A great hallmark of “Progressive” litterateurs was a wholesale rejection of what they labelled as “conservative,” “regressive,” and “old-fashioned” literature based merely on political theories and intellectual fads of the day. An inherent element of this rejection was contempt which in turn was rooted in personal anger and malice against what they regarded as tradition.
Thus, a definition for “conservative” literature was invented: any literary work that upheld the traditional values of society and took themes from say our Puranas, epics, and other sacred lore was essentially seen as reactionary and revivalist and kept the contemporary individual and society from a “natural flowering” and prevented the spread of “modernity.” This “conservative” literature was the main cause of the backwardness and superstition into which the Indian society of that time had fallen. Therefore, every work starting with Maharshi Valmiki’s Ramayana and Mahakavi Kalidasa’s sublime poetry became “dreamy,” and “unrealistic.” A generous dose of Marxist theory was also added to these dismissive adjectives. Apparently, this “reactionary” literature portrayed a “life still quivering under feudal-medieval mass and rusted debris.”
Yet, they failed to ask a simple question: why had this “conservative” literature endured for so many centuries? Why was it still on the lips of every unlettered villager and the Vidwan alike? Why was a straightforward story like the Ramayana still an immortal magnet that beckoned every mind and heart that throbbed with creativity? Why was the tale of Hiranyakashyipu and Prahlada still universally beloved?
The “Progressive” writers didn’t ask such questions because their ideology forbids the patience, tranquility and penance required for understanding the invaluableness at the heart of this sort of literature suffused with universal appeal and timeless endurance. They were also the products of extremely turbulent times in an India ravaged by centuries of Islamic despotism followed by ruthless colonial rule and exploitation. The exposure of a majority of these “Progressives” to Western education, their travels abroad and blind slavery to Marxism created a new toxic mass dripping with personal paranoia, drowned in half-baked ideas and immersed in deep insecurities which they then projected upon the society.
For a straightforward reason: the progenitors of the “Progressive” ideology were themselves disturbed people who saw only clashes, dissonance and turbulence in society. For all its other faults, the great value of tradition in India was that it kept society from disintegrating socially during peace time by imposing well-thought out restraints at the level of the individual and the family, the bedrock of society.
Thus, literature from being an unalloyed expression of universal values and emotions such as truth, beauty, and temperance, now became a tool to remake society itself from the scratch. For an extraordinarily insightful analysis of this phenomenon, read the magnificent essay, Society in Sanskrit Poetry: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff by Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh.
An early exponent of this breed of schizoid intellectuals cum reformers cum litterateurs was Jean Jacques Rosseau and the more notorious Jean Paul Sartre. Indeed, Sartre was the perverse granddaddy who birthed today’s woke nutcases. But that is a story for another day.
Indeed, it must take supreme megalomania for “Progressive” writers to say that they alone “committed their art to the betterment of society.” Here is another glaring sample by the “Progressive” writer, Prabhakar Machwe:
The greatest contribution of the progressive writers lay in bringing the novel nearer in focus to…life in its lurid and bawdy and stripped-off form; life without frills, embellishment or decorations; life still quivering under all feudal-medieval mass and rusted debris. The progressive fiction writer drew freely his idiom from the dialect and the spoken word as heard in the market place or sarai at the fair or in the factory, at places previously considered not worth visiting or below respectability in literary tradition.
Stripped off its high-sounding self-righteousness, what he means is this: literature was now a celebration of the base and the vile and the vulgar coated with the varnish of social reform, progress and modernity, all terms with questionable meanings.
If Lenin had perfected his understanding of one thing about society, it was this: group-activism is an extremely seductive mistress, and if she is dressed up in proper linguistic and ideological finery, she will attract suitors in droves. The success of the genocidal coup of 1917 in Russia was its greatest political proof. The seduction technique worked in India of the 1930s (and onwards) as well.
Much before they received official patronage from Nawab Nehru, the Indian Progressive Writers Association made impressive strides in recruiting writers of various hues and talents to their service. Their portrayal of the aforementioned social evils like dowry, “caste system,” exploitation, colonialism, rural impoverishment, prostitution, urban social discontent, the plight of women, superstition, and religious hegemony elicited enormous popularity. This recruitment was also enabled by pretending to be all things to all people.
Thus, the so-called Pragatisheela (Progressive) “movement” in Kannada literature found committed writers like A.N. Krishna Rao (A.Na.Kru) who was otherwise a decent novelist and essayist. Others in the list include T.R. Subba Rao (Ta.Ra.Su), Basavaraj Kattimani, Niranjana and Chaduranga. Niranjana’s work, Koneya Giraki for example, is quite morbid in its depiction of sex and cruelty bordering on obsession. In hindsight, the question remains: what exact purpose did all such “literature” serve? Were they—to borrow Wordsworth’s phrase—emotions recollected in tranquility? Have they become enduring? Hardly. Apart from some social and historical novels of A.Na.Kru and Ta.Ra.Su, majority of the works of these “Progressive” writers have been consigned to oblivion in less than forty years. Few people if anybody remember Basavaraj Kattimani and Chaduranga. Dr. S.L.Bhyrappa provides a highly learned assessment of the so-called Pragatisheela literature in his autobiography. In direct contrast, the literary predecessors of the Pragatisheela purveyors continue to endure. We have lost count of the number of reprints that DVG’s Mankutimmana Kagga and other masterpieces have received.
It can be reasonably argued that but for the Pragatisheela “movement,” its successor, the notorious Navya (New) “movement” wouldn’t have attained the success it did. The damage that Navya inflicted both upon the Kannada language and literature is truly incalculable. In one stroke, the Navya mafia erased the millennium-long classical Kannada literary tradition. Its originator was Gopala Krishna Adiga and its most infamous practitioners were U.R. Ananthamurthy, Poornachandra Tejaswi, P. Lankesh (for a while), Chandrashekhara Patil (Champa), Chandrashekhara Kambar and Girish Karnad. Unlike the Pragatisheela period, the Navya “movement” openly politicised literature with predictable consequences of factionalism and internecine quarrels.
Thankfully, Navya died before its practitioners died.
I have used the Kannada literary scene as a representative illustration for two reasons: one, because I am quite familiar with it, and two, to delineate a major consequence of the creation of linguistic states after Independence. The hardening of linguistic identities indeed played a huge part in the epidemic spread of “Progressive” literature. Marxists now spotted a fertile opportunity to peddle their agenda by regionalizing it.
Tamil Nadu presents an interesting case study in this regard. During his days as an upcoming political goon, “Periyar” and his “movement” had provided a blueprint by staging dramas and writing “literature” where Hindu Gods were put on trial and prosecuted for their “crimes.” In the pathbreaking Aavarana, Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa offers an extraordinary parody of this sort of dramas. While Communism made impressive inroads in the state, it didn’t fully succeed on the scale of say, West Bengal or Kerala or even Andhra Pradesh. The reason was simple: the tremendous success of the so-called Dravidian movement brainwashed people into embracing the original “Dravidianism” than the imported ideology of Communism.
Indeed, as we have seen in the previous parts of this series, P.C. Joshi’s founding vision for the capture of the artistic and literary space in India has not only paid rich dividends but largely retains its psychological dominance till date. His success in creating these cultural front organisations was noticed by the erstwhile USSR as well, which facilitated their symbiotic relationship with breaking-India outfits like Friends of the Soviet Union. Authors, poets, writers and litterateurs were regularly taken to Russia on lavishly sponsored junkets. Some of these artists and writers eventually became the cadre of the CPI.
There is an ironical postscript of sorts to the Indian Progressive Writers Association. After independence, some of the notable pioneers of the IPWA migrated to Pakistan. These names include Ahmed Ali, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Majnun Gorakhpuri, Sibte Hassan, Josh Malihabadi (a personal favourite of Nawab Nehru, who regularly attended his Mushairas), Sadat Hassan Manto, Muhammad Ali Siddiqui, M.D. Taseer (childhood friend of Allama Iqbal), and the granddaddy of the IPWA, Sajjad Zaheer. Ever since, their Hindu counterparts in India developed an incurable lust-by-proxy for Pakistan. But that is the subject of a separate investigation.
For those who wish to investigate the ugly legacy of these “Progressive” writers, here is a short list of the most notables categorized by language.
Munshi Premchand, Muhammad Ali Siddiqui, Mulk Raj Anand, Raghupati Sahai, Firaq, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sardar Jafri, Krishan Chandra, Hasan Mantoo Rajinder Singh Bedi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Ismat Chugatai, Upendra Nath Ashk, K.A. Abbas, Yashpal, Rangeya Raghava, Rahul Sankrityayan, Bhagavati Charan Varma, Bhagvati Prasad Vajpeyi, and Bhisham Sahni (brother of Balraj Sahni).
A.N. Krishna Rao (A.Na. Kru), R.V. Jahagirdar (pen name: Sriranga), Nadiger Krishnaraya, Basavaraj Kattimani, Niranjana, Chaduranga, Poorna Chandra Tejaswi (who later identified with Navya), Kumar Venkanna, V.K.Gokak, Gangadhar Chittal, Ramachandra Sharma, Kayyar Kiyyanna Rai, and Su.Ram. Yakkundi.
Mama Warerkar, Acharya Atre, Nana Jog, Anna Bhau Sathe, P.L. Deshpande,Vijay Tendulkar, P.V. Darvekar, and V.S. Khandekar.
Dr.Nareshchandra Sengupta, Bhabhani Bhattarcharya, Ajit Datta, Bimal Chandra Ghose, Bijon Bhattacharya, Mahasweta Devi (Bijon’s wife), and Buddhadeva Dasgupta.
Kesavadev, Thakazi Sivashankar Pillai, Vallathol, Ponkunnain Varki, and Mohammad Basheer.
Rayaprolu Subba Rao, Gurajada Appa Rao, Sri Sri, Pemmaraju, and Nagnamuni.
Kartar Singh Duggal, Amrita Pritam, Gurubux Singh, Ajit Kaur, and Balwant Gargi.
Mulk Raj Anand, Bhabani Bhattacharya, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Kamala Markandeya, Nissim Ezchikel, Pritish Nandy, Kamala Das, and Khushwant Singh.
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