The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Transfiguring the mundane

Life Itself

What does the 'exotic' in 'Are you exoticizing your subject for a Western audience' ' a question asked indefatigably of Indians who write in English ' what does the word mean, or in which sense is it meant' Dictionaries will give you a range of meanings, such as 'foreign' (where 'foreign' is usually 'tropical') and 'strange' and even 'bizarre'. But the dictionaries' interpretations are almost entirely positive; the exotic has to do with a certain kind of allure, the allure of the strange and faraway. They still haven't taken into account the post-Saidian registers of the word, by which it has become a habitual term with which to count the spiritual costs of colonialism: 'inauthentic' and 'falsified' are still not options among their list of meanings. The word's stock had never been very high, but its reputation has declined in the way the reputation of 'picturesque' had earlier; although the latter never transcended its status of being a minor aesthetic term into becoming the populist catchphrase that the former has become.

Said, of course, feels compelled to use the word in the first page of Orientalism, where he notes that a French journalist, on 'a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976'wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that 'it had once seemed to belong to the Orient of Chauteaubriand and Nerval.' For the European, for the French journalist, to mourn the demise of this Orient was natural, for, as Said goes on to say, this Orient 'was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes'Now it was disappearing' ' in the Middle East, especially, as the French journalist saw it, into the tragic mess of contemporary history. In a salutary reminder, characteristic of Said both in his study and his political work, the reader is told of the simple but, till then, often ignored, irony of the fact that the Orient was also a real place, even in the time of Chauteaubriand and Nerval; that, even then, 'Orientals had lived there, and that now it was they who were suffering'; however, 'the main thing for the European visitor was a European representation of the Orient and its contemporary fate'.

Characteristic, too, of Said in much of his literary critical work (his political writings and activism are almost a compensation for this), is, as he fleetingly admits himself, his own study's turning away from the Oriental, except in his or her itinerary in European texts, and from the Oriental representation of the Orient. This ' the Orient's representation of itself ' is presumably what the 'almost' in 'the Orient was almost a European invention' refers to, and also suppresses; that the Orient, in modernity, is not only an European invention, but also an Oriental one, an invention that has presumably created and occupied an intellectual, cultural and political space far larger and more important than its European counterpart. The book about the Oriental invention ' and I mean that word in both senses, as 'creative' and 'spurious' production ' of the Orient is still to be written; for now, we have to be content with that 'almost'. Dipesh Chakrabarty, in his Provincializing Europe, wryly observes that a literary commentator, while describing the provenances of Midnight's Children, its mixture of 'Western' and 'Eastern' elements, makes specific references to what she considers the Western resources of Rushdie's novel (The Tin Drum, Tristram Shandy etc), but refers to the Eastern ones only in blurred and general categories: 'Indian legends, films and literature'. Chakrabarty gives this sort of critical viewpoint a hilarious definition: 'asymmetric ignorance'. While one should hesitate before ascribing to Said an ignorance of modern Oriental cultural traditions, that 'almost' in his sentence certainly constitutes an asymmetry ' an asymmetry whose logic he pursues implicitly but quite relentlessly in his study.

What does this asymmetry mean to our understanding ' our specifically Said-inflected understanding ' of the 'exotic' In the sense that we use the term today, the 'exotic' doesn't just mean 'foreign', but a commodification of the foreign: an intrinsic part of the 'production' of the East that Orientalism entails, and which is, crucially, made possible by the spread of capitalism and of markets. When the person in the audience asks the Indian writer in English about exoticization, he means to say that the writer is a sort of deracinated Oriental who, in an act of betrayal, has become involved in the production of the Orient. We've inherited the Saidian asymmetry along with the Saidian critique; it leads us to believe that Oriental and, for our purposes, Indian history was a bucolic zone untouched by the market until, probably, the Indian novelist in English came along; that the Orient has been in a state of nature in the last two hundred years, translated into the realm of production and consumption only by Western writers and entrepreneurs. And in this way, we exoticize exocitization itself, making it impossibly foreign to, and distant from, ourselves.

A glance at the cultural history of our modernity, however, tells us that we've been 'producing' the Orient, and exoticizing it, for a very long time; that the exotic has been a necessary, perhaps indispensable, constituent of our self-expression and political identity, as given voice to in popular culture, in calendar prints, oleographs, the 'mythologicals' of early Hindi cinema, as well as the lavish visions of Indian history in the latter ' these are the signatures of the cultural and political world of the anonymous; a 'production' of the East more challenging or significant than anything the word, 'Orientalism' can hope to encapsulate, and part of whose inheritance, as seen in the core of kitsch in the BJP's version of Hindutva, is ambiguous.

A certain sort of middle-class flirtation with the exotic goes back to the formation of our modernity: in some of the works of, say, Abanindranath, or those of Ravi Varma and, later, Hemen Majumdar. But the Indian production of the exotic is also important ' far more so than its Western counterpart ' to canonical artists like the filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, as something they define their art against: what's stifling to the young apprentice director in 1948, in an essay called 'What is Wrong with Indian Films', is not his burden as a post-colonial, but his burden as a modern ' the presence, on all sides, of a powerful home-grown 'exotic' in cinema, what he calls elsewhere the 'mythologicals and devotionals' that 'provide the staple fare for the majority of Bengal's film public'.

This 'production' of the East has already quite a long history in India, he notes dourly in 1948: 'Meanwhile, 'studios sprang up,' to quote an American writer in Screenwriter, 'even in such unlikely lands as India and China.' One may note in passing that this springing up has been happening in India for nearly forty years.' The call to turn away from this home-grown production is quasi-religious, Vivekananda-like: 'The raw material of the cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He has only to keep his eyes open, and his ears.'

'Life itself': this brings us to the second part of what's so problematic about the recent history of the term 'exotic' in our country. When Ray speaks of 'life' and the 'raw material' of life, he's speaking of a refutation of the spectacular that comprises the exotic, in favour of the mundane, the everyday, and the transfiguration of the mundane. The crucial role of that transfiguration informs his directive to the filmmaker to 'keep his eyes open, and his ears': the words not only echo Vivekananda, but Tagore, who, in a song invoking the givens of nature ' light, air, grass ' says, 'kaan petechhi, chokh melechhi [I have pricked up my ear, I have gazed upon]'.

That transfiguration involves a making foreign or strange the 'raw material' of the commonplace; what the Russian Formalist, Victor Shklovsky, called 'defamiliarization', but what is beyond a formal device, and a particular vision of art's relationship to 'life'. Tagore defines it at the conclusion of the same song: 'janaar majhe ajaanare korechhi sandhaan [I've gone looking for the unknown in the midst of the known]'. The 'raw material' of estrangement, for the modern artist, is as much light, grass, air, as it is the dross that surrounds us: verandahs, advertisement hoardings, waiting rooms, pincushions, paperweights.

All these, in a process both elusive and fundamental to art, are made new and distant ' but, in India, critical language, especially in English, has for some time lacked a vocabulary with which to engage with this transformation and its contexts and questions. Even much of the bafflement that attended Ray's early and middle work in India, and the complaint that he lacked political content, has to do with the inability to understand the defamiliarized in art. Today, I notice that the notion of the exotic is used by lay reader and critic alike with the delicacy of a battering ram to demolish, in one blow, both the act of bad faith and the workings of the unfamiliar. We still work within limited, and limiting, paradigms in our dealings with strangeness.

Email This Page