Clearing A Space, by Amit Chaudhuri

How India prepared its feast of reason

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