Modernity and Public Sphere in Vernacular
Such contests and debates around the concepts and practices were being conducted from Assam to Rajasthan through the medium of satsangas (congregations), and Mathas (monasteries). Leading bhaktas and sampradays competed with each other to win over ordinary people and powerful persons. The competition sometimes turned bitter, even violent. The bhaktas and their sampradays may not have had a well-defined common goal, but they certainly shared a common idiom, and practices and institutions in which they sought to validate their respective ideas and positions. The practice was to propose a new reading of the spiritual and social experience in the shared idiom of bhakti. Banarasidas- a wealthy, Jain merchant and the author of Ardhakathanak (Half a Narrative) – an autobiography– also established a new panth in the idiom of bhakti. The most important aspect of his life and work is a clear indication of the emergence of the notion of the individual,18 just as is the case with Kabir and so many others.
The texts and practices of bhakti clearly indicate the emergence of the individual as distinct from the type, but you can notice this and other such significant processes only if you look carefully at the vernacular expressions of Indian modernity. In fact, vernacular (i.e. “Deshaj“ in Hindi) is the most apt expression for the pre-colonial modernity that we see emerging through the public sphere of bhakti– a space of many voices, a space that is distinct from the private space and autonomous from but not indifferent to the political arena.
I cannot think of a better way of concluding this note than to quote from Jaishankar Prasad– who is not much known outside Hindi literary circles and who was a great scholar, poet and playwright, and a great connoisseur of arts, a New Age Renaissance man – if you please. He was active during the colonial period (in the first four decades of the twentieth century) and acutely sensitive to the pressures caused by the colonial situation. While discussing the Indian and western notions of art and poetry, Prasad observed:
The different taxonomies of knowledge in the east and the west are due to the differences in cultural preferences. The prevalent education system has coloured our thinking with western influences and has compelled us to assess our own cultural semiotics on western parameters. But let us not overplay the role of compulsion here; the presence of the new media of the exchange of ideas has made it impossible for anybody to remain untouched by the ideas in international circulation. In fact, we must go back to our own semiotics with this awareness, as our own knowledge systems and signs are not any weaker.“19
1 See Satya P. Mohanty, “Alternative Modernities and Medieval Indian Literature: The Oriya ’Lakshmi Purana’ as Radical Pedagogy“ Diacritics 38, no. 3 (2009).
2 Satya P. Mohanty (ed.). Colonialism, Modernity and Literature: A View from India. Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi, 2011, p. 3.
3 C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914, Blackwell, Oxford, 2004, p. 256.
4 Sanjay Subrahmmanyam, “Vignettes of Early Modernity in South Asia” in Early Modernities (Daedalus, Vol. 127, Number 3), eds. Shmuel N. Eisenstadt and Wolfgang Schluchter, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1998, pp. 99-100.
5 Enrique Dussel, “World System and Trans-modernity“ in Unbecoming Modern: Colonialism, Modernity, Colonial Modernities eds. Saurabh Dube, Ishita Banerjee-Dube, Social Science Press, New Delhi, 2006, p.168.
6 Ibid. p. 170.
7 Achille Mbembe, On the Post Colony. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001, pp.10-11.
8 D. A. Washbrook, Orients and Occidents: Colonial Discourse Theory and the Historiography of the British Empire in the Oxford History of British Empire, volume V, Edited by Robin W. Winks, Wim Roger Louis OUP: New York, 1999, pp. 609-610.
9 Purushottam Agrawal, Akath Kahani Prem ki: Kabir ki Kavita aur un ka Samay – The Untellable Tale of Love: Kabir’s Poetry and his Times – (published in Hindi), Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, 2010.
10 Velchuru Narayana Rao and Sanjay Subrahmmanyam, “History and Politics in the Vernacular: Reflections on Medieval and Early Modern South India“ in History in the Vernacular, eds. Raziuddin Aquil and Partha Chatterjee, Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2008, pp. 29.
11 For a fascinating account of “Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century” see Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World OUP, New York, 2004.
12 Sanjay Subrahmmanyam, “Vignettes of Early Modernity in South Asia” in Early Modernities op. cit. p. 93.
13 See for example Partha Chatterjee, Introduction, History in the Vernacular eds. Raziuddin Aquil and Partha Chatterjee, Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2008, p. 3.
14 Shmuel N. Eisenstadt and Wolfgang Schluchter, Introduction to Early Modernities (Daedalus, Vol. 127, Number 3), American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1998, p. 11.
15 In an essay written in 1993, I attempted a preliminary exploration of this contest, see Purushottam Agrawal, “Kan Kan mein Vyapen hain Ram: Slogan as a Metaphor of Cultural Interrogation” in Oxford Literary Review eds. Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul, vol. 16, nos. 1-2, 1994, pp. 245-264.
16 Raymond Schwab, The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East-1680-1880. Columbia University Press, New York, 1984, p. 6.
17 The Sarvangi of Gopaldas, Ed. Winand Callewarte, Manohar, New Delhi, 1993, p. 261.
18 Recently some scholars have tried to locate Banarasidas in the context of merchant life and the notion of individual. The essays by Vasudha Dalmia, “Merchant Tales and the Emergence of Novel in Hindi” (Economic and Political Weekly,
78 Journal of Contemporary Thought
23 August, 2008, pp. 43-60) and Rajkumar ( in Hindi), Atm aur Atmcharit (Tadbhav- 20, July, 2009, pp. 134−149) are important in this regard.
19 Kavya aur Kala (Poetry and Art) in “Prasad ki sampoorna Kahaniyan aur Nibandh“ (collected essays and short stories), ed. Satyaprakash Mishra, Lok-Bharti
Prakashan, Allahabad, 2009, p. 467.
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