Editorial /Culture and the commissar
India by the Isis
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

Culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language. And Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s recent comments on the West Bengal government’s involvement in the Hrithik Roshan show in Calcutta are yet another intervention in the debate about the idea that enthuses the Left Front from time to time. Culture, for Mr Bhattacharjee, is not mere entertainment, but “an integral part” of his life, as he likes to put it. His range is impressive — from Mayakovsky to Marcel Proust (this absorption in the lives of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie makes him a particularly interesting communist). Therefore, his squeamish recoil from the Bollywood superstar should surprise nobody. Personal antipathies apart, Bengal’s communists — hovering in the chill grey zone between the moral and the aesthetic — have often expressed their lenten disapproval of certain forms of popular entertainment. Charity bashes, crooners, cabaret artists and film crew have all been subjected, over the years, to their sanctimoniousness.

Yet, Mr Bhattacharjee’s discomfiture with the transport minister’s swashbuckling populism in letting the sports council partly sponsor the show has to be considered for what it’s worth. In matters of cultural values and practice, the state should certainly let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred thoughts contend. But putting the stamp of its patronage on a chosen few among these is another matter. This is where Mr Bhattacharjee’s objection deserves to be taken seriously — provided its implications are drawn out all the way. The question isn’t what forms of culture the government should patronize, but whether the state shouldn’t keep its finger out of the cultural pie altogether. Here, the Left Front will have to rethink its stance, if it is at all interested in modernizing its mode of governance.

The creation of taste in urban West Bengal has been a state-controlled process over the last few decades. This has led to not only the formation of a hierarchy of genres, but also to the ideological determination of cultural production itself. Cinema has emerged as the state-sponsored passion, with the film festival rising from the ashes every year like a bedraggled phoenix. This has resulted in a lopsided privileging of cinema over other genres, even if these have a greater claim to the status of “high art”. Perhaps films lend themselves more easily to ideology than do the fine arts. Consequently, the state is indifferent to the dilapidation of Calcutta’s Academy of Fine Arts. There is also very little interest in classical dance and music, eastern and western. Prominent international artists, when they do condescend to stop by in the city, fail to interest its ideologues. Western classical music, once a living tradition in Calcutta, is another victim of this parochialism. Reduced to a matter of consular whims, and hindered no doubt by bureaucratic red tape, world class symphony orchestras, chamber groups and performers have given way to an intermittent dribble of undistinguished amateurs. Somehow, high classical art is difficult to square with the image of art as “radical” or “popular”. Hence, the sad fall in standards of excellence, compared to the other metropolitan centres of western and southern India.

The Left Front still finds it impossible to dissociate sponsorship from patronage. The former involves financial and infrastructural assistance, whereas the latter inevitably entails ideological endorsement, even policing. The government’s inclination to the latter, as this tiff between the two ministers amusingly brings out, is a consequence of its patriarchal structure. The Hrithik controversy is being continuously refereed by the “leader of the leaders”, Mr Jyoti Basu, and the transport minister’s triumph has been determined by Mr Basu’s endorsement of his position. Hence, at every stage, the culture debate has been inseparable from the dispute over collective leadership within the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Until its commissars outgrow this fear of independent thinking, the Left Front should keep out of any activity that is necessarily founded on the freedom of expression, no matter how high or low the brow.    

In the late Fifties, on a cold and grey autumn morning in Oxford, the former British prime minister, Clement Attlee, came down for breakfast to Nuffield College Hall. Attlee was then an honorary fellow of Nuffield. The Hall was empty except for two students from the Indian subcontinent. Attlee joined them and asked them where they came from. One replied India and the other said Pakistan. Attlee cracked open his hard-boiled egg, looked at the two students and said, “Gave independence to both countries, I did’’. Even by Attlee’s standards (Winston Churchill had once said of him, “But for the grace of Attlee, there goes Attlee’’.), the statement was breathtaking in its arrogance. But this was the prevalent view of Oxford — and Britain — towards India for as long as one can remember.

Indians, according to this view, have no agency of their own. Others, more specifically the British, did things for them. To borrow and alter what Karl Marx wrote in a different context, Indians cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.

The Indian minister for external affairs, Jaswant Singh, would have done well to remember this attitude when he made an endowment of Rs 12.1 crore (£ 1.8 million) to set up a chair in Oxford on Indian history and culture. From all accounts, knowledge about Oxford’s links with Indian history and culture is not Singh’s — or more correctly, his speech writer’s — strong point. Singh’s speech in Oxford contains some howlers that would have done Rajiv Gandhi proud. He said that this was the first chair of its kind being set up in Oxford. This is wrong on many counts.

There already exists in Oxford, at Balliol College, the Boden professorship of Sanskrit. This was set up in 1833 with the help of a sumptuous legacy of Colonel Joseph Boden who hoped to encourage indirectly the evangelization of India. The first incumbent of this chair was H.H. Wilson. There is also the Spalding chair of Eastern Religion and Ethics at All Souls College. This was endowed by H.C. Spalding in 1935. Spalding had heard Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s Hibbert Lectures at the universities of London and Manchester in 1930 and had been won over by Radhakrishnan’s personality and teachings. It was fitting that Radhakrishnan was the first to hold the professorship. There is also a readership in modern South Asian history at St Antony’s College. This has been in existence since the Thirties. There is also a Curzon Memorial Prize for an essay on a specified theme of modern Indian history. Moreover, the Beit Professorship on the History of the British Commonwealth at Balliol also covers modern Indian history. Singh’s generosity is by no means the first to open up India to Oxford.

Scholarship in Oxford has always had an eye on the Orient. Warren Hastings, an important figure in encouraging an interest in Indian history and culture among Britons in the 18th century, said that in the University of Oxford, “oriental learning had never since the revival of letters been wholly neglected”. As Edward Said has noted, the West’s interest in the Orient “commenced its formal existence with the decision of the Church Council of Vienne in 1312 to establish a series of chairs in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac at Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Avignon, and Salamanca”.

Sanskrit was a late comer into the field of Oriental Studies and Oxford was a pioneer in this area. What goes by the name of Oriental Studies — we know today by way of Said’s outstanding book, Orientalism — is a particular way of organizing knowledge about the West’s Other. Said has shown very sharply that through this corpus of knowledge “European culture was able to manage — and even produce — the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period”. Orientalism, Said argues, makes the Orient a subject which is not capable of free thought or action.

It will surprise nobody who knows Oxford, that the new chair for Indian history and culture is to be housed in the Faculty of Oriental Studies. The thrust of this chair, it is clear from its location, is not going to be modern Indian history but ancient and medieval India. The new chair will be confined to what is defined as Oriental Studies. The limits of this definition will be clear from a listing of the other professorships in the same faculty: Arabic, Armenian Studies, Chinese, eastern Religion and Ethics, Egyptology, Hebrew, Persian Studies and Sanskrit.

In 1935, when Radhakrishnan was appointed the Spalding professor, his term was only for five years. In 1937, Spalding provided funds to maintain the chair for 15 years and Radhakrishnan’s tenure was correspondingly extended. What is significant is that for the first five years of his appointment, Radhakrishnan, despite holding a chair, was only made a member of the common room of All Souls. The chair and the professor were thus given step-brotherly treatment by Oxford’s most exclusive college, which elected Radhakrishnan a fellow only in 1940. It will be interesting to see which college claims the new professorship and how it treats the new incumbent.

It is not unfair to voice such a suspicion because things change slowly in Oxford and attitudes die hard. Indian studies have never been Oxford’s top priority. The University had no compunctions in appropriating the spacious building at the corner of the Broad and Catte Street and Holywell Street which housed the Indian Institute. It was given over to the Modern History Faculty and the Indian Institute was removed to the top of the New Bodleian.

Within the Modern History Faculty, Indian history occupies a small position and is driven, in terms of syllabus, towards a particular orientation. For many decades, the Oxford History School offered a special subject on “Warren Hastings and the Administration of Bengal”. There was no other ostensible reason for offering this subject save the fact that it was the chosen field of C.C. Davies who held the readership in modern South Asian history for nearly three decades.

One suspects, that this paper was not changed for such a long time because of the influence of Dame Lucy Sutherland, the principal of Lady Margaret Hall, who was a specialist on the English East India Company and 18th century politics. Dame Lucy was a major power figure in the Oxford Modern History Faculty in the Fifties. Her power was derived largely from her closeness to Lewis Namier (cloister gossip in Oxford says she was in love with him) who then advised Harold Macmillan on matters relating to history. (In fact, when the Regius Professorship in History fell vacant in 1957, Namier first recommended Sutherland’s name. It was when she refused — because she wanted the professorship and to remain principal of LMH — that the battle royal between A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper ensued.)

The special subject was changed in the Seventies and it is now called “Constitutional Changes and Indian Nationalism”. The coupling is extremely significant. The underlying theory is that doses of constitutional reforms introduced by the British in India produced Indian nationalism as Indian elites fought over limited resources being doled out by the Raj. The author of this theory was Jack Gallagher, who held the Beit professorship in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and argued that “Government impulse had linked much more closely the local and provincial arenas of politics; and the general trend among Indian politicians, constitutionalist or not, was to react to this initiative by copying it’’. Indian nationalism thus became nothing more than a mere echo of imperialism which produces it. Indians have no agency of their own. To supplement the special subject a further subject was offered on “Imperialism and Nationalism” which elaborated this theory.

The appropriation of agency is important. In an interview for the post of readership in South Asian history one of India’s finest young historians was asked by a very distinguished historian of 17th century England, “How would you teach Indian history as a part of British history?” The question harks directly back to James Mill who had asserted in History of British India that “The subject forms an entire, and highly interesting, portion of the British History.” Indians have no history of their own, it is created for them by the white man in his academic institutions. No wonder Attlee believed he had given independence to India and Pakistan.

The government of India, in its wisdom, has decided to gift to one such institution a large sum of money to tell us about our own history and culture. Forgive us, Mr Singh, if we fail to applaud your magnanimity.    


Better than thou

How would you identify a politician? By the swell in his head. The swell will be bigger if our man also happens to be a former bureaucrat. So there shouldn’t be much trouble identifying the Congressman, ex-foreign minister and diplomat, Natwar Singh, who recently made this unique characteristic more noticeable. Singh seems to think that among his Congress brotherhood, he alone is best qualified to deliberate on India’s foreign policy. At least, that is the vibe he sent off to his senior colleagues when he made the not-so-subtle remarks about his experience and understanding of all things foreign. The words flowed when the Rajya Sabha was to hold a debate on the country’s foreign policy and former Union minister, Pranab Mukherjee, was listed as the key speaker from the Congress. On learning this, Natwar lost no time panning Mukherjee. “Oh, his understanding of foreign affairs is frozen in the pre-Cold War mindset”. What a pity Rajasthanis did not appreciate the Kunwar Saheb’s expertise enough to send him to Parliament.

Annoyed with the master of tact

It is difficult to please everybody all the time. No one but the Union law minister, Arun Jaitley, knows that better. Chartered accountants are apparently terribly annoyed with him for the proposed amendments in the company law. The minister is about to remove the stipulation that CAs can audit up to a maximum of some 20 firms. Even in this age of liberalization and laissez faire, you’ll be stunned to hear that CAs want the minister to retain the clause. Reason? It would help them earn their daily bread. If the clause is removed, they fear the big guns among them would monopolize most of the lucrative audit of the bigger firms. Cutting across their hues, CAs have petitioned the minister against the abrogation of the restrictive stipulation. But the minister’s a tough nut to crack. He has conceded that he would retain the limit of “20”, only for the audit of public firms. Its a free world for the rest. Jaitley argues that if the logic put forward by the CAs is stretched a little, he may even be asked to set a limit on the daily cases of successful lawyers and doctors. Thus he finds no reason for retaining a fossil from the socialist era. Its the age of saffron, folks!

Come on, eat up!

No one told him it was so tough playing a good boy to the Trinamool didi. Mamata Banerjee seems never to miss a chance of expressing her displeasure over the manner the Union minister of state for external affairs and Trinamool dada Ajit Panja, nowadays skirts party programmes. Banerjee apparently has also been informed about Panja’s alleged encouragement to some party dissidents in northeast Calcutta from where he represents the party. Fearing that an angry didi might, after all, deny party tickets to his loyalists in the coming assembly elections, Panja is trying his best to keep Mamata in good humour. This was evident in the manner Panja lapped up hot khichri along with 1,200 flood victims the other day at a makeshift tent in front of the Gandhi statue on Mayo Road in Calcutta. Banerjee was, of course, present there and it was for her eyes only that Panja performed. At least that is what Panja’s detractors say. They even claim to have heard Panja shouting out to didi saying he can do anything for her. Now, that’slike a good boy.

Food worth swooping on

When it comes to hospitality, there’s no beating Congressman Ghulam Nabi Azad. On Friday last, Azad played host to members of the media, serving a range of mouth-watering delicacies like tabak maaz, rista, rushtaba, goshtaba, seekh kebabs and so on. Within minutes the aroma spread, getting a lot more interest than Azad would have liked. Scores of vultures and crows circulated the sky above and many finding the fare too tempting to let go, zeroed in on a few plates.

Journalists soon found their precious rista and other kebabs vanish from their plates. The competition between man and animal grew so fierce at a point of time that Azad had to summon his security guards to chase away his uninvited guests. That done, journalists were left alone to dig into their food without intrusion once again. As it turned out, at the end of the day everyone was happy. The guards, doing a trifle more than their mundane duty, got to eat their fill and the rest of what remained of the meat and the bones went to Azad’s surprise visitors. Amen.

Footnote/ Superannuated, but still the boss

And you thought he walked into the twilight on the red carpet rolled out for him? Wrong. The ex-chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, has merely shifted shop. He now works from Alimuddin Street, where he is reputed to be in control of everything. Many call him “super boss” (is that short for superannuated boss?). Anyway, a meticulous Basu is said to visit the party office three times a week, go through complaints of party workers from the districts and even to give orders to state leaders. The other day, Basu summoned the chief minister and the party’s state unit secretary, Anil Biswas, to hold an important discussion. Contrary to his habit, Basu has also started meeting scribes, almost daily, to brief them about party affairs. The grapevine has it that Basu’s hectic activity has become a major embarrassment for three key party leaders — Biswas and his two other politburo colleagues, Biman Bose and Sailen Dasgupta. The trio is alleged to have become a non-entity in the party office after Basu took over Alimuddin Street. So the “health grounds” don’t apply to backseat driving?    


Good morning, Vietnam

Sir — The visit of the United States president, Bill Clinton, to Vietnam, opens a new chapter in the strained relationship between the two countries (“Clinton warmed by Hanoi”, Nov 18). If one recalls the days of the Sixties and the Seventies when US bomb attacks on this small southeast Asian country killed millions of innocent Vietnamese, the warmth shown by the people of Vietnam towards Clinton comes across as an exemplary gesture in forgiveness. It was as if this fearful past was being exorcised as the whole of Vietnam smiled, waved and cheered, and Clinton expressed his desire to build a prosperous future. Only time will prove the sincerity of Clinton’s rhetoric of help sans domination.
Yours faithfully,
Biren Saha, Titagarh

How poor are we?

Sir — The article “Pursuit of a Dismal Science”, (Nov 14) by Ansu Dutta is an eye opener as far as the statistics regarding world poverty is concerned. The proportion of the population of South East Asia that is considered to be living on less than one dollar a day, that is, under the line of “extreme income poverty” has increased from 44 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 1998. As for the government of India, the only way to combat poverty along with the problems of an ever-increasing population, is by introducing birth control measures and opening schools in every village. India should remember that a staggering 44.2 percent in the country live below this line and what is far worse is that we fall behind our neighbours in this regard.
Yours faithfully,
Vijay Jain, Calcutta

Sir — The World Bank’s bold decision to reduce extreme poverty by the year 2015 is encouraging although one has to express serious doubts as to the success of this plan. Ansu Dutta’s article gives us an insight into the problem of extreme poverty. Most of the problems faced by under-developed countries are invariably related to poverty — inhuman and unhygienic conditions of living, child mortality, population explosion and child labour. With a reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line, these problems would become manageable.

The growth of poverty in former communist countries including erstwhile Soviet Union is a testimony to the fact that a country’s economic system is inextricably linked up with the magnitude of poverty in that country. The poverty alleviation efforts by the Indian government have been diluted by the distribution of income in agriculture, determined by the distribution of land. The recent World Bank report mentions that extreme poverty level in India is about 4 per cent higher than the regional average, which reflects the dismal efforts of our successive governments. Whether the shift from a socialist to a capitalist economy in India will help in the eradication of poverty remains to be seen.

Yours faithfully,
R.K. Guha Roy, Durgapur

Parting shot

Sir — The music reviewer, in “Without fireworks” (Nov 24), displays a charming naïveté in his account of the jazz concert arranged by the British Council at the Tollygunge Club on Nov 22. Did he actually imagine that he was going to hear good jazz? It is well known that Calcuttans set virtually no standards in these matters. Most of those who were there that evening would accept any music dished out by the “British Council” — that haven of culture — as the finest music they have ever heard.

Yours faithfully,
Dipak Bhattacharya, Calcutta

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