A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Departments of English and Literary Syllabi: Notes on Cultural Reproduction

Sahdev Luhar

Departments of literature in higher education, then, are part of the ideological apparatus of the modern capitalist state. They are not wholly reliable apparatuses ...

                                                                                                (Eagleton, 2003, p. 174-5)  

Literary studies has never been a neutral process of imparting aesthetic knowledge but has proved an institutional mechanism of cultural (re)production. Since its inception in the colonial time, English literary studies has been engaged in forming the hegemonic cultural practices in India. Earlier it was a tool of cultural domination in the hands colonial rulers, today it is an institutional stratagem to construct a kind of cultural elitism

                                                                                                            (Luhar, 2014, p. 76)

These two epigrammatic standpoints may seem personal discernments but they hint at the pragmatic veracities of the English literary studies in India and abroad. The earlier pronouncement of Terry Eagleton suggests that the departments of literature are the ideological apparatus of a modern capitalist state. Whatever text they teach as curriculum has certain values, meanings, and tradition. They function to materialise the vision of the modern capitalist society and their priorities. The later proclamation alludes to the “fact” that the aesthetic knowledge has disappeared from the literary studies, instead it has assumed the form of institutional mechanism for cultural reproduction.  Literary studies has been functioning as a cultural apparatus for disseminating hegemony to different social groups – earlier for the colonisers and now for the dominant social-political groups. The present paper highlights how the Indian departments of English reproduce cultural hegemony through their literary syllabi. What are the cultural and ideological implications of university syllabi for literary studies? What is the cultural relevance of what has been sold as “required knowledge”? Who has the responsibilities of designing the best syllabus for the students and how it has been regulated? – these are some of important queries that the university departments are facing today.

The growing ‘canon concerns’ in the western universities encouraged the Indian universities for the canonical revision of the syllabus. This led to the inclusion of many national canons like American, Canadian, Australian, Indian, etc., along with gender-caste-region-based canons into the syllabi of English at postgraduate level. Notable changes have been introduced, at the postgraduate stage, in the syllabi of English in last three decades. A study of the selected departments of English of Indian universities suggests that the departments of English have engaged themselves with formation of different canons. In the last three decades, the MA (English) curriculum has undergone a drastic change. It has offered a variety of papers. The papers which were offered earlier have been replaced by more thematic, innovative and skill-oriented papers. Here, an attempt is made to study the relationship between university syllabi and canon formation using instance of the Indian English fictions.

The analysis of the fourteen Indian universities1 suggests that in the university departments of English, the concerns for the ‘region’, where they are located, have increased. Many university departments have introduced the regional works in English translation to make the students aware of regional literary output. For instance, Kakatiya University which is located in Warangal (Andhra Pradesh) has introduced Annamayya and Vemana as well as Bhakti tradition of Nayanars and Alwars, Virasaivism and its contribution to social reform, Vaishnava Bhakti, Haridasa movement etc. in paper named as “Indian Classics in Translation”. Similarly the University of Kashmir, Kashmir has introduced Kashmiri writers such as Shaikh-ul-Alam, Lal Ded, Mahmood Garni, Rasul Mir, Qurat-ul-Ain Haider, Akhtar Mohi-ud-Din, HK Bharati, and HK Koul in the paper called “Translation and Translation Theories”. The same is the case with other universities as well. To make the students competent, the university departments have introduced  papers like “Language Management and Communication Skills”, “Classroom Applications”, “Fundamental of Information Technology”, “Writing for Academic and Professional Purposes”, “English Grammar and Writing”, “Communicative English”, and  “Modern English Grammar and Usage.”

The university departments of English have also decanonised some of the subjects. The study of Indian Aesthetics is gradually vanishing in the departments of English. Similarly in the 1980s, Dalit Studies has emerged out as an emerging area of study. However the analysis of these fourteen university syllabi suggests that the dalit studies is ignored intentionally or unintentionally. Many universities have showed their concerns for the Black literature or Afro-American literature but the dalit literature which is home-grown literature is ignored with no reason. However, one must appreciate the inclusion of the papers such as “Children’s Literature”, “Literature and Film”, “Cultural Studies”, “Literature and Philosophy”, “Environment and Indian Writing in English” in the syllabi of MA (English). But these papers are not offered by all the universities.

It appears that the university departments of English have engaged themselves in elite culture formation. The post-1980s Indian English fictions which appear in the syllabi of the selected universities substantiate this fact If one divides the prescribed authors in Hindu and Non-Hindu categories, he/she would certainly observe that the majority of the Hindu writers (around 50%) who are taught in MA (English) classroom are Brahmins. Remaining 50 per cent are occupied by those non-Brahmin writers who are upper-caste westernised Indians. Salman Rushdie, the hero of 1980s, is the only Muslim writer introduced in MA (English). Bapsi Sidhwa and Rohinton Mistry are the Parsi writers, the first lives in the USA and the other in Canada. Apart from these three writers, all are upper caste Hindus.

Stuart Hall holds that the (cultural) hegemony can be maintained by “winning and shaping consent so that the power of the dominant classes appears both legitimate and natural” and it can be sustained so long as the dominant classes “succeeds in framing all competing definitions within their range” (Durham, 2001, p.150). Even if this hidden agenda fails, it anyway ensures that the presence of the subordinate groups in an ‘ideological’ arena which does not appear ideological at all. Such hegemonic control, perhaps, is reminiscent of what Barthes calls ‘mythology’ which performs the functions of naturalisation and normalisation. These assertions lead to an essential facet of hegemony that “it has to be won, reproduced, sustained” (Ibid: 151). Precisely the same apparatus was employed by the Brahmins to maintain their superiority over the ‘other’ castes. An ‘intellectual’ space that the Brahmin writers have formed for themselves is in fact the consequence of their shrewdness which came to them through the colonial transaction. They realised that teaching of Sanskrit to the Indian masses would distort its vitality and would pose challenges to them. They did not want to lose the culture capital that they have attained through long-standing pedantic-hegemonic practices. They thought that the socio-religious capital which they had earned through selling the Sanskrit; similarly they could also acquire newer emergent culture capital through learning English. During the colonial epoch only, they could envisage the formation of English as a global language and took up the opportunity to rule over the masses. They were the masters of Sanskrit, the language of Gods, and wanted to be the master of English, the language of the rulers. Both the languages kept them close to  power – religious and colonial. Since the formation of the caste-system, they knew it well that educating the masses imparts the power to control them, hence the Brahmin as a community, first of all, learnt English only to teach the ‘other’ masses and to maintain their hegemony. But the colonial era was the time of cultural insurgency when it was not possible to entice the majority Indians masses only through teaching. They realised that they must integrate the national flavour in their teaching; it had to be made more social and easily acceptable. The increasing caste-consciousness in the colonial era indicated to them that the shifting wind wanted them to cast off their Brahminical self and this was the only way out to win the consent of the ruling the masses. This led to the process of de-Brahminisation which was again a stratagem of reproducing and sustaining their Brahminical hold. Prof. V. K. R. V. Rao opines that “the de-Brahminised Brahmin may no longer be a caste, but his new ways, being in tune with the forces of change, are likely not only to ensure his survival but felicitate his retaining a position of high status and authority” (Paranjape, 2000, p.57). The de-Brahminisation was a policy to embrace a newer-secular identity without giving up hereditary caste-based privileges. One can easily find this ideological apparatus still present in the contemporary Indian society and these selected fictions points towards this fact.This is the reason why the post-1980s Indian English fiction seems more Brahminised, elite or upper caste.

Out of these twenty one selected fictional works, sixteen have won some literary prizes or at least  have been shortlisted for the prizes. These are introduced in the syllabi of more than two universities. Those fictions which are not awarded any award or prize are introduced once only. This tendency suggests that the university departments of English are fascinated by the award-winning fictions or writers. Awarding prizes do not reflect over the quality of the text or by no means have they hinted at standardised practice, they only show the influence of the west. Whatever the west stamps as good by awarding prizes are warmly welcomed by the university departments of English. The valuation of literary texts through awarding prizes does not guarantee aesthetic value. Terry Eagleton believes that “value is always ‘transitive’ – that is to say, value for somebody in a particular situation-and … always culturally and historically specific” (Huggan, 2001, p. 28). Similar to other cultural forms, a literary text does not have intrinsic value – its value is contingent. Hence the award which is announced on its contingent value does not emerge as a locus of immanent value. Most of the Indian English fictions are published by the foreign publishing companies. Thus, the foreign company still dominates the taste of the Indian readers. The common man is forgotten in the syllabi of the selected universities. Those who write Indian English fiction live abroad and the culture they depict is not real but is memory’s truth.  

Thus, the MA (English) syllabus of the Indian universities is more inclined towards the west. It has created the western cultural outlook in India. The cultural implication of the syllabus may prove fatal to the national and indigenous cultural artefacts of India. The Indian universities still sell or disseminate the westernised cultural forms.


  1. This paper is based on the analysis of the fourteen Indian universities’ syllabi for MA (English programme): Andhra University, Kakatiya University, Bharathiar University, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Osmania University, Gurunanak Dev University, Karnataka University, North-Eastern Hill University, Punjab University, Punjabi University, Calcutta University, University of Jammu, and University of Kashmir.
  2. It is observed that Indian universities are influenced by certain writers and their post-1980s fiction dominates Indian English studies. These writers are: Amitav Ghosh (The Shadow Lines, The Hungry Tides, Sea of Poppies), Anita Desai (Clear Light of the Day, Fasting Feasting, In Custody), Anita Nair (Ladies Coup), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), Bapsi Sidhwa (Ice-Candy Man), Chitra Banerji Divakaruni (Sister of My Heart), Githa Hariharan (Thousand Faces of Night), Namita Gokhale (Gods, Graves and Grandmother), R K Narayan (Tiger for Malgudi), Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance, Such a Long Journey), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children, The Moor’s Last Sigh), Shashi Deshpande (A Matter of Time, The Binding Vine, That Long Silence) and Shashi Tharoor (The Great Indian Novel).


Durham, Meenakshi Gigi, Diuglas,Kellner. (Eds.).(2001).Media and cultural studies: Key works. Oxford: Blackwell.

Eagleton, Terry. (2003). Literary theory: An introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Huggan, Graham. (2001). Postcolonial exotic: Marketing the margin. London: Routledge.

Luhar, Sahdev. (2014). Literary canon studies: An introduction. Anand: N S Patel Arts College.

Paranjape, Makarand. (2000). Towards a poetics of the Indian English novel. Shimla: IIAS.


Sahdev Luhar is Assistant Professor at N. S. Patel Arts College, Anand (Gujarat). He is also a research scholar at the Department of English, the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara and an IUC Associate at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.