Laetitia Zecchini, « How do we stop being somebody else’s image ? : the struggle for cultural freedom and the poetics and politics of modernism in Cold War Bombay" » The Forms of Ideology and the Ideology of Form : Local Debates, Internationalisms, and Print Cultures between Decolonisation and the Cold War

Intervenant : Laetitia Zecchini

Programme : The Impact of non-governmental writers’ organisations on free expression

SOAS, University of London "Postcolonial Print Cultures Network"
21 Russel Square, London

“How do we stop being somebody else’s image ?” : the struggle for cultural freedom and the poetics and politics of modernism in Cold War Bombay

This paper presents itself like a follow-up of my presentation at the workshop in Newcastle last year (“What filters through the curtain : Reconsidering Indian modernisms, little magazines and travelling literatures in a Cold War Context”), in which I discussed how Indian literatures were changed by the worldliness, the travelling literatures, the “new conversations” (Quinn) made possible by the Cold War ; and tried to re-examine modernisms in India through a perspective I had previously overlooked, ie. the politics and economics of literary circulation. I would like to concentrate here on the struggle for cultural, literary and critical independence which certain spaces (like the journal Quest) and writers represented or embodied in the 50s and 60s, and focus on two figures : Nissim Ezekiel, who although recognized as a canonical figure of Indian poetry in English is paradoxically often dismissed, and his critical / editorial work largely neglected, and J. S. Saxena, a writer and Jodhpur University professor whom Mehrotra regarded as one of his “heroes” but who died in the 70s a totally forgotten figure.

Ezekiel’s whole quest has been to foster a “critical spirit”, to carve a non-conformist, pluralist space mindful of “little truths” and “many voices” : “Again and again, that question : to be free. What did it mean ?” he asked at the turn of independence. His question resonates with an article Saxena published in Quest : “How do we stop being somebody else’s image ?” in which he articulated the poignant need for an “alternative” - beyond images of Europe, Roosevelt’s America, Stalinist Russia - ; an alternative which he found in the “pure logic of refusal” produced by “real” blues, whose practitioners represent a “permanent reserve of misfits” condemned to “perpetual minority”. His essay articulates three of my concerns here : the question of mimetism (how do we stop writing and thinking like…) ; the question of form ; and the question of minor modes and minor cosmopolitanisms. The struggle over the political and aesthetic implications of “freedom” which is a defining feature of the cultural Cold War was also a struggle over the meanings of modernism and of the avant-garde, and a struggle over form (art or literature that is ‘formalist’, individualist or autonomous, vs. art that is ‘progressive’, realist and demotic). Refusing to be straightjacketed by ideology, by the state or state-supported institutions, by foreign patrons, or models imported from elsewhere, Saxena and Ezekiel, along with later writers of the 70s, struggled to clear a space and a voice for themselves, and to define in their own terms what modernism, freedom and the avant-garde meant to them. “we are men, breathing. and we breathe for ourselves. not for the ‘age we live in’” (Mehrotra, damn you 6).

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