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LITERATURE, MEDIA, AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION
V. V. B. Rama Rao, Ph.D.
1. DEMOCRATIZATION OF INDIAN LITERATURE IN POST-INDEPENDENCE ERA
Once basically an elitist occupation and preoccupation, a luxury and pastime of the privileged, literature now has come to be a general pursuit, attracting interest, provoking debate and discussion, thanks to the speedy democratization of literature in the post-independence scenario.
Writers have a flair for observation and analysis besides powers of creative expression with their own imaginative talent. They help people in this new situation to appreciate points of view, form opinions, and come to conclusions. Thus, writers began playing their role more effectively as shapers of public opinion and contributors to form, reinforcing and establishing tastes.
2. EXPANDING HORIZONS OF LITERARY CREATIVITY
The horizons of literary creativity are ever expanding, taking into their portrayal the ever widening human aspirations and ever deepening tribulations. Literary self-expression has become an 'elemental' passion. Post-independence exuberance, huge outlays of Five Years Plans, rapid industrialization, and manifold growth of business led to the rich as also the middle-classes to have surplus leisure and surplus funds.
This is evidenced in the growing demand for TVs, and the gaining circulation of periodicals in the print media. Production of consumer goods and consumer-durables has scaled new heights. Media is coming in handy for causing an advertising explosion. People's tastes and demands began to be plentifully catered to. With media aid, literature is claiming more and more popular and mass attention.
3. THE FOURTH ESTATE STILL HESITATES
The Fourth estate has to still further espouse the cause of literature more significantly, and project creative talent more liberally in this new millennium.
The Press yearns to be free but Editors are usually in chains. Policies of newspapers and journals too are determined by the management and not always by the Editors themselves; Market forces get more weight. The newspaper-managements want circulation figures and profits to go up. Given editorial freedom, it is practical to expect free allocation of space to literature. Some dailies do not think it even necessary to carry literary items.
4. THE CONCERNS OF MEDIA
The concerns of media, electronic or print, are many in the context of the fast development in various fields of human activity. Media is a purveyor of information and dissemination of knowledge essentially topical. It plays a vital role in keeping people informed with the latest happenings. All the people's concerns are media concerns, political, economic, social, popular and cultural. As such media has been playing a role in contributing to literature. What is more, it has begun influencing literary activity.
Literature nowadays is a product for people of all classes, not elitist alone. There may be writers who aver that the writing is done for personal self-satisfaction and sometimes as a therapy. As such it becomes a concern of the media. Print media has a distinctive quality that the message put across has existence, relevance and value outside the immediate.
Now even seriously called the Fourth estate, it has emerged as an empowered sector, as important as the creative endeavour itself. Few literary artifacts can do without some kind of aid from print media, before or after publication, in the present day context. We know the press is capable of making or marring reputations though ideally it is both a promoter of writing and the provider of an appetizer for reading.
5. THE CURRENT CONCERNS OF MEDIA
Current concerns are important when we live in troubled times. The spirit of the times is permeated with thoughtlessness and an author's job is to provoke, promote and motivate thinking with the fond hope of leading readers into new vistas of light and understanding, of charity, tolerance and compassion.
The current concerns of our media relate to social justice and condition of certain classes of individuals, which are too striking to brook neglect. Establishment of an egalitarian society by enriching the content of the present democratic set up has received great attention in our literary works. They are used as devices for social transformation.
6. LITERATURE NOW
There has been an exploration for new forms of expression in the genre, in the lexical, stylistic and even grammatical modes. Most of the writing has been intended for persuasion or proselytizing, even in creative writing. There has been an extension of the very purpose of literature.
Ancient Lakshana grandhas and prosodic canons have been given the go by. Literature has come to be a tool, a device, and a powerful engine. Newer and newer ways of expression have been put to harness by individual writers deliberately. Among the genres, the most popular have come to be fiction (short and long), biography and travelogue all with themes relating to social change. Even novellas and novelettes ceased to be mere romances by packing powerful messages for social uplift, women's emancipation and constant and sometimes aggressive striving towards real social and economic equality.
7. TRANSFORMING SOCIETY, CHANGING LIVES
Writing has always been undertaken with a view to bringing about a change in how so ever small a quantity or with whatever degree of intensity, or, for conveying a bit of information or disseminating knowledge. Then, writing is always against a background, political, economic, social etc., a context, and produced at a point of time. The reader goes to writing for a variety of purposes, some times for sheer pleasure of getting into the writer's imagination, the point of view, the philosophy of life, a possible message and so on.
The writer today has his target reader clearly in his mind. The writer in the present day context is a product of his own times, his own upbringing, equipment and exposure. His ultimate message could be just personal or imaginative, or a plea to attract attention to his cause, point of view etc., to provoke readers to exercise their minds to modify their individual attitudes.
To some extent, a social purpose, an intention to bring about some kind of social change has been there in many writers. Of these, some have importance historically for the enduring effect of their work during their own times and even much later. From the writings of the 20th Century, we can easily isolate the powerful strains of social reform and social reconstruction and transformation. After 1947, the focus is on social equality, elimination of exploitation of all kinds, gender - equality, economic independence and so on. The thrust is on enlightening our people, for the nation to emerge as powerful in the comity of nations.
8. THE ANDHRA SCENE
Telugu has several magazines published as weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies or even annual numbers. There are publications with women as their target readership. These carry short and long fiction and some poetry too: Vanita, Vanita Jyoti, for example. There are children's magazines, which carry short stories and poems besides extremely inspiring information for children and the young to shape their own character. Chandamama, Bala Mitra, Bala Jyoti, for example. There are specialized literary magazines too. Bharati was a literary cultural monthly always in the forefront. Though very good and extremely prestigious, it had to face closure after half a century's existence. It was a sister publication along with Andhra Patrika Daily and weekly founded by the doyen of Telugu letters, Viswadata Kasinadhuni Nageswara Rao. Andhra Prabha, Andhra Bhoomi, Andhra Jyoti, and several other dailies have literary pages.
The more prominent of the weeklies today are Andhra Jyoti, Swati, Andhra Bhoomi, to name some. Among the monthlies the prominent ones are Misimi, Moosi, and Praja Sahiti. The last two named came up only a few years ago but have become established ones, largely owing to their thrust on literary fare.
Most of these publish poems, criticism, reviews and literary interviews. Some carry serialized long fiction also. There are several small magazines, which have come up not only from the capital, Hyderabad, but also from several district capital cities. The Registrar of Newspapers of India permits these to utilize postal concessions but not many of them appear to be using it with the result that not all periodicals are listed in the RNI yearbook.
9. NOVEL AND POETRY, AND OTHER GENRES
During the 60's of the last century and later till the eighties roughly, novel was very popular with scores of women writing long fiction very competently. The boom in serialized novels in periodicals caused a boom in novel publication also. But today short fiction is the 'in thing.' Poetry is being favoured extensively by the small periodicals for it takes shorter space and then the circulation, though limited to a few regions, makes the publication viable.
Poetry lovers are poets too in very large numbers in Telugu. When I had to go through Telugu free verse published during the eleven years between 1985 and 1995 (a self-imposed task), I came across no less than two hundred and more poets, men and women. I have a feeling that the media promoted Feminist and Dalit poetry in the recent years. But for periodicals encouraging them very meaningfully, so many poets and writers could not have come to see light or become prominent. This is no adverse comment on the value or the quality of performance of these writers. To get prominent anybody has to appear in publication first/
Short story, novel, literary pen portrait, literary interview and correspondence from readers are all included in the Dailies' literary pages or in the weeklies. While the part of the novel, or the poem is before the reader, making it possible for him to form an impression for himself, in literary assessments and reviews, the reader has to depend in the first instance entirely on the essayist or the reviewer of a book.
10. LITERARY CRITICISM AND LITERARY EVALUATION
A literary text or a book has to necessarily have a set of criteria for evaluation (Review is evaluation), which may be a kind of measurement testing, calibration or judgment.
Literary texts are expressions of subjective thinking, analysis or argument to a very large extent Objectivity and fair play to the extent possible should be the guidelines for the application of known tenets drawn from known and/or established theories, literary categories etc.
Even a theory can be set up for the first time if the basic principles and methodology therein are hinted at before its being applied to a literary text. Without a final adherence to a basic frame of reference, critical practice tends to become arbitrary, subjective and loaded with value judgments attributable to prejudice.
The mention of the specific system of measurement gives units significance, whether avoirdupois (personal weight in content and form, etc.), metric or local and indigenous. Generalizations are not always mathematical certainties. Blanket and sweeping statements almost always generate more heat than light. The reviewer may have to find himself in indefensible position if elastic tapes and loaded scales are used in measurement.
The reviewer knows his clientele more closely than the novelist/poet/writer does his readers. The writer's reach is far wider than that of the reviewer though sometimes it is literary critics and/or academics who bring to light the writer's work and its "greatness." Some from the newspaper 'staffers,' on their own, make high grades by dint of their own merit.
Newspapers, like makers of many a mass-produced products for public consumption, have to bear in mind reader preferences acknowledging consumer sovereignty. But, in the matter of selecting books for reviewing, it is heartening to note that the prestigious papers review only 'solid' works. The 'interview' does not give the interviewer, much scope for free wheeling, as the review does. There is a fair opportunity for the reviewer to make insightful predictions, or posit acceptable generalizations. What is more, the review has an already established format. Today's reviewers may be tomorrow's literary critics now in the making, if they are not already that.
11. IMPLICATIONS FOR WRITERS AND THE MEDIA DEALING WITH LITERATURE
The most powerful, and hence very significant part the media plays is through reviews and comments. While basically introducing new titles to readers, sometimes reviews make very sensational reading sparking discussions and igniting controversies. With the readership now considerably enlarged and knowledgeable and literature savvy, especially in the regional languages, the reading public getting interested in writers as well as f their writing demand the judgment of the reviewer to be impartial and objective. Reviewers need to be balanced and impersonal which they sometimes are not. Writers too should be confident of the acceptability, quality and content of their work before rushing into print.
12. LITERARY PAGES IN NEWSPAPERS
Litterateurs are not always media savvy. Experts in the print media need not necessarily be literary critics. In the current practice of media coverage of literature, reviews and assessments of individual works, or the total body of a writer's work, this is evident.
In many newspapers, especially in Telugu, literary pages do not seem to be competently handled to project the achievement, or point out the loopholes in writing.
The whole problem lies here: what the reviewer says goes into print and the less discerning take the printed word as gospel truth. The writer when hurt, and unjustly too, has no way of hitting back or, at least, defend himself. From the reviewer's side, the task is sometimes self-imposed, for, it is usually never paid or paid well, if at all is paid something. For nothing, writers are sometimes damaged by harsh, inept and hasty pronouncements made by novices who have no real idea of what their 'averments' (or, sometimes, unintentionally damaging statements) are capable of doing.
Specialists are not easily available even for big papers. Regional papers and literary periodicals with limited circulation on which writers have to depend find it difficult to get really competent hands to handle literary pages. New entrants into the profession, with no solid base of literary understanding, yield to temptation to play to the gallery, or to make sweeping statements.
Judging a text with a sense of superiority, starting with the assumption that the reviewer knows the art of writing more than the writer, are some of the pitfalls of inexperienced reviewing. The playing field, if reviewing is taken as one, has to be ensured being level.
13. HUMANISTIC VERSUS ARTISTIC CONCERNS
The current concerns are more humanitarian than artistic. Ways are devised to eradicate evil practices like child labour, sexual discrimination, to augment facilities for the care of the old and the handicapped, the visually handicapped and under privileged sections of society. The forms of expression relate as much to the genres opted for by the individual writer, the particular concern in the discourse he is at work on as well as his mood and his tone and attitude towards the reader.
In almost all genres, new forms of expression are used as part of an experiment: Magic Realism and Critical Realism in fiction, new poetic forms like Haiku and Free Verse in poetry, to name a prominent few.
While appreciating the need for the current social concerns, which have been receiving the attention of authors in all genres, I take this opportunity to place a couple of points for consideration for your consideration.
We have concentrated all our attention on immediate utilitarian goals. Literature down the ages has been catering to satisfying the imaginative exploitations of an enduring nature also: for example, the urge to know about the nature and goal of human existence, the relation between Man and God, the physical and the abstract, and so on. In other words, an other-worldliness needs to permeate new writing where aesthetic enjoyment for its own sake is the goal.
14. MANIFOLD PURPOSES OF LITERATURE
Literature has several purposes other than being an instrument for social change. Litterateurs of the distant past have kept in their mind far-reaching and sustainable goals: to enlighten and ennoble, to impart spiritual and universal human values to help their fellow men order lives in laudable ways.
Here I come to the ennobling spiritual values of far reaching significance. I am bothered by the persistent thought that we seem to be spending all our energies on things immediate without spending even a fraction of them on the enduring, everlasting aesthetic values.
There is a feeling that literature faces now the threat of fragmentation with various sections of society voicing forth their own grievances about rampant social injustice. This may not be the case with literature in other languages.
The present tendency in Telugu writing appears to be more sectarian and caste-oriented thus becoming more and more narrow and parochial. I don't suggest that social values are not important. Political Freedom had been of paramount importance till we won it. Aspirations take time to be realized. Resorting to vociferous and vicious attacks does not strictly belong to the domain of literature for all time.
Our readers know how to distinguish the 'book of the hour' from the 'book for all time'. Though we are rightly worried about social and economic equality, it is time to look back again and go beyond immediate saamjikaspruha, social awareness, to a more lasting, soothing, inspiring, abstract artistic awareness.
Writing that does not promote harmony cannot lay any claim to belong to the domain of sublime literature. Literary excellence should contain the element of universality and evidence a capacity to satisfy higher yearnings too.
Rasaanubhava of a higher order, which enlivens, leavens and liberates us from the earthy and immediate, should also be among our present concerns. To provide this kind of writing a special set of skills, insights and an understanding of human existence in terms of the spiritual plane, solid inputs in terms of intuitive-imaginative efforts are necessary.
Democratization of literature is fully achieved, thanks to the current political set up. It is time we as a brotherhood of authors turned our attention to the more enduring and, for that reason, more valuable concerns like aestheticism and spirituality. By dealing with artistic concerns constantly trying to fashion few forms of expression in writing, we can hope to contribute our mite to real happiness and joy, insightful understanding, more thoughtful compassion and wisdom by making life rich and meaningful.
One effective way could be to re-evaluate the classics with a large and open mind and reinterpret them in fresh creative works. The young, the uninitiated and newly educated classes should be given helpful exegeses of our time-tested achievements of literary excellence in the light of our aesthetic categories to enable them to draw inspiration and attempt writing with deeper nuances. This is by no means an easy task.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the National Seminar on
The Role of Periodicals in Indian Renaissance and National Integration
- Pre and Post Independence Scenario held in Hyderabad on 20th and 21st of February 2004, on the occasion of the Platinum Jubilee of TRIVENI.
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