Sahitya

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literature is not sahitya

daya dissanayake

We have corrupted the concept of Sahitya to mean just the novel, and on occasion the short story and the poem. Because we want to ape the west in everything, we grabbed at their word literature, and translated it as Sahitya, degrading the entire concept.

Sujata Sudhakar Mody traces the use of the term Sahitya for Literature to 1894 when Bengal Academy of Literature was changed to 'Bangiya Sahitya Parishad'. Mody quotes from Sheldon Pollock, that the term "Sahiya's history begins with Bhamaha's Sanskrit text Kavyalankara, from the seventh century, but then Sahitya did not refer to literature. The Sanskrit term, in its most basic sense, signifies an 'association,' 'connection,' 'society,' 'combination,' or 'union'."

In Hindi, the term Sahitya came to include "prose, verse, poetry, plays, novels, champu, history, biographies, satire, comedy, humor, human interest, ancient history, science, handicrafts, the arts, and as many other topics", wrote Shrinarayan Chaturvedi in Sarasvati journal (1961). However Shamsunar Das, even in 1901, used the term 'bhandar' instead of 'Sahitya' to mean 'gadya' and 'padya'. Das did not include poetry, novels and plays under Sahitya. But for writings in English he began to use the term Sahitya.

P. Sachidanandan in 'What is Sahit in Sahitya' gives us Sahit as the root word of Sahitya. Sahitya means "to be together; joining together various dharmas in one deed; participation of a large number of people on equal basis in one act; a kind of kavya." 'Kavya' has been proposed as a better term for literature

Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, when he was editor of Sarasvati carried a cartoon 'Sahitya samachar' (literary news). One cartoon (January 1904), shows three men, one of them, Marathi Sahitya is in search of his turban, English Sahitya is in search of his coat, and Bengali Sahitya for his scarf, watch and handkerchief. All three are complaining that the items are missing or stolen. In the next page the cartoon continues, with a fourth man, Hindi Sahitya, wearing the stolen turban, coat, scarf, handkerchief and watch. He says "...how quickly I have brought about my own progress! This is the science that I have learned at the great university in Paris!!!...The guardian of 'The Times' and 'The Globe' will pardon me and serve as my fortress."

This cartoon perhaps illustrates the fate of all 'Sahitya' in our countries, producing 'Shaitya Chori', or plagiarists.

In our country, the The Sahitya Mandala Act (No. 31 of 1958), also deals only with 'literature' and 'literary works' "including bibliographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias and other works of reference". We too have adapted the more recent idea of Sahitya as it is found in India. The Sahitya Akademi of India had been formed in 1954, "for the development of Indian letters...for literary dialogue, publication and promotion of literary activities in all Indian languages and English".

Literature in the west has come to mean only imaginative or fictional writing, which is just one river flowing into the ocean of Sahitya. Sachidanandan mentions a response by Mahasveta Devi, when someone asked about bringing Adivasis into the mainstream, "Are you asking me to bring the ocean into a canal?". That is what we are doing when we try to restrict Sahitya to a stream, serving only a limited group.

In the same manner that the flow of a river could be controlled, guided or restricted, diverted and even polluted, the Sahitya restricted to literature could be treated in the same manner. No one would ever be able to do it to the mighty ocean. Literature itself is on the decline, even in the west where it originated. Books have been coming out with titles like, 'The Death of Literature' (Melon Foundation, 1990), 'Literature Lost' (John Ellis 1997), to name only a few such books. In America the Century of the Book is considered as from 1850 to 1950. In 2004 a survey revealed that 43 percent of Americans polled had not read a book all year. In Sri Lanka we did not have a century of the book, but only a little over a half a century, because our reading would have started around early 20th century with the decline starting around the late sixties.

It is the critics and the academics who began to kill literature and now Sahitya, by imposing rules and regulations of how to write fiction, what a reader or a student of literature should look for in a novel or a poem. Today in the west, students are almost totally dependent on 'Cliff Notes' and 'Spark Notes' to appreciate a literary work, because they have been brainwashed to believe they need to be taught how to appreciate and enjoy a book.

That is why all the abuse of the modern Sahitya river, with guidelines, rules and regulations, sometimes even censorship has been happening over the past two centuries. The 'poetic license' that was really enjoyed by the ancient Sahityakara has been revoked by the businessmen.

Today we do not get real masterpieces, in any Shaitya form, as novels, epics, drama, paintings, music or sculpture, we only have bestsellers and record breaking films. We can only admire what has been created in the past. A few examples are the Samadhi Statue, Sihigiri paintings, and the Jataka stories.

The real decline in our ancient Sahitya, to new Sahitya with the interpretation of it as 'literature' probably would have begun with the commercialization and commodification of all art forms. Today we have forgotten or ignored what Sahitya really means. That is probably why we have to even introduce terms like 'Subhashitha Sahitya' or Sahitya for the well being of mankind, as against 'Durbhashitha Sahitya' commercialized art forms which are detrimental to our society. Even the crudest forms of pornography, and books dealing with all forms of unimaginable violence and hate speech which rouse hatred towards fellow human beings, are all classed under Sahitya.

Could we ever get back to real Sahitya?

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