Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:November 10th, 2009 14:15 EST
Indian Literary and Critical Theories in English: A Comparison

Indian Literary and Critical Theories in English: A Comparison

By Vivek K. Dwivedi

Indian literary and critical theories in English, at least those that have had an extended impact, have tended to be anti-imperialistic. There has been some resistance in their accepting the West without any questioning, particularly the British. Even Sri Aurobindo, who could be described as the least oppositional to the West amongst the significant theorists, did not passively accept Western Theoretical positions as the West presented them. Even he played a significant role in providing for the West alternatives that were Indian. In fact, it could be argued that he played his own role in changing Modernist critical opinion in the West.[i] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha may have picked up the nucleus of their own theories from Western poststructuralist oppositional theories but they did branch out in new directions and did not toe the line of the West. In fact, they have acquired a distinct position in postcolonial thought. Theirs is a continuation of the anti-West drive begun by Edward Said through his own postcolonial theories. Though these theorists definitely look back to Said, it is debatable whether Said was not partly anticipated by other Indians like Mahatma Gandhi, or others outside India like Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre.


            The one Indian who has seemed to me to be most like Edward Said is C. D. Narasimhaiah (1921-2005).[ii] I believe that both Narasimhaiah and Said have covered the same kind of ground, and have written in the same anti-imperialist spirit with the same missionary zeal. However, the chief difference between the two was that Said, like Spivak and Bhabha, was writing along with other powerful Western contemporaries even while he opposed them whereas Narasimhaiah was writing rather by himself, having returned to India after being taught by F. R. Leavis at Cambridge. Said`s work emerges in continuation of (or from his disagreements with) Western theories like Feminism, Marxism, and Deconstruction, even though it shares much in common with them. Narasimhaiah`s theories (that are inbuilt into his critical practice) can, no doubt, be traced back to Matthew Arnold and F. R. Leavis, but they have as their real precursors the ideas set forth by Gandhi and Nehru on the one hand, and Sri Aurobindo and ancient Indian Sanskrit poetics on the other. Unlike Said, who got down to writing serious criticism, Narasimhaiah considered himself to be primarily a teacher of English literature. But having realized the richness of the English language and having developed a love for most literatures in the English language, Narasimhaiah possibly entered the domain of literary criticism and theory through his study of literature. If the West decided to ignore Narasimhaiah, it was primarily because he did not participate in post-structuralism which could be called the West`s religion of the time. He found post-structuralism rather redundant. I do not support Narasimhaiah for his attitude towards poststructuralist thought. But I do feel that the West ignored Narasimhaiah because Narasimhaiah ignored the oppositional theories of the West. Narasimhaiah relished barely a few British authors and found a select few Indian, Commonwealth, European and American authors quite accomplished. He tended to dislike more authors than the ones he liked and, therefore, earned harsher critics than admirers.


            One point that I wish to make at the outset is that Said has been given, and justifiably, too, a lot of importance in postcolonial theory, which means that the West has accepted him as one it can agree or disagree with. Said and, after him, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha have played their role in deconstructing the West. They have done that only because they were nurtured on Deconstruction and other post-structuralist theories. Their various opositions to the West fit in with the logical progression of Western thought. Each of them is a "valid" theorist because he or she provides the logical continuation or even culmination of a particular Western theoretical framework, at a particular juncture. C. D. Narasimhaiah is different. He cannot be said to belong to the Western postcolonial movement per se. But he is quite clearly a solitary figure trying to build up an Indian postcolonial resistance to everything that is colonial, be that a matter of culture, literature, criticism, or simply English Studies in India. He has the grace to welcome certain positive aspects of the Empire; even Gandhi praised certain aspects of the British Empire. But he is quite clear about what he would stand up against, never allowing slavish attitudes, and deciding quite clearly what he would accept and what not. He does not fill up any slot that the work of the Western theorists create. Hence he does not earn the attention of the West, and unfortunately even of Indians. C. D. Narasimhaiah who deserves an importance similar to that of Edward Said (as he has done for India what Said has done for the Middle East) but he has been refused that. I have, however, been driven to believe that in any account of Indian postcolonial thought, the name of Narasimhaiah cannot be left out and dividing Indian postcolonial thought from the larger postcolonial thought would be a pointless slicing of this subject. Unfortunately that is what has been happening in the West. If Narasimhaiah`s name has been ignored, then the reason for that should be properly investigated. It is possible to disagree with Narasimhaiah but it is not quite befitting to disregard him. His position in the history of Indian postcolonial thought demands our urgent attention.


            Before going any further, it becomes necessary to see how Said and Narasimhaiah are alike in spite of some natural difference. It is sad to reflect that Indian scholars, some of whom have even got recognition for their work in India and abroad, have left out Narasimhaiah almost entirely from their critical concerns. I think this has been a case of a gross neglect. In this neglect scholars of postcolonial thought have proved Said`s theory of orientalism rather right. They have shown how the colonised mind fails to work independently and originally. I refer to the works of those Indian scholars who knew and interacted with Narasimhaiah and yet did not pay any heed to his views. Interestingly, and ironically, these scholars have written on postcolonialism itself. The scholars in question are heavyweights like Meenakshi Mukherjee (3-12), Harish Trivedi (248) and Makarand Paranjape (37-48) on the one hand and historians of postcolonial thought like Ania Loomba and Leela Gandhi on the other. These latter historians may not have been exposed to the writings of Narasimhaiah as much as the above-mentioned scholars, and may, therefore, lay greater claims to some kind of justification for ignoring him. Though the lapse only reveals their limitations, the views expressed by the first three scholars need a justification that they don`t provide anywhere in their works. Meenakshi Mukherjee, for instance, writes the title-article of Interrogating Postcolonialism and has nothing to say about Narasimhaiah. The references at the end of her article include only the names of American scholars, French critics or the odd Indian that has been adopted by America or the West.[iii]  The same is the case with Harish Trivedi (231-248). Each of these scholars does have interesting things to say regarding Said`s, Spivak`s or Bhabha`s main contentions (transferred sometimes to the Indian situation) but they never mention Narasimhaiah and, therefore, miss out the force of his arguments that seem to me to be much more relevant to the Indian situation. Mukherjee and Trivedi very largely give back to us the orientalist spirit they seem to be opposing. Even with apparently good intentions they foreground only those scholars[iv] that the West has stood by, and miss out the truly postcolonial concerns that Narasimhaiah represents. Though it is not always possible to point out the exact reasons for scholars omitting significant views and viewpoints, it is always possible to wonder whether such omissions are results of the politics of academia, the North/ South divide, or worse still, the result of personal prejudice. Makarand Paranjape`s is an even more interesting case. He leaves out Narasimhaiah from his account on "Coping with Post colonialism" even though he does refer to Narasimhaiah (in positive terms) in another piece where he writes independently of Meenakshi Mukherjee and Harish Trivedi. I refer to Paranjape`s article, "Decolonizing English Studies: Attaining Swaraj?" (78-98) Perhaps when these three scholars speak together, almost in one voice, from one podium, they find it convenient to leave out Narasimhaiah. There seems to be a politics of postcolonialism in general (Young 6), or one of all literary theories taken as a whole, and so is there one of the postcolonial Indian theories in English as well.


            A scholar who would go beyond the road already much travelled in postcolonial studies should not ignore the writings of C.D. Narasimhaiah. Otherwise, he could end up recycling one of the hundreds of Western or non-western theses already in existence. Narasimhaiah, himself, it may be pointed out, was irritated by derivative work and stood against those that kept recycling the opinions of the British and other Western nationals. Here is just one example of Narasimhaiah`s disgust with derivative writing:


            Did I say national identity? I am not sure, for literature at least for a whole century before Independence, we should have the courage to admit, one only witnessed a series of beginnings, historically very important no doubt, but intrinsically not very great. How else can one account for the Indian Shelley that was Tagore, the Indian Scott that was Bankim, the Indian Milton that was Madhusudan Dutt and, till only the other day, the Indian Chekhov that was R. K. Narayan. I am not sure that those concerned liked these left-handed compliments but this is true that these labels seemed to carry with them a suggestion of derivativeness and indeed they did (Narasimhaiah 183).


            With Narasimhaiah, as with Said, there was almost always the encountering of political polemics in literary texts. Hence the chief aim of both these critics was to penetrate into the political subtexts rather than remain at their formalistic surface. Both, it may be pointed out, were not satisfied with matters merely formalistic, or related to literary technique; nor were they attracted to language in the fashion of Derrida and his followers. For both the social substance mattered, if ever anything did. However, both sometimes came to opposite or conflicting conclusions when responding to the same authors or texts and when both wrote in the postcolonial frame of mind. This point is specially clarified when seen in the light of the responses that the two critics have given to Kipling`s Kim or the opinions they have held on Lord Macaulay (Narasimhaiah       `Macaulay` 1-12) .This point will be discussed a little later but for now it could be said that the different interpretations or responses made by the two only suggest the amount of truth contained in the contemporary theoretical assumption that no interpretation of a text can be final.


            The chief difference between Said and Narasimhaiah is probably very similar to the chief difference between the West and India. The problem with the West seems to me to be the immense faith that it had lavished upon humanism. It first swore by humanism but gradually withdrew its faith in humanism. Robert Young has presented, rather beautifully, the historical development of this (the West`s) petting into, and out of, the clutches of humanism in White Mythologies, Writing History and the West. Young demonstrates how the writings of Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre and others have shown that humanism, that had seemed to be the creed West largely supported, suddenly became what it had been opposing. The West thought it had stood by liberty, equality and fraternity, when it was itself indulging in racial discrimination and even exploitation. Further, colonialism was just another form of Fascism brought home to Europe. "For humanism is itself already anti-humanist. That is the problem" (Young 125). The problem with humanism seems to have been that it did not accept religion. It parted company with religion and stood apart. But religion and humanism are too closely related to each other to exist independently. The movement from religion towards humanism is not quite convincing. The West has fast been moving from one changed position to another and has, therefore, tended to add on shades of black and grey to its philosophical thought (Sharma 1-8). In the East, particularly in India, things have not changed as rapidly. There has been a resistance to change. This relative immobility, which is sometimes believed to be synonymous with backwardness, is largely because of the stability that is provided by religion. Religion is still very meaningful and God is yet not dead here in the Nietszschean sense. If there is humanism, it is always camouflaged in the general scheme of religion. Here no single religion is the sole religion to be promoted, but every individual is guided largely by a single religion. Some are led on even by more than one religion. Hence Narasimhaiah does not have that bleak and pessimistic vision of life in which we first look ahead to humanism and then look backwards, away from humanism. Said is in a different position because religion doesn`t mean the same thing to him that it would to one like Narasimhaiah. He does not have the anchor of a religion and is much more Western in that sense. His faith in his religion could be considered to be rather a faith in history, or even in the nihilism of the West. He, too, is governed by that hopelessness which the modern and post-modern attitudes have generated. Here is an example of this nihilistic strain in Said:


            Much as one may be inclined to agree with such theses- since, as this book has tried to demonstrate, Islam has been fundamentally misrepresented in the West- the real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions and political ambience of the represented.  (Orientalism, 272)


            Because of this basic difference between Said and Narasimhaiah, they have meant different things to the West. Said is worthy of attention because he agrees or disagrees with the West only in the parameters provided by the West. He is worthy of both positive and negative criticism by the West. But Narasimhaiah speaks in another language, maybe even in another idiom that the West doesn`t consider important enough to pay attention to. He speaks in more certain terms about things less nihilistic. Because he is rooted, he can still feel his links with the ancient past, and thinks of more positive possibilities than are currently fashionable. It is not only the West that ignores him; even Indians follow the West blindly in doing that. But if the postcolonial theory is about justice as has often been claimed, Narasimhaiah has not got his due. The present paper addresses itself to this primary question. If Narasimhaiah does not follow the West rather at its own terms, as Said does, should he, therefore, be ignored at home and abroad? There are many similarities between Said and Narasimhaiah, some of which are mentioned below. But the two critics have got responses that are far from being similar.


The similarities:

(I) For Said the political context has immense value. Whether it is Jane Austen`s Mansfield Park or Joseph Conrad`s Heart of Darkness, his primary aim is to "read for the gap". This gap is ultimately associated with the colonial versus postcolonial context in the text. For him this, if any, is the primary concern. With Narasimhaiah, too, the political context is vitally necessary. He, likewise, is drawn towards the text that contains the colonial context, and is a demanding critic when he examines the politics of a text or an author. Even otherwise he has his politics clearly worked out. (22) Narasimhaiah doesn`t mince words in expressing this feeling: "Let the poet bring his bucket of water, because India is a house on fire" (Narasimhaiah `Gandhi` 3).


            When literary criticism is generated out of a political anxiety, it becomes literary criticism of a different order. It gets transformed into an activity that could be described as both more and less than literary criticism. Its value depends on the ideology or needs of the reader (who, in this case, is a scholar) of this critic. Said and Narasimhaiah have both, therefore, received varied responses from scholars- some laudatory, others highly accusatory .The work of both is successful as polemic but it definitely lacks in literary scholarship. It is flawed in that it performs a role that, in the last analysis, is not directly related to literary experience. Besides, it has obvious limitations. For instance, Said focuses almost entirely upon the Middle East, whereas for Narasimhaiah India is the chief concern. Both critics forget that there are other colonies and their texts, apart from the ones they represent, to think of. Both think of and promote the Third World and indulge in what has been described as "Thirdworldism." But in the process what is sacrificed is the rest of the world. The missionary zeal sometimes wipes out the face of reality. Said`s "Voyage In" (288-315) which leaves the metropolitan centres of the First World high and dry is comparable with Narasimhaiah`s choice of texts and his complete disregard for the literary works that the West would foreground.


(ii) A significant similarity between Said and Narasimhaiah is that while trey both draw on Western philosophy and theory, they do not ignore the critical heritage of their own geographical regions. Narasimhaiah, particularly, is grounded in Sanskrit poetics and has made an extended use of archetypal patterns that relate literature to Indian mythology and is able to explain Western texts through Indian criteria. In this respect both critics are rather different from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha whose work may sometimes focus on an Indian author but even then remains entirely Western in spirit. Rajnath has demonstrated this point in the case of Said. He points out that even from Said`s Beginnings, which was published three years before Orientalism, Said kept turning to "and making use of philosophy, religion, linguistics, and literature" (78- 79). Narasimhaiah`s is an exactly parallel case though he does not figure in the Western postcolonial movement.


(iii) That Narasimhaiah was not drawn by oppositional theories is somewhat mystifying, though there are possible reasons that one could speculate upon. If Said used these Western theories to deconstruct the West, Narasimhaiah used Indian theories to oppose Western views and theories. Besides, Narasimhaiah was fourteen years older than Said and was living not in America but in India when he formulated his major critical opinions. Had he lived in the West, he might have been even more like Said. He had spent a few years at Cambridge, no doubt, and a few ones in America, but those were the years when Modernist influences were uppermost in his mind. For him, I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, Middleton Murry and F. R. Leavis were the immediate Western influences. He also valued Northrop Frye`s criticism. A serious study of Narasimhaiah`s works reveals that for him it was not enough to rally round formalistic and linguistic criteria alone. Nor was it sufficient for him to be satisfied with reading strategies. For Narasimhaiah, as for Said, determinate meaning was the central criterion of literature. Both these critics did shift their attention to formalistic aspects at times. Said, particularly has focused even on music (Musical Elaborations). But when it came to literary criticism, one basic requirement for both critics was literary representation. Each of them was keen on questions like: Why does an author remain silent on the colonial experience of the time? Or why does a British author misrepresent the truth about India? For each there is a quest for justice that overpowers other considerations. Thus Said, coming a decade and a half after Narasimhaiah, absorbed post-structuralism that the other critic did not. Instead of doing that, Narasimhaiah thought of Indian alternatives and believed that the West could actually gain from them, just as the East was gaining from Eastern models. Said, too, felt that the West needed to give up its orientalist attitude just as the East ought never to pick up an occidental one (Rajnath 83).

(iv) A few lines from Narasimhaiah on Kipling would give us an insight into his mind:


                   But the sad fact is that in spite of a few British defenders whose     opinion was after all marginal it was the American- the novelist Henry James, the critic Edmund Wilson and the poet T. S. Eliot- who recognized Kipling`s genius. The Indian, of course, took the cue as we have invariably done, from the British and dubbed Kipling as an opportunity to salvage their conscience, charged with a political guilt or, which is corollary of the same, Kipling`s profound understanding, sympathy and respect for India ( Kipling`s India " 13-14).


For Narasimhaiah, E. M. Forster was no match to Kipling and he blames even Leavis, his teacher, for calling A Passage to India a minor classic ". He goes on:

                    To make matters worse, Leavis conceded privately that many Indians wrote better than Forster! All he could say- and he mumbled it- in support of his high praise was that Forster was a good man! One had to leave it at that.

                  This good man, this Liberal, made the same mistake that the rulers did,  the newspapers did and the glib tourists did, in his inability to look at India as an artist should. And far from being a great work of art ", A minor classic ", I fear A Passage to India comes perilously close to being a thriller. I gather that is what David Lane`s film on the novel has proved to be (`Kipling`s India`,14).


The above quotation shows how much of the postcolonial Narasimhaiah was. He is conscious that Forster was only interested in giving` to the world the tourist`s picture of. India, which was the Orientalist`s picture of India. This, according to Narasimhaiah, was not the true picture of India and hence Forster loses to Kipling. He does not represent India truthfully. It is ironic that Said should have given us the reverse response to the two novels in question (Said `Consolidated Vision` 159-196; `Resistance and Opposition` 241-251).


(v) One of the reasons why Narasimhaiah did not become a recognised leader of postcolonial thought was that he spent most of his time getting Commonwealth Literature the status it deserved in India instead of sitting back and writing theories of a postcolonial nature. It was due to him that Indian universities began to introduce authors of Commonwealth countries in their courses. He also wrote several articles and a book (Essays in Commonwealth Literature) on the subject. Besides, Narasimhaiah worked untiringly for English Studies. Very humbly, he considered himself to be first and foremost a teacher of English. He wrote much for the cause of English Studies because he considered the English Language and English Literature to be the biggest gifts of the British to India. It was through English Literature that India could pick the English Language, which in turn would help us to read the best literatures of the world, particularly the literatures of the Commonwealth countries. His remaining time he spent in editing his journal, The Literary Criterion, which continues to spread his message-namely that, the literature of Britain alone is insufficient. Before him, most Indian universities taught just British literature.


            This paper is likely to inspire others to add considerably to the existent picture of postcolonial thought. At present we consider Gayatri C. Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha to be the only Indians involved in the postcolonial debate. This paper could change this impression and give to other scholars a more completed picture of postcolonialism. Other scholars living in other countries might then come up with their own accounts of other Narasimhaiahs living elsewhere? This is how the merely Western picture of postcolonial thought can find its real completion.



[i] Sri Aurobindo seems to have either, been behind much of, or at least paralleled, Middleton Murry`s  and T. S. Eliot`s critical thought.

[ii] Though I am initiating a debate on the nature, of the similarities between Said and Narasimhaiah, I must acknowledge that others like L. R. Sharma, Deepak Kumar Singh, and Premendra Mahajan first pointed out the idea of the similarities between Said and Narasimhaiah.

[iii] In Leela Gandhi`s Footnote No.10 the name of Narasimhaiah is conspicuous by its absence.

[iv] The scholars they refer to are Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, Linda Hutcheon, Homi Bhabha, Jacques Derrida, Victor Kierman, etc. There is only the odd Indian that finds a mere mention here. For instance there is the mention of Vijay Mishra and Darshan Perusekh. The Indian scholars are merely mentioned whereas the Westerners are treated as authorities.


Works Cited


Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction.

Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/ Post-colonialism. London: Routledge, 1988.

Mukherjee, Meenakshi. "Interrogating Post-colonialism", Interrogating Post-colonialism: Theory, Text and Context, editors Harish Trivedi and Meenakshi Mukherjee. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1996.

Narasimhaiah, C.D. "Indian Aesthetics and Art Activity: A Literary Critic`s View", The Indian Critical Scene: Controversial Essays. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation, 1990.


"Kipling`s India", The Indian Critical Scene: Controversial Essays.


"Thomas Babington Macaulay: A Centenary Tribute", Indian Critical Scene: Controversial Essays, Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation, 1990.


"What does Gandhi mean to the World today?", The Literary Criterion Vol. xxiii, No.4, 1988.


Essays in Commonwealth Literature: Heirloom of Multiple Heritage, Delhi: Pencraft International, 1995.


Nath, Raj. "Edward Said and Postcolonial Theory", Journal of Literary Criticism Vol. IX. i, June 2000.


Paranjape, Makarand. "Coping with Post-colonialism", Interrogating Post-colonialism: Theory, Text and Context, editors Harish Trivedi and Meenakshi Mukherjee, Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study 1996.


"Decolonizing English Studies: Attaining Swaraj?" Critical Spectrum: Essays in Literary Culture (in Honour of Prof C.D. Narasimhaiah). Delhi: Pencraft, 2004.

Said, Edward. "Consolidated Vision" and "Resistance and Opposition", Culture and Imperialism.


"The Voyage In and the Emergence of the Opposition", Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1993.



Sharma, L. R. "Ms. Negative West", The Twain Shall Meet.


"Narasimhaiah and the Politics of Literature", The Twain Shall Meet.


Trivedi, Harish. "India and Post-colonial Discourse", Interrogating Post-colonialism: Theory, Text and Context, editors Harish Trivedi and Meenakshi : Mukherjee, ShimIa: Indian Institute of Advanced I Study, 1996,


Young, Robert J. C. "Montage", Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP, 2003,


Disorienting Orientalism ", White Mythologies, Writing History and the West, London: RoutIedge, 1990.