Perhaps the best-known recent attempt of sustained creative writing instruction in India is the series of workshops run by the University of East Anglia in India since 2013, popularly known as the UEA-India workshops. They are organised by Amit Chaudhuri, who is a Professor of Contemporary Literature at UEA, where he teaches every autumn semester. As part of the initiative of the UEA’s presence in India, Chaudhuri conducts a eight-day creative writing workshop, usually taught by Chaudhuri and one guest writer – a list which has included Adam Foulds, Ian Jack, Anjali Joseph, and Kirsty Gunn, among others.
These are conducted once, and sometimes two times, a year, and admit students on a competitive basis, based on their writing sample, personal statements, and letters of recommendation. Over ten of these workshops have been conducted so far, and their alumni now includes several published authors, editors, and journalists. They are, in fact, currently considered to be the most prominent route for new Indian writers to get published on visible professional platforms.
Beginning 2020, the UEA-India workshops have moved to Ashoka University, where Chaudhuri is now Professor of Creative Writing, teaching a course every spring. Now renamed the Ashoka-UEA Creative Writing Workshops, this programme is possibly the most recognised university-initiated creative-writing programme in India that is also open to a wider community – in this instance, to anyone from any part of the world who is able to meet its admission requirements.
It is perhaps not coincidental that one of the earliest university-run, degree-granting creative writing programmes in India has been instituted at Ashoka, a university that seeks to adapt the American model of liberal arts education to the Indian landscape.
A minor, not a major
Even at Ashoka University, where we established a BA Minor in Creative Writing (later to include an interdisciplinary BA in English and Creative Writing and an M.A. in English with a Creative Writing Track), this happened almost as something of an accidental afterthought. But the founders of Ashoka University were sensitive to the pedagogic need for writing instruction – if only of the academic kind – and it was in connection to this need that the founding faculty included Aruni Kashyap, a bilingual writer and translator, in Assamese and English (who later left to join the creative writing faculty at the University of Georgia).
After a semester as a visiting professor, I joined the faculty on a permanent basis. Along with the two of us, there was Janice Pariat, another fiction writer, at that time a preceptor in writing for the Young India Fellowship (a one-year postgraduate diploma programme in liberal arts), later to join the Creative Writing faculty. The three of us put together the plan of a BA Minor in Creative Writing.
I love the idea of Creative Writing as an undergraduate minor, but I have to say that don’t think it should be a major. I’ve seen American institutions with a BFA in Creative Writing, and it always struck me as a bit of a fluff major. It’s rather like a young person, a teenager, deciding that they want to be a full-time writer, to the exclusion of everything else early on in life. What are you going to write about if you don’t have a life outside of writing? Making writing the degree of your prime focus in college is rather like that.
I’d much rather see students study literature, economics, biology, computers, history, any full-blown academic subject, and bring a real world to their fiction or poetry, rather than commit to the navel-gazing of an already-professionalising writer. If there is a time for such navel-gazing – and there will be, as what is writing without egoism? – it comes later in life, when the writer has gathered enough of the world along the path of life and study.
Like the rest of the programme at Ashoka, we had to live with the irony of a programme in English-language writing in a country with a wide range of indigenous vernaculars. But English always ends up being the bridge language amidst the challenging diversity, at least for the bourgeoisie. Still, two things need to be noted here.
The vernacular life of English
First, the vernacular life of English. I’ve always imagined this to be the life-force of our Creative Writing Department. Our inspiration does not come merely from MFA programmes in the US – our English writing derives much life from the speech, dialect, and literature of the local vernaculars, often carrying their shadow in the syntax. Whether it is Assamese, Bengali, or Khasi, as with the founding faculty, or Hindi, Gujarati, Kashmiri or Urdu – as through synergy with the English department, which, to all intents and purposes, is really a department of comparative literature.
When we were asked to select an external reviewer, we chose noted Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag (later to join as a visiting professor), who has only recently arrived in English-language spotlight through the English translation of his remarkable novella, Ghachar Ghochar. The medium of work in this programme was English, but our spirit was spread across the multiple indigenous vernaculars of India.
The vernacular life of English took a deeper hold on our department when we made translation part of the programme and began to accept works of translation as accepted theses. The Bangla-English translator Arunava Sinha joined the faculty as an associate professor of practice, and Rita Kothari, professor of English and well-known translator of Gujarati literature into English, was available close by.
The second issue takes us right back to the question of critical awareness of creative practice. Creative writing programmes thrive across the US, and so does their bitter animosity with departments of literature, often housed in the same building. A range of forces (the deconstructive and cultural studies turn in literature departments key among them) have created a vast gulf between the so called “scholars” and “practitioners” – the English and the Creative Writing professoriate, leading to the creation of much hostility between them.
The poet-critics of the New Critical generation seemed light years away in this world, where the creative practice and scholarly thought about literature seemed locked in mutual war, or at best, indifference. I experienced this firsthand during my own American MFA: the glorification of a certain minimalist tradition in fiction inherited from Ernest Hemingway via Raymond Carver seemed to go with a natural suspicion of anything that remotely looked or sounded like intellectualism. There were exceptions to this, but on the whole, this was the general pattern of the mutual relations between departments of literature and creative writing in the US.
It became clear from the beginning that this was a conflict we would be able to avoid at Ashoka. My arrival as the chair of the department of Creative Writing also coincided with my appointment as a professor with a joint appointment – in English & Creative Writing, and I think the credit for the mutual affinity between the two departments goes to, well...both of them. What we have at Ashoka is what one might call a public-facing English department, where all the senior faculty, with significant publications of academic scholarships, have more recently turned to publishing trade or crossover books, alongside articles in the mainstream media.
Apart from Rita Kothari, whom I have already mentioned, this includes Jonathan Gil Harris’ work on iterations of Shakespeare in Indian popular films, and Madhavi Menon’s work on gender and sexuality. Most members of the Creative Writing Department have, along with their publications in poetry, fiction and personal or narrative nonfiction, a significant record of publications in criticism, which range from academic scholarship to editorial and curatorial work, and more personal essays on their craft or the literary landscape around.
Sumana Roy, who joined the department in 2019, was already one of the most visible critical and curatorial voices in the Indian-English literary landscape through her essays, reviews, and editorial work when she published her first full-length book, How I Became a Tree, a work of nonfiction on plant life, an intriguing mix of the personal and the scholarly, in 2017.
Subsequently, she has published a novel, a collection of short stories, and a book of poems, and she continues to be one of the most influential reviewers and essayists on contemporary Indian writing through her regular work in magazines and newspapers. Her critical and curatorial work is one of the most serious that we have in contemporary Anglophone India, in charting a writerly awareness of a literary tradition that makes the modern Indian writer.
Amit Chaudhuri, established as a leading writer in multiple genres – poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism, joined the department in 2020, making this awareness central to the department. Apart from his critically acclaimed novels, Chaudhuri is the author of a book on deconstruction and the poetry of DH Lawrence, and a wide range of essays on literature, art, and music, several of them collected into volumes. Chaudhuri is also the editor of an important anthology, The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, which includes a couple of his key essays in the introduction, and offers valuable literary-historical insights in the biographical sketches he writes before each selection.
Taken together, Chaudhuri has been a sharp voice of polemic, not just through his own fiction but also through his criticism, of certain dominant global traditions of writing that have ranged from a fetishisation of the spectacular public sphere of history to disguised forms of what he has called “market activism”, to counter which, he has initiated a series of symposiums titled “Literary Activism,” now hosted at Ashoka University.
I, too, have been happy at this intersection of the “Creative and the Critical,” to borrow the title of the course Chaudhuri teaches at Ashoka. Apart from my novels, my academic work has dealt with English as a language of world literature and the question of criticism as a public form caught between the amateur and the professional, something that my mainstream media articles returns to visit in various ways. Janice Pariat, the author of novels, novellas, and short stories, also writes newspaper columns on literature and art history, a field in which she has academic training; accordingly, she also holds a partial appointment in the department of visual arts.
Arunava Sinha, though best known for his translations from Bangla, having published more than 50 books of English translations from the language, also performs an important curatorial function through his role as the consulting editor for literature for this very venue, Scroll.in. Altogether, this is a department which often sees the work of the intellectual as inseparable from that of the artistic, and occasionally, vice versa. Criticism, I feel, is just another genre of literary writing – the way prose, poetry and drama make up different genres. I don’t know if my colleagues would be in agreement – but I like to hope that they are.
Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird (2015) and The Scent of God (2019).