Review Articles

Three phases of Indian renaissance

The way to stem the increasingly declining values in society is to rethink the relationship between culture and politics in a manner in which culture is spurred by politics and politics is refined by culture. It is time to think about a fourth phase of the Indian renaissance.

IN the historiography of modern India, the renaissance is generally marked as the pre-political phase of the anti-colonial struggle, a period when Indians were mainly engaged in social and cultural preparation for participation in the more “progressive” and “radical”, political programme. The social and religious movements, popularly termed as the renaissance, which preceded the political struggles, are considered a necessary precursor to the coming of nationalism. Hence, nationalism is conceptualised as a natural outcome of the renaissance.

This teleological view of history has been dominant till recently. A departure from this view, quite critical for renaissance studies, had to wait until a strict periodisation of historical time came to be questioned. Not only broad overarching labels like ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary periods, but also thematic periodisation like the colonial, reformist or nationalist periods came under scrutiny. The challenge to this neat compartmentalisation came from different sources. To begin with, from Marxist scholars who traced the social origins of the national movement, from Dalit scholars who came out with alternative histories based on caste, and subaltern historians whose focus was on domination and subordination. This not only marked a change in the universe of analysis, but also a reconceptualisation of categories and the re-examination of analytical categories such as caste, class, community, and so on. In the realm of the history of ideas, the intellectual history, if you like, the most important departure has been the contextualisation of ideas.

Modernity and Renaissance

The relationship between modernity and the renaissance has given rise to a variety of questions. Whether the renaissance succeeded in resolving the social contradictions that existed in society is one important question. Why the renaissance did not become trans-sectional and why it remained religion-caste oriented is another. Is it that the renaissance was the expression of nothing more than an aggregation of upper-caste social and religious interests? Is it a fair assessment that the renaissance did not succeed in transgressing the limits set by the Brahmanic ideologies? Is it accidental that the university syllabuses did not contain courses on the history of Dalits and the marginalised? Why did the historical literature on the evolution of modern India treat the renaissance as an overarching phenomenon striding across the Indian society in the 19th and 20th centuries, without much sensitivity to the fortunes of the marginalised? An inquiry into the relationship between renaissance and modernity may provide answers to some of these questions.

The origin of modernity in India is often attributed to the intellectual and cultural efflorescence associated with the renaissance. The renaissance marked a period of transition in values, transformation in social sensibilities and rebirth in cultural creativity. The outcome of these processes was the elaboration, representation and interpretation of humanism and the emergence of a new man with cultural and intellectual attributes different from his past. These ideas inspired an upsurge of creative energy, leading to the works of masters in painting, sculpture, literature, music, and so on. The new aesthetic that emerged was integral to the structural transformation of social organisation and relations of production. It was the intellectual component of the rise of capitalism, which came to be christened as modern, to distinguish the present from the past—the new from the old.

With the growth of capitalism, the modern assumed different hues. Therefore, what we mean by “modern” became a matter of debate. A seminal question is whether the modernity in the former Asian and African countries is qualitatively similar to the modernity capitalism had brought about in Europe, as it is generally viewed as a phenomenon that came from the West through the instrumentality of colonial rule. A dominant opinion, initially generated by colonial rulers who prided themselves on their civilising mission, was that India was being led to the modern stage by the colonial administration, guided by the principles of liberalism. As such, the changes that were ushered in during the colonial domination—in administrative organisation, transport and communication, commercialisation of agriculture, and so on—are described as modernisation. Such changes were part of “colonial modernity” in the sense that they were undertaken in the service of colonial interest. They were essentially colonial projects and not modernising projects. It is understandable that the official readings left out the “colonial” part, implying thereby that the changes in economy, society and culture were part of progress towards modernity. The new Indian middle class, nurtured by the liberal English education, internalised this myth and gave credence to it through the example of its own “modern” life. In the event, what is considered modern today came to be identified with the type of progress achieved by the West, of which colonial modernity was in fact a caricature.

The belief in the benevolent nature of colonial modernity was not limited to the middle class alone. It filtered into all strata of society. Even a section of the Dalit leadership believed that it was the British who gave them a ray of hope to overcome the oppressive caste system. Not without reason, though. After all, the British administrative interventions gave them a break from the age-old oppressive caste system. At least some of them were enabled to breathe fresh air by the intervention of the colonial state. Such a perspective was the result of the iniquity of the caste system, which perpetrated, in the name of religion, cruelty and exploitation beyond human tolerance.

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