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IMAGINING THE TIMES
- India’s painful awakening to modernity

The recent demise of Pandit Ravi Shankar reminded me of the spare, evocative soundtrack of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy from the mid-late 1950s, of a charming film by Merchant-Ivory made in 1969 titled The Guru, which had music by Ravi Shankar’s arch-rival, Ustad Vilayat Khan, of a photograph of my father with Ravi Shankar, taken in Mexico City sometime in the early-mid 1970s, of Deborah Baker’s lovely 2008 book, A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, and of my own years as an undergraduate at Lady Shri Ram College, when Ravi Shankar gave a concert at the Siri Fort auditorium to help raise money to renovate the LSR auditorium. As a gangly 17-year-old wearing my mother’s beige-and-maroon gadwal sari, matched to the college colours, I was in the van that went to collect him from his Lodhi Road residence just before the show began.

The strings of his sitar, I realized, threaded together for me as for thousands of other listeners, so many decades, so much of our recent history. Preoccupied with memories and associations triggered off by the maestro’s death, I took out and listened to a CD of music from several of Satyajit Ray’s films; I recalled stories of my father’s adventures in India, Europe and Latin America as a young poet and thinker travelling the world and meeting other artists and writers between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s. The best music has the capacity to conjure up an entire world; it is after all a way of imagining the times to which it belongs.

In my book Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, I try to recapture the ways in which our founders struggled to re-imagine their political world. What kind of exercise of the imagination did it take for Gandhi to posit the relation between self and other as becoming premised on ahimsa, the absence of the desire to harm or injure? How radically would the stance of the self towards the other have to be reoriented through an act of the moral imagination for violence to be removed from the equation between two human beings and eventually from society itself? What techniques of self-discipline and what efforts at self-mastery would be necessary to make such a non-violent world possible? For Gandhi to try to achieve personal and collective ahimsa, tremendous feats of imagination were required — and we find them in his satyagrahas and fasts, his sermons and reflections, his walks and austerities, his mass mobilizations and acts of civil disobedience. We don’t often give him credit for being an imaginative mind, but Gandhi really did spend his life imagining his times, or more precisely, imagining how his times might be made different than the reality of colonial subjugation and civilizational disrepair that he found all around him.

Rabindranath Tagore was surely the most imaginative of India’s great moderns, who conjured up visions of Bengal, of India, of the historical past, of the poetic tradition, and of the everyday life of the ordinary people and small communities in his vicinity — visions that still inform the way in which we relate to our country, to its history and to its present. For Rabindranath, the longing born of separation — viraha — becomes the fuel for creativity. In a perpetual state of separation from the beloved object, the self in Rabindranath’s understanding must constantly give voice to its yearning. This is poiesis, the bringing into presence of ever-new forms, the outpourings — in language or in whatever other artistic medium — of the restless, separated, longing self. For the poet, viraha is the essence of our very being in time, because we are always at a remove from both past and future, always yearning for an impossible return or an unattainable union. But it is on account of this condition of exile and distance that we are driven to imagine with greater intensity our faraway home, our distant beloved, our eventual reunion.

My book explores other imaginings too: Abanindranath Tagore’s reconstruction of the history of Indian art, and his attempt to suffuse his paintings with styles, techniques and categories drawn from Indian aesthetics and representational traditions, whether Buddhist, Rajput, Mughal, Indo-Persian or others. Without the imagination of Abanindranath and his family members, colleagues and acolytes in Jorasanko and Santiniketan in the early years of the 20th century, we would never have had that extraordinary passage in the history of Indian aesthetic modernism which we usually designate by the name ‘Bengal Renaissance’.

I look at how Jawaharlal Nehru imagined the Mauryan empire, and especially the emperor, Asoka, making that earliest of the polities that we may mark in our history the repository of a number of norms and values connoting ethical sovereignty, pacifism, benign rule, and amicable relations with other states. It was to give concrete form to these imaginings of the first empire as a model for the new republic that Nehru endorsed the choice of the Sarnath lion capital as India’s State seal, and the Asokan dhamma-chakra as the centre of the national flag.

Finally I turn to B.R. Ambedkar, whom I would call the most imaginative of all the founders, because he posited the need to build an Indian society from which caste had been annihilated; he imagined equal citizenship in a context of deep structural and historically entrenched inequality; he imagined a new Buddhism, in which the central category was no longer the individual’s suffering, karmic duhkha, but our collective suffering, social suffering, saamaajik duhkha as the generalized misery of an entire social body burdened with the hierarchies and humiliations of caste.

Ambedkar was the most imaginative of his peers because his imagination took him to a place that was unlike anything around him, and unlike anything that had ever existed in India throughout its recorded history. His imagination required as much the destruction of all that was wrong with Indian society as it required the creation of unprecedented systems, the raising of new scaffoldings, as for example through the Constitution of the Republic of India, promulgated in 1950. The imaginative risk, the daring, required to propel India out of colonialism and caste into a future of equality and dignity for all is hard to even contemplate in our own age of casualty, compromise and corruption. Ambedkar was the one who dared to imagine a truly unrecognizable India, an India where the status of some would not rest on the dehumanization of others, where the true and absolute equality of all human beings would indeed be the regnant norm.

The music of the late Ravi Shankar, and the cinematography of Satyajit Ray, together helped us imagine India’s slow and sometimes painful awakening into modernity. The Pather Panchali soundtrack evokes for us a time when the nation, like the young Apu, was coming of age. In the words of the art critic Geeta Kapur, the flamelike sense of self embodied in the character of Apu is an allegory for a nascent India. In life and in death, Ravi Shankar was disproportionately associated with the counter-culture of the 1960s, and the slightly giddy learnings and borrowings of the beats and the hippies from whatever it was they understood as Indian spirituality and sexuality. Ravi Shankar may have had his famous encounter with the Beatles, but the scope and range of his music far exceeded that heady passage. He creatively interpreted many of the twists and turns along India’s journey out of the past and into the future throughout the 20th century, through the prodigious exercise of his gifted, melodic imagination.

Perhaps we too need thinkers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, leaders, who have the capacity to imagine our times, to provide a vocabulary, an idiom, a repertoire of symbols, through which we can not only understand reality around us but also project ways in which it could be different, and better, more reflective of our otherwise attenuated humanity.