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Less Bard, more Batman, Mahabharata & Dalit studies — 10-yr makeover of English Literature at DU

DU faced flak in August for removing stories by Dalit writers. However, its English Department says the course has changed over the years to become more inclusive. 

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New Delhi: The English Literature course at Delhi University (DU) hit the headlines in August after the institution’s oversight committee removed stories by two Dalit writers, Bama Faustina Soosairaj and Sukirtharani, and one by author-activist Mahasweta Devi, from the third-year syllabus.

The committee, according to DU sources, cited gruesome, sexual content and portrayal of the Indian Army in a poor light as reasons for the removal. 

The National Democratic Teachers’ Front (NDTF), a Right-wing teachers organisation, backed the committee’s decision but also asked for a complete review of the English Literature syllabus so that any “similar demeaning” references are removed. 

At the same time, 130 English teachers at the university condemned the “arbitrary” modification and asked for a General Body Meeting to be held to discuss this removal.

This, however, is not the first time a decision by the oversight committee has sparked a row. In 2019, the NDTF had asked the committee to remove “a story on the 2002 Gujarat riots, a paper on the Indian caste system and mention of Hindu scripture in a paper on homosexuality”. 

The demand caused a stir. 

But despite the controversies and rumblings, Delhi University has over the last decade, witnessed several changes in the pattern of teaching and the syllabus for English Literature.

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Tracking the syllabus change 

The English Literature syllabus was revised in 2011 when the semester system was introduced in DU. The previously taught nine papers of the course were divided into 19 papers to be taught over six semesters. 

The English literature course again underwent a review in 2015 when a credit-based marking system was introduced in the university. Exams were now to be conducted every six months at the end of a semester instead of the previously held annual exams.  

The choice-based credit system was introduced by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 2015. The change was met by student and teacher protests, which eventually faded.

The English Department reviewed the course again between 2017 and 2019. Professors claim to have spent 1,000 hours reworking the course to make it more inclusive of world classics.

Changes in syllabus 

ThePrint compared the syllabus of the subject from 2001 to that in 2019, when it was last revised. 

The syllabus of undergraduate studies in DU’s English Literature course has undergone a complete overhaul in the last decade and authorities say the changes were incorporated to make the syllabus more “inclusive”.

The changes in the English Honours syllabus were mainly introduced in the 2015 review when new papers like Indian Classical Literature, American Literature and chapters from the Bible and Mahabharata were added to the course. 

The course now has 16 core papers and four electives. The core papers include an introduction to literary studies, papers on British literature right from the medieval times to the 20th century, and a paper on modern European drama. The paper on European literature remained as it is, barring a few changes. Previously optional papers on women’s writing and post-colonial literature are now part of the core syllabus.

After the changes in 2017-19, new additions to the core syllabus include Indian writing in English, interrogating queerness, literature for children and young adults, literature of diaspora, Modern Indian writing in English translation.

Other additions include optional subjects such as African literature, Latin American literature, literature and cinema, literature and disability, Partition literature, and pre-colonial Indian literature. 

Parts of the Bible — ‘The Book of Job’, selections from ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ — have been made a part of the syllabus under European classical literature.

At the same time, texts from Vyasa’s Mahabharata have been introduced as part of Indian classical literature.

In addition to this, a Sanskrit play, Mrichchhakatika of Sudraka, and several texts from Tamil Sangam poetry have been added. Another addition is Chandravati’s Ramayana, a look at the Indian religious text from a woman’s perspective.

Professor Debraj Mukherjee, an English professor at Ramjas College for about 30 years, said the current literature syllabus is inclusive and born out of the research and hard work of the English Department. 

“From reading about what can be called the Oxford, Cambridge literature, we have expanded the course content to… what can be called as inclusive world literature. It now has texts from African, American and contemporary Indian and international literature,” he added. 

With increased texts from Dalit writers and others from marginalised communities, the undertone of the English literature course has become more political in nature. However, the previously taught courses of Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, postmodernism have disappeared as individual papers, and have texts that have these theories as the underlying theme. 

Commenting on the “inclusiveness” of the syllabus, Dr Raj Kumar, head of the English Department in Delhi University, said, “When we talk about English literature, we often talk about British literature but, over the years, we have seen institutes across the world include diverse literatures in this. Earlier, there were no topics like Dalit literature, disability studies or papers on queers, we wanted to give them a chance to be part of our literature courses. We have removed some British literature but we haven’t entirely dismissed such texts completely.”

“With the coming in of such texts we are not only understanding the new voices but their culture and social capital as well,” he added.

Speaking on religious texts being added to the literature course, Kumar said, “Religion has always been a part of literature. The question here is whether religion can be read as a part of literary representation. I don’t see it only as religious texts but as a part of literary articulation since we cannot divide religion from our life.”

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Classics removed to make way for Indian writers

In order to make way for these Indian and other “marginalised” texts, several English classic literature texts have been removed. The course previously had William Shakespeare’s writings, including Othello, As you Like it, Antony and Cleopatra and some of his sonnets. His writings have now been reduced to only Macbeth and Without Much Ado. Some of his sonnets are also part of the syllabus.  

A DU professor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “Some meaningful papers were done away with to accommodate these new papers. Although the new syllabus is inclusive in nature, it is important that more India-focused texts should have been retained. To be called English literature, certain British English texts have been retained but very important Indian writings have been left out.”

Texts by Charlotte Bronte, Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola, Margaret Mitchell, and Gayatri Spivak, among many others, have been given a miss. 

The more interesting readings that have been added include Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in the Graphic Narratives course, Salman Rushdie’s The Prophet’s Hair in the Indian Writings paper, and Sappho’s Hymn to Aphrodite in the paper Interrogating Queerness. 

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

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