Renu village : an ethnography of north Indian fiction



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The Hindi author Phanishwarnath Renu (1921-1977) is credited with initiating the “regional” literary genre in India—a form characterized in part by its use of village song and performance. Renu's work is unusual for the deep debt it owes to his village's performance community; he described himself as a product of folksong, and there are hundreds of textual examples of village song in his writing. Both the songs performed in Renu's village, and also those performed in his fiction, are products of sensibilities local to the folklore region of northeast Bihar. This dissertation draws on textual analysis and on fieldwork in Renu's village, Aurahi-Hingana, and uses a performative approach to explore this Hindi author's unusual station on the border of written and oral tradition.

Renu was no passive reproducer of song, but a performer himself, and for certain individuals in his village Renu was a singer first and writer second. Some illiterate village singers even claim him as one of their own. He had a direct hand in shaping the life of his community's folklore as a singer and teacher, and his influence is such that he has become a character within the twenty-first-century village performance repertory. If Renu was a performer, then there is something to be gained from considering his writing as a performance category. The songs in his writing inhabit space, geography, and history—they are worldly—in the same way that live performances of village song inhabit the world. This dissertation proposes a contrapuntal method of reading both fiction and performance that demonstrates the multi-layered complexity of one of Hindi's much-loved authors, and affirms the many layers, the complexity, and the importance of the song tradition to which that author belonged.