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South Asian literature: The locus of ‘our civilizational unity’

  • Published at 09:43 pm March 3rd, 2018
  • Last updated at 04:29 pm March 7th, 2018
South Asian literature: The locus of ‘our civilizational unity’
Bangla Academy organized an International Literary Conference as part of the Amar Ekushey Book Fair with renowned writers, poets and researchers from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Columbia taking part in several panels. The two-day conference attracted a decent gathering of literary enthusiasts and bibliophiles, with this year’s theme being “South Asian Literature Now.” The conference, focusing on contemporary South Asian literature, opened at Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharod auditorium of the Academy on January 22. Director General of Bangla Academy Shamsuzzaman Khan delivered the welcome speech while eminent scholar and translator Fakrul Alam presented the keynote speech. Noted translator from India Radha Chakrabarty also addressed the session which was presided over by noted Nazrul researcher Rafiqul Islam. Shamsuzzaman Khan said, “We are organizing the two-day International Literary Conference to project literary works of South Asian countries on the world stage ... This two-day conference will be an excellent platform for the participants to share their literary works, which will enrich literature of different languages of South Asian countries.” Presenting his paper, Fakrul Alam said, “ ‘South Asia’ as a label came to be applied in a sustained fashion only in the last couple of decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps the main reason for this label getting a lot of currency at this time was the Cold War when some American scholars, influenced by the tendency to work in niche areas of academic research, constructed the category of ‘South Asian Studies.’ It is pertinent to remember here too that the seventies and the eighties were decades when there was a substantial increase in the number of scholars from our part of the world studying in the West … Subsequently, the process called globalization, and the emergence of a wave of diasporic writers from the subcontinent in the west, spearheaded by Salman Rushdie and his spectacularly successful novel Midnight’s Children, consolidated South Asian Studies in the west and encouraged scholars of the subcontinent to do work in an area that they could now truly call their own.” Shedding light on how writers from South Asia defied colonial rule, Prof Rafiqul Islam observed, “The spirit of freedom that guided the South Asian writers to free them up from colonial rule also helped them explore new forms and mediums of literature, and make a distinct mark in world literature.” In the second phase of the first day, Indian writer Aruna Chakrabarty and Bangladeshi writer Firdous Azim exchanged their views on contemporary Asian fiction in a riveting conversation. From 2.30pm on the day, another panel discussed aspects of South Asian fiction wherein Rifat Munim presented the keynote speech, highlighting how South Asian fiction writers “have defied geographical boundaries as manipulated by politicians,” and also how Bangladesh’s birth “becomes an integral story to many tales coming from writers of India and Pakistan.” Eminent scholar and fiction writer Syed Manzoorul Islam, and distinguished translator and essayist Khaliquzzaman Elias discussed many aspects of the vernacular literatures produced in South Asia with a special focus on Bengali literature. Referring to Salman Rushdie’s statement that vernacular literatures are not as good as South Asian English fiction, both of them criticized the writer of Midnight’s Children for making such an unfounded and arbitrary comment. Sinhalese scholar J B Disanayake and Colombian fiction writer Andres Mauricio Munoz contributed to the discussion by talking about their respective literatures. A discussion on South Asian theatre was held at the end of the first day with President of International Theatre Institute Ramendu Majumdar presenting the keynote speech. Distinguished theatre academic Shafi Ahmed, cultural personality and theatre activist Nasiruddin Yusuf Bachchu, and Indian theatre connoisseur Anshuman Bhoumick also discussed many aspects of theatre in the session. On the second day, the discussion focused on South Asian poetry and translation. Eminent poet, translator and essayist Kaiser Haq delivered the keynote speech while Nepalese poet and playwright Abhi Subedi, famous poet Md Nurul Huda, distinguished writer and translator Sonia Nishat Amin and Dhaka Lit Fest Director and poet Sadaf Saaz reflected on Haq’s speech. Talking about South Asian poetry, Haq said, “Use of the term ‘South Asia’ in relation to our cultural activities deserves careful analysis. After the political partition of our subcontinent, ‘South Asia’ may be seen as a convenient label for our civilizational unity.” Reflecting on Haq’s speech, Amin said, “As the keynote speaker pointed out, our literary forms and contents have evolved and changed, making our poetic tradition rich. There should be in this process a dialogue and continuity so that we can turn time and again to our great poets such as Shakti Chattopadhyay or Syed Shamsul Haq while we enjoy new forms.” In another panel focused on translation of South Asian literature, distinguished essayist and bilingual translator Abdus Selim presented the keynote speech while translators GH Habib, Rashid Askari and Fayeza Hasanat discussed different aspects of the essay. Good translations of South Asian writers writing in vernacular languages, Selim said, are few and far between. If they are translated at all the translations are done from English as opposed to original Bangla, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil or Malaylam. Selim urged greater cooperation between the South Asian countries so that more quality translations are  done from the original languages. The curtain fell on the conference with a session on the late Bangladeshi fiction writer Shawkat Ali, which saw noted writers Abu Hena Mostofa Enam, Farzana Siddiqa and Tarek Reza, among others, reflecting on Ali’s fiction. It was presided over by Syed Monzoorul Islam.