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Updated: March 4, 2013 21:34 IST

Another view from another side

K. R. A. Narasiah
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Other Orientalisms
Other Orientalisms

In an exhaustive introduction that runs into 45 pages, the author, Filipa Lowndes Vicente, from theInstitute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, describes the theme chosen and the title of her work Other Orientalism. The picture drawn from a photograph taken by a Bombay Parsi photographer in 1885 that found its way to Florence became the starting point of her research.

Translated from Portuguese by Stewart Lloyd-Jones, director of the Contemporary Portuguese Political History Research Centre, the book has as the protagonist of the narrative, Angelo de Gudertanis (1840-1913) a philologist who was a professor of Sanskrit at Florence and a renowned Orientalist. He has authored many Oriental and mythological works including a verse drama Savitri, a story from the Mahabharata. His friend, correspondent and host in India Gerson da Cunha, a medical practitioner occupies an important role in the narrative. It appears that there was a strong fascination in India for the Italians and their art forms in the second half of the 19 century.

The picture, the starting point for the narration, showed four persons, Gerson da Cunha and Gubernatis, the two Christians and Shyamji Krishnavarma and Bhagwanlal Indraji, the two Brahmins. What catches the attention is the attire all of them wore, being that of Brahmins. To honour his profound knowledge of the Hindu religion and to be in contact with the sacred, — that being his main objective while in India — it appears that Gubernatis was put through a process of purification, (the author feels that this might have been upanayana) when a sacred thread was given to him. It was then that this picture was taken. The author declares “Analysing Florentine Orientalism and its relationship with India, enabled me to escape the normal dualism of Britain — India or Portugal — India.” She adds, “This peripheral orientalism, in which Angelo de Gubernatis was the most active and most visible figure, and in which Gerson da Cunha occupied the privileged position of the ‘native’ intellectual, the ‘oriental orientalist’ shows us the advantage of studying the peripheries of the knowledge about Asia — the ‘other’ orientalisms referred to in the title.” After the seminal work of Edward Said, the author here has proved that orientalism can be studied from more angles than what the Europeans had done.

In the first chapter, significance of Florence is explained with the importance given to Academic Institutions when it became the capital. Large numbers of Italian scholars congregated there, between 1864 and 1871 after which Rome took the lead. The political background of that time helped for the growth in interest in Oriental studies. She convincingly argues “The development of Italian Orientalism, a phenomenon that emerged in several cities of the young nation but practically in Florence, was inseparable from this post-unification context, when Italy was seeking to find its intellectual place in Europe.”

Studying India

The author explains the real reason for Gubernatis to study India — the sacred soil of religious India. The relationship of Italians with India is analysed with personnel involved in the narrative, and a new Orientalism developed by the author. Savitri, the play by Gubernatis was premiered on 27 January, 1883; later in Gujarati (translated by a Parsi). The author takes pains to explain the divide between the friends and the personal feelings of da Cunha as recorded (by Gubernatis) and the dichotomy of his views. This gave a chance to Gubernatis to study the psychology of this person.

The third chapter deals with Indian objects that became a cementing factor in the relations of Florence and India through a museum that was created in Florence by the effort of Gubernatis.

In conclusion the author says she had to produce a history of the forms of historicisation themselves.

(K.R.A. Narasiah is a marine engineer who writes fiction and historical works)

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