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A critic is a creative person

By February 6, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu

One must not compromise in what one wants to convey, says literary critic T.P. Ashok who will be conferred the Dr. GSS Award on February 7



Two things are most striking in a conversation with T.P. Ashok. Everything — even something as commonplace as drinking a cup of coffee — turns into a fascinating story full of details. Two, unfailingly, this story will be woven with a story from the literary world. It could be about a writer or of a book or of books in which there is reference to drinking a cup of coffee. In short, TPA carries a literary aura with him. He can repeat a story any number of times with undiminished joy, and with all his readings packed into it: each of these tellings is done with the seriousness of a performance. He therefore is the quintessence of the twin worlds he occupies — a teacher, and a literary critic. With 19 published works of literary criticism, 15 edited works and three translations, TPA is not merely a critic who has written about the Kannada literature world, he in fact, is the story teller of the Kannada ‘story’ itself. The proof of his passion lies not just in the manner in which he speaks or in what he writes, he has conducted over 400 workshops in colleges across the length and breadth of Karnataka. Recipient of the Central Sahitya Akademi award, Masti Award, VM Inamdar Award and several others, TPA will be conferred with the Dr. GSS Award on February 7.

Excerpts of an interview with the critic:

It is rare that someone decides to become a literary critic. How were you led into literary criticism?

I come from a family of book lovers. My mother and her siblings had no means to buy books, they borrowed from circulating libraries. At least three members of the family would finish reading a book within 24 hours! Next day, they would return it and borrow a new book. Interesting discussions would follow each reading. My father was a Hindi teacher in a high school, in a small town called T. Narasipur, in Mysore district. His knowledge of the English language was exemplary.

Soon after my M.A. I was offered a part time job in Rural College, Kanakapura, in August 1978. Venugopala Soraba, poet, critic and novelist, was the head of the department. During one of our evening walks I talked enthusiastically on P. Lankesh’s new novel Mussanjeya Katha Prasanga. Soraba was impressed and asked me to write what I had said. My first article in literary criticism was born this way. Soraba was so happy that he himself sent my article to the journalSankramana , also paying the postal expenses. I was soon recognized as a critic and was invited to a seminar to present a paper on Chandrashekhara Kambar’sKarimaayi. When Dr G S Shivarudrappa edited a volume of literary critical essays published in 1979 for Karnataka Sahitya Academy he generously included two articles of mine. Dr. H. S. Venkatesha Murthy had just then taken charge of editorship of the journal of Kannada Sahitya Parishat. He invited me to contribute articles. Impressed by my interventions in a literary seminar, B. V. Vaikuntaraju, editor of the Sunday magazine of a leading Kannada daily, invited me to write book reviews which I did for the next 15 years. All these developments established me as a literary critic in 1979, 40 years ago. I just flowed into it, it was hardly a conscious decision.

You are an English professor, but your area of work and research is Kannada. In a sense, you belong to this great tradition of Kannada writers who were English teachers. Can you please explain this unique phenomenon?

Yes, I humbly submit that I belong to that tradition. Kannada is my mother tongue and my primary interest is Kannada language and literature. Matthew Arnold says that a student of literature should be familiar with at least two more literatures, one his own and another which is different from his. I was familiar with Kannada, Hindi and English literatures. In a way world literature too. The kind of training I got during my university days helped me practice literary criticism in a serious way. In my linguistic community, I knew who my readers would be and I was keen to interact with them. Therefore Kannada was my natural choice. My familiarity with other literatures and languages only expanded my repertoire, strengthened and broadened my perspective. English, therefore, I feel is a window to the world, whereas Kannada is the world itself.

There was this great English tradition with critics like Leavis, Mathew Arnold, Frye and others who changed the way we read-understood a text. There was also a great Kannada tradition with Kirthinath Kurthukoti, DVG, V. Sitaramaiah, M.G. Krishnamurthy, G.H. Naik, Subbanna and others. I’m sure they had an impact on you. Did you see yourself as part of this tradition, what kind of definitive influence did these people make on your reading of literature?

I have read and benefited by a number of critics. F. R. Leavis taught me the importance of concentrating on the words printed on the page in front of me. He also taught how to go behind and beyond those words. Sartre’s analysis of Camus’ Outsider , George Lucacks’ seminal work “The ideology of modernism” were also early influences. U.R. Ananthamurthy taught me how to master a text. He taught many texts to us in the class room including Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina , Albert Camus’ The Plague , Kafka’s The Trial . This helped me when I approached Kannada classics. He taught us how to be unbiased in our readings, and connect it to larger questions of culture and politics. Dr. D. R. Nagaraj taught me how to appreciate writers who present world views that we disagree with. I am also benefited by my interactions with two sensitive Kannada writers who were self-taught, S. Diwakar and G. Rajashekhar.

For me, literary criticism is a way of sharing my literary and life experience with my readers. I invite them to be fellow travelers in my journey. I share my joy, wonder, understanding and excitement with them. What matters to me the most is a healthy communication with my readers. Therefore, I do not discriminate between informal chats, formal lectures, column writings or seminar papers. The nature of communication may differ from context to context. But the urge to communicate with my fellow beings is at the root of all my writings. That is why I attempt to minimize the use of technical jargon and employ simple words and syntax to communicate with my readers. One must not compromise in what one wants to convey, must not trivialise the complexities and subtleties of literary experience: one should only invent new skills of effective communication. This is my earnest belief.

I keep literary and critical theories at some distance for the same reason. Critics should be aware of their own and other literary critical traditions and practices. One may start with a frame, but life and literary experiences are beyond such fixed frames. One should be able to either expand the frame or go beyond it. I am opposed to apply any theory to a work of art, for, it means that you want to read a text only in a particular way, and exclude other equally valid readings. A text then becomes a pretext to support an argument.

A literary critic — the best of them — can never be just a critic. There will, more often than not, be a creative dimension to him. He could be a teacher, a poet, a playwright etc. In my mind are people like DVG, Sha Balurao, etc.

I believe that literary criticism is also a literary form. It is closer to the essay form. A critic presents his literary experience before his readers. And in doing so, he will also be presenting his attitude towards life. As poetry, fiction and drama respond to their time and space, literary criticism does the same in its own way. I am basically a teacher. I believe that teaching is a creative activity. I have been reflecting, practising and experimenting with different skills and strategies to communicate with my students and readers effectively and meaningfully. The present university system has serious limitations. I have been trying to improve and satisfy my creative urge in the short term appreciation courses that I have been conducting with the generous support of senior writers and friends. In a way, my critical writing is a by-product of this.

One often hears how writers are at loggerheads with critics. Does it say something about the literary climate of today?

I notice that most contemporary writers have limited themselves to poetry and short stories. I have hardly come across significant playwrights, novelists and critics in the younger generation. Kuvempu, Samsa, Karnad, Kambar had written their best plays when they were below 30 years of age. Kuvempu, Karanth, Ananthamurthy had written their best novels when they were around 30. In my own generation D. R. Nagaraj, H. S. Raghavendra Rao, Narahalli Balasubrahmanya and a host of others had published their collections of critical essays when they were below 30. As far as literary criticism is concerned there is a popular saying: To be a critic inspiration is not sufficient, perspiration is also necessary. It requires not only insights but also scholarship. Instant reaction or response is not sufficient. I do not know if the present generation — a large part of it — has any time and patience for deep, silent reflections. The quantum of poetry and short stories is mind boggling. But where are the new critics who make sense of this mass production?

Every time you set out to write, what are your fears and challenges?

I get nervous. When I approach new works I would be risking my findings and interpretations. When I approach classics the challenge is to avoid repetitions. Unless I come out with a new reading and interpretation I get dissatisfied. Past success and recognitions do not come to your aid. The biggest challenge is to appreciate a work with which you may have serious moral or political differences.

What does the GSS award mean to you?

GSS award means a lot to me. An award which bears the name of GSS is a great honour. He was one of those who recognized me as a critic. He used to treat writers much younger to him as equals. When I published my first book on Shivarama Karanth, Karanthara Kadambarigalalli Gandu Hennu, he said that he would have straightaway awarded a Ph.D. degree for that work if only the university rules would permit him. GSS is always a pleasant memory for me. I always respect him for his experiments in poetry and criticism, his liberal views, organizing skills and compassion.

(The Dr. GSS Award ceremony is on February 7, Kannada Sahitya Parishat, Bangalore, 5 p.m. )

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