Towards a Theory of Subaltern and Nationalist Genres: The Post-1857 Lakhnavi Tall Tales and Their Nationalist Appropriation in Premchand’s “The Chess Players” (1924)

  • Reena Dube
Part of the Language, Discourse, Society book series (LDS)


Modern studies of Indian nationalism make frequent reference to the literary-cultural genres of Indian nationalism as sources or texts, yet the implicit assumption made by these scholars of nationalism is that one can gain access to nationalist literatures without theorizing the literary-rhetorical conventions that govern each of the literary forms associated with nationalism. This is a serious drawback, given that Indian nationalism began as literature before it assumed the form of political theory. Cultural production pre-dates the political phase of Indian nationalism; nationalism emerges in the nineteenth century primarily as cultural-social movements and only later constitutes itself as anti-colonial political movements.1 While the tropes, mythologies and narrative structures of Indian nationalist historiography and political thought have received careful attention, the dominant tendency in the analysis of nationalist literatures is to treat the literary text as a historical document unmediated by genre conventions, a transparent vehicle of discourses and ideologies.2


Chess Player East India Company British Empire Colonial Discourse Colonial Domination 
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  1. 1.
    Social reformers like Rammohan Roy, Ishwarchand Vidyasagar, Dayanand Saraswati, B. G. Tilak and G. K. Gokhale gave primacy to the cultural struggle against empire in the debates about sati (widow self-immolation), widow remarriage, age of consent and the education of women. For an informed account of the transition from the cultural and social to the political movements and debates see Radha Kumar, The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India, 1800–1990 (1993) 7–52.Google Scholar
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    An example of this inattention to genre is Susie Tharu and K. Lalita’s assertion that women’s nationalist writings in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries “are best read as documents” and these texts “document the many faceted and often contradictory configuration of the nation-in-process even as they shape it.” Even though Tharu and Lalita make a token gesture to Indian women’s nationalist writings as imaginative constructs, their unmistakable suggestion is that nationalist literatures are historical documents which do not require careful attention to the literary–rhetorical features (“The Twentieth Century: Women Writing the Nation”, Women Writing in India, Vol. II: The Twentieth Century, ed. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita [1993]) 43–44. When genre analysis has been executed, there is a latent ethnocentrism in the notion that the dominant literary genres are First World in origin, for instance Timothy Brennan’s exclusive attention to First World literary forms like the novel in order to theorize the work of British Indian authors like Salman Rushdie, see “The National Longing for Form” in Homi K. Bhabha ed., Nation and Narration (1990) 49–56. In contrast see Shahid Amin’s Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922–1992 (1995) which provides a good example of the attention paid by postcolonial scholars to the historiographical narratives concerning an instance of subaltern pre-Independence resistance.Google Scholar
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    In this context see Carlo Coppola, “Premchand’s Address to the First Meeting of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association: Some Speculations”, Journal of South Asian Literature, op. cit., 21–39. There is also a tradition of Marxist literary criticism of Premchand’s text. In Hindi language criticism I specially recommend Manmath Nath Gupta, Premchand: Vyakti aur Sahityakar (1961).Google Scholar

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© Reena Dube 2005

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  • Reena Dube

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