Resources of Resilience and Resistance
Book: Listening to the Loom: Essays on Literature, Politics and Violence
Author: DR Nagaraj
Publisher: Permanent Black
Price: Rs 750
The pieces on writers Ananmurthy and Kambara provide accounts of the relationship between the literary and political in Karnataka and India
Sailen Routray Bengaluru
The book under review is a collection of essays by cultural theorist DN Nagaraj. This forms the second volume in a series that seeks to collect the writings of Nagaraj. The first volume of edited essays titled, The flaming feet and other essays: the Dalit movement in India, was published in 2010 (also by Permanent Black), and was received with gratitude and enthusiasm by scholars in and outside of India. The essays in The flaming feet provided a genealogy of sorts of the Dalit movement in India, and a few key essays in the volume provided a much-needed bridge between the approaches of Gandhi and Ambedkar. By the time of his untimely death in 1998 at the age of 44, he was increasingly seen as stepping into the space vacated by cultural theorist and folklorist AK Ramanujan who was arguably the most seasoned humanist scientist that Karnataka had produced by that time.
However, it is unfair to slot Nagaraj as merely a Dalit/Backward caste and/or Kannadiga intellectual. Although steeped in Dalit-Bahujan heritage and the literary and cultural milieu of Kannada and Karnataka, his work has universal provenance and value. Even a cursory perusal of the essays in the volume under discussion will prove this.
Listening to the loom has two distinct parts. The first part, consisting of a set of six essays, deals with the literature and culture of Karnataka. The second part, consisting of a set of seven essays, deals with questions surrounding politics and violence with their social horizon being mostly that of India.
The first essay of the first section titled ‘Critical tensions in the history of Kannada literary culture’ is the longest essay in the volume running to 90 pages. It is an analytical overview of around 800 years of Kannada literature and provides plural narratives of the many traditions that go into the making of this literature, including those of heterodox traditions such as the Jain and the Virasaiva ones. It also complicates the picture of pre-colonial Indian literature by pointing out that the vachana literature of Karnataka need not be read as another instant of the pan-Indian tradition of bhakti.
Instead, Nagaraj argues that the vachana literature was in some sense a radical departure from prevalent literary practices in Kannada that tried to radically erase the extant differences between laukika (worldly) and āgamika (scriptural) literature in order to reconstitute the relationship between the body, literary practice, the world and Shiva — the supreme being.
Two other essays in this section deal with the social world of Kannada literature; the pieces on writers UR Ananthamurthy and Chandrashekar Kambara are especially perceptive, and provide alternative accounts of the relationship between the literary and the political in Karnataka and India.
The essays in the second section of the book deal with the relationship between politics and violence. Nagaraj advances his points (often startlingly novel and insightful) in such a manner that narrative and metaphor have a central role in the argumentation.
In one of the essays in this section, he argues that Gandhi’s psycholisation of violence (in Nagaraj’s reading of Gandhi, the latter sees the origins of violence in the emotion of fear) leads a way out of social scientific discussions of violence that take place around the tropes of nature and history. In fact, as the editor of this volume suggests, this engagement with Gandhi can be seen as part of Nagaraj’s broader intellectual project that tried to go beyond the dichotomies of tradition and modernity in order to fashion alternative futures for the oppressed communities of India by finding resources of resilience and resistance in their own pasts and practices.
This project needs to be taken forward, and Permanent Black and Dr Shobhi must be congratulated for the publication of this meticulously edited volume.