Indian Contribution to American Studies:
A Thematic Review

Dr. Mohamed Taher

At the out set let it be clarified that "Indian" in this essay refers to, authors and Americanists, who are Asian-Indian by origin now either living in India or elsewhere, and not to be mixed up with Amer-Indians, the natives of America.

Indian scholars have surveyed a variety of subjects in order to understand American culture and civilization. One may ask why did these Indian scholars and writers, belonging to a former British colony, and who had all areas loaded with British cultural influences, agree to migrate from British literature (or in the broader perspective, British studies) to American literature (and therefore to American studies). The answer to this question can be different depending on who is asking and who is the responder. For those in India, whose British connexions were strong enough, and who had a grounding in British literature, it is difficult to think of such a migration.  For that group, America is just a new found land with not much of classical literature. For them, American history of the last two hundred years since independence has not much in particular, compared to the, incomparable, mother of empires, and the glorious literary tradition of the English world--more specifically the British world. The answer from this group, on whether there is migration, would be a reluctant and shying away from reality, and would be "yes", associated with an instantaneous, "but you see...". Those who are open, and willingly follow the American open door policy, it is easy to adapt Canadian, or American or even for that matter Indic writing in English, as ok and hence today we find that there is a large number of area study centres in the length and breadth of India. All such disputations, and possible reasoning apart, the simple reason why American studies, and later, other area studies, got a boost in Indian academia, is the availability of resources within the easy reach.

A review of the research completed is as important as the ongoing research.  There is however a problem of lack of information about all such projects. A few dissertations get published. Fewer are submitted to the largest repository of American Studies, i.e., American Studies Research Centre, Hyderabad. Much more lies scattered in universities within India and abroad.

We may commence this review with the theme of American literature. The research trends in this area indicate more single author studies, less are theme based analytical works, and a few with interdisciplinary approaches. One of the earliest dissertations, by an Indian in American literature, is Raj Kumar Gupta's Form and Style in Herman Melville's Pierre: or The Ambiguities (Pittsburgh University, 1964). This title suggests a pattern which is most common in literary research, that is, the research deals with a writer's life and work. I term these as biographical studies.

Few other studies have tried to be a bit more comprehensive, they do overall review of individual author's works, but these are still under the category of biographical studies. This category includes, research works like, G R Sud's Experiments of Eugene O'Neill (Himachal Pradesh University, 1975?); M Sivaramkrishna's F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Approach (Osmania University, 1972); Amina Amin's A Study of Herman Melville With Special Reference To The Problem of Evil (Gujarat University, 1976); R K Sharma's The Dramatic Works of  Eugene O'Neill: A Study of form and technique (Vikram University, 1968); V G Salunke'e Thematic Structure in Robert Frost: A Study (Karnataka University, 1980); Sujatha Dorairaj's E E Cummings: A Study in Stylistics (University of Lucknow, 1989); C N Sastry's Walt Whitman: A Study in Modernist Trends (Osmania University, n.d); Sulekha Sharma's The Art of William Faulkner With Special Reference To His Comic Sense (University of Sagar, 1980); etc.

The question relevant here is that one barely finds any distinction between biography and analysis of works. The works cited above give no demarcating line. Hence a reviewer has no other means to defend the thesis that research done in this area of literature is mostly in the biographical genre.

From a  glance into these dissertations, one finds, there is usually a stereotyped chapter or section, such as, "introduction", "background and influences". Examples of this style are in: K Seenivasan's The novels of John Steinbeck: A study of his image of man (University of Kerala, 1977, pp. 1-22); "Faulkner and tradition" in Mohan Chandra Sanwal's Surface and Symbol: Studies in William Faulkner, (Agra University, 1974, pp. 21-57); "Hemingway's apprenticeship" in P G Rama Rao's The narrative technique of Ernest Hemingway, (Utkal University, 1970, pp. 50-72). A few exceptions apart, generally this introduction and the subsequent chapter on related studies, allows full scope for fillers. It is good to have some of these features in a thesis, like introduction to what one wants to say, in a few pages, and a brief observation on work already done by others. But if this feature becomes a major content of the thesis, it is really a wonder what would be the actual contribution of the researcher "to the advancement of the field"!

From the point of view of the most preferred authors, Ernest Hemingway, a leading twentieth century American fiction writer, seems to be a choice. There are over a dozen doctoral dissertations, a few M.Phil dissertations and, as many books, articles, etc. One can obviously imagine the scope of the research work on the whole, in the light of what has been said above. Nevertheless, let us have a look at these: There are three doctoral dissertations which speak of his short stories, three others deal with his Farewell to Arms, four studies focus on his For Whom the Bell Tolls, and so on.

Another glance at other preferred fictional writers, reveals preference is to Saul Bellow, who has been the focus of fifteen doctoral dissertations. Bellow's works, among other things, represent the Jewish dilemma of identity crises, and within these writings the idea of self appeals to many a researchers in India. For instance, P C Kar's Saul Bellow: A Defense of the Self (University of Utah, 1973; N R Sastri's The Bellow hero: A study in identity (Osmania University, 1980).

Not only are stereotypes in chapterization, the titles of  most tell a similar tale: "Time and man in..."; "The moral vision of ..."; "The search for identity in the novels of ..."; "A critical examination of...concept of  romance in...";  "The major plays of ..."; "Thematic structure of ..."; "The dramatic vision of ..."; "The tragic vision..."; "Stylistic analysis..."; "The image in he poetry of ..."; The poetry of ..."; "Search for self in the poetry of ...".

One may question the purpose of such research, so also, one may question the viability, feasibility and outcome of that research. Some say the answer lies elsewhere. It is, nevertheless, clear that thematic studies in literature are slowly leaving the exclusive genre of biography. The trend is gradually moving towards inter- and multidisciplinary studies. This has led to biographical studies getting interwoven with various disciplinary perspectives. The biography of a Jewish writer, such as, Bernard Malamud is no more studied in isolation. The study, thence, includes religious background, social and cultural influences, philosophical thought that influenced the writer, literary influences and the influencers, etc. One of the earliest research in inter-disciplinary perspective is D Lakshman Rao's The quest for identity in the fiction of Bernard Malamud (Andhra University, 1972). But it took at least two decades, after this work, to popularize the pattern of inter-disiplinarity in literary study and research.

This inter-disciplinarity raises the issue: who can do inter-disciplinary research, more so in sociological and cultural areas -- that is for a study in these area whether an insider (for instance, followers of Jewish thought, who can be better judge to view a Jewish writer), or an outsider. The reality as it exists today shows, that despite the idealism of the sociologists there are studies done both by insiders and outsiders.

In terms of themes dealt, very few studies reflect the impact of time and tide. Instances of research in this category of research are visible in the works, such as, Hridyesh Narayan Agarwa's Racial themes in American drama, 1920-1960 (Meerut University, 1970); G D Paliwal's The Treatment of he Negro in Modern American Fiction, 1914-1964, (Agra University, 1972); Amritjit Singh's The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: A Thematic Study (New York University, 1973); Ksmanidhi Mishra's American Leftist playwrights of the 1930's: A study of Odets, Lawson and Sherwood (University of Rajasthan, 1985); Narayan Singh Sahu's Social Protest in Serious Plays of Maxwell Anderson and Robert  Sherwood: A Comparative study (Raipur University, 1977); Deval Rani Dharkar's Madness, Violence and Comic Cruelty in Recent American Fiction (M.S. University, 1986).

A count of the number of works in different genres, themes, and sub genres of American Literature, reveals the following pattern (this count does not include general and miscellaneous research works):

Poetry:  philosophy (22); didactic poetry (19); socio-culture (12); psychological (12); images and imagery (5); epics (4); metaphysics (3); nature (3); aesthetics (1); symbolism (1); lyric & ballads (1); monism (1); metaphysical imagination (1);

Drama: philosophy (17); socio-culture (17); religion (10); tragedy (8);  psychological (7);  morality (6); melodrama (2); historical (1); symbolism (1); aesthetics (1);

Fiction: philosophy (68); socio-culture (65); psychological (43); religion (28); historical (15); adventure (12); love and romance (10); environment and nature (7); science fiction (5); non-fiction (5); imagery (5); humor (4); comic (2); metafiction (1).

This count then shows that much of the work concentrates in a few areas, and much more is still to be achieved. For instance, the subgenera of poetry, such as, dramatic, epic, and satirical; the subgenera of drama, such as, passion, miracle, melodrama, and comedy; the subgenera of fiction, such as, cartoon, occupational, etc. The list could be much more longer, and these research avenues are open for the Indian Americanists.

Again, literary research has been in the forefront of all other areas of research in the field of American studies. This predominance of literature is a fact - American studies was originally considered as synonymous to American literature. As the interest in the American culture grew, the research horizons widened, and today we find that American studies is emerging in a holistic approach.

Other areas, for instance, history, politics, anthropology, etc., came to be studied later and so is the case with most research in the field of American studies. American history, and its allied area, American politics, still have a second place in study and research.  Most studies are broad based and include U.S foreign policy, U.S. relations with South Asia, U.S - India political relations, etc.. and for instance, include: M J Sud's The United States foreign policy towards India: A diagnosis of the American approach" (Bangalore University, 1989); Mohinder K Manchanda's "India and America: Historical links, 1776-1920" (Chandigarh, Young Men, Harmilay Assn., 1976); Tanvir Sultan's Indo-US relations" (Delhi, Deep & Deep, 1982); S K Arora's "American foreign policy towards India" (New Delhi, 1949). The themes that are yet to be fully explored include, political parties, congressional system, presidential roles, domestic versus international behavior of American polity, etc. In history there is yet a vast scope for study and research, including themes such as, historiographical patterns, socio-cultural vistas, impact of non-western cultures in making of the American culture and civilization.

Whatever little work is available in history is more of comparing India and America. A comparison of two dissertations that are available at ASRC, reveals the state-of-the-art, these are:  Dwijendra Tripathi's "The United States and India: Economic links, 1860-1900" (University of Wisconsin, 1963); and Bajradhar Mishra's "Indo-American Trade relations, 1865-1900" (Bhagalpur University, 1973).

Tripathi's chapters include: The background; The survival of a hope; war in America; impact on India; Indian cotton and cotton diplomacy; the challenge of raw cotton; "the American invasion"; and conclusion.

Mishra's chapters are: Historical background; Indo-American trade relations, 1865-1880, 1880-1890, 1890-1900; and conclusion.

There are host of commonalities in the works, and a few differences. The most common feature is both deal with export and import of agricultural products, between India and the United States. The differences are: Tripathi has a slant towards political perspective and is further biased towards cotton trade. Mishra is biased towards Indian economic conditions, with a special reference to variety of agricultural products, in comparing Indo-U.S market vis-a-vis Indian trade relations with other countries. In fact it is apt to state Tripathi's work is probably more broad based and Mishra deals with only a part of the subject. Mishra has cited and acknowledged Tripathi's work and to that extent Mishra supplements the work of Tripathi. This does not lead to one point, and that is, one still has to justify duplication of research and avoid stereotypes.

Few earlier and more recent studies which are of a comparative genre include themes, such as: natives (now called: Amer-Indians); behavior of the first immigrants in the new found land; gender in American culture; migration and settlement of different ethnic groups, and ways of their assimilation into the American melting pot, or the salad bowl. We can list a few such comparative studies here: Sampat Singh Bhandawat's "Speakership in India and U.S.A., since 1952" (University of Jodhpur, 1971); Binod K Sinha's "American English and Hindi nominal groups -  a study in systemic contrastive analysis" (Bihar University, 1968); Sathish Chandra Dixit's "The feminist movement in the United States in the 1920's and its impact on the national life" (Agra University, 1988); K Devivasigamani's "The Dravidian movement and the Black Movement in the USA: A comparative study" (Annamalai University, 1983); R B Jain's "A Comparative study of the United States Civil Service Commission and the Union Public Service Commission in India" (Jawaherlal Nehru University, 1967).

In sociology, the theme of feminism is the most often repeated area of interest. Whereas urban studies, anthropological studies, social welfare and social work, etc., still demand much attention. And similar is the list of lacuna in all other areas of research in the subjects coming under the umbrella of American studies.

As regards research methodology, per se, in the context of this trend analysis, one can safely say that there is need for a total re-orientation. The available research tools and knowledge of relevant techniques deserves much attention and consideration.  Research methods, note taking methods (or call it data collection), foot notes or end notes and bibliographic skills, as well as, actual writing skills require much training and a novice is lost everywhere and at every stage. It is a matter of debate for Indian academics, to decide on the issue: whether a fresh postgraduate is trained by head and heart to pursue research, or, does it require some time to gain experience in the art and craft of research work.  This is more crucial matter in the areas of interdisciplinary studies. Finding a suitable research topic, analyzing the level and depth of completed and on-going research, survey of related literature in the concerned field, etc. all require a level of maturity and capability in the researcher. Research demands awareness of published sources, like the  M.L.A Style sheet, a handy tool for notes and bibliography in the area of language and literature, which is revised and published with a new title, MLA Handbook. Similarly the Chicago Style Manual and other handy tools for research must be at the disposal of a researcher. Are all researchers having access to the minimum tools of the trade?

The foregoing survey reveals the areas and approaches and it is for the Indian Americanists to adapt, adopt, and change the research patterns, trends, approaches, and methodologies of Indian contributions to be usable and consumable products in the universal market.
  Details of the book: Indian Contribution to American Studies, 1997, New Delhi, Anmol Publications

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updated Nov. 11, 2006