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Your Kabir and mine

The history of Kabir criticism shows how identity has colonised scholarship...

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
June 29, 2010 4:33:37 am

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.

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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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