Amit Chaudhuri, whose book On Tagore was released recently, talks about the Indian writer's relationship to the past and the reality of living in a world of many languages.
In the book, you quote Tagore: “off with your history”. You seem to agree implicitly, because you also refer to the ‘larger context of Indian intellectual discourse, governed by history and social sciences with little affection for literary language'. Yet, isn't this book essentially a historical project?
Well, I am not against history as such but I have reservations when it is approached in a particular way, as if history is out there, in the past, in the archives, as if it is waiting like a jigsaw puzzle to be put together and it'll add up to the 19th century, Tagore, the ancient world or whatever. I have a problem with that approach which informs a lot of historical writing, especially historical fiction today. Where people do a lot of research and put together a time as if that time is there waiting to be put together in that way, as if that's the kind of relationship we necessarily have with that time. I don't think this is necessarily our relationship with the past, which is much more surprising, unexpected and disorienting.
And I think Tagore felt the same way about the past, which for him always comes in glimpses and flashes. Especially the ancient past of Kalidasa and Shankuntala comes to him in flashes and intimations of the historical world and it's a route to history which implies a more problematic relationship to the past than the history which is recovered through archival research. That's why his relationship to the historical India is a living thing. Dipen Chakraborty says that “I can relate more easily to Heidegger or Marx than to Abhinava Gupta.” Why is this? And Buddhadev Bose says the same thing: “When I look at Kalidasa, all I see is a venerated corpse. I'd much rather read something by Jibananda Das or Premendra Mitra. Or Tagore. It's much much more pleasurable for me to read my contemporaries than Kalidasa.” Both are confessing that the past often becomes a dead body of things. What is very interesting is that for Tagore, the past isn't dead. Kalidasa isn't dead, he is like a contemporary. But he doesn't piece Kalidasa together as a kind of national heritage. He approaches him in these flashes that come to him through certain lines or quotations which open up to him a world. That world exists during the 15 minutes he is reading Kalidasa's poem and writing his own. And then it's gone.
Similarly my relationship to Tagore. I am not an authority on Tagore but in many ways it is a living relationship with another author. I haven't put him together. I have followed certain clues in the work which have opened up the man and his work in ways that are interesting to me. So yes, the book is historical but let me put it this way, it's not dead history.
You place Tagore at a turning point in Indian history, the advent of modernity, a moment of break. There is a sense of ‘eternal gulf' between oneself and the past which has to be recovered and you treat this as representative of Indian modernity. Don't you think there are other possible modernities? I am thinking of someone like A.K. Ramanujan for instance...
I don't want to overemphasise the melancholy of having only an incomplete access to the past. But I think Ramanujan's relationship to the past is very much an invented one, something which he creatively invented and recovered. My essay “Poles of recovery” in Clearing a Space speaks about various people who by accident or outside of their home environment stumbled on their heritage and then invented it. Or who rejected their past and then went back to it to have a creative relationship with it.
And this kind of turn is symptomatic of Indian modernity. Most seminal people who have contributed in the last 200 hundred years or so to Indian modernity have had this turn. At first they were indifferent or inimical to their past and then they turned back to it and their own language. U.R. Ananthamurthy, while watching Ingmar Bergman's “The Seventh Seal” without subtitles in Birmingham or Manchester suddenly has his germinal ideas for Samskara. The same is true of O.V. Vijayan who discovers his relationship to a particular village he writes about when he goes there as a young Marxist to teach. He says, “I went there to teach but I began to learn.” So there is this same turn in him.
With Ramanujan it is a basement in Chicago University where he discovers these manuscripts and texts of which he says something like “I was like a blind man or fool who had chanced upon a kingdom”. He uses a quasi-religious term to talk about the fact that he had not known his past and that he had found it. And once he had found it, he invented it, he created it, in this amazing hybrid language which is a mix of American and regular English and we almost feel, as we feel with so many things, that these things were always there, that that past was always there because of the way in which we have internalised various aspects of our relationship to the past but it is interesting because of the way in which these pasts have actually been invented during such moments. I would say that the most illuminating thing about the Indian's, or any person's, relationship to their history is that they have no natural claim to it, that there is an interesting moment when we realise that there is a disjunction, that it is not an unbroken line reaching back from us to our ancestors.
With Tagore is it also traumatic moment?
Yes, it is traumatic but it is a creative moment as well. And I don't want to mix it up with any idea of colonialism having taken away our authentic selves. That is not what I am talking about. I am saying that as moderns, irrespective of our nationality, unless we want to produce beautiful heritage versions of our past, some part of us must be aware that the past is foreign. And because of that it has the same impact that a foreign country has on us, we begin to see anew. We begin to see the past anew, we begin to see the present anew. Otherwise it just becomes a version of our own nationalistic imaginings at that point of time.
You say that there is more than one language in Tagore, that polyphony in Tagore is felt more through ellipses and self-effacement. Is there an implicit intervention there, that polyphony in Indian literature came long before Rushdie and magical realism?
Polyphony is something that has been discussed repeatedly in relation to the crowdedness of India and the Indian novel in English. It was supposed to be a kind of natural facet of being Eastern, whether it is the Indian novel or Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights etc; it's a crowded bustling place of stories and voices. With Tagore too, there are so many selves in that one self, but there is also so much concealment, there's so much that is hidden that emerges by accident, like his paintings that emerged from the deletions of his handwriting in his manuscript. What I am saying is that there is a polyphony here, of various selves speaking but there is also a different texture to it which has to do with concealment, with craft, with attention to the minute which is not the way polyphony is described nowadays, as this kind of exuberance.
Is that also in some ways a defence of your own craft and aesthetic?
Obviously one can't escape implicitly speaking about one's own affinities and sympathies and may be to a certain extent about oneself when one is speaking passionately about another writer. It would be useless of me to deny it. There is a role that my writerly kind of sympathies play when I relate to Tagore, just as it would be useless for Tagore to deny that he is approaching Kalidasa as a scholar and not as a writer. But he says very illuminating things about Kalidasa and these relationships are very interesting and we often fail to see that Indian literature is also a web of such relationships.
You say that Said's Orientalism is both enabling and shackling. Can you elaborate on that?
I say that because of the way in which for a long time it became kind of a text and a monochromatic vulgarisation of orientalism, which was about a particular kind of relationship between the Orient and the West. And for while it looked as if every text was going to be read in this light, without looking at the various contradictory positions people inhabit as moderns and cosmopolitans. With Said himself, we cannot understand why he is such a great lover of English literature, even Kipling, that he is a classical pianist, while also being what he is, an Arab activist for Palestine and also a Foucaultian critic of power. He himself is a product of various contradictions just as all cosmopolitan people from the East, and may be the West too, are. The legacy of Orientalism narrows down the ways in which we could understand our interactions with cultures that are ‘not our own'. It narrows down the richness and the complexity of that interaction.
What exactly did you mean when you said that you wished Indian writing in English was less triumphant and a little more ambiguous about itself?
I was referring to the deregulated, post-liberalisation economy triumphalism where certain industries begin to do well like IT, the services industry, fashion, Bollywood or even Indian Writing in English and where everything is equated with this larger story of triumph and growth. The fact that many things cannot be judged by growth, which have value despite the idea of growth, that might be valued on other terms, that is a language that is completely lacking in India.The West has been globalised as well, it too is driven by the market but there are still languages in the West that deal with the fact that there are other modes of intellectually engaging with the world. That everything is not commerce, everything is not epic, or growth, that there are failures, that the incomplete too exist and they too are instructive in their own way and have value. This is an awareness that the West has not lost completely. And I am interested in the way in which this seamlessly relates to our politics on the world stage and our ambition to be a world power. But in spite of our breast-beating about being Indian, we have done very little work to put our history or literatures together in scholarly definitive editions or to translate, it's a complete wilderness, a desert out there. The very notion of being Indian seems to have become something heady and intoxicating but something which is not interrogated.
How did you get interested in fusion music?
I had the kind of turn I described earlier in that I grew up with Western music, played the guitar etc. but at a certain point discovered Indian classical music and got completely into it and during the 16 years I spent in England did not listen to Western music at all. I just tried to perfect whatever skills I had and began to perform as an Indian classical musician. When I came back to India in 1999, I began to listen to Western music again, popular as well as the Blues, because I had got over the ideological zeal of the convert. And I noticed that there is an overlap between the Blues and certain Indian five-note ragas (Blues also uses a pentatonic scale). I was listening to both and one morning I had what I call a mishearing. I was singing Raag Thodi and I thought I heard Eric Clapton's “Layla” in what I was singing. Two weeks later, I had another mishearing. The santoor was being played in the background in a hotel and I thought it was playing Auld Lang Syne. I was interested in the accidentality of these mishearings. Which was only possible because I had grown up in this kind of jumble of traditions and had internalised them and one tradition which I had rejected was returning to me in this peculiar way, through these accidental hearings. That's how the project began. There's no East-West kind of encounter here, the intermingling was happening within myself which is why I called my first CD “This is not fusion”.