Years ago, when Charlie Chaplin left the classic world of the silent movie and produced a «talkie» film, the «Countess from Hongkong», Time responded ruthlessly. It said the movie was pickled in the formaldehyde of the thirties. Not even the presence of Sophia Loren could save the film.
Sometimes when one thinks of the recent attempts to receive Gandhi and Tagore, one thinks of a similar comment. Think of Gandhi first. One cannot think of a single interesting book on him published recently. For debate, for the drama of scholarship, one has to go back to Bhikhu Parekh or Ashis Nandy. There is little that current scholarship can offer. A wag once responded that Gandhi is a pickle, we seek to preserve him. We believe by museumizing Gandhi and pickling him, we can retain the verve, the character, the fire of the man.
One has to outline a tragedy. Most Gandhian institutions look like old peoples’ homes. The movement is in dotage and there is little sense of the memory of the man. Sadly, we do not even take the memories of these people seriously. Today, reviving Gandhi means freezing Gandhi into an immutable text. It is a purist exercise. Whether it is Gandhi or Tagore, we miss the experimental nature of their careers and their lives, the ethical and aesthetic risks they have taken. In fact, magazines like Gandhi Marg should be junked. The tutorial Gandhi they produce is infantile and mediocre as a catechism.
The question is how do we respond to a man who wrote Hind Swaraj and My Experiments with Truth, someone who wrote letters with a passion whose length exceeded even the collected works of Lenin? I think the Experiments with Truth has to be reinvented around the body, around technology, around a new theory of peace. Think of a peace for South Asia. What is a Gandhian response to the Terrorist idiocy of Pakistan? How do we excite an India which is not worried about China or afraid of it? Can we rewrite the Hind Swaraj which confronts a new sacrament for carbon trading or a new way to challenge modernity? The colonial question of a middle class India subjugated by Western categories is still there. We have to create a Gandhian heuristic which responds to the nuclear bomb, to the decline of agriculture, creating a theory of Peace which goes beyond an absence of war.
Think of Peace as an attempt to rescue the West from its belligerence. The task is how do we create the categories that push our elite beyond the mediocrity of the information boom, which is a reincarnation of Macaulay’s world? Instead of a secretariat of files, we have digitalized Macaulay. Only the future will decide whether Macaulayism II was more creative than Macaulay I. The new Gandhi will re-look at work, nature, the body through a theory of livelihood which looks at how history, development and the new technological revolutions create wasted people and «obsolescent» cultures. A new Gandhi should have no hesitation creating a salt tax around Intellectual Property Rights or even seceding from international protocols not out of provincialism but out of a real sense of the future of the globe. Our ashrams should become new versions of the Green Cross cleaning oil spills, and replanting old seeds. I would add to it an idea suggested by Nicholai Roerich, the Russian painter suggested a White Cross to defend cultures threatened by war and let me add development. These will not be humanitarian processes for careerist bureaucrats but explosions, networks, forms of life that civil society must create beyond the current corsets we call NGOs. These ideas can also help revive a moribund UNESCO which is still living off the legacy its old Leftists and humanists. This is the time for new ideas and bold experiments.
India must do what the West was afraid to do – re-think cities and the imagination of technology. We need not run away from modernity but have to make modernity answer questions the West did not even think of. But for this, Gandhi has to continue his debates with Tagore.
Tagore is an antidote to any provincializing of Gandhi. He was a cosmopolitan man, who offered a cosmopolitan society to the idiocy of the nation state. Tagore along with the Scottish biologist, Patrick Geddes and the scientist JC Bose dreamt a vision of science that might be as critical as his poetry. Sadly we have reduced all of them to icons of the nation state when their alternative modernities and universalisms dreamt dreams of a more holistic kind. Read Geddes’ plea for the Institute of Science written as a letter to Sister Nivedita in the Pioneer or Tagore’s original dream of the forest universities of India.
This year is the 150th anniversary of Tagore and at least a 150 crores will be spent on domesticating him into a predictable mediocrity. Treat him as an irritant; the savant as irritant and maybe something might be salvaged. Reducing Tagore to Rabindra Sangeet or Gandhi to Raghupati Raghav is the last thing we need. Let us celebrate the creative power of these impossible individuals. To commemorate, one has to invent, misread, re-create, caricature. Otherwise all we will be left with is mediocrity – the worst way to salute these two extraordinary men. Let us not pickle them in the formaldehyde of the past. We owe this much to a past that we have lived on and to a future that we must necessarily re-invent.