The Indian Progressive Writers’ Manifesto as an Introduction to Anglophone World Literature

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Students in my “English 316K: Survey of World Literature” classes explore a variety of traditions in Anglophone literature, from Afro-Caribbean intellectualism, to Irish literary nationalism, to Indian social realism.  Although we also study works in translation, our focus is often on writers who make a deliberate choice to write and publish in English.  This allows us to tap into the rich history of English-language world literature as intimately tied to legacies and contexts of British imperialism.

On the first day of class, I distribute copies of the Manifesto of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association, published in the February 1936 issue of the London-based literary-political periodical The Left Review.

Left Review Cover

The Left Review won the dubious distinction of George Orwell’s disdain. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he complained of “the ‘proletarian’ cant from which we now suffer. Everyone knows, or ought to know by this time, how it runs:… bourgeois culture is bankrupt, bourgeois ‘values’ are despicable, and so on and so forth; if you want examples, see any number of the Left Review.” Orwell’s pithy criticisms notwithstanding, The Left Review did important work to distribute the work of Indian writers to a British readership.

The main research library at UT-Austin has a complete collection (in re-print form) of this periodical, which was published monthly between October 1934 and May 1938.  The Manifesto was first brought to my attention by Mia Carter, a faculty member of the English department here at UT-Austin.  Her recently published Modernism and Literature: An Introduction and Reader, co-edited with Alan Friedman, includes yet another foundational statement of the goals of social realism in Indian literature: Munshi Premchand’s “The Aim of Literature,” translated from the Hindustani and originally presented at the inaugural All-India Progressive Writers’ Conference in Lucknow, India, in 1936.  Like Premchand’s speech, the Progressive Writers’ Manifesto exhorts Indian writers to reject romanticism in favor of representing the material conditions of life in India.  According to the Manifesto, “the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence to-day–the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjection.”

Indian writers like Mulk Raj Anand, who drafted the Manifesto, hoped that social realist literature would contribute to ongoing movements in India to resist British imperialism on one hand and religious orthodoxy on the other.  Anand’s evocatively (or provocatively?) titled novels Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936) feature young protagonists marginalized by the Hindu caste system and British colonial economic policy, respectively.  In Untouchable, the socially ambitious Bakha repeatedly tries and fails to transcend his caste identity; in Coolie, Munoo, an intrepid itinerant laborer, works tirelessly to integrate himself into the colonial economy.  (You guessed it: neither story has a particularly happy ending.)  What would compel a writer like Anand to pen these novels in English?  And what does it mean that the Manifesto of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association was published in English in a London-based periodical?  Questions like these drive our discussion in E316K.

For a first-day discussion, the Manifesto does a great job of setting up the central question of the course: how has English-language literature historically been used as a tool of imperial assimilation and as a tool of anti-imperial resistance?  Before asking students to read this historic document for the points of context it supplies in a preliminary discussion of Anglophone world literature, I contextualize the Manifesto itself.  For example, I provide some background on Angaaray, the polemical collection of Urdu short stories that challenged both Islamic conservatism and British imperialism.

ANGAARAY long

The first English-language version of Angaaray, translated by Snehal Shingavi, is forthcoming this spring from Penguin Classics. (Image credit: Snehal Shingavi)

The collection was burned and banned upon it publication in 1932, and the controversy catalyzed the Indian progressive writers’ movement.  Sajjad Zaheer and Ahmed Ali, two of Angaaray‘s contributors, would emerge as influential figures in the movement.

To further contextualize the Progressive Writers’ Manifesto, I note the proliferation of international leftist conventions during the 1920s and 30s: the World Congress Against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism, associated with the Communist International (or Comintern), met in Brussels in 1927; in 1932, the World Congress Against Fascism and War was held in Amsterdam; 1935 saw both the International Conference of Writers in Paris and the formation of the Anti-Imperialist United Front, also affiliated with the Comintern; and the International Writers’ Association Congress was held in London in 1936 and Madrid in 1937.  Anand and other members of the Progressive Writers’ Association were in attendance at several such conventions.  (Incidentally, a talk Anand gave at the 1936 Conference of the International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture in London is reported in the July 1936 issue of The Left Review.)

I invite the students to spend about 10 minutes carefully observing the visual and textual details of the Manifesto as it appears in The Left Review.  Then, we have a conversation in response to this series of questions:

  • What strikes you about the graphic art of the cover of The Left Review?  What can you discern about the identity of the periodical based on the visuals and text you observe here?
  • What do you notice about the advertising that appears alongside the Manifesto?  What does it tell you about the identity of The Left Review?  How do the features and details of the advertising influence your reading or understanding of the Manifesto?
  • Let’s turn to the text of the Manifesto.  Where was it written?  How is it organized?  To what audience  or audiences is it addressed, and how can you tell?  Can you identify any underlying assumptions or premises in this document?  What social and political problems are identified in the Manifesto?  What general values emerge?  What strikes you about the specifics of the language?  What do you note about tone and patterns in phrasing?

The Manifesto is succinct and its style straightforward, so the document allows for an inclusive discussion on the first day of class–most students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and observations.  In addition to introducing students to the task of archival analysis, reading the Manifesto  together is a useful way to open up the semester’s conversation about the social and political implications of world Anglophone literature.  A month into the semester, the Manifesto remains a touchstone.  Whether we’re analyzing Indian poetry, Irish plays, or Trinidadian essays, we continually refer back to the issues and values laid out in the Manifesto.  As I secure permission from students, I look forward to sharing some of their fantastic insights in a piece I’m contributing to an ARIEL special section on “Global Pedagogy,” forthcoming in spring 2015.  Stay tuned!

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