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Breaking with the past
- What do modern Indians have in common with their ancestors'

Bhubaneswar has, at first glance, the provincialism you associate with many capital cities. There are the obscure but important centres of scientific research by the main road, where, presumably, some sort of work on agricultural graft is being done; inside, besides unexplained expanses of emptiness, are the guest houses that survive from the childhood trips you made with your parents. Then there are the new hotels, some of them looking as uninhabited and as much erected for public display as the legislative assembly does in the evening. There’s dust, of course, not far from the obedient grass that surrounds the Café Coffee Day; and visible stretches of horizon between the hospitals for the rich and the software companies. And, at different altitudes and locations, there are, from nine or ten centuries ago, the temples, their lines and curves, their vertical convergences, the sly referentiality their edifices reveal on closer inspection, unlike anything you have seen anywhere.

Like the guest houses with their fans, air conditioners and bathrooms, like the indelible mosquitoes, like the impossible breakfasts inside hotels, like twilight dimming, the temples too are remnants of journeys improvised and undertaken in childhood, part of one’s first impressions of a country with its barriers, public warnings and wonders. It was to catch and compare these impressions before they slipped away that, a few months ago, we decided to revisit Bhubaneswar and take our daughter with us — who, at eight, was almost the same age as we’d been when we, separately, had first toured this part of India with our parents.

On the first day, we went to the exhibition sites to buy saris, pictures, and gifts; on the second day, we went to Dhaulagiri, then Puri, and, on the way back, a little after half past four, the sun barely beginning its descent, stopped at Konark to enter the temple that had been built to honour its timeless vanishings and reappearances. We were immediately beset by the ancillary industry that attended the place: an auto driver who would save us — lazy, well-heeled tourists — the walk, and a guide who could explain to us the facets of the temple in either Oriya, or Hindi, or even Bengali.

Three months later, my memory of Konark is a memory of an intricate structure in light and space, but also, as I see myself gauging the sun’s progress from the relics of neighbouring doorways, and moving from podium to podium, stairway to stairway, as something that contains light and space and concealed angles, like a kaleidoscope. In the midst of this are the several combinations of lovemaking: monogamous; adulterous; orgiastic; bestial; gymnastic; putting to use anal and oral orifices; involving crowds and cooperation; interrupted rudely by spouses and children. Only male homosexuality was missing from the array, and the missionary position; but, given the physical heights at which some of the figures were executed, solely, it seemed, for the sculptor’s pleasure, I might have well overlooked some of that at once tranquil and obsessed activity.

My guide, short, unshaven, in endlessly laundered white shirt and white trousers, drew my attention to a small panel in stone consisting of three eroded but resistant figures. “See, the wife is angry with the husband for taking another woman; what’s wrong with me, she’s asking,” he said in his efficient but not always comprehensible mix of Oriya and Bengali. After this, many of the other panels fell into place for me. My guide would delicately leave my wife and daughter staring, wonderstruck and bored respectively, at a horse or a wheel, and, beckoning to me, gesture towards a frieze: “See how he’s lifted her off the ground; there are advantages to women being light,” or, pointing at three interconnected figures, “See, all of them are busy.” I was uneasy at these solemn observations, their general accuracy, and at this surreptitious camaraderie; and yet I savoured them too. But I wished to communicate these astonishments to my wife, and, at once, keep my daughter from noticing them; as, obviously, I’d once failed to notice them while my parents, two people both known and entirely unknown to me, had walked around the temple.

But, when I think back to that afternoon, or of the booklet of postcard-sized, rather poor reproductions of some of the more bizarre postures carved into the stone which I bought for fifteen rupees on our way out — when I think back to these images, I’m far more unsettled by the unrecognizability of the culture that produced them than by their unbridled sexual fervour. It’s one thing to read about the sexual abandon of our antiquity; it’s another to stand in the same space in which that abandon was imagined and possibly enacted; and yet another to come face to face, close-up, with the otherness of the past, with the compelling and difficult strangeness of our ancestors. For we’ve more or less absorbed and interiorized wholly the story we were taught in school: that we are the progeny of our glorious history. Moreover, India possesses the one ‘living’ culture, we’re told, that still has links with its ancient heritage; in this, we’re quite unlike our Greek contemporaries. Orientalist scholarship, with local assistance, amassed the materials of our antiquity; and colonial archaeologists put together the jigsaw-puzzle fragments of our temples. We — by which I mean educated Indians from two hundred years ago to today — imagined, most importantly of all, our relationship to our forefathers, and saw the ‘living’ link.

Just as Western scholars, in the 19th century, constructed for themselves an inexorable and inevitable lineage going back to the ancient Greeks, our own writers and historians created, upon the foundation provided by the Orientalists, their versions of an unbroken line going back to the old kingdoms, to the Buddha, to the treatises on the arts, and further back, to the incursion of the Aryans and to Harappa. This was, in effect, the first great history composed for a subject race, and, despite similarities to its Western counterpart, had modulations appropriate to the context of subjecthood and nationalism (while the Western tradition is developmental, and a story of increasing secularization, our forefathers, in many ways, are more liberal, more monotheistic, more refined than ‘we’ are).

It’s because of the way we’ve chosen our relationship to our past that our ancestors can come to our rescue, with their Olympian sophistication, again and again in the wake of the extreme right-wing war with Art. And it is right, and our right, to summon them in this way. And yet it’s also right to attend to the moment of disjunction, such as I experienced at Konark, between our world and our ancestors’, and to pursue the implications of that disjunction for the way we imagine history. Our forefathers are not ourselves; they are not proto-cosmopolitans, proto-liberals, or even proto-postcolonials. Those figures in stone not only confirm to us what we are, as nationalism does; they alienate us from ourselves. Some such experience of disjunction on seeing the icons of the 14th-century painter, Andrei Rublov (from almost the same era, then, as the sculptors of Konark), obviously troubled the Russian filmmaker, Tarkovsky, himself very much a European beholden to the art of the Renaissance; yet the mask-like icons, so lacking in the humane consciousness that suffuses post-Renaissance faces in painting as water does a rag, led Tarkovsky to dwell compulsively on what was alien in his ‘own’ heritage, and to make a great film, the eponymous Andrei Rublov, interrogating the usual conflation between European and Russian identities.

Some such intuition of disjunction, and its importance, is expressed by Tagore in his great essay on the Meghadutam, where, mesmerized by Kalidasa and the mandakranta metre, he remarks that “an eternal gulf separates us from ancient India”, a gulf as absolute as the one between Kalidasa’s narrator and the Yaksha. This isn’t just an expression of decline, such as the one on which 19th-century nationalism built itself, but an acknowledgement of cultural estrangement, of history opening us out on to otherness. But, in his public persona, Tagore shaped for himself a role that looks like a natural and seamless extension of the inheritance given him by antiquity. An altogether different version of this contradiction can be found, more recently, in Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, where he truculently answers Western historicism by pointing out that the Greeks had little in common, after all, with the Goths and Visigoths. This seems entirely true; and yet, when he comes to our secular modernity, and in the process of uncovering its sources, Sen fashions a thesis that takes us back to the various stages of our past; untroubled by the possibility of an ambivalent reply to the same question: “What do we have in common with our ancestors'” And yet that other world, were we to let it speak, would surely have something to tell us.

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