A Two-day National Workshop on
Understanding the Cultural Context of English Literature
Teachers in India face a rather strange problem teaching English literature (by which we mean European English literature) to Indian students. It is a subject that requires students to understand human experience. Yet, it is an experience that is very far away from the Indian student’s and teacher’s world, not only in time and space but also in cultural terms.
When you read out the line “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” in a classroom, what do you expect your students to understand? If you refer to some secondary text, it is not difficult to find out that May was a summer month in Shakespeare’s time, as the calendar in use lagged behind what we use today by at least a fortnight. But then how does one convey what ‘summer’ means to them, as this line does, for example: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Shouldn’t summer fade soon, if it is going to bake you with the mercury rising above 35ﹾ or 40ﹾ c? Well, you know that you can show some youtube videos of summer in the UK and explain how pleasant the time is in comparison with the preceding winter or, what is called, the Indian Summer. Even though it is difficult for an Indian student to ‘experience’ how depressing the European winter is, it is not impossible to guess with some suitable images and videos. Probably, one can even go on a Europe tour and experience the seasons personally.
But when Shakespeare exclaims, “Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth”, do you understand why soul is called ‘poor’, or what he means by ‘my sinful earth’? Perhaps, some annotated text would explain that the latter refers to the human body. But why is the human body ‘sinful’? (How about contrasting this with what an Indian thinker like Shishunala Sharifa says: dehada gudi/the temple that body is?) What is ‘sin’ anyway? And, why doesn’t it affect the ‘poor soul’? The problem cannot be sidestepped by putting it off as a 16th century problem. Writing in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, William Wordsworth called duty the “Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!” How do you make sense of such a line? Why do you think ‘duty’ is called Daughter of the Voice of God? A bazar guide may well tell us that ‘Voice of God’ refers to ‘the soul within us’. But that is not sufficient to understand the conception of ‘duty’ and ‘law’ that makes it meaningful to link them to the so-called God. Do you see a move from the emphasis on ‘reason’ during Shakespeare’s time, to duty in Wordsworth’s time? This is what Blake tried to capture in his paintings! Here lie the elements that have gone on to shape many of our social sciences in the coming centuries: from economics to political science.
You may have heard people arguing that there is no one correct meaning and that we have the freedom to ‘interpret’ a piece of literature the way it suits us. Whether that is a valid (or fruitful) position to take or not, as a student of English literature you have to understand a text in its cultural context. It is important to figure out why “Ode to Duty” is considered one of William Wordsworth’s important poems.
Later in the 20th century, when D.H Lawrence was to exclaim the following, what do you think the matter of contention was? “As for my soul, I simply don’t and never did understand how I could ‘save’ it? One can save one’s pennies. But how can one save one’s soul? One can only live one’s soul. The business is to live, really alive. And this needs wonder.” Why do these European writers speak so much about religion? Is it important to understand their religion to understand their literature?
This workshop will explore some of these questions. The objective is to place an understanding of English literature very firmly within the context of an understanding of European culture and the way it has been shaped by Christianity.
Venue: SDM PG College, Ujire 574240, Karnataka
Dates: 4-5 February 2017
Our resource persons:
Mrs. Anne Cardinael (independent researcher, Belgium)
Dr. Polly Hazarika (formerly with SNDT University, Mumbai)
Dr. Sufiya Pathan (CIRHS)
Dr. Dunkin Jalki (CIRHS)
For registration and inquiries, write to firstname.lastname@example.org (phone: +91 97427 80020)
Registration fee: Rs. 400/person (which includes, lunch, tea, snacks and a participation certificate).
Accommodation can be arranged on prior notice at discounted rates.