Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The BS column: The Unread Tagore

(Published in the Business Standard, May 2010; photograph by Saibal Das.)

As Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary became a trending topic on Twitter, the social media site, it seemed like a good time to ask which Tagore we were celebrating. (Sticklers will point out that we’re celebrating a year early—technically, the Nobel Prize winning poet and prolific writer would have turned 149, not 150, today. Try telling them that in Shantiniketan.)
There are really three Tagores who have emerged over the last century. The first, Rabi Thakur, is venerated—almost literally—by the Bengalis. The entire Rabindra Rachnabali, his Collected Works, are still a prized wedding gift, the potters of Chitpur and Kumartuli do a thriving trade in Tagore busts, his poems and songs are the background to the bustle of any Bengali household, and children still perform his play, Tasher Desh (The Kingdom of Cards) in schools. (His non-fiction—the essays, letters and criticism—remains largely unread, even among this group.)
Rabi Thakur is a living figure in this tradition, celebrated most for his songs, and even the generation that grew up distanced from their language will know at least the Satyajit Ray films based on his works, Charulata and Ghare-Baire among them. The Bengali worship of Rabi Thakur can strain the patience of some, as Vikram Seth noted in A Suitable Boy, where Kakoli scandalizes her mother by warbling, “Rabi Thakur, R Tagore/ Ohe what a bore!” But Kakoli represents a relatively tiny fraction of apostates among the vast majority of the devout, in India and in Bangladesh.
For the rest of India, there’s the official Tagore. Despite the availability of translations, Tagore is more celebrated than read in this world. He’s known by the kind of useful shorthand that precludes actual engagement: one of the Architects of Modern India, off to a side in the nationalist pantheon, the man who wrote Jana-Gana-Mana, our national anthem, and most crucially, as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He doesn’t have to be read, except by literature lovers and dedicated readers. Instead, he functions as a symbol: Tagore stands for patriotism and success, the value we pay lip service to, and the value we actually worship.
What’s lost in this version of Tagore is heartbreaking. By ironing him out, we’ve forgotten the Tagore who made his mark as a poet by inventing a Vaishnava poet, Bhanusingh, whose “rediscovered verses” were accepted by the literary canon until he confessed that the poems that made up Bhanusingher Padabali were his own invention.
We’ve also forgotten the Tagore who held his own in debates with Gandhi: he had his own views on the usefulness of the charkha, they argued over nationalism, and Tagore disliked the negativity that he felt was an inextricable part of a non-Co-operation movement. And we’ve forgotten the young man who wrote the first proper short story in Bengali, whose sympathy to women shows in all those gorgeous portraits of the Sucharitas and Charus who struggled against the constraints of their world.
The one Tagore poem most people can quote is “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/ Into that valley of freedom, my father, let my country awake.” But that sentiment, beautiful as it is, obscures the intelligence of the writer who could craft a fierce debate between tradition and modernity, fanaticism, faith and liberalism in the deadly face-off between a king and his royal priest in Rajarshi. (This, one of the greatest and most contentious of Tagore’s early works, remains untranslated—though the stage versions, Visarjan and Raj-Rakht, will be familiar to some.)
And the third Tagore is the mystic visionary and poet the West fell—briefly—in love with. WB Yeats was his champion, rendered rhapsodic by Tagore’s Gitanjali: “He writes music for his words.” But Yeats was also enraptured by his vision of Tagore as a kind of living saint, a poet of religion and nature, a man who could render the ancient spirituality of the East into terms that might ravish the ears of the West. Tagore’s Nobel was also awarded, approvingly, as proof of the “rejuvenating efforts of the Christian Mission in India”; without English, the “native” Gitanjali would in effect have not existed.
In this verion, “Gurudev” was one in a long line of Oriental mystics to beguile the West. Rumi is one of the few poets to have endured; but in the supermarket souks of Europe, Tagore’s Gitanjali is no longer to be found. Rescuing Tagore from sainthood, from the pedestal or from oblivion could take another 150 years.

Ideas of India

(Published in the Business Standard, May 2010. I'm working on a longer version, and will share that when it's done; each of the people quoted offered far more in the way of insight and experience than I had space for in the span of a newspaper article.)

If you’ve ever ridden the Himsagar Express, you know the pull of the idea of traversing India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The actual journey is, as most tourists and pilgrims discover, dusty, unromantic and unremarkable. It’s the idea that’s attractive—performing a discovery of India, snaking down the country’s spinal cord, and the magic of that phrase: Kashmir se Kanyakumari tak. As writers, thinkers and travelers have discovered over the centuries, going in search of the idea of India is equally frustrating, and equally compelling.

Pawan Verma, chronicler of the great Indian middle class, is the most recent in a long line of authors to do an “audit” of the idea of India. For him, Becoming Indian is an ongoing project. “The impact of colonialism on a people’s sensibilities does not disappear with political freedom,” he writes. “The Empire continues to exercise its sway at the psychological level. The formerly ruled deny this, and yet their mental servitude is apparent in so many ways.” We are still, he argues, Macaulay’s grandchildren, still enslaved by the elevation of English over other Indian languages, in constant danger of forgetting our own past and culture—which he identifies, unfortunately, as primarily North Indian and Hindi-speaking.

And with that, he joins a grand tradition of arguing over India. The historian Irfan Habib has pointed out that it wasn’t until the late 14th century that the Hindus began calling India “Hindustan”—Ind or Sindh-stan was a chiefly Greek and Persian construct before this time. Much before that, though, Alberuni (973-1078 AD) and other travelers would comfortably refer to the inhabitants as Hindus: “The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.” And many centuries later, Veer Savarkar would take this to an extreme, demanding that India must be a Hindu land, “reserved for the Hindus”. “India is such a huge concept, like Europe,” observes the historian and writer William Dalrymple, “it’s something you encounter only when actually thinking about it.”

A bookshelf devoted to “ideas of India” would have to be large, roomy and argumentative, with space for Vivekananda, Gandhi, Naipaul, Sunil Khilnani, Amartya Sen, Ramachandra Guha, Tagore, Veer Savarkar and a score of others. Pavan Verma and Naipaul would agree that India is a wounded civilization locked in a willed amnesia over its past of multiple invasions, home now to a million shifting mutinies. They might find some overlapping, though not entirely common, ground with Swami Vivekananda, who argued over a century ago that India had been ruled in turn by Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, and that British rule had reduced us all to shudras in our own country.

For the historian Sunil Khilnani, India inherited a history of thinking in terms of villages and varnam (caste), but overlaying this and shaping our “modern” India is the overarching concept of democracy. And Amartya Sen argues for a more fluid identity, saying that beyond the simplicities of caste and religion, we all inhabit far more complex identities.

How far back does the idea of India go?

One school of thought makes the case that India, as the BJP Manifesto has it, “is perhaps the most ancient and continuing civilisation of the world”. But this harking back to the glories of a past that must be resurrected can lead to extremist movements, and not everyone agrees. The eminent historian Ramachandra Guha says bluntly: “As a political entity, India is a modern construct. The British, accidentally and for their own motives, created an artificial territorial unity; and then Gandhi and the national movement fostered a political unity and shared moral purpose to the people who lived in that territory. The search for ancient or medieval progenitors of the idea of India is unhistorical, and also dangerous, since it tends to end with a narrowly Hindu idea of Indian nationhood.”
Dalrymple might agree that India acquires a political unity in 1947, and that until then, “there is almost no point in Indian history where the whole of India is united—not under the Cholas, or Akbar, or the British”. But he also points to the fact that there has been a continuous, historical notion of India as a geographical entity: “There is at least a concept of India.”

What shapes our personal ideas of India?

Nehru found his history in jail, during the National Movement, through a series of letters to his daughter; and then through the project of writing about the history of the country he was fighting for. Gandhi found his through the age-old Indian tradition of the padayatra, the personal pilgrimage, lathi in hand, around his country.
For today’s authors, the discovery of India is almost always a slow, cumulative progress: there are no shortcuts. Mukul Kesavam, scholar and professor at Jamia Millia University, began thinking about India as an idea when he was writing his pamphlet on secularism in India. “I knew that 'Indian' secularism was meant to be different from the western sort (not a rigorous separation of the public realm from religion, but a state that was equally intimate with all religions etc.) but it hadn't occurred to me that Indian nationalism was singular or original or odd. Not only was secularism in India a species of pluralism, but so was nationalism.”
For the journalist Sadanand Dhume, author of My Friend the Fanatic, his ideas of India were shaped by “lived experience—neighbourhood cricket, Hindi films on Doordarshan”. Naipaul was an early and lasting influence, but as an adult, it was the view from elsewhere in what he calls “two major dislocations” that would be useful. The first shift was conventional, a move from New Delhi to New York: “The Indian goes to the West and sees his country anew from a distance. But equally important, and less usual, was the four years I spent living in Southeast Asia, in Jakarta, and the experience of writing about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia.”
And for Dilip Simeon, chairperson of the Aman Trust and author, it was his time as a student travelling to famine-stricken Bihar, and time spent in “so-called revolutionary activity” that would be key. But there’s an image that stays with him, from the research he did on the history of labour in Jamshedpur and Jharia: “Among my most horrifying and fascinating sensations was the sight of the flames of the Jharia underground fire, emanating from vast fissures in the earth; and the vast swathes of subsidence. It began in 1930, and still rages.”
Dalrymple speaks about growing up in Britain on an early ‘80s diet of Jewel-in-the-Crown infused Raj nostalgia: “I’m the last generation brought up with the Eric Newby/ Rudyard Kipling reading list.” The man who would make his name as an indefatigable traveler had visited very few countries before he made his first visit to India, completely unprepared for the reality he would encounter. “The first culture shock was massive,” he says.

What’s at the core of the idea of India?

“Indian nationalism fetishises both equality and difference,” Kesavan observes. “Diversity and pluralism aren't optional extras with Indian nationalism: they are the whole deal; take those away and the project collapses.”
For Dalrymple, the “sacred map of India” is essential. “I don’t think democracy is “the” idea of India—Hinduism, Bollywood, cricket, these are all important elements in the construction of our identity. You can’t escape the fact that this is a strongly Hindu country, and that the various forms of Hinduism do provide a cohesion. The rightwing may have exploited this idea, but despite the deep hesitations, there’s no question that the network of sacred sites and the sacred map of India is a very important part of most people’s conception of India, predates the modern nation and the birth of democracy. I think you do need to talk to the pilgrim on the way to Vaishno Devi and ask him which is more important—the network of shrines or the ballot box.”
But if you want to understand the idea of India, Ramachandra Guha suggests that you look closely at five of the key figures in pre-Independence India—Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Ambedkar and Rajagopalachari.
“Gandhi and Tagore together fostered an idea of India that did not demonize other nations and cultures, but promoted an open-minded engagement with them. Gandhi and Nehru together fostered an idea of India which was inclusive within its borders, and afforded equal citizenship to all regardless of class or gender, while respecting religious and linguistic pluralism.
Gandhi and Ambedkar, working in parallel and sometimes in opposition, together ensured that in free India there would be special rights for the most historically disadvantaged, namely, the former Untouchables. Gandhi and Rajagopalachari, working together, fostered a skeptical attitude towards the powers of the state and thus opened the way for the protection of individual liberties and the encouragement of individual creativity (whether in entrepreneurship, literature, or the arts).”
Perhaps there’s still a need, 60 years after Independence, to become Indian, as Pavan Verma argues. But the more interesting question, given the choices, is: what kind of Indian would that be?


1) The Mahabharata
2) Alberuni: The Indica
3) Sunil Khilnani: The Idea of India
4) Amartya Sen: The Argumentative Indian
5) Ramachandra Guha: India After Gandhi
6) Gandhi: My Experiments with Truth
7) Naipaul: A Wounded Civilisation, A Million Mutinies Now
8) Veer Savarkar: Hindutva
9) Indian Studies in the History of an Idea: edited by Irfan Habib
10) The Discovery of India: Nehru

Art: Twitterneurons

(For Beam Me Up/ #cloudrumble56. This was part of a performance art exhibition by Abhishek Hazra; the earlier piece, Twitterneurons, is here.)

A few weeks after Abhishek Hazra’s twitter-art/ performance in Delhi, Marina Abramovic performs The Artist is Present at the MOMA. In her decades as a performance artist, Abramovic has used her body as vulnerable space, inviting an audience to attack it, as artwork, as artist’s tools, always pushing the limits. Now she sits, almost motionless, as the audience comes up, one by one, to occupy the chair across from her, and gaze into her face.
As the performance continues, shifting shape and acquiring new rules, making new discoveries, over the days, it’s accompanied by a recording frenzy. There are photo galleries of those who sat across from her, many of them captured in tears, their emotions uncontainable even in this most public of public space. There are recordings. There is reportage. This is the way it happens with the most moving art, the most significant moments of our lives: even as we’re witnessing and experiencing, the drive to capture what’s happening sets up a peculiarly 21st century anxiety.
In a comfortable office, its walls briefly transformed into gallery space by Hazra’s physics-inspired drawings, the artist is surrounded by a ring of laptops. This is to be livetweeted by us, creating a second layer of performance over his performance art. If it works, perhaps it might do what performance art is also, sometimes, supposed to do—break down the fourth wall, make the audience an integral part of the performance. There’s also the technological aspect: #cloudrumble56 might trend on Twitter, and there’s something appealing about using technology to capture or analyse or experience a performance that’s about the history of science.
And there is the irony of trying to use the highly compressed, shorthand language of Twitter—140 characters is your limit—in real time, to tweet about a performance that is, in great measure, also about the breakdown of and the futility of language. At various points of time, Hazra will offer fragments: of thoughts, of excerpts from the speeches of Saha, of explanations of an ionization chamber, stray phrases, references to caste or local identity--“Sahas are not Boddhis”—in his deliberate dismantling of the story and the success story of one of India’s iconic scientists.
* * *
Almost two months after the performance, I’m looking for traces of it on the Net. I have been here before, in the early, evangelical years of the world wide web, when it used to be called the “information superhighway”. Roughly two decades ago, our expectations of the web’s memory were naïve, and awed. Everything was archivable; everything could be preserved. Google Cache made this seem inevitable; spycams and easy uploads and Google Maps made everything seem indelible, accessible, infinitely available.
As we know now, this is not true. By the mid-1990s, you had ghost sites. Abandoned web pages and Usenet group discussions that no one bothered any longer to visit or access floated in cyberspace like shipwrecked hulks, settling in silence to the bottom of the information ocean. Magazines as great and apparently indestructible as Feed disappeared; caches remain, but as the memory of one generation fades, even caches are less and less often visited. Virtual moss grows over them. Those who were hooked to the lives of their avatars in Second Life and other virtual worlds move on when the sites hiccup or shut down, creating new personas and new avatars, sometimes ransacking their old selves, sometimes abandoning them entirely. There is little new about this process; it’s the way we handle our meatspace lives.
#cloudrumble56 is still there on my Twitter feed and still there somewhere in Twitterspace—the counterpoint to the inbuilt ephemerality of Twitter is in the old-world institution of the library. The Library of Congress Archives will save tweets, patiently, as a searchable archive: the babbling mouths of the Internet, preserved for posterity. Until I find my personal cache of #cloudrumble56, what I get are error messages. Hashtag not found. Try a more general search. Try using different words.
On my own Twitter feed, I can find my own tweets. But they’re isolated from the herd, drifting in solipsism, and they make little sense without the comments of the others who shared laptop space with me that day. Finding the cache, where everyone’s tweets are stored, except for the two who accidentally typed “clourdrumble56”, creating an opera box for two, a privileged performance space of their own, leads to a surprising, unexpected surge of happiness. The relief of not being on one’s own any more, the only watcher, the sole witness/ participant.
* * *
If you’ve ever played role-playing games, you’ll know all about the fork in the road, the point where you get multiple choices and can continue as a knight errant or choose to upgrade to seventh-rank ninja warlord, can visit the Baba Yaga’s reinvented techno clubhouse or a Tokyo subway station from the late 1950s.
I could now discuss the content of Abhishek Hazra’s performance, which has to do with the life of a scientist who came from a village near Dhaka, a scholarship boy who made his name with his work on the thermal ionization of elements. I could discuss how his performance makes its bow to the conventions of performance art by starting with the body of the artist—clad in layers and layers of football shirts, sweatshirts, T-shirts, which he will cut up with scissors or mutilate or discard as he removes the layers slowly. Or discuss the many ways in which he subverts our expectations and the notions of what constitutes art by deliberately creating and removing layers of meaning, by fracturing language, with his use of headsets and tinned cheese to puncture the usual technological tropes. It’s in keeping with most of his work, which has demonstrated a fascination with the hidden narratives behind science, and which is underpinned by his fairly formidable knowledge of his subject. But that’s not the point of this essay, and there are better critics of Hazra’s art and work than me to turn to in this respect.

* * *
Tweeting a live performance is exhilarating and distracting at the same time. For those of us in the room, the sense of connection with one another—students, art lovers, the curious—develops before the performance as we chat and reach for chocolate éclairs, set up our laptops on the tables provided, check to see that we have a reasonable view of the artist.
When the performance starts, we retreat from one another, absorbed by our keyboards, looking up or communicating only to share hashtags or to make an occasional, rare observation. This is a polite audience, and no one intervenes with their own performances, no one interrupts the artist. Those of us who have developed the ability to touch-type are at an advantage, but it’s interesting to see how most of us, tweeting in effective isolation, reach immediately for description: he’s taking a sweatshirt off, he has the scissors in his hands, he’s shouting, he’s come up to my chair, he’s handing around a pamphlet, we take bites out of the tray of “cheese”, which doesn’t stand for “cheese” at all, we are watching and worried that we might miss something.
About twenty minutes into the performance, you can see the wear and tear on the Twitter timeline, as people abandon description: perhaps it’s too fatiguing, perhaps we’re beginning to recognize the futility of describing a performance that, like all performance art, you really need to be immersed in. Perhaps it’s also the frustration inherent in trying to livetweet performance art that’s showing through: the greater your fidelity to capturing the performance, the more attention you pay to structuring your tweets, the less you’re actually witnessing or experiencing the performance. If you could plot the graph of Hazra’s performance on a tweet monitor, it’s the seconds of collective silence, the half-minute of nothing, where something has happened in the space of that room, where we’re most deeply engaged—too engaged to tweet.
On some of the Twitter clients I use, #cloudrumble56 is still alive, still accessible. Of the people in the audience that day, some were neophytes to Twitter—entering its gargantuan talk-chamber with no preparation at all. (This encourages solipsism: if you don’t know that you can follow people on Twitter, and no one is following you, you can have conversations with yourself all day if you so choose.) Some have set up separate accounts for this Twitter performance; I haven’t, and as I tweet, I receive puzzled Direct Messages looking for Abhishek Hazra’s Twitter performance—the assumption is that #cloudrumble56 is the art event itself, not the twitter feed about the art event. I share this with the person sitting next to me, and we both admit that we had been expecting Twitter performance art—we hadn’t realized that we were the Twitter performance art.
It comes to me, weeks later, that Twitter is the perfect client for performance art. Every other way of preserving a performance online—videotaping it, or writing about it, as I’m doing now—offers the reassurance of permanence. But as much as writers and photographers will try to capture Abramovic’s performance in New York, as vivid as your descriptions might be of a radical performance piece at Devi in Delhi or in the theatre district in Tokyo, the truth is that what passes between audience and artist, performer and witness, or co-performer, is private.
It seems right that #cloudrumble56 will disperse, as the ions in an ionization chamber will after the experiment, or as we do after the performance. It seems right that its Twitter footprint will fade, shoved down the list of trending topics as each day’s cargo of news and opinion and jokes (and art) piles up. There is no such thing as a perfect cache, whether you’re discussing memory or art. There is no such thing as the perfect capture, or the perfect evocation of an art event; what livetweeting returns you to, inexorably, is the performance itself.
I’m looking at the #cloudrumble56 tweets, at these fragments of testimony, reaction, appreciation, puzzlement, engagement, boredom. The collective tweets, even the ones by the two who had the wrong hashtag, are a touching way of trying to capture what lies beyond language with the blunt tools of language, and you can also see emotion, sudden understanding, crosslinks to other web pages that reference Saha or performance art or science or electrons. Caught in this fragile web is a half-conveyed, imperfectly expressed experience; it’s like walking into a reader’s mind as s/he is reading and drawing up a ringside seat. This is the way one contemporary school of criticism is headed: inside the mind of the reader, or the viewer at a performance, inside the thoughts and experiences of the user. It makes art of all kinds, not just performance art, something that is not passive, not done to you—but something that is created and transformed by you and what perceptions you choose to bring to the table.
There is one last thing left to do. If I do it, there’ll be no repercussions: the promise of the Internet is that there is a backup, somewhere, a cache, however hidden or inaccessible, some institution that, like the Library of Congress, will offer the greatest luxury we could have as humans—the permanence of memory.
So there’s no harm in answering yes to this question:
“Delete cache: Y/N?”
I have my notes and my memories, and I won’t need the #cloudrumble56 cache any more—it’s about as much use as an old cinema ticket. But my finger hesitates, and finally comes down on No. Something in me really wants, like those who take pictures of the Abramovic performance, to believe in the possibility of forever.
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