By Humra Laeeq
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when we read the word ‘literature’? For critics, literature referred to ‘litterati’ or the literate population, the elite or the high class. Who owns ‘literature’? Maybe Shakespeare, the timeless literary giant. Is literature part of culture? Perhaps, because it is a reflection of our stories, families, experiences. Is literature produced by culture? Of course, it circulates in printed and published forms. If Bloomsbury and Dorling Kindersley produce texts on mass culture, literature is indeed an industry. It is a commodity, sold on the market shelf and consumed.
What is symbolic about the circulation of literature? And why do we think of Shakespeare’s works as those of high art? Why do we fetishise Fifty Shades when we think of erotica? Does it have anything to do with those producing and selling culture and cultural produce?
Is literature innocent of politics?
Cultural industry works a particular way. Usually, the Americas or Europe create something new and sell what they have to offer on the global scale. Since they sit at the top of the pyramid of technology, their produce reaches the far corners of the world. For who doesn’t glamourise the Times Square in New York or the lavish luxuries of Vegas or the ‘high’ and ‘royal’ art of London? And the world has a reason to do so. Turning back 400 years in time, the British Imperial forces from the First World have ideologically moulded mindsets in a way that favours them. Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835 said “All of the Indian literatures is not worth a single shelf of a British library”. It was the same year when the English Education Act was passed when formal English studies were established in India.
Hence, what came to be a political agenda actually got translated into a belief. Indian literature was always relegated to the margins, while the educated elite devoured Shakespeare and Austen and applauded ‘high’ art. Even though we live in a post-colonial world, the ideological conditioning still lives with us. Not many of our writers have been elevated to the same level as Shakespeare. Likewise, whenever we think of ‘popular’ and good art, we think of works that aren’t produced domestically. Talk of very contemporary trends in the literature of erotica and the first names that pop up are Fifty Shades of Grey or perhaps Mills and Boon, or maybe even the Twilight series.
What’s so special about these novels?
Actor Jamie Dornan, who played Mr Grey is curious himself and he quotes, “I wonder what it is about this set of books that has, excuse my pun, penetrated the global market,” he told Elle UK. “Mass appreciation doesn’t always equate to something good.” The actor unwittingly refers to the mob minded mentality of the consumer market that pays little attention to what is appreciable art and what is there to be sold. Fifty Shades might not be appreciable, but we think it is because we are made to lust after anything the First World produces, just like lighter skins or technology or clothes or music. On the other hand, we relegate the Indian cultural produce, not because we don’t see worth in it, but because we see it belonging to the farther end on the ‘progressive scale’.
Is Indian culture truly deserving of this blame? How far do we know Indian literature and what it says? Is there any text worthy of good value?
The story of the Kama Sutra
The Kama Sutra is an Indian text that dates back to the ancient Hindu tradition. In a country which is considered to hold taboos on issues of sex and sexuality, the Kama Sutra is the standard piece of literature that entails a detailed engagement with sex. Composed between 400 BCE and 200 CE, the Kama Sutra is elevated to the level of classical Sanskrit literature, one of the primary treasure troves of India.
The boldness and originality of the text lies in the name itself. ‘Kama’ refers to one of the essential human duties according to Hindu tradition, meaning ‘desire’. ‘Sutra’ refers to a binding thread, and the text acts as a binder of desire to guide or instruct the reader through the ‘essential’ duty. Western conception of the text limits to reading it only as a ‘sex manual’. However, bearing in mind the focus on Indian spirituality, Kama Sutra embodies the best of both worlds. It is a manual that instructs sex positions for a fulfilling sexual relationship with one’s partner, but it also subsequently values the relational ethic between a wife and a husband. More so, it talks of sex within a marital relationship, keeping in line with the Indian moral code.
The uniqueness of the Kamasutra was brought onto the Indian screen in a 2013 film titled Kamasutra 3D directed by Rupesh Paul. At Cannes 2013, the film was screened for the delegates. It was nominated at the 86th Academy Awards of 2013 for Best Motion Picture. The fact that Kamasutra could achieve critical acclaim when given an opportunity speaks volumes about the ignorance given to it by the public. Perhaps we don’t know its value because we’ve never given it a chance to show itself. Just like Western European officials, we’ve made ourselves believe that there’s nothing valuable about Indian literature and that the elite works belong to those who are at the front line of progress.
Our classical heroes like those of the Mahabharata never match to Achilles. The latter is far fairer, glamorous and attractive. Yet, a great deal of complexity is attached to the former that helps in understanding the true value of it. A clear parallel in a contemporary audience is also visible. We like reading and watching erotica. But we like reading only Western erotica. And this culture machinery is not dependent on the worth of the work, but an ideological underlining that is often politically motivated. Populism gropes in consumers, however good or bad it might be. It’s time to rethink our choices, our perspective, and the belief systems we live in.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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