The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The random sources of renewal


My purpose in describing the pattern of disowning and recovery in the lives and works of certain writers — Madhusudan Dutt; Vijayan; Ramanujan; Anantha Murthy; Nirad Chaudhuri — is to propose an alternative story of modernity and modernism; to distinguish it from both European modernism and the narrative of post-coloniality.

The difference between the story of this modernism, and the more famous one that unfolds itself in Europe from the early twentieth century onwards, has to do, it seems, with invention of the past and the artist’s relationship to it. For the European and, especially, the American-born modernist, the past is threatened by the banality and the violence of the present: by popular culture; by the machine; by the venality of the marketplace, for which, often, Jewry is a figure; by the Great War. The European past returns, or is recuperated, in fragments, in the works of, say, Pound, or Eliot, or David Jones; it can no longer be inhabited, or made available, in its entirety. It’s not surprising, as we now know, to find this powerful nostalgia for “high” European civilization in Fascism, or that Western modernism had emotional ties and a certain sympathy with the latter. The volkisch philosophy of an Oswald Spengler, according to which cultures are essential, untranslatable, and rooted, plant-like, to a particular soil or habitat, finds its artistic counterpart in the great works of modernism, in which the European past is threatened, fragmented, but nevertheless organically and indispensably present.

The story of “our” — if I can presume to use that pronoun — modernity is somewhat different. Firstly, as colonials, our idea of “high” culture lay elsewhere. “Our” past, in spite of its apotheosis by Orientalist scholars, was viewed with a degree of objectivity, ambivalence, even, occasionally, loathing. It was this past that, once neglected or rejected, presented itself to the artist — to Dutt, for example — with its renewing creative possibilities. A conspiracy of chance and circumstances brought about this renewal; and the source of the renewal appears to be often random and paradoxical. In Dutt’s case, it was Milton and Versailles; for Vijayan, the death of Imre Nagy and the journey to a village; for Anantha Murthy, a Bergman film without subtitles; for Ramanujan, a basement in Chicago. Very few seem to have turned to a past that they didn’t feel they’d once neglected; and very few seem to have encountered it in expected circumstances, or an expected place or shrine. Even Debendranath Tagore, whose epiphanic meeting with his spiritual heritage involves a more conventionally acceptable source, a page from the Upanishads, came upon the page accidentally, as it was being blown away by a breeze.

To take another example: Satyajit Ray. Here was a man born into a Brahmo family, whose enthusiasms, as he was growing up, were Western classical music and Hollywood movies, particularly John Ford’s. A combination of roughly three events appears to have caused the “turn” towards local landscape, the Bengali language, and the past that we find in Ray’s first film — his discovery of Italian neo-realist cinema; Jean Renoir’s visit to Calcutta; and a commission to illustrate an abridged version of Pather Panchali, which he hadn’t read before. Indian modernism’s (if I can call it that) relationship to the autochthonic past is comparable, in some ways, to European modernism’s relationship to the industrialized present; in that its provenance is surreptitious, and the hint of illegality in the relationship makes it the more compelling.

The randomness of situations that lead to that “turn” speaks less of an ideological move than of associations formed suddenly in the subconscious; indeed, this aleatory quality rearranges the purposes, the telos, of colonialism and nationalism. What else but the subconscious can make Milton, Imre Nagy, The Seventh Seal, Mozart, the Ramayana, Nischindipur, Basavanna, Kerala, Chicago, Calcutta, France, not seem like delirious babbling, but part of a single literary history' And it’s the dimension of the subconscious that distinguishes this tale of modernity from the narrative of post-coloniality.

In the latter, a confrontation takes place between Empire and local culture; English and indigenous forms of knowledge; colonizer and colonized. But in the story I’ve told, the battle, the struggle, takes place within the self, and not just between the self and an enemy outside it; the story of modernity is as much a story of self-division as the post-colonial narrative is one of Empire, domination, and resistance. In the narrative of post-coloniality, the mother-tongue, “Indianness”, or “Bengaliness” are natural properties of the colonized, threatened by the processes of Empire. In the story of modernity, the mother-tongue and the English language are part of a transaction that, through disowning and recovery, define the “modern” self; the transaction is modulated from artist to artist, from moment to moment, and takes a radically new, but provisional, form in the work of the Anglophone writer — but it’s precisely this inward tension that both enables and disfigures creativity in the life and career of the Indian “modern”.

For me, this extraordinary tale takes about a hundred and twenty years to unfold, and, in literature at least, it comes to end circa 1981, with the publication of Midnight’s Children. Here is the classic post-modern Indian text, and I name it thus not only because it possesses all the recognizable window-dressing of post-modernity: polyphony; the conflation and confusion of fantasy with history. In Rushdie’s novel, the tension between rejection and recuperation which gave the modernist Indian literary text its inexhaustible light and shade is replaced by something new: a promiscuity of meaning. Nothing is either disowned or recovered; all is embraced. The inward struggle that, from Dutt to Ramanujan, gave Indian modernism its particular meaning, is replaced, in Midnight’s Children, by infinite play.

And yet I don’t think the modernist paradigm I’ve described is altogether dead. Its residues perhaps survive even now; and, although I’m fifteen years younger than Rushdie, I think that my artistic practice has been informed and shaped by that older, residual pattern. This is probably true of other writers among my contemporaries, but I’ll restrict myself to a personal retelling. The “turn” in my life occurred around 1978; and though it didn’t have anything to do, directly, with my apprenticeship as a writer, it had everything to do with my creative life. The “turn” took place in my relationship to an art that was, for me, extremely important but still secondary at the time: music. One fine day, almost, I became a lifelong student, and then exponent, of Hindustani classical music.

Nothing had prepared either my family, or myself, or my friends for that “turn”. My father belonged to the upper reaches of the Bombay corporate world; that was the desert island I grew up on. My mother was, and is, primarily a singer of Tagore-songs; and the genteel, hybrid, Tagorean world of the bhadralok has always kept classical music, with its zamindars, ustads, and tawaifs, at arm’s length. (The associations of Western classical music were, for the European bourgeoisie, unambiguously “high” cultural; the hostility it provokes is a hostility towards elitism. For the Indian, especially the Bengali, middle class, on the other hand, Hindustani classical music always had the air, at once, of profundity, intricacy, and disrepute.)

When the “turn” came, however, it was complete and seemingly final. Prior to it, I dallied, unsurprisingly for one who’d grown up in Bombay, with American folk, blues, and rock music; played the acoustic and electric guitars; even composed songs. Almost overnight, I set aside my guitars; calluses gradually grew on the fingertips that, six months ago, had borne the deep, embedded lines of frets and strings. I stopped listening to my huge record collection; it was only recently, after about twenty-two years, that I once more began to play, with extraordinary shyness, my Joni Mitchells and James Taylors. In 1980, what I had was a sort of theological conversion; I decided that the music I’d listened to and sung so far was out of joint with the world around me, with “India”, its seasons, its times of day; only the raags of the tradition I now embarked upon were appropriate and apposite to that reality. In fact, Western popular music fitted in with Bombay, and the scene I saw from my balcony — the Marine Drive, the Queen’s Necklace, Chowpatty Beach, the nocturnal lights and incandescent messages of the city — rather comfortably; but it was as if, in pursuing Hindustani classical music, I was assigning new values to reality — to light, to air, to evening, to morning.

When I look back to Dutt and the one hundred and fifty years of our cultural history, what happened in my life, and the suddenness with which it happened, the radical break it constituted, seem no longer surprising; indeed, they fit in quite well with the pattern of disowning and recovery through which the nation, the self, experience, and creativity have made themselves available to us in modernity. You turn to a language that seems the only language adequate to your altered vision of reality, and of yourself; heretofore neglected, this becomes the authentic language of nationhood, experience, self-consciousness. In the poets and writers I’ve mentioned, the mother-tongue was thus constructed; in my case, that “Indian” language was Hindustani classical music. I’ve begun, once more, as I said, to listen to my old records; but the calluses on my fingers healed so completely that I don’t think I will touch the guitar again.

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