This lecture reflects on the challenges and opportunities offered by the literary archive for scholars of Indian poetry in English. It considers how the archive enriches our understanding of poetry and the context in which it was written, and suggests the close relationship between historical, materialist research on the one hand, and close reading and formal literary analysis, on the other.
In his recent introduction to an anthology of poetry, fiction and non-fiction by Adil Jussawalla, Vivek Narayanan noted that Jussawalla and his contemporary poets have long occupied a marginal position at home and abroad; their work is often out of print, and critical essays on their writing have not been widely read – so much so that their poetry is ‘half-myth, half-forgotten, circulating as wrapping for peanuts’ (xiii). In this context, the role of the archive is especially important, not only in providing scholars with access to texts – including forms of ephemera that might otherwise have been lost - but also in acting as a place in which the reader might encounter the work of a poet for the first time.
However, there are many practical challenges involved in undertaking archival research in India, where libraries and institutions struggle with funding, humidity, and a changing social and intellectual environment. As my own research in Delhi, Madurai and Bombay has shown, the preservation of material can be highly contingent, dependent on chance and the commitment of a few individuals. The situation is very different at archives like Cornell’s – which has recently acquired the collections of two Indian poets. Here, access is straightforward, the material is kept in optimum conditions, and the researcher is guided by a catalogue and inventory.
Both kinds of archives, however, compel a certain kind of scholarly self-reflexivity, and it is this, I argue, that lends them such value. They prompt the researcher to ask questions about the politics of selection and validation, and to consider material that might be missing; they foreground the historical and material context of poetry; and they reveal the archive to be an open and intrinsically worldly space.
Dr. Emma Bird is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. Her current project traces the material context of poetry publishing in English in Bombay from the 1950s until the present, focusing in particular on the city’s little magazines and small press publishers, and the local and transnational networks they were part of. Her previous doctoral work analysed the poetry of Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Gieve Patel, and reflected on the representation of the city in modern Indian poetry. Wider research interests include cultural representations of Bombay, the postcolonial archive, and postcolonial aesthetics and poetics.
University of Warwick, UK (English and Comparative Literary Studies)
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