Obituary: Alain Danielou
Friday 04 February 1994
ALAIN DANIELOU was a man whose vast and curious learning in the fields of literature, music and the Orient was unequalled in our time.
I first became acquainted with Danielou through a medium we both despised - television. He appeared in 1981 on one of Bernard Pivot's now defunct book programmes to discuss the first edition of his autobiography Les Chemins du Labyrinthe. The general title of the discussion was 'Good and Evil' and it was a fascinating expose of widely differing beliefs that in the end, through the charmed elegance of Danielou's presentation, reconciled him with the other redoubtable intellects on the set, who included George Steiner and Anthony Burgess, both in top form.
I bought the book (a new, enlarged and illustrated edition appeared last May from Editions du Rocher) and at once fell under his spell.
Alain Danielou's Breton father was a noted anticlerical and a minister in the Third Republic, while his mother, a grande dame, was devout to the point of being called a fanatique by that most tolerant of her fellow-religionists, Julien Green. She founded schools and the Order of Sainte-Marie. Alain's brother was made a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI.
Danielou was educated at the Institution de Sainte-Croix, Neuilly-sur-Seine, and at St John's College, Annapolis. He was soon in revolt against his mother's excessive religiosity, but his father was instrumental in developing his musical gifts. He studied piano and singing, and mastered the songs of Duparc and Chausson and the Lieder of Schumann and Schubert. He wrote poems, became fluent in English and the major European languages, and practised translation. He loved to dance, and studied with Nijinska and Legat until he was good enough to appear professionally with the Romanian dancer Floria Capsali and Marjorie Daw, a brilliant English technician with whom he danced in music halls and at the Palais d'ete in Brussels. Among his friends in the ballet he counted Karsavina, Rolf de Mare, Mary Wigman, Balanchine, Nicolas Nabokov, Georges Auric and Francis Poulenc. But gradually Danielou abandoned the dance for more serious matters.
In 1932 he travelled to India, where he met one of the great influences on his life and thought, the poet Rabindranath Tagore. India was a revelation to the young Parisian dandy - 'Real civilisation, the source of everything that helps one to understand the cultures of the Orient'. He entered Benares University in 1935, where he studied Hindu music, Sanskrit, Indian philosophy and Hindu religion for the next 15 years, during which time he was appointed research professor, a post he held until 1953. He became a professional performer on the vina. He moved to Madras to become director of a centre of research into Sanskrit literature at the Adyar Library until 1956. From 1959, he became a Member of the French Institute of Indology at Pondicherry. On returning to Europe, from 1960 he was adviser to Unesco's International Music Council, then founder and director of the International Institute of Contemporary Music in Berlin from 1963 to 1977, and of the Istituto Internazionale di Musica Comparata in Venice (1969-82).
While in Benares, Danielou converted to Hinduism, taking the initiate's name of Shiva Sharan. He was a great teacher, but his main work was in translation of texts on religion and music, and the composition of major works such as Mythes, et Dieux de l'Inde (1993), Les Quatre sons de la vie (recently translated as The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India), Le Betail des Dieux (1983), La Sculpture erotique hindou with photographs by his companion the Swiss photographer Raymond Burier (1973) and La Musique de l'Inde du Nord (1985). In 1993, Editions Pardes published the remarkable study of Le Phallus, the best short account of the turbulent history of this essential organ. His Dix-huit chansons de Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali text with English and French translations, musical notation and accompaniments for piano all by Danielou, will appear later this year. Meanwhile, we have Le Mystere du culte du linga (1993). Danielou was supposed to be present to sign copies, but he was already too ill to attend.
Danielou's new and complete translation of the Kama Sutra is one of his great masterpieces. It comprises the Sanskrit text of Vatsyayana from the fourth century with the medieval commentaries by Yashodhara and part of a contemporary commentary by Davadatta Shastri. Vatsyayana had compiled texts written at a time when the Kama Sutra was taught to deserving children, who were not supposed to practise their expertise until they were 16. It provides a moral code for erotic practices addressed to men and women in the interests of social order. We are introduced to the 52 types of lovers, including lesbians and male homosexuals ('the third sex'), to intimate and abstruse anatomical details, to the 10 kinds of love-bites, and a list of men to be sexually avoided or of women who are to be had without difficulty. It is often Machiavellian in its advice: 'Each individual should employ those means which best serve his own interests.'
It was Danielou who stopped Gandhi destroying erotic temple statues and who was rebuked by Nehru who accused him of being interested only in those things India's new puritanism sought to eradicate when Danielou published his book of magnificent photographs of sacred sculptures proving homosexuality was not some infamous occidental import. And Danielou caused a scandal when he claimed that it was the British memsahib who caused Britain to lose the Empire by interfering with the native sexual customs enjoyed by Westerners before their women made the passage to India.
His beautifully written works, totally free of pedantic jargon, and never afraid to call a spade a spade, remain to console us on our increasingly barbaric continent. Our debt to Alain Danielou's scholarship and deep humanity is immeasurable.
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