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Laetitia Zecchini

Published On


Page Range

pp. 177-214

Print Length

37 pages

5. The Meanings, Forms and Exercise of ‘Freedom’

The Indian PEN and the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom (1930s-1960s)

  • Laetitia Zecchini (author)
This chapter builds on the author’s previous work examining modernisms in India through the politics and economics of literary circulation. It concentrates on the struggle for cultural, literary, and critical independence which certain spaces (like the journal Quest) and writers represented or embodied in the 1950s and 1960s. The chapter focuses on two figures: Nissim Ezekiel, who although recognized as a canonical figure of Indian poetry in English is paradoxically often dismissed, and his critical/editorial work largely neglected, and on J. S. Saxena, a writer and Jodhpur University professor whom Arvind Krishna Mehrotra regarded as one of his “heroes” but who died in the 1970s a totally forgotten figure. Ezekiel’s whole quest was to foster a “critical spirit”, to carve a non-conformist, pluralist space mindful of “little truths” and “many voices”: “Again and again, that question: to be free. What did it mean?” he asked at the turn of independence. His question resonates with an article Saxena published in Quest: “How do we stop being somebody else’s image?” where he articulates the poignant need for an “alternative” – beyond images of Europe, Roosevelt’s America, Stalinist Russia – which can be found in the “pure logic of refusal”, for instance produced by “real” blues, whose practitioners also represent a “permanent reserve of misfits” condemned to “perpetual minority”. Saxena’s piece articulates three concerns of this chapter: the question of mimetism (how do we stop writing like…); the question of form; and the question of minor modes and minor cosmopolitanisms. The struggle over the political and aesthetic implications of “freedom”, which is a defining feature of the cultural Cold War, is also a struggle over the meanings of modernism and of the avant-garde, and a struggle over form (art or literature that is “formalist”, individualist or autonomous, versus art that is “progressive”, realist and demotic). Refusing to be straightjacketed by ideology, by the state or state-supported institutions, by foreign patrons, or by models imported from elsewhere, Saxena and Ezekiel, along with other writers of the 1970s, struggled to clear a space and a voice for themselves, and to define what modernism, freedom, and the avant-garde meant to them.


Laetitia Zecchini