Friday, July 2, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Your Kabir and mine (Pratap Bhanu Mehta)

Your Kabir and mine

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Posted online: Tue Jun 29 2010, 05:43 hrs
Few figures embody the contradictions of modern India's coming to
terms with its own intellectual heritage as powerfully as Kabir. Over
the weekend you might have noticed advertisements several chief
ministers put out commemorating his customary birth anniversary,
enlisting him as a political icon. But you cannot escape the sense
that this enlistment comes precisely at the moment when a deep
intellectual engagement with this extraordinary figure is receding.
Except for a few homely lines, the number of people who could read his
work is fast dwindling. It is often said that there is a crisis in
Sanskrit Studies in India. Arguably there is an even deeper crisis in
the study of those precursors of what we now call Hindi, khadi boli,
braj, etc. Indeed it can be said without exaggeration that the number
of people in Hindi-speaking areas who will be able to read significant
figures of Indian culture and popular imagination like Tulsidas, let
alone Kabir, will
almost disappear by the next generation. This is the depth of crisis
in Indian humanities. The institutional, pedagogical and cultural
infrastructure that could engage with

figures our politicians now iconically appropriate is fast vanishing.

In a way arguments over Kabir are a perfect example of what happens
when great intellectual traditions are reduced to historical pedantry
to the point that their meaning becomes difficult to grasp. Everything
about Kabir was subject to the kind of contention made possible only
by the deep dissensus that characterises our history. His exact dates
are contested, his exact origins remain murky, his beliefs remain
subject to a bewildering variety of uses, and often each of the
technical referents in his poetry subject to a variety of
interpretations. These debates reveal more about those who engage in
them, than they do about Kabir. Like so much of our intellectual
history, he becomes a stratagem in our hobby horses, we learn from him
what we want rather than what he can genuinely teach us.

Kabir's political salience of course stems from the fact that he is at
the centre of two of modern India's most important faultlines:
communalism and caste. He is trotted out as the most important figure
of Hindu-Muslim unity. His searing critique of caste has made him a
canonical figure of an emerging Dalit consciousness; hence the
political homage. But ironically, this political salience has obscured
rather than deepened an engagement with his thought in two ways.
First, while understandable, these are political attempts to house a
life that was at its core original in its refusal to be trapped by any
collective noun or pronoun. Kabir had, in a true sense, fashioned a
character of extraordinary individuality, relentless in exposing the
hypocrisies and abridgements of any group identity. The liberation he
offered was of a deeper sort than our slogans of communal harmony or
caste empowerment could even begin to imagine.

The salience of the "social question" has had paradoxical effects on
the engagement with Indian intellectual history. On the one hand, it
has provided some impetus for creative reinterpretation. And it has to
be said of Dalit critics that they may be the only ones who take this
tradition intellectually seriously. But there is a danger that the
landscape of humanities in India is flattened to the point that every
figure and text is measured only by a preconceived political litmus
test: which side can appropriate them in contemporary debates.
Nationalists, Marxists, caste-based intellectuals of all stripes have
been more interested in creating their advertising icons. But this
approach has the consequence of making us tone deaf to both
philosophical depth and aesthetic complexity, making the humanities
moribund.In a way the history of Kabir criticism in modern Hindi is a
perfect example of how identity has colonised scholarship in modern
India. The first generation of 20th century scholarship and criticism,
including the monumental Ramchandra Shukla, was characterised by a
barely concealed attempt to diminish Kabir. Dalit critics have, not
entirely without justification, seen this as a move to tame Kabir's
social radicalism. Though in hindsight what stands out is the tone
deafness of critics like Shukla, to any depth.

Hazari Prasad Dwivedi's modern classic, that set a new benchmark in
the study of Kabir, was intellectually radical in two ways. It tried
to systematically engage with Kabir's thought at a deep philosophical
level and made the case for its incomparable depth and complexity.
Second, it argued that like all great revolutionaries in thought,
Kabir carried a deep stamp of the myriad traditions he was negating.
It was marked with an engagement with Kabir's technical vocabulary in
ways that very few scholars are capable of. Whether Dwivedi got Kabir
right or wrong is not quite the issue. The interesting fact was that
even this engagement, which for all its limitations (particularly its
neglect of aesthetics) still remains unmatched, was construed by
subsequent critics in conspiratorial terms. Giving Kabir the highest
compliment possible, that of a serious and systematic thinker, was
somehow a ruse to negate his social importance; that the attempt to
deeply analyse the sources of vocabulary was simply an attempt to
negate his originality. One prominent critic went as far as to claim
that engaging with the depth of Kabir's thought on fundamental
questions of existence was nothing but a ruse to deflect attention
from his social criticism, as if social criticism always needs to be
founded on political simplicity and not philosophical depth. But this
debate became symptomatic of a larger crisis in humanities: the
identity of the critic and of the text became central to criticism.

None of this of course would have surprised Kabir himself. He knew a
thing or two about the pedantry of scholars and the trappings of
group- think, two tendencies destructive of genuine insight. Of course
Kabir's genius and strangely unhoused ways will probably survive crude
politicisation. This is not the least because he still remains alive,
particularly in music. For most of our generation the path into Kabir
was initially the late Kumar Gandharva, whose recordings provided
quite simply the most spiritually incandescent moments in modern
music. It is not entirely idle speculation to wonder whether Indian
music has been able to retain both a sense of its past and radically
innovate precisely because it is the one area of culture which has
still not been colonised by identity politics in quite the same way,
at least not yet. But the Kabir advertisements are reminders that in
vast areas great intellectual figures are in the danger of becoming
merely iconic; the intellectual preconditions and space for engaging
with them fast vanishing.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi


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