International Conference on “Bakhtin in India : Exploring the Dialogic Potential in Self, Culture and History” 19 – 21 August 2013, at INFLIBNET Gandhinagar

Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics, along with the Forum on Contemporary Theory, and the Central University of Gujarat, jointly organized an International Conference titled “Bakhtin in India: Exploring the Dialogic Potential in Self, Culture and History” from 19th to 21st August 2013 at Gandhinagar with a vision to explore the relevance of Mikhail Bakhtin’s aesthetic ideas and philosophical concepts to Indian society and culture. The three-day conference was held in twelve parallel sessions with five plenary addresses and about fortyfive paper presentations.

Prof. Y.K. Alagh's Address

The conference commenced with a welcome address by Professor E.V. Ramakrishnan, Dean of the School of Language , Literature & Culture Studies at the Central University of Gujarat. He stated that the conference would open up spaces of dialogue between researchers working in different disciplines by pushing them to think through the implications of the ethical foundations of Bakhtin’s thought for the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Professor Ramakrishnan introduced Bakhtin as a theorist of language and culture, and a philosopher who cannot be easily classified within the established conventions of philosophy. Bakhtinian terms such as dialogue, dialogism, polyphony, heteroglossia, intertextuality, doublevoicedness, chronotope and carnival laughter may have become common currency in literary theory; Bakhtin himself is often seen as a Utopian thinker who glorifies radicalism, resistance and rejection. However, Professor Ramakrishnan stated that Bakhtin has raised fundamental questions about how humans relate to one another as social beings constituted by the forces of history and material conditions, and how they make sense of each other and participate in the social process of constructing meanings. Bakhtin knew that beyond the official languages of institutions, there are speech genres that enact the search for the human in creative acts of transgression. Professor Ramakrishnan observed that Bakhtin is the philosopher of the morally fragmented world we inhabit today and that outsidedness, alterity, humility, self-reflexivity, incompleteness, lack of closure are central to understanding Bakthin. He suggested that in order to understand Bakhtin’s relevance to Indian society and politics, one must read D.R. Nagaraj’s path-breaking study The Flaming Feet, which does not mention Bakhtin, but analyzes the encounter between Gandhi and Ambedkar in the 1930’s and how this encounter transformed them both. Professor Ramakrishnan also spoke about the plenitude of cultures in India that necessitates a dialogue and suggested that we need to trace how Indian thought has developed through dialogic interactions between the Sufi and Bhakti movements, between the folk and the classical, the Desi and the Margi, the subaltern and the elite, and the hermetic and the popular.

Professor Prafulla Kar, in his welcome address, spoke about the relevance of dialogue and dialogism in India and in today’s world, where technology tends to outstrip the human pace of communication and in the process erodes the scope for dialogues and critical discussions to take place inside and outside of forums such as those that this conference offered. Professor Kar also invited research students to participate in the conference in the spirit of dialoguing across disciplinary boundaries and creating a critically reflexive space. Citing the presence of so many researchers interested in Bakhtin at one forum as a unique opportunity, and one that befits the location of the conference in Gandhinagar, Professor Kar commended the Convener of the conference Professor Lakshmi Bandlamudi for her vision and commitment to organizing a Bakhtin conference in India .

Prof. Y. K. Alagh, the Chancellor of the Central University of Gujarat, in his inaugural address, departed from the sheer theoretical realm and discussed the local farmers’ struggles in Gujarat as an example of a dialogic space being opened up through a direct mode of resistance to a hegemonic economic regime. His address on the grassroots histories of Gujarat was followed by a thematic introduction by Professor Lakshmi Bandlamudi from LaGuardia Community College , City University of New York, who explained the relevance of Bakhtinian concepts to a globalized world, where individuals are being forced to negotiate differences through close encounters with other cultures. Professor Bandlamudi pointed out that though attempts have been made to use Bakhtin’s concepts in the study of literature and culture in India , this is the first time an entire conference was being devoted to the systematic exploration of Indian thought and culture from Bakhtin’s perspective. Pointing to the existence of both monologic and dialogic traditions in colonial and pre-colonial India, Professor Bandlamudi suggested that the conference will explore the main ideas from Bakhtin’s works such as architectonics, aesthetics, answerability, philosophy of act, ethical responsibility, dialogism in literary texts, cultural life and media (television, film, internet etc.), and in ancient and recent histories and the iconoclastic wisdom of carnival as they relate specifically to Indian ethos. The inaugural session was brought to an end by the concluding remarks of the Chair, Prof. R.K Kale, Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Gujarat who has been very supportive to the conference since its planning stage.

Keynote Address by Sunthar Visuvalingam

Professor Sunthar Visuvalingam, an independent consultant working to facilitate international collaborative research on intercultural issues, in his keynote address titled “Tradition, Transgression and Liberty” in the first session, spoke about his famous formulation of “transgressive sacrality” as a paradigm for comparative religion, by taking the ritual clown or vidusaka of the Sanskrit drama, the brahmanicide god Bhairava, and the tantric praxis of the 11th Hindu polymath Abhinavagupta as his starting points. Professor Visuvalingam’s address sought to explore the dialogic potential in the culture and thought of India in its medieval canonical and non-canonical traditions, and also pointed to what might be learnt about aesthetics as a category from a comparative study of Bakhtin and Abhinavagupta. 

In the post-lunch second session, presenters in two parallel sessions “Bakhtin: Postcolonialism/Postmodernism” and “Dialogue: Theory and Practice” explored Bakhtin’s relevance to understanding issues and phenomenon in contemporary culture such as the post-colonial self, media and hypertext. These thematic sessions were followed by a plenary address in the third session that was delivered by Professor Sura P. Rath from the University of North Texas , Dallas . Professor Rath examined the deployment of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque as a principle of rejuvenation in the main characters in the two Bollywood films, Salaam Bombay and Kahaani. Taking a cue from Bakhtin’s use of constitutive features of utterance for his analysis of the super-structure of language, Prof. Rath’s address “Carnivalesque (Non-)Closures in Salaam Bombay (1988) and Kahaani (2012)” showed a possible way to analyze the visual language of these films, in what can be termed as a kind of heteroglyphia instead of heteroglossia. Arguing that discourse analysis provides a window to the narrative texture of these films, Professor Rath focused on the inconclusive ending and the epistemic uncertainty of the protagonists’ experience, as they fade into a “funeral” or “festive” crowd in both the films, as a way in which the films invite participation from the audience. Day one of the conference concluded with two parallel sessions on “India: Politics of Dialogue” and “Bakhtin and the Politics of Marginality,” in which presenters interrogated the limits and uses of dialogism’s underlying ethical and political foundations in the context of Gandhian thought and 21st century Indian concerns such as answerability, perspectives of the marginalized, and religious fundamentalism.

On the second day, in the fifth session of the conference, Professor Craig Brandist, Director of Bakhtin Centre at the University of Sheffield, UK, in his plenary talk, provided the background for reading Bakhtin in the context of larger critiques of Indo-European philology and Orientalism in 20th Century Russia . In his lecture, “The Early Soviet Critique of Indo-European Philology and the Bakhtin Circle ,” Professor Brandist linked Bakhtin’s context in Russia to the work of Russian Orientalists, which questioned Eurocentric Indology. He discussed how Indian narratives were incorporated into a universal historical poetics that radically transformed the thinking about the history of literature. One interesting aspect brought out by his address was the centrality of Buddhist thought to Russian Orientalists. Professor Brandist also pointed to how the study of the novel by Bakhtin parallels certain developments in 1930s Russia associated with the work of the Bakhtin Circle , and how his theories negate the idea that there are primary families of languages, thereby ensuring that semantic paleontology was an antidote to Indo-European Orientalism. Finally, Professor Brandist suggested that some aspects of Bakhtin’s thought re-visit pre-communism as a source of critique of social hierarchies.

In the sixth session of the conference, there were two parallel sessions, one on “Dialogue in Indian Intellectual Traditions” which included presentations on dialogism in Classical Indian Philosophy and on the Indian Philosophy of Language, and another session on “Literary Genres: Possibilities and Challenges” where, in addition to presentations on the dialogism in the novel in India, there was also a presentation on the relevance of Bakhtinian thought to medieval Punjabi literature. Continuing this inquiry into Indian genres, the two parallel sessions of the seventh session, “Dialogue and Self” and “Polyphony in Indian Novels” saw interesting presentations on the ‘self’ in confessional writings, the potential of dialogic self-narration in Indian autobiographies, an attempt to read Bakhtinian poetics in an African Francophone context, and Bakhtinian readings of Tagore, Naipaul and Ghosh’s novels.

In her plenary address, “The Rule of Freedom: Rabelais, Bakhtin and Abhinavagupta,” that was delivered in the eighth session, Professor Elizabeth Chalier-Visuvalingam from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago stated that the principle of freedom or svatantrya, the central concern of Rabelais (1494-1563), Bakhtin (1895-1975), and Abhinavagupta (11th C.), is the best vantage point for understanding transgressive laughter. Discussing Rabelais’ importance to the carnivalesque in Renaissance literature, Professor Chalier-Visuvalingam argued that the post-Enlightenment intelligentsia had sought to minimize the ‘Rabelaisian’ by reducing its thrust to negative anti-clerical satire, or rebuking its capricious author wherever his excesses became too obvious. In an interesting reading of Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme, Professor Chalier-Visuvalingam analyzed the Bakhtinian carnivalesque at work in this text, despite the text’s dismissal both by the new elite classes of the Renaissance of its time and by Bakhtin himself. Notwithstanding their cultivation of an exclusive and superior literate world, as Professor Chalier-Visuvalingam points out, the elite classes of the Renaissance also participated fully in the age-old festivals parodying and profaning church rites. Professor Chalier-Visuvalingam here drew a comparison with the Indian philosopher, literary theorist and mystic, Abhinavagupta in whose worship of Bhairava are elements of the carnivalesque transgressions of popular festivals. Professor Chalier-Visuvalingam concluded that Bakhtin’s biased reading of Rabelais unleashed the revolutionary potential of freedom, especially in the globalized political realm.

The ninth session accommodated two divergent parallel sessions, “Bakhtinian Interpretations of Ramayana” that saw Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony used to analyze Ramayana in Assam, along with a discussion of women characters in Ramayana, and “Dialogism and Queerness,” which included presentations that used Kristeva’s concept of abjection to problematize Bakhtin’s dialogism in relation to lesbian subjectivities, and that used Bakhtin to examine the problematization of sexual discourse in Mahesh Dattani’s plays. Continuing with the idea of employing the Bakhtinian framework to raise questions about gender, the final session of the day featured two parallel sessions on “Gendered Voices in the Re-interpretation of the Mahabharata,” and “Gendered Chronotopes in the Indian Novel,” in which presenters came out with feminist re-readings of the epic of Mahabharata in Yajnaseni, and examined the dialogue between modernity and tradition, and text and memory in the novels Kalpana and Faultlines. These presentations highlighted the versatility of Bakhtinian analytical categories like speech types, dialogized heteroglossia and chronotopes, through their ability to generate critical readings of the self in diasporic fiction and colonial modern literature.

The third day of the conference began with two parallel sessions, “Dialogue in Sikh Tradition” and “Crossing Over: Language/Chronotypes” that explored the relevance of the Bakhtinian discourse in several newer contexts and fields of enquiry, including religion, travel, translation, family migration and the city. In the twelfth session, two more parallel sessions dealt with the themes of “Carnivalesque in Performance Traditions,” which included presentations that used Bakhtin to understand the grotesque in Prahasana, and the transgressive potential in Nautanki, and “Critical Perspectives on Dialogue,” with presentations that traced Bakhtin’s implications for social discourse and the place of the Bakhtin in the 21st century, especially with regard to his idea that crossing language boundaries is the most fundamental of human acts. 

Thematic Introduction by Lakshmi Bandlamudi

Professor Prafulla Kar chaired the valedictory session of the conference. He pointed to spirited discussions after each of the thematic and plenary sessions as one of the highlights of the conference and invited more such critical responses. Professor Lakshmi Bandlamudi expressed her gratitude towards the Balvant Parekh Centre and the Central University of Gujarat for making the conference a reality. Professor Craig Brandist pointed to the need for a closer and more reflexive engagement with Bakhtin’s ideas. In his concluding remarks, Professor Ramakrishnan thanked INFLIBNET Gandhinagar for providing the venue for the conference. He noted that papers presented in plenary and individual sessions traced several cross-cultural mappings of marginality and resistance, with a particular focus on Indian performance forms. The spatio-temporal and methodological issues regarding the reading of Indian texts and traditions within a Bakhtinian framework were fruitfully discussed. Professor Ramakrishnan also reminded the audience that although the focus of the conference, “Bakhtin in India ” raises more questions than it answers, several new contexts and fields of study, from translation to film continue to attest to the significance of Bakhtin’s ideas in contemporary critical discourse in India .

                          A Section of the Audience                                                               Paper presenters

In other conference highlights, the presenters’ reading of Indian texts across centuries, from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to Tagore’s novels and Gandhi’s autobiography brought out the dialogue form that underlines Indian culture. Extensive discussions on Bhakti movement, Gurugranth Sahib and Sufi traditions were undertaken by the participants. The challenges, limitations and pitfalls associated with such readings were also noted in the discussions, thus ensuring a complex and balanced engagement with a social thinker whose ideas, it was felt, might need revision for the Indian context.

A book was also released as part of the conference. Interdisciplinary Alter-Natives in Comparative Literature (Sage Publication), edited by E.V. Ramakrishnan, Harish Trivedi and Chandra Mohan, examines the directions taken by Comparative Literature in recent years and maps the shifts in paradigms that are in process. 


Anupama Ayyala Somayajulu, with inputs from her colleagues

Central University of Gujarat