In an iron boat
Loaded with stones,
A bundle of poison on his head,
He wants to cross over.
We are losing time. Not the usual, in the Sense of growth and development. But our own racial sense of time in which few weeks from now, no new millennium commences nor the 21st century begins. The West has succeeded in making an entirely Gregorian calendar-event the 20th century, a global century. This has happened for the first time in human history. We still celebrate our religious ceremonies, social events such as marriages etc. according to our own calendars; but in our public life, we have adopted the western time, its calendar and the other accompanying notion. The 19th century was not globally acknowledged as the 19th century of mankind but the 20th century, in spite of the fact that new man who was expected to emerge out of the revolution failed to and also of the fact that the Western colonialism disappeared in this century itself. But the Western time, its ideological hold on us has taken over. We are about to lose our time.
The popular notion (in fact a purely orientalist construct) that the Golden Age of India, when it contributed to the world, ideas and knowledge, technologies and wisdom, insights and visions, ended by about 10th century. We are, since then, living in the dark medieval ages, a kind of posthumous existence, as it were. This, although all the modern Indian Languages except the classical Sanskrit and Tamil emerged and grew in this millennium; great and masterly literature was produced in most of them; Indian classical music and dances as we know them today emerged and grew during this period; interaction with Islam and its culture brought about among other things a new language, new architecture and new schools of painting; hundreds of styles, forms and streams of popular craft, theatre, poetry etc. flourished and new concepts and practice of statehood, kinship, warfare etc. came about Also, during this period Shastras continued to be created in Sanskrit relating to poetics, medicine, sexology, architecture, music etc. In the 19th century India had more books written and translated into Persian than in Persia itself. The current cultural and intellectual amnesia prevents us from realizing that the intellectual traditions as well as the creative and innovative spirit remained alive and vibrant throughout the millennium. It can be, and ought to be, seen as a new flowering of the Sanskrit civilization. Sanskrit itself, as it were, flowed into many streams Hindi, Kanada, Assamese, Punjabi, Malayalam etc.; Sanskrit no longer as a classical purity, but as so many ‘bhashas’.
In the West-observed amnesia we have missed to register and appreciate the true importance of four great modern in the last millennium i.e. Amir Khusro, Kavir, Tulsidas and Galib, Amir Khusro, was a warrior, poet, musician, innovator who brought to bear upon the literary sensibility a new sense of humour, a sense of the surreal, an outsider reaching into the inside combining Persian with Khari Boli. Kabir, rooted as he was firmly in his faith, questioned the current religions, practices and rituals of both Hindus and Muslims; family ties; affiliations etc.; problematized the access to God and asserted that the whole world was ablaze “each in his own fire”. Tulsidas, a scholar-poet, created a new epic in a dialect reinventing the Ram legend and radicalizing the Bhakti cult by envisaging an almost counter-state, the Ram-Rajya. Galib brought a most questioning spirit to the Indian poetic tradition, looking askance at being and putting the modern individual, lonesome and demythologized, without certainties of faith, religion and history at the centre-stage. It is true we became modern largely due to our encounter with the West. But it was not inevitable. The foursome, mentioned above, had already radicalized our situation in the world and brought us to confront ourselves boldly and created entirely new forms to contain our anguish, predicament and anxieties. The coded, ‘upside down’ ulatbansis of Kabir (translated in his century alone by three very different masters namely Rabindra Nath Tagore, Ezra Pound and Robert Bly); the epical mode of “Ramcharitmanas’ of Tulsidas domesticating in a popular dialect the great Sanskrit legend and investing it with new meanings in the bargain and the interrogative strain of the ghazal of Ghalib are all path-breaking departures not merely in the Indian literary history but in all history. If the modern could be defined as a moment precariously poised between eternity and history, here in India it was history intervening in terms of eternity rather than history superceding the eternal as seems to have happened in the West and the modernist movements it has influenced the world over.
India is a civilization. There are hundreds of culture in the world but very few civilizations and India is one of them. It has survived as a continuum whereas the Greek, the Roman, the Mayan, the Egyptian have all but disappeared. It has survived largely through its plurality. We are one because we are so many. So, many of the age-old traditions of India have survived because they have been internalizing changes all the time. They change and through change remain the same. Here, in India the dichotomy of tradition and change, tradition and modern ’in practice hardly obtains. Tradition is essentially a tradition of change. Indian classical music and dance are interesting examples of this. Over the 3-4 hundred years they have undergone many crucial changes and yet have remained true to their origins and spirit. The classical in India is by the same token contemporary.
In the millennium gone by many forms of orality moved over to written forms. Form Vedic chants to the ‘banis’ of the numerous Saint-poets. This transfer has deeply influenced the participative nature of many of these forms. Poetry, for inc, having moved to the written and later the printed page seems to have receded from, that other indestructible page of human mind, memory, It ceased to be utterance; of late, sadly in many ways, it has become almost a noise. On the one hand, the social accessibility of literature has increased but, on the other, its social place has receded.
Shrikant Verma in a memorable distinction between liberation and freedom had proposed that liberation was an individual goal to be attained and was accorded a central place in the scheme of thing in India. The west brought us the more social concept of freedom to be achieved through social action and effort. Like between eternity and history, we seen to be caught between liberation and freedom. It would appear that towards the end of this century, liberation both as a concept and practice is receding and freedom is taking over. The much-talked human rights refer not to liberation but to freedom. This shift is deeply influencing our beliefs and value-perceptions.
During the past Indians excelled in what they did to voice, stone and mind. The great temples surviving for centuries in timeless splendour; the utter abstraction attained in classical music and the metaphysical complexities, the linguistics and the grammar are all mind-boggling achievements for those times. It would appear that, engaged as it is in the modernist project, India seems to be losing its hold on voice, on complexities, indeed on languages. Din and noise, coarseness, giant simplifications, impatience for subtleties of living and expression, distrust in mother tongues are all writ large on the face of contemporary India.
But fortunately, the visible India is not all India. There is a creatively vibrant India, and intellectually alive India, a metaphysically anxious India, and an India continuing to be a civilizational enterprise. The traditional resources of creativity and imagination, of reflection and articulation have not completely dried up and are appearing in new transmutations. In fact, there are so many India’s –often in conflict and sometimes in dialogue with each other. The eternal India at war with the historical India; the political India struggling to overcome the cultural India; the intellectual India uprooted from the popular India; the secular India trying to come to terms with the spiritual India. In short, many ideas of India grasping and coping with many realities of India. It is not possible to talk of India in singular; it is plural even as an entity. It is not coincidental that besides being the largest democracy of the world, it is the most multi-religious and multi-lingual country of the world. We are like the whole of Europe but all within the borders of a single country.
We are neither at the end nor at any brink. We are a tale not yet fully told. We are a human saga still incomplete. We are a caravan forever on the move. We have partly moved into the post-modern and partly continue to inhabit the classical. We have taken a new face. We are launched upon a new journey. And yet our own wisdom tells us at any time that it is more important to keep on moving them reaching the goal. We are, no doubt, on the move. We exist in the dimension of eternity and yet we operate in history. We have so far negotiated this rather well.
It is ‘Yogvashishtha’ which centuries ago said: “The world is like the impression left by telling of a story”, India is a story not yet fully told. We are all minor story-tellers, dressed in our unearned immodesty, picking up fragments of an epic story, which goes not and shall never finish. Not is the next millennium either.