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Modernist Poetics: A Study in Lakshmi Purana Lipipuspa Nayak

it is both inevitable and distressing that we discuss the trends in our literature by standards in Western Criticism. Inevitable because we find the colonial mindset too deeply ingrained to see anything worth discussing by our pre-colonial literary and aesthetic traditions. Distressing because, it is time we fought this unfortunate syndrome as there is no dearth of material in our own socio-cultural and epistemological systems which can be used as yardsticks for evaluating our cultural and literary products. For example we have an entire treatise Dhwanyaloka (by Anandavardhana, 8th C) to take care of the structural and semantic nuances of our works of arts. Or for that matter Natyashastra by Bharata (2nd C).

But since I deduce, that the audience here would like my opinion on post-Modernism as the subject is being circulated in the literary discourses and canons across the globe, it behoves me to clarify a few points on the same. This means, I will first define what post-Modernism means. Most of the definitions that I provide here are elementary and from the Western critics. But before that we must understand what ‘Modernism’ is. Peter Barry in Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (1995) defines ‘Modernism’ to be the ‘name given to the movement which dominated the arts and culture of the first half of the twentieth century. The phenomenon was, as the critics put it, ‘pan-technical, spanning the fields of music, painting, sculpture, and of course literature. ‘Modernism’ also was a pan-European upheaval, including French, German, Spanish and English artistes and writers, and the literary masters were Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Rilke and Valery.

M.H. Abrahams defines the features of Modernism, ‘The specific features signified by ‘modernism’ involves a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases not only of Western art, but of Western culture in general’ (A Glossary of Literary Terms 167). For example, in the domain of literature, the most significant move was the disruption of the linear, chronological narrative, which had been the norm in story telling for ages. Instead, a discontinuous, spatial narrative was introduced. Thus modernist poetics for the most part stressed ‘innovation’; as Ezra Pound would say: ‘New, Make it New’.

It is relevant to distinguish between modernism and modernity. A critic clarifies, that if modernism is an artistic or cultural phenomenon, modernity is more concerned with the structures of social organization and knowledge. Foucault argues, modernity is more of an ‘attitude’ and an ‘ethos’ rather than designating a period of time or history. He defines, ‘Modernity is often characterized in terms of consciousness of the discontinuity of time: a break with tradition, a feeling of novelty, of vertigo in the face of the passing moment’ (Postmodernism: A Reader 100-1).

Postmodernism, initially founded in architecture, migrated beyond to designate simultaneously an aesthetic style and a cultural situation in the field of literature. The phenomenon soon focused on epistemology, on thehow and (not what) of our knowledge. Among other definitions, Stuart Sim, in his introduction to theRoutledge Companion to Postmodernism, argues that postmodern philosophy courts a gesture of skepticism (as in Derridean deconstruction), an anti-foundational bias (as in postcolonial theories) and a dislike for authority (as in feminism which is against patriarchy). Thus postmodernism is an umbrella term which covers literary theories and practices like post-Structuralism, Deconstruction and even post-Colonialism and Feminism.

Jean-Francoise provides another useful insight in the subject. He defines that postmodernism nurtures an ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’. Because, ‘meta-’ or ‘grand’ narratives are totalizing in nature, which covertly ‘smother difference, opposition and plurality’ in the name of universality and unity. For example, he terms the Marxist version of the liberation of humankind through class struggle as the ‘grand narrative of emancipation’. Lyotard instead argues for ‘mini-narratives’ which would be ‘provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative and which provides a basis for the actions of specific groups in particular local circumstances’. This contextualizes meaning and knowledge-claims.

In fact the major strength of post-modernity is that it has critiqued and severely undermined meta-narratives and promoted mini-narratives, thus promoting heterogeneity and pluralism, especially the voice of the ‘other’. Nash writes, ‘By assailing foundational thinking it has eased the way for the dismantling of class, national and gender chauvinism and ethnic bigotry, has tended to erode some traditional socio-economic hierarchies and encouraged multicultural tastes and values to flourish.

In the final analysis, the post-modernist worldview admits fragmentation, heterogeneity and plurality within the context of race, gender, class and caste. It is in this sense that there is a definite connection between postmodernism and feminism. Because, feminism questions authority and dismantles gender chauvinism and is an ideal instance of a mini-narrative. It revises socio-economic hierarchies and values.

Now let me conclude this part with the interesting question is: is Post-modernism the end of modernism? No. Post-Modernism does not signify any decisive rupture with modernity, rather it is a critique of modernity. According to critics, the postmodern is an avant-garde force within the upheavals of modernity that challenges and disrupts its ideas and categories, and makes possible the appearance of new ways of thinking and acting that resist those modern themes of progress and innovation. However, there are area of overlapping and contrast between the two.

Both modernism and postmodernism stress ‘fragmentation’. But the way they look at it is sharply different. The modernist features it in such a way as to register a deep nostalgia for an earlier age when faith was full and authority intact. The postmodernist, by contrast, looks at fragmentation as an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of our escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief. In a word, the modernist laments fragmentation while the postmodernist celebrates it. The Wasteland is a fine example of fragmentation in modernist poetics.

Modernism and postmodernism differ in their tone and attitude towards literary products. Barry points out, that modernism patronizes a certain cultural elitism and is suspicious of all things popular. It distinguishes between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ art, where as post-modernism rejects this distinction and believes in gaudiness, and mixtures of qualities. The postmodern ‘new sensibility’ rejects the cultural elitism of modernism, and associates it with the elitism of class society. The response of the postmodern new sensibility to modernism’s canonization was a re-evaluation of the popular culture.
Another crucial contrast between modernism and postmodernism is the manner in which they categorize various genres and forms. While modernism was rigid on not mixing up literary genres, postmodernism believed in collapsing these rigid boundaries between different ‘forms’ of works of arts.

II

In light of the above discussion, I am sure, Lakshmi Purana (Balaram Das, 16th C) can be appreciated as a text with a postmodernist sensibility. In this text, Balaram Das, a rebel poet from the sea-coast holy town of Puri, sanctions some five hundred years back an independent mind to goddess Lakshmi, the consort of lord Jagannath at the Grand Temple there. As the title explains, the text is the story of goddess Lakshmi in simple narrative verses, in particular the delineation of her disturbed domesticity where she avenges her insult and hurt from her husband and his elder brother, lord Balaram.

Set in Puri, and the temple of lord Jagannath, the plot of the text spins around lord Jagannath and goddess Lakshmi. The goddess invites the wrath of her husband and brother-in-law, the other residents at the temple, as she obliges Shriya, a poor woman from the community of chandaals (at the time of composition of this text, the chandaals stood for people from low classes, who hunt and slaughter animals and scavenge carcasses) by stepping inside her immaculate hut. Ironically, her name (Shriya) means beauty, and she stands for cleanliness, perseverance and discipline and order in life. In the text she is the next major character after Lakshmi; in a way she represents the mortal manifestation of the goddess on earth and outweighs the men lords in terms of relative significance. Jagannath and Balaram are the custodians of the Great Temple. Lakshmi’s interface with Shriya is a threat to their sense of sanctity of the temple. This class-prejudice and arrogance of the lord brothers decide the fate of the goddess; in the eventuality of domination of patriarchal ego, she loses her battle. She decides to walk out, and the text thus trails the tale of her troubled household, her ridicule by her husband and brother-in-law and her consequent revenge at restoring dignity, not only to her wounded ego, but to humanity at large. She walks away, dignified in her confidence, and not without subjecting the men residents at the temple to a taste to her power. She spews a curse on them as she stalks out of the temple – they will starve for years till she, now a defiled woman as she has stepped inside a lowly woman’s house, serves them food.

And the curse comes through; the brothers go through a prolonged tortuous dark and dishonorable phase, of starvation and ostracism, till through several twists of irony they had to accept food from Lakshmi, an ‘untouchable’ woman. After all it is a woman’s revenge, effected in meticulous machinations, climaxes and catharses and complete with the show of her one-upmanship.

Even in this summary outline, the feminist preoccupation of the text cannot be overlooked. So my reference to this aspect of the text will be sparse, and I will focus on its postmodernist poetics.

The text stands against totalizing narratives, outside the more revered Sanskrit Puranas. It is independent of the tradition of Puranas, from the point of both aesthetics and literary tradition. And yet, this text has stood the test of time. It is a ‘local’ text, drawing on the myths and folklore of the Jagannath Temple of Puri, and has no correspondence in the Sanskrit Puranic tradition. As Lyotard would define it, the text is part of the mini-narratives that is ‘provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative and which provides a basis for the actions of specific groups in particular local circumstances’. In the post-modernist discourse, the text ‘subverts’ the concept of meta-narratives in the name of universality and unity.

Lakshmi Purana, crucially, mixes up various genres and forms. This is a postmodernist obsession. Let me put it more clearly – how do we categorize Lakshmi Purana? A long verse? A narrative? A fiction in verse? A verse play? As a text with a postmodernist fervor, Lakshmi Purana believes in collapsing the rigid boundaries among these forms. And let us not forget that the text will never never stake a claim to the status of a ‘modern’ text, which would believe in a rigid literary format. In Lakshmi Purana, therefore, there is this border crossing, transgressing boundaries between fields carefully delineated and segregated under the regime of the modernist works.

Further, the non-elitist standing of Lakshmi Purana by evading reasoning, confirms its postmodernist bearing. The text has survived popularly through centuries. It is recited in every household of Orissa in the lunar month of Margashira on all the four Thursdays. In most household, this text is recited throughout the year. In many households, this text is read aloud throughout the year, every Thursday. Yet, despite this popularity, has the text entered the academia – Pray! Is it ‘high’ art or ‘popular’ art? The modernists, in all probability, will dismiss the text as popular art and as for them, anything popular is suspect! The postmodern ‘new sensibility’, reevaluates the popular culture against the cultural elitism of modernism, and ascribes it a place amid a heterogeneous worldview. In this reevaluation, secondary or minor traits and presences in literature (arts) become major and central to our sensibility and understanding.

Lastly, let me come to the issue the text has been identified with – feminism. By casting two women as the prime characters of the plot, and pitting them against the Lords at the Great Temple, Balaram Das, the author leaves no room for skepticism about his feminist preoccupation. The arrogance of the Lord-brothers at the Great Temple is the arrogance of the male psyche outside any caste bias. It is in the role-reversal of lord Balaram, and not lord Jagannath, that this feminist concern attends its height and logical finish. As the elder brother, Lord Balaram is the guardian of the household of the institution of the joint-family structure of the Hindu society of ancient and present-day India. Yet with his flawed vanity, Balaram becomes the disintegrator of the same. Through the revenge of Goddess Lakshmi, his misery is highlighted more, in comparison with that of lord Jagannath, and the text thereby provides some comic relief and drives home the point of gender-equality more effectively.

By casting a woman from the lowest of the rungs of social class (and caste) as a major character, the author’s act of subversion is two-fold. The text promotes, besides feminism, heterogeneity and pluralism alternatives to the theory of universal and totalizing knowledge and worldview. The text in particular highlights the voice of the ‘other’, be it Goddess Lakshmi, the protagonist – a woman – or the socially doubly-distanced Shriya, the woman from the lowest caste. The text dismantles our ‘unitary’ notions of class, national and gender chauvinism, since every viewpoint is necessarily finite and conditioned by its place in the unfolding of history. The text reformulates traditional socio-economic hierarchies.

Balaram seats Shriya as an extension of Goddess Lakshmi. Shriya cleans the palace lanes, also of carcasses (and hence she is a chandaaluni). She is the mortal manifestation of the Goddess (Lakshmi) on earth. Her name is Shriya, an extension of Shri, a name of Goddess Lakshmi, and this name means beauty. Balaram blurs the hitherto carefully delineated boundaries between classes and hierarchies, which in itself is an act of subversion. This subversion comes a full circle when Shriya, a woman from the lowliest of social caste (class) stands for beauty, cleanliness, perseverance, discipline and order in life, and becomes a model for the women in society.

Again, the feminism of the text, holistic and bordering at places on the ludicrous may not get a nod from the radical feminists either. The codes for women, which the author sets for ideal house-keeping, are extreme at times, look frivolous and in contrast with empathy for the class. They look anti-feminist. Goddess Lakshmi has a dark side to her too; she can be the quintessential scheming woman. She is possessive of the wedding gifts given by her father, in particular, the ‘priceless four-poster’, and sees no wrong in torturing her husband and brother-in-law to solace her hurt. Conversely, her action is also her fight for ascendance in the hierarchy of male power structure.

Or, Perhaps Balaram has attempted to answer his social obligation as an artist. The text also stresses unity of family life, through empowerment of women. Since Shriya enjoys proximity with the Goddess, she asks for boons such as cows, sons and gold to maintain a good life. The feminists may object to her demand for ‘sons’; but the eco-feminists (‘Ecofeminism’, a term originally coined by Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974, symbolizes the synthesis of environmentalism and feminism; it agrees, basically, that the environment is a feminist issue and there are important connections among systems of domination – in other words, Eco-feminists argue that a relationship exists between the oppression of women and the degradation of nature) will surely appreciate that she wants ‘a billion auspicious cows’ as boons. The ‘gold’ part, of course, remains open-ended.

The cast of Shriya also juxtaposes the notion of vegetarianism in the text. Shriya belongs to a community who are probably hunters, deal with carcass and hence are meat-eaters – in contrast with the gods at the temple, who are vegetarian. She has been brought back to practices of agrarian activities, which demands cohabitation with ecology (through different eventualities such as presences of cow, lotus, environmental cleanliness…). The text carries an elaborate catalogue of exquisite Oriya cuisine of the exclusively vegetarian category. Vegetarianism against non-vegetarianism does not sponsor hunting and slaughter. This is an eco-feminist concept as far as the Western knowledge dialectics are concerned. At the same time, vegetarianism has always been a Hindu way of life.

The ideal codes for house-keeping for women in the text may point at a message to stay indoors. The author is probably directing his dissidence against the practice of mendicancy of Chaitanya Dev of Bengal. The author’s aversion to mendicancy and begging must have arisen from the fact that Chaitanya Dev was herding people out of their houses to roam the streets chanting god’s name deliriously and his troupe included women too. Interestingly, Pratap Rudra Dev, the king during the composition of this text, had also found asylum in religion and the text may also be a comical, tangential shoot off against a king who was falling apart. The text apparently advises the people of Orissa to revert back to economic activities (agriculture) instead of begging or mendicancy. The agricultural motifs in the worship of the goddess, the metaphor of rice, in its numerous mentions in the text validate this point. Rice continues to be the staple crop for Orissa, where farming remains the chief source of economic activity (this applies to rural India as well). And Lakshmi is associated with crops and food, for women invoke her on a mound of new grain and recite the song written on her. I personally believe that this text had a great influence on Orissa farmers, particularly, the women, in restoring themselves to the integrity of the family, instead of roaming in the streets in the name of an unseen god under the rule of a king who had, for all practical reasons, abdicated.

About Editor in chief

Ashok Palit has completed his graduation from Upendranath College Soro, Balasore and post graduation from Utkal University in Odia Language and literture.. He has also carved out a niche for himself as a scribe of eminence after joining the profession in 1988. He is also an independent media production professional. He brings loads of experience to Advanced Media, Ashok Palit as a cineaste has been active in film criticism for over three decades. As a film society activist, he soared to eminence for his profound commitment to the art film appreciation and aesthetics of cinema. His mode of discourse is often erudite but always lucid and comprehensible marked by a perfect acumen so rare in the field. A film aesthete with an immense fond of critical sensibilities, he wrote about growth and development of odia cinema in New Indian Express, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Asian Age and Screen. He has been working as an Editor for Cine Samaya from 2002-2004.. He had made solid contribution on cinema in many odia Dailies and weekly such as Samaj, Prajatantra, Dharatri, Samaya, Satabadi, and weekly Samaya.

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