Laughing Skeletons and Aging Metaphors: Theorizing the Modernist Avant-Garde in Marathi

Sachin C. Ketkar

Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara, Gujarat, India

       Volume III, Number 1, 2017 I Full Text PDF


In theorizing the modernist avant-garde, there is a widespread tendency to collapse the distinction between modernity as a set of wider social and historical processes, and modernism  as an artistic phenomenon. There is also a tendency to think of the modernist avant-garde as a failed attempt to erase the distinction between art as an institution and social life. In the Indian context, as the phenomenon of modernity is intrinsically connected to  colonialism and the ‘ influence of the West’, modernism and the avant-garde is often understood, not just as Eurocentric but  also as an inauthentic , derivative and superficial phenomenon. Underneath  these  established ways of understanding the modernist avant-garde and its social context is the reductive Marxist belief that there is a deterministic causality  between  ‘superstructure’ ( the avant-garde) and base ( social and historical condition of modernity).  In the current article, I argue in the context of  B.S Mardhekar’s Marathi poetry,  that using the framework of semiotics of culture as developed by the Tartu-Moscow school of cultural semiotics,  we can attempt to theorize the avant-gardes afresh, especially in the Indian context and it can yield some significant insights into semiotic mechanisms underlying the phenomenon.

According to this approach as the cultural mechanism underlying all communication as well as all generation of new information (including the modernist agenda of ‘making it new’ anywhere in the world at any time) involves translational exchange between two non-identical semiotic systems, thus we can understand the  modernist avant-gardes as intrinsically a cross-cultural dialogic phenomenon instead of being merely a Eurocentric one. The dark surreal imagery of  Mardhekar’s  poetry, accordingly,  can be read as translation of the language of western avant-gardes  into the language of traditional Marathi lyrical poetry that was sentimental and  clichéd,  and in the process  compensating the continuous process of “aging” of the various means of meaning-generation in Marathi culture by the introduction and use of new, previously forbidden, meaning-generating structures. The pervasive and decisive presence of the urban life in the avant-gardes across the world can also be understood in cultural semiotics terms as the city is seen as a complex and powerful polyglot system of meaning generation. As the languages of the new hybrid avant-gardes were unfamiliar in the Indian context in the late nineteen- forties, one can understand the function of the texts like ‘ Skeletons Laugh’  as ‘ text-codes’ that seek to codify this avant-garde  poetic idiom in Indian languages, thus opening up spaces for later postmodern avant-garde literatures to emerge. Using this framework, one can understand Modernism, an umbrella term for various avant-gardes, as the one which deliberately models the languages of art on the everyday semiotic heterogeneity of the contemporary semiosphere and deliberately introduces ‘explosive’ processes, the elements of chance and unpredictability, in the languages of art.

Keywords: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Marathi, semiotics of culture

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