Barring the political agenda, the vital forces associated with India’s nationalist movements were, literary and artistic. Many cultural protagonists were vocal in saying that the regeneration of our society could happen through the revival of our arts and culture, no by politics and economics alone. This impulse was quite visible in cultural thought leaders like Ananda Coomaraswamy, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, sister Nivedita, John Woodroffe, Syamaprasad Mookerjee, K.M. Munshi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Rabindranath Tagore made a strong case for developing a complete and moving orb of Indian culture.
This book delves deep into vision of these through leaders in making India a culturally strong nation, and warns us in different ways against becoming insularly modern. These personalities remained us of our unique past and time tested virtues and values, and the criticality of sustaining them while being modern in many ways. They exult in our past and call upon us to be the torch bearers of this legacy.
This volume while doing an in-depth study of these Indian cultural activists, laments on the lackadaisical attitude of the leaders of Independent India in maintaining and promoting our art forms and long-revered culture. A renewed effort in rejuvenating our culture is the need of the hour, especially when its moorings seem to be loosening and its symbols diluting. It is an irony to call for the recognition of Indian culture in India.
Anirban Ganguly has his early education at Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Puducherry, and went on to defend his doctoral thesis on Sri Aurobindo and the Indian nationalist education discourse at Jadavapur University, Kolkata. He is presently a research Fellow with Vivekananda International Foundation, a leading New Delhi based think tank. Anirban’s interests lie in the areas of historical, civilization and political studies, and he is currently occupied in trying to unravel attempts at creating a counter narrative to the perception of Indian historical, socio-religions and in tracing the evolution of Indian nationalism.
Open the yellowed tomes authored by a few western ideologists of the nineteenth or early twentieth century’s say, stella Kramrisch, John Woodroffe, sylvain Levi, Louis Renou or jean filliozat and you will find to quote the last two, the same comprehension the same admiration of Indian civilization. A comprehension based on a thorough study and discussion of the fundamentals of Indian culture, her thought and belief systems, her aesthetics and spirituality, her social or technological achievements. This is precisely the kind of discussion that is so rare in today’s Indian, as it those fundamentals should be of interest only to ageing scholars sitting in musty libraries.
Most of the prominent Indian intellectuals of the day confirm this impression note, for instance, how the historian Ramachandra Guha, in his recent Makers of modern India, has no use for either Swami Vivekananda or Sri Aurobindo, thereby implying that their comprehensive exposition and discussion of what Indian “India” is of no relevance to our Modern nation.
Also absent from Guha’s collection are the other great figures of India’s renaissance that Anirban Ganguly chooses to focus on, with one exception; Nehru is the odd man out here, but the chapter dedicated to him is welcome as it brings out little known aspects of his concern for India’s cultural heritage. Nevertheless, he cannot be regarded, as nearly all the others can, as a major player in the twentieth century continuation of the cultural renaissance that swept through India in reaction to the crushing dominance of the colonial rulers.
Whether he explores Swami Vivekananada, A.K. coomaraswamy, sister Nivedita or K.M. Munshi, Anirban Ganguly displays a flair for picking out the most stimulating of their thoughts on issues ranging from aesthetics, artistic sensitivity or national education to cultural integration in a word, what constitutes Indian identity. There is a lurking suspicion that as a nation, we will be time and again forced by circumstances to return to those essential questions. Our prominent intellectuals are confident of having one and or all relegated them to some dark cellar, with neat labels of “nationalism” “exclusivism” or even “chauvinism” stuck on them as on dinosaur bones, but they forget that things in India move on a longer time scale and that these issues will not leave us, because they are in us.
Also they do not realize that the thinkers presented here were, in fact far more inclusive that they themselves are, but insisted on a clear foundation for Indian identity. Today’s rallying cry is for “ many identities which is of course fine as far as it goes, but without such a clear foundation in effect, a mosaic rather than a banyan tree. Time will tell which model is more sustainable in the meantime; the thinkers presented here will continue to water the ancient banyan let us see whether it can still sprout new shoots.
Analyzing the deeper meanings of the struggle for Indian independence scholar and interpreter of Indian culture Ananda coomaraswamy (1877-1947) made a very poignant observation that continues to hold great relevance. Referring to a deeper dimension of the Indian nationalist movement, Coormarswamy argued.
Five hundred years hence it will matter little to humanity whether a few Indians more or less, have held official posts in India, or a few million bales of cloth been manufactured in Bombay or Lancashire factories; but it will matter much whether the great ideals of Indian culture have been carried forward or allowed to die. It is with these that Indian Nationalism is essentially concerned and upon these that the fate of India as a notion depends.
His essential argument was that there could be no true realization of political unity until Indian life again inspired by the unity of the national culture. Coomarswamy called for the nationalist movement to direct it efforts towards unraveling the marvels of Indian culture and towards seeking nationalist movements to direct its effort towards unraveling the marvels of Indian culture and towards seeking nationalist strength from it varied dimensions. For him the “vital forces associated with the national movement in India were not merely political but moral, literary and artistic” the regeneration of India had to come through her arts and not by politics and economics alone. In short, coomaraswamy seemed to point at the necessity of realizing the intrinsic and unifying strengths of Indian movement. He lamented the loss of beauty and of its appreciation from the national life saying that India above all the nations was beautiful once and that too not long ago. Thus coomaraswamy’s was a case for the centrality of culture in India’s national life.
In the past, especially during the early phase of the nationalist movement, the debate on the place and the role of culture in our national life was robust and varied. It saw a number of stalwart thought leaders pitching in. one of Commaraswamy’s contemporary in the cultural field, the poet laureate RabindranathTagore on his part, also made a strong case for developing a complete and, moving rob of Indian culture that shall act as a strong centripetal force. In his address on The Centre of Indian Culture delivered at Madras in 1919, Tagore dwetl on the necessity of rediscovering our cultural past, of making a robust use of it in the present times and of eradicating the Indian mentality which habitually saw itself as a disinherited people. It we are to create a centre of Indian culture and one which is worthy of being imparted to all. He cautioned against the tendency of being insularly modern. Observed Tagore.
Some of the leading thought leaders of the early nationalist period in India actively participated in and developed a discourse on Indian culture. Apart from trying to define the essentials of culture from the ethical and philosophical point of view, these thinkers in developing the cultural discourse vigorously took on the colonialist perceptions and interpretations of Indian culture by trying to develop Indian paradigms to its study and understanding. Their actions had a robustly creative side and saw the launching of nationalist educational and cultural movements as well as the creation of efforts. The National Education Movement, the creation of the National College in Calcutta and the growth of the Nationalist art movement were some of the manifestations of this rich cultural quest. It was an epoch when the nationalist cultural discourse was sought to be developed as a supplementing pillar of the nationalist political effort. The entire debate and its expressions were remarkable for their breadth, variety and freedom. There was an unhesitating discussion on culture, its role and necessity in the larger movement of Indian Nationalism. Cultural nationalism seems to have been seen and accepted by a number of thinkers then as a legitimate instrument for pursing the goal of Indian freedom.
It appeared to me that it would be interesting to take a look at some of the facets of this discourse on Indian culture that gradually evolved during this early period. I found it equally interesting to discover the concerns of some of our founding fathers, during a later phase for the rediscovery of cultural Indian. It intrigued me to see how they sought to give this quest a certain primacy in their national life and how they hoped to use it as an instrument for reinventing and India’s ties with countries in her neighboring region. They seem to have clearly felt that in India’s multidirectional march towards development, the cultural field had to also be taken into consideration, and newer methods and frameworks needed to be evolved in order generate and sustain a renewed cultural outlook, consciousness and activism.
This work then looks at the dimensions of this debate on Indian culture and attempts to revisit some of the leading minds of the epoch cultural nationalists who had set the parameters of the cultural debate and imparted to it a varied dimension, perspective and hue. I have started with examining Swami Vivekananda’s interest in Indian and world cultural nationalists of the early nationalist period. A reading of sister Nivedita and John Woodroffe reveals how culture and its national role in India way of life, Hinduized themselves completely. Ananda Coomaraswamy, sister Nivedita and Sri Aurobindo formed the famed cultural nationalist teiad of the age. Each with their forceful cultural writings as well as activism injected new dynamism to the debate. They preceded other Indian leaders at least by a decade in their assessment that the nationalist political movement needed to be infused with a cultural dimension and debate, they saw this as one of the lasting contributions of the age. Interestingly some of their writings on the issue remain strikingly relevant today n the context of globalization and the homogenization as well as the asymmetries of cultures. I found it interesting thus to weave in a reading of the triad.
Syama Prasad Mookerjee and K.M. Mushi have also found place in my reading of Indian Cultural nationalists. Mookerjee’s brief foray in South East Asia as a cultural ambassador for India and his firm belief, in the early years of Independence that India should seriously look to rebuild her civilizational bridges with the people and countries of the region are little known today. Munshi’s contribution towards popularizing India’s languages and her culture is hardly discussed today and his role as an integrator of cultures remains ignored. Towards the end I have discussed some of Jawaharlal Nehru’s observations on the handling of culture and cultural institutions in newly independent India Nehru was not a cultural nationalist in the mould of the early thinkers. While the political and cultural movement was ripening at home he was but a callow student in faraway Horrow faced with a medley of conflicting desires that cast a shadow of vagueness and confusion over his understanding of the movement back home. I have often wondered whether Nehru understood at all the early Indian cultural nationalists and whether he could really comprehend the magnitude of their contribution to the national movement which he was to lead in the later year. However, I have included him primarily because as Prime Minister, Nehru did display an interest in the use of culture for national development. Whether he really took forward this interest through effective cultural manifestations and expressions is a matter that need for cultural awareness in the country Nehru did impart to the issue some space in the discourse on national development and growth.
The work also briefly looks at the present state of apathy and neglect of culture in our national scheme of development and pleads for an urgent remedying of this habit and trend. It calls for a renewal of that vigorous and multidimensional debate on Indian culture which had dominated the early decades of the last century and argues for a revisiting and a re-examining of the deeper fundamentals and principals of that debate. It also argues for a renewed effort to bring to the centre stage the debate on Indian culture at a time when its moorings seem to be loosening and its symbols diluting. In a sense, it’s case for the recognition of Indian culture in India.
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