PETER LANG £12.99 (330PP) (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897
Clearing A Space, by Amit Chaudhuri
How India prepared its feast of reason
Friday 25 July 2008
For most people in the West, "India" has come to mean an overblown but fascinating amalgam of kitsch, weird English, colours, call centres, religiosity and extravagant emotion, illustrated by Bollywood films and the early novels of Salman Rushdie. Hardly anybody expects to find high seriousness, literary, artistic or cinematic modernism, secular reformism, humanistic thought – in short, any of the manifestations of reason – on the Subcontinent. All that, it is implicitly assumed, is a monopoly of Western elites.
The notion has been reinforced by academic exponents of "postcolonial theory". When non-Western people attempt to practise Enlightenment ideals, they, we are admonished, are merely indulging in colonial mimicry. The entire non-West has thus been pushed out of the feast of reason, and not by racists but "progressive" intellectuals, many non-Western.
Amit Chaudhuri's exhilarating essays on "India, literature and culture" challenge this new orthodoxy, but with intelligence, erudition and civility. Not only is his own faith in reasoned discourse unswerving, but he shows he is part of a tradition of Indian modernity dating back to the late 18th century. Chaudhuri calls it Bengali humanism: a secular, liberal culture associated with the polymathic Rabindranath Tagore, but by no means only him.
The flowering of modern cultural sensibility in Bengal was not a one-man show, nor the preserve of a tiny privileged class. Tagore came from a wealthy background, but Bankim Chatterjee lived out his life as a deputy magistrate, Bibhuti Banerjee was a schoolmaster and Nirad Chaudhuri a clerk. Modernism in Bengal was the endeavour of a disparate group.
The charge of colonial mimicry is equally false. Anti-colonial but pro-Enlightenment, Bengali intellectuals embraced Western thought with the confidence and discrimination of equals. Tagore even portrayed the values of the Enlightenment as travelling from ancient India, via European Romanticism, to the West. Chaudhuri's point, and I could not agree with him more, is that Bengali modernism was as universal in its outlook as it was indigenous; its resemblances to European modernism are family resemblances, not the stigmata of cultural imperialism.
Chaudhuri deals with many other issues – Anglophone Indian writing, fusion music, the place of culture in globalisation. On the question of modernism in the non-European world he is most inspiring, however. I hope he expands his brilliant essays into a full-length study. It would be a groundbreaking work of scholarship and could well revitalise the sclerotic paradigm of "postcolonial studies".
Chandak Sengoopta teaches history at Birkbeck College, London
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food