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The Modernity of Sanskrit by Simona Sawhney ably makes the argument for an ethically vigilant, politically active, and intellectually timely criticism. Sawhney describes the crisis as she sees it, proposes a counter-challenge, and then proceeds to demonstrate how this post-Babri Masjid critical practice (to use her own point of departure) could be realised. She reads Kalidasa’s Śākuntalam and Meghadūtam, the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyana and the Gītā in and of themselves, and also through 20th century writers in Hindi and Bengali, like Dharamvir Bharati, Mohan Rakesh, Hazariprasad Dwivedi, Rabindranath Tagore, Buddhadeb Bose, Jaishankar Prasad and Mohandas Gandhi (Gandhi is the odd man out in this group of litterateurs, but more on that later). When we read this book we realise with a shock that lately in the humanities, the pressure of theory and the hegemony of history, not to mention the political economy of translation have basically crowded out literary criticism altogether. We cannot really remember the last time we encountered, in English, a close, careful reading of any Indian text, ancient or modern, where the textual object was not subjected to translation, philological reconstruction, historical analysis or theoretical treatment. Not that these operations are not valid in themselves, but none of them does what literary criticism does, which, as Sawhney reminds us, is to read the text. She brings the neglected critical idiom and the old-fashioned practice of criticism back to the table, judging our favourite texts in terms of categories like poetry, justice, violence, compassion, beauty and law, and revisiting a certain kind of value-based scholarship that we had set aside for the last two decades.


First published in Economic & Political Weekly on September 19, 2009:



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