the hero of the Sanyukta Maharashtra Charwad, a movement which fought to keep Mumbai in Maharashtra, Pathan observed.
He noted that during the 1970-80s, Muslim authors, inspired by the Ambedkarite movement, began asking the question: Why can't we raise our issues like Dalits? Consequently, the first Akhil Bharatiya Muslim Marathi Sahitya Sammelan was held in Solapur in 1990. Pathan said approximately 1,000 Muslim authors are writing in Marathi now, including those whose PhD theses are yet to be published.
"These writers raise Muslim issues such as illiteracy, unemployment, polygamy and child rights," he said and added: "Their literature leads us towards progressive outlook. This is not dharmic (religious) literature." Pathan noted that Amar Habib's books address political issues such as Muslim vote banks, while Javed Pasha's books raise awareness about constitutional issues. Muslim women authors are also writing in Marathi such as Zulfi Shaikh, Farzana Dange, Haseena Mullah, Fatima Mujawar and Naseema Deshamukh, he said adding: "The focus of their writings is strivad (feminism)."
In Solapur, I asked Sarfaraz Ahmad, who writes on the Muslim intellectual history, to estimate the number of Muslim writers in Marathi and tell me if the figure of 1,000 is accurate. His point was that there could be about 200 such writers who are active, but most of them are poets. Throughout my conversation, I felt that Muslim writers in Marathi were not challenging the religious orthodoxy which signifies that a democratic awakening is yet to reach further deep among Muslims.
So, in Aurangabad, I posed this question before Iqbal Minne, the president of Muslim Marathi Sanskruti Mandal, an organisation of about 1,000 Muslim writers, poets, playwrights and journalists writing in Marathi. "The Muslim vidroh (revolt) is against samajik beyawastha (societal system)," he said, and added that Muslim authors in Marathi are not only raising Muslim issues but are also writing about varied subjects such as Ambedkar, Shivaji, water conservation and politics.
Specifically, about the question of challenging religious orthodoxy, Minne added: "There is no takrao (confrontation) against the Ulema (Islamic clerics)." This perhaps gives an answer to the question raised by the Urdu poet in his conversation with Yashwant Manohar at the mushaira.
The author is touring India to write a series on the workings of democracy. He is a senior fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. He tweets @tufailelif
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