Cross-border affinities


Elaborates on the ideals of Asia catalysed by the meeting of Tagore and Tenshin in 1902

ANOTHER ASIA - Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin: Rustom Bharucha; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 495.The friendship between India's Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and the internationally well-known Japanese curator Okakura Tenshin that has acquired an iconic quality appears to be the launching pad for Rustom Bharucha to discuss the interconnected and sub-textual issues like 'Asia', 'nationalism', 'cosmopolitanism' and 'friendship'. According to him the friendship between Tagore and Okakura existed beyond the realms of conventional yardsticks such as frequent meetings, dialogues, exchange of letters and involvement in each other's works. There are no records of their conversations, no photographs where they are together. They had met only twice once in 1902 in Kolkata and in 1913 in Boston, which was but a brief meeting.


Yet, Okakura noted in his diary after Tagore left him in Boston, that he was overcome by a sense of loneliness, and Tagore's till then unpronounced affection for Okakura found an eloquent public expression after the latter's death. It is the kind of friendship that defies logic but that can, probably be understood in the context of their personalities.The well-known Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar has said: "Neither familiarity nor frequent association maketh friendship between two persons; verily, it is the silent intellectual understanding between them assures their friendship." Intellectual understanding does not necessarily mean identity of thoughts. They may differ from each other but there is this intellectual understanding between them that they cannot be but what they are. Bharucha has aptly quoted Montaigne in this regard: If you press me to tell why I loved him I feel this cannot be expressed except by answering, because it was he, because it was I. Bharucha studies this friendship in depth in the context of fiction, especially Tagore's own novels. 'Gora', 'Chaturanga' and 'Ghare Baire'. Friends in all these novels stand in contrast to each other like Gora and Binoy, Sachis and Sribilas, and Sandip and Nikhlesh. This gives us a clue to unde'rstanding Tagore's concept of friendship.


Okakura was a staunch nationalist to the point of supporting indirectly Japan's imperialistic motives. Tagore was against narrow-minded, sectarian nationalism but stood for universal humanism and spoke in support of it not in the language of a political theorist but in the rich voice of a poet. He said once, "Are we to bend our knees to this spirit of nationalism, which is sowing broadcast over all the world seeds of fear, greed, suspicion, unashamed lies of its diplomacy and unctuous lies of its profession of peace and goodwill and the universal brotherhood of Man?" Okakura condoned Japanese annexation of Korea in the manner of extended nationalism, strongly believing that Korea originally was a part of Japan. Tagore, when he went to Japan to give lectures, never hesitated to spell out his stand against 'nationalism' and completely erased from his mind that his friend Okakura, the custodian of 'nationalism' and 'Asian unity' was at that time in Japan. But neither spoke in favour or against each other's views but preferred to keep discreet silence more in support of their enigmatic friendship than picking up quarrels for their mundane stand on things.Okakura was committed to the concept of 'One Asia' that all the Asians could claim, "We are one." In the opening paragraph of his book, The ideals of the East, he declares rhetorically: "Asia is one. The Himalayas divide only to accentuate, two mighty civilizations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius and the Indian with its individualism of The Vedas."Bharucha says that Okakura could as well have said, "Asia is three or three-in-one because his entire discourse rests on a triangular structure of three mighty Asian civilisations, India, China and the as-yet-unnamed Japan." And Okakura put Japan at the apex in this aesthetic triangle and also visualised India and China as tributaries joining the mainstream Japan whose art reigned supreme.


If one were to read Okakura carefully to comprehend what exactly he wanted to say, it could as well be that "we are not one." That Japan was never a conquered nation, but India was a colonised country with its golden past gone forever, always remained in his sub-conscious. Bharucha quotes what he has said about Japan in ecstasy and, India and China in condescending tones. Okakura says: "The waters of the waving rice fields, the variegated waters of the archipelago, so conducive to individuality, the constant play of its soft-tinted seasons, the shimmers of its silver air, the verdure of its cascaded hills, and the voice of the ocean echoing about its pine-girt shores - of all these was born that tender simplicity, that romantic purity, which so tempers the soul of Japanese art, differentiating it at once from the leaning to its monotonous breadth of the Chinese, and from the tendency to overburdened richness of Indian art." Around the time Okakura wrote The Awakening of the East spelling out his conceptualisation of Asia as one, Tagore wrote Swedeshi Samaj announcing his vision. And both works, though seeming to possess a common agenda are basically opposed to each other. Tagore's idealisation focusses on the community, not on the continent as Okakura's does. It functions through the web of social relationships based on kinship, as it did in rural India during the ancient times. His was a poetic vision that does not conform to pragmatism. One important aspect that Tagore never took into account was, in those days, the kinship obligations functioned only within the structure of caste hierarchy. Or rather Tagore kept eloquent silence on such issues as caste discrimination and superstition, the flaws of Hinduism when he claimed all opportunities were equally available to all in the traditional Indian community system. Bharucha's critique, a welcome addition to the postcolonial studies, is likely to provoke many more questions to engage an intelligent reader.

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