The Politics of Culture (Book Review)

2 10 2011

Books:

G P Deshpande, The World of Ideas in Modern Marathi: Phule, Vinoba, Savarkar, Tulika, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 120. Rs. 240.

G P Deshpande, Talking the Political Culturally and Other Essays, Thema, Kolkata, 2009, pp. 127, Rs. 150.

Both the books under review are collections of articles written and published by the author over the past some years in different locales. The World of Ideas in Modern Marathi is self explanatory thanks to its sub-title and brings together essays on these three thinkers and one more which discusses the Marathi literary world’s engagement with philosophy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The other book, Talking the Political Culturally, is more eclectic in its range of topics but despite that, most of the essays remain grounded in the world of Marathi letters. The two exceptions being the long, and comprehensive for the non-specialist, survey of Chinese literature and the anecdotal “Pakistan Diary” which recounts experiences from a visit to our neighbour. The writing in both the books is focussed on the non-specialist but interested reader – in other words “the engaged generalist” – and is refreshingly free from arcane jargon even when grappling with academic debates.

Foregrounding the Region

While there are similarities in the way the two books are organised and there are continuities in the arguments and politics, their focus is different. The four essays which make up World of Ideas in Modern Marathi  engage with modern Indian intellectual history. The blurb of the book itself clarifies the political stance of the intervention, stating that much of the shortcomings of the historiography of 19thcentury India is due to the “assumption that India is one history area”. This argument is expanded in the introduction where Deshpande deliberately foregrounds the region as both autonomous and constitutive of the Indian nation.  He seems to be saying that colonialism, and with it the world of modern ideas, came to each region and vernacular in its own context and specific form. It is thus not possible to understand either the manner or the nuances of its intellectual engagement with either colonialism or modernity by looking at this only as one aspect of the larger Indian engagement with colonialism and modernity.

Drawing an analogy with Europe, Deshpande says that while German modernity is a part of the larger European modernity, it is not possible to study the former without grounding oneself in the history of German thought. Similarly, “…‘history’ should be plural in India. India’s history is the history of its nationalities”.

This change of perspective affects the methodology as well as academic agenda of the enquiry. Firstly, there is a much greater emphasis on Marathi intellectual genealogies and ideas grounded in Indian philosophical systems. All the four essays foregrounds Marathi philosophical debates from the medieval period as the primary root for the intellectual contestations of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is quite a departure from the norm of intellectual history as written for modern India where the primary roots are almost always identified in the West and little, if any, effort is made to draw out the inheritance from local, or South Asian, intellectual traditions.

Larger Contexts

The indigenous philosophical tradition is drawn out in some detail, though somewhat in the form of a survey, in the chapter titled “Philosophical Discourse in Modern Marathi” which begins by taking issue with Locke and Hegel about their statements asserting the absence of Indian philosophy. However, Deshpande does not subscribe to any “indigenist” or “nativist” position, nor is he influenced by the post-modernist critiques of modernity which celebrate the local against the grand narrative of history. In fact, he takes an intellectual stand which is largely unsympathetic to these theories and works with intellectual tools which are close to the classical left-liberal academia – informed by Marxism, realism and anti-imperialism, and grounded in a strong humanist position. The foregrounding of the vernacular and local intellectual traditions is not because of some theoretical valourisation of indigenous categories, but merely an attempt, as stated by the author, to remain true to the historical context of the people and times he discusses where most people worked with categories drawn from traditional philosophical systems.

Take for instance the discussion on Phule where Deshpande shows how, working with the categories inherited from the intellectual traditions of Maharashtra, and South Asia in general, Phule launched an attack on the founding principles of this very tradition. However, this attack – characterised by the author as “a clear epistemological break with the traditional understanding” – is defined using the term Vitanda from the Naiyayika tradition of Indian philosophy. Deshpande argues that despite being bound by the discursive field of traditional Indian philosophy or “critical thinking”, Phule managed to effect a revolutionary break, paralleling the revolutionary thoughts of modern socialism. Here the author makes an important point, noting that critiques from below, as was Phule’s, have the possibility of leading to revolutionary transformations and a total break of the social hierarchies, while similar efforts from the top often remain confined to reforms or the amelioration of the worst excesses. Whether it was the issue of caste or gender Phule worked out a system for the overthrow of the extant system of social hierarchies and control, working all the while with intellectual concepts and tools drawn from Indian philosophical traditions.

However, Deshpande is never shy of drawing the larger linkages, often global, in their ideas. Here is an illustration (pg 54),

In any case, Phule’s emphasis on understanding caste in terms of the agrarian productive process, as also in terms of power and dominance, is unmistakable. He contrasted Baliraja, the nythical shudratishudra king, with Vamana, the brahmanical avatara who put his foot on Bali’s head and crushed him deep into the earth. He returned to this myth which, in his view, was central to all subsequent history. If that terminology were available to him, he may almost have said that all recorded history is the history of the Vamana-Baliraja struggle.

If the author finds Phule’s to be a proto-Marxist without Marxian categories, Vinoba Bhave’s intellectual effort is to meet the challenge posed by radical western ideas to the integrity of traditional thought. This Vinoba did by engaging with the category of labour and trying to posit Vedanta as a possible philosophy of liberation. In this, argues Deshpande, Vinoba succeeded, at least partially, in meeting the challenge posed not only by western radical thought but also by Phule’s Vitanda. Thus the engagement, if grounded on traditional intellectual contexts, is consciously linked to national and international concerns.

The author does not confine himself only to the texts of the thinkers discussed. Rather, he places each of them within the debates, contestations – both political and intellectual – and the changes in stances over time within which these texts were produced. Thus, the intellectual history which comes to be written is grounded in the historical and intellectual context and can be understood only in terms of that. This is the second methodological departure that the author effects as a result of his epistemological stance foregrounding the region and its history over the nation and its narrative.

Engagement with the Left

Both books embody the left-activist voice of the author, Talking the Political Culturally, much more explicitly so. One of the common concerns which mark both the books is the author’s disquiet over the absence of vernacular sources and an attention to local details in the way intellectual history is researched and understood. In fact, he goes further to argue that this absence flows from the inability of most researchers to read and write the vernaculars or local languages; their incomprehension of local usages and their distance from the local cultures. This puts a cultural distance between the local cultures and those engaging with it. Not only does it make for mistakes and blindspots in research, it also leads to political dead ends.

The first essay in Talking the Political Culturally is mainly an engagement with Left activism about the fatal consequences of being blind to the intellectual traditions of South Asia. He takes issue with the effort of the left cultural activists working for “peoples’ art” and “peoples’ theatre” arguing that within Indian cultural traditions there never was the divide between low and high art which defined Europe. Thus the emphasis on “peoples’” or “popular” has gone about accepting only some forms of folk art and literature while often rejecting “high” art and literature as bourgeois and retrograde. This has not only led to an impoverishment of the cultural interventions of the Left, it has also detached the cultural activism of the left from much of what is truly peoples’ culture.  This has also impoverished the political interventions of the left and, for Deshpande, the inability to deal with caste and with religious expressions remain stark illustrations of this deficit.

He carries on this argument in the other essays titled “The Classical and the Colonial” and “Of Progress and the Progressive Cultural Movement”. In the latter, he points out that

There was no celebration of its own poorvasuris (intellectual ancestors) by the progressive movement…. It would seem that the progressive cultural movement had little use for Phules and Nayaranagurus of the non-high caste people of the world. …. [Further] it would seem that the progressive cultural movement never really worked out its relationship with the classical languages. The celebration of peoples’ speech does not necessarily involve the rejection of the classical. … It has led many to identity languages like Sanskrit to a caste group or a religious group. It is like identifying Urdu exclusively with the Muslims.

Further he states,

[The progressive cultural movement] seemed content in the unhistorical, indeed, patently false contradiction between the classical and the folk. … [It] is, at the least, partially responsible for handing over, as it were, the classicism and classical tradition to orthodoxy.

Debating Culture Politically

The essays in these two collections engage with two principal, and interconnected, strands in post-independence Indian politics and academia. The first is the decolonisation of the mind. The second is the debate about the epistemic position and political role of our traditions.

Both these projects have left almost none untouched – across the political spectrum and in all academic perspectives over these six decades. GPD, as the author is well-known to most readers, argues an academic-political position which foregrounds the primacy of the local context and the region in the study of India. His methodological stance is to move from the region to the nation and extends the classical leftwing political stance – India is made up of its nationalities – to research methodology. Similarly he asserts the centrality of our intellectual traditions and cultural contexts in the very possibilities of political action and argues that the lack of grounding itself in these has led the left to a political dead end. This is what he seems to imply when he asks the left to “talk the political culturally”.

It is because of this that GPD has been among the most important cultural and political commentators in contemporary India and these volumes bring together this arguments, which are often scattered in varied publications and speeches, into one place. The books would however, have benefitted by better editing, not just in style and spellings, but also in that ideas and texts often get repeated. This is understandable as these were often distinct presentations for very different audiences, but when brought together in a book, it not only jars the reader’s attention, but also runs the risk of highlighting through repetition some points which may not be the intention of the author.

–  –

This was published in the Economic and Political Weekly.

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