Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Review

K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar

 

ENGLISH

UNDERTONES OF DISSENT 1

Virginia Woolf once remarked: “Journalism embalmed in a book is unreadable”. As a broad affirmation it is nothing to cavil at, though there are the inevitable exceptions to this rule as there are to so many others. After all, Cobbett and Hazlitt were journalists; so were Stevenson and Beerbohm; so, in our own day, were Lytton Strachey and Mrs. Woolf herself. The modern age of urban concentration and mass production is no doubt little congenial to the cultivation of the art of the essay. There has been a steady dilution of quality, a thinness of intellectual and emotional content, a blatant vulgarisation of taste. When one writes for an audience of two hundred thousand or four or five million, one has necessarily to avoid all nuances in thought and expression, and confine oneself to the familiar grooves, the stereotyped responses, the stale similitudes. But even in these degenerate days there are papers that manage to retain some individuality and independence. There is the Spectator, of London, for instance; and, in India, there is Swarajya. Their circulation is limited. But the audience, fit though few, has a taste for what may often prove to be caviare to the general. In the Spectator, a writer like Bernard Levin gives to whatever he writes a piquant and an almost biting quality. But it is doubtful if his essays could be collected, or would then still retain their strong flavour and burning taste. The brilliance of journalism often wears off all too soon, like scent in the bottle when the cork is removed. “The newspaper crocus...radiates a golden glow...It is beautifully finished...But the night comes and these flowers fade”. The more’s the pity.

There are journalists in India–Pothan Joseph, Chalapati Rau, Frank Moraes, Iswara Dutt, Khasa Subba Rau–who too can exploit topicality to superb effect. Yet ‘Vighneswara’ (N. Raghunathan) is in a class apart. For long regularly yoked to the heavy editorial wheels of the Hindu, Mr. Raghunathan was no ‘free lance’ pugilist; but late in life he became one for a change and wrote the now famous, ‘Sotto Voce’ column, first in Swatantraand later in Swarajya. If one change was permissible, another became for him almost inevitable: the  purveyor of serious political comment in a daily paper of national vogue became the miscellaneous columnist of an individualist weekly paper, and the columnist revealed himself as the perfect humanist and the flawless literary craftsman. A life-time of training in the exacting discipline of expression in a difficult foreign language now yielded significant results. Week after week the essays appeared–with their tone of quiet assurance and look of effortless ease–and, as the weeks gathered into months and years, the ‘Sotto Voce’ feature became almost the sole standard-bearer of traditional values and robust sanity in a world of rattle and glare and noise. Vighneswara’s is often the conservative, unpopular, ‘diehard’ view; his assent with tradition is apt to take on the tone of dissent with current notions of propriety and progress; and yet his views cannot be dismissed as of no consequence, for these undertones of assent and dissent come with an accent of authority that compels attention. The Elephant God of the Hindu Pantheon is both massive in bulk and slow in gait, but he has an infallible skill in works, he has a steady and clear and whole view of what he designs to see, and he has a sense of unruflled commitment to the work on hand. He is at once the perfect guide to the world of knowledge and the perfect dispeller of the obstacles to right knowledge. There was a certain challenge in Mr. Raghunathan’s initial assumption of ‘Vighneswara’ as his nom-de-plume, even though it was made with an appropriate “votive coconut”. But we can now see that the name has not been taken in vain.

Of Bacon’s ‘Essays’ it has been said that they might be Minerva’s own lucubrations. Of the piece in Satta Voce also it could be said that they might be the Elephant God’s own sallies of the mind. Whatever the subject–economics, politics, education, social life, language problems, literature, music, philosophy, commemoration, obituary, even chillies and avakkai–thetransient is touched with the seal of universality, the trivial is seen to be shorn of its triviality. The 150 essays collected in the present volume were written a decade or more ago in the course of the three years of ‘the Coming of Freedom’ (1946-48), but the effect they now produce on the reader is nearly unique. It is a book that we are reading, not a collection of stray articles, A ribbon, of stern purpose runs through and holds firmly together the many items in this ‘social and political commentary’. Beneath the superfices of contemporary life and the blaze of opinion and action there is the deep underground river–seldom seen but real all the same–which is the true source of vegetation and life on earth. The culture of the people,–the complex of swabhava, swadharma, swatantra, and swarajyathat is the true index of this culture,–has been the slow creation of the ages, and may not now be violently tampered with except to our total discomfiture. Such is the core, the heart, of the body of Vighneswara’s musings and animadversions and gentle exhortations.

How, it may be asked, about the tempo of change in this age of nuclear power and space travel? Change is easy, and as dangerous as it is easy; but stagnation is no less dangerous. The problem is to preserve the right balance between change and stagnation–to retain the soul in its purity and power, yet permit the body’s growth and development; and facilitate the education and resilience of the mind in the context of advancing science and technology. The Church, the Academy, the University–Religion, Philosophy, Education–have at different times fulfilled the role of preserver of the values of culture without preventing legitimate change and healthy growth. F. R. Leavis says rightly that the University is

“...society trying to preserve and develop a continuity of consciousness and a mature directing sense of value–a sense of value informed by a traditional wisdom. The Universities are recognised symbols of cultural tradition–of cultural tradition still conceived as a directing force, representing a wisdom older than modern civilisation and having an authority that should check and control the blind drive onward of material and mechanical development...”

Tradition (the total contents of a cultural heritage) is preserved and kept alive through study, appreciation and healthy criticism, and it is helped through contact with other or ‘alien’ traditions and new ideas to refresh itself and march towards the horizons of the future. But a hideous Bottom-like translation–a sudden artificial transformation–cannot be a wise thing, or lead to good results. The Church and the Academy have fallen into disfavour in the modern age. The University has therefore the heavier responsibility. There, if anywhere, we have to locate the springs of a healthy tradition; there culture should hold its own, unafraid of the weights and measures of the political and economic market place; there at least the ‘intellectual’ should be able to call his soul his own, to follow his demon whithersoever it might lead him, and to reject compromises even if dictated by authority. But our universities have as a whole failed the country: they can neither fulfil their essential role as the preserver of “a sense of value informed by a traditional wisdom” nor even deliver the goods that a Planner’s God-State stands in need of. Vighneswara cannot but spot out this failure at the fount:

“A university is by definition a fellowship of learned and inquiring minds. But in Madras it has always meant the Vice-Chancellor, the Syndicate and the Senate in that order of importance...it is the administrators who occupy the centre of the stage.”

Again, on a later occasion (not included in the present volume):

“In other countries the highest type of talent–the creator the explorer–are drawn to the university as naturally as the iron filing to the magnet. They are assured comfort and consideration and they are left free to follow their daemon. They have not to pay court to pinchbeck dictators miscalled Vice-Chancellors, nor have they to play the politician among pressure groups who dispense patronage...”

But we are content to order things otherwise in our country. On the other hand, the University itself has necessarily to be reared on the broad foundations or a sound system of secondary education. While the ‘autonomy’ of the University has within limits saved it from too much political interference (except in so far as the Vice-Chancellor himself is a politician in disguise. as he only too often is), at the primary and the secondary stages the politician has been having things his own way. Of the redoubtable Mr. Avinashilingam.s allergies and their effect on education in Madras, Vighneswara writes:

“Every Government claims to be inspired by a vision of the good life which it strives to translate into reality. Our Education Minister has made it clear that his ideal is not to be achieved through merit. How it is to be done we may guess. For the country is being trained on a diet of “No’s”–No Sanskrit, no English except of the piebald variety, no Science but what can be learnt through the desiccated Tamil of the neo-purist, no culture that is not of the pure Dravidian brand. So, ‘Hurrah for Illiteracy’! for that shall not fail us.”

One of the post-Independence educational fads is the plea for the so-called “nationalisation of text-books” at the levels–primary, secondary and collegiate. Bespectacled DPI’s and seasoned University Registrars have overnight turned text-book publishers, and monopoly and regimentation are the order of the day. But Vighneswara clearly sees the dangers inherent in this ‘revolution’:

“The great University Presses of Oxford and Cambridge are the nearest approximation to official publishing in England. But the Syndics do not interfere with the planning or actual production of authoritative text-books...

“The fatal objection, however, has reference to the basic virtue that a text-book must possess–objectivity. No Government, much less a party Government, is fit to be entrusted with the task of determining what history, economics or philosophy a boy shall learn or how he shall learn it...When the indoctrination in a particular ideology–even if it be the innocuous rural ideology of the Wardha Basic Education Scheme–is set up as the test of successful education, official text-books will effectively extinguish independent thinking. You might as well gag a man who has nasal catarrh in the hope of curing him.”

Since the intellectual–the torch-bearer of culture–the custodian of tradition–the creator of new values–is increasingly making himself scarce in the modern Indian university, the responsibility of the unattached intellectual becomes all the greater. It is a narrow thorny path, but, then, the macadamised roads of getting-on and the seductive meadows of success are not for the intellectual. He must be willing to go his own way regardless of the hazards on the path. Hence the importance of people like Vighneswara who are courageous enough to preserve their integrity and are ready enough to praise the Past when it is worthy of praise and to condemn the ‘revolutionary’. Present when such strong condemnation is really called for. The Prime Minister might cry in derision, “Nineteenth Century!” when there is no other weapon in his armoury. (Yet St. Marx was himself a nineteenth century man.) But a purposive ward glance is not amiss, an intelligent scrutiny of our gains from the past cannot harm us very much. Paying a tribute to Ananda Coomaraswamy, Vighneswara says:

“Thanks to him and others like him there is today a minority that cares passionately for our great heritage and is eager to make it a live influence again. He lamented, ‘A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being, deprived of all roots–a sort of intellectual Pariah who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or the future’. Remember that the man who felt our cultural degradation so keenly was by blood only one half Indian.”

Coomaraswamy was a host in himself, and so were the others–in their respective spheres–of whom too Vigneswara writes with affection and discriminating appreciation. There was the Hero as Scholar, Mahamahopadhyaya Swaminatha Ayyar; there was the ‘Tiger’ of Karnatic Music, Varadachariar; there was Saint Tyagaraja the Nadopasaka who wove “matchless patterns on the loom of music to body forth the beauty that possessed him”; there was the incomparable Dhanam, the Veena artiste; there was the boy spiritual prodigy, B. R. Rajam Iyer; there was Bharati ‘the CUCKOO of Tamil Land’; and there was, of course, the Mahatma who suffered martyrdom on 30 January 1948. This last event provokes Vighneswara to write one of his most moving pieces of prose art:

“When Bharata asked, ‘Where is my father gone?’ Kaikeyi quietly replied, ‘He has gone the way of all flesh–yea, he has, he the Raja and Mahatma, splendid in his virtues, great in sacrifice, the refuge of the good and true.’ That magnificent epitaph, proclaiming at once the vulnerability of the clod and the Promethean fire that informs it, may be applied with equal appropriateness to Mohandas Gandhi. To such as he Death comes, secret and shame-faced, like a thief in the night. One instinctively thinks of that glorious figure on the lonely beach at Prabhasa absolving the piteous wretch Jarawith a word of cheer and a benediction.

“May that divine forgiveness illumine India’s heart. Then indeed will Gandhiji’s great faith, his noble audacity be vindicated. In trying to solve the problems of society by the application of the technique of self-conquest he played for high stakes. He knew what the forfeit was; and if he was as ruthless with others as with himself it was because his eye was sternly fixed on the distant goal and he was urged by an overmastering sense of impending doom. No wonder that he often stumbled and the laggards fell by the wayside. But it is no small thing to have had that faith and to have made others share it, however briefly and fitfully.”

But Vighneswara finds the right words of obituary comment on other similar occasions also. The note on Jinnah is rather in sharp contrast to that on the Mahatma. If Gandhiji was truly ‘the Grand Solitary’, Jinnah was seemingly ‘the Man of Destiny’. Vighneswara’s deepest emotions are not engaged here, and he writes in a decidedly critical vein, though not without justification. But the summing-up is as pitiless as it is masterly, and there is besides a telling finality about it:

“There was the same absence of emotion about the systematic way in which he built up a public personality for himself. His political associates cowered before him, fascinated as is the tiger’s victim by the ruthless magnificence bearing down upon it...Looking down upon most people, his lips curled in a perpetual sneer, he yet gave the impression of suffering from an obscurely sensed inadequacy.

“He lacked magnanimity. Mr. C. R. Reddy has spoken of him as the Coriolanus of Indian politics. But Coriolanus, who poured out his contempt on the tribunes of the people, reserved his highest admiration for a worthy foe like Aufidius; his tortured love for his country was none the less love because it had curdled into hate. When the Mahatma’s tragic death wrung from Mr. Jinnah an unwilling tribute he must needs diminish it by remembering that Gandhiji was the leader of the Hindus. Once during the war, when Britain was in no mood for parleying, he protested in tearful querulousness that Gandhiji wanted to embroil him with the British. And at the moment of his triumph, when he sat enthroned on the Chair of State, the camera with pitiless candour showed him vaguely smiling and shuffling his feet in a fever of unease. The Man of Destiny was, clearly, A Man Afraid.”

But when the mood relaxes, Vighneswara is ready for warm appreciation or love, on this side idolatry. Writing of Tyagaraja, Vighneswara achieves a sudden survey of a segment of Indian history and makes a neat point with overwhelming effect:

“When the cultural history of India comes to be properly written, the migration of small but dynamically active groups from one linguistic area to another will be seen to have exercised a catalytic influence. The handful of Telugus long settled in the Tamil country were one of the most important foci of that continual excitement which hovered like a spirit on the troubled waters of the Carnatic in the eighteenth century. Cut up into numberless principalities, beset by the invader, ravaged by the barbarian, the remains of the moribund Chola empire yet maintained their integrity and were in fact pulsating with a new life. The message of the Nama Siddhanta was to renew and sustain the faith of a sore-stricken people. Bodhendra and Sridhara Venkatesa are the sun and the moon of that bright firmament of which Tyagaraja is the pole star.

“It was a time of unparalleled efflorescence. Poets like Ramabhadra Dikshita and Yajnanarayana Dikshita who had revived the splendours of the Augustan Age of Sanskrit Literature, jivanmuktaslike Sadasiva Brahmendra and Upanishad Brahma Yogin, prabandhakaraslike Narayana Tirtha, operatic composers like Melattore Venkatarama Sastri, polymaths like Govinda Dikshita and grammarians of music like his gifted son Venkatamakhi blazoned the name of Tanjore in a trail of glory which reminds one of the Age of the Imperil Guptas or Athens in the days of Pericles. No wonder that when the seed of the Taraka mantra fell on such rich soil it should have borne such glorious fruit as the ‘Tyagopanishad’. It is the most heartening proof of the vitality of our civilisation.”

But one must resist the temptation to quote too often or at too great length, although there is little else that one can do. How is one, after all, to sample this ‘ocean’ of good sense and nectarean wisdom, or, to vary the metaphor, this variegated landscape of views, avenues, gorges, rainbow riches and passing clouds? To Vighneswara, Bharatavarsha is not that ridiculous concoction ‘India that is Bharat’ or ‘Bharat that is India’–and a truncated India and a fissured Bharat at that–but verily the Mother, the mother of her forty crores of children. Vighneswara’s words acquire a winged quality as he projects this inspiring vision before us:

“It is Vyasa in the Vishnu Purana who utters it (the name) with the impassive simplicity and stately majesty of the arsha: ‘That land which lies to the north of the sea and the south of the Himalaya is known as Bharata and its progeny as Bharathee’.

“The disruptors and the appeasers, the dishonest historians, the philistines who deny their parentage, all these get short shrift at the hands of the sage who is the spirit of Bharatavarsha incarnate...He proclaims the unique greatness of this Karma Bhumi, where to be born is the ambition of the immortals themselves, for it is the gateway to Beatitude. It is the eternal ground of Freedom.

“There were three Bharatas famed in song and story. And well may the land be proud of their name, for something of their virtue has passed into her....Jada Bharata for detachment, Bharata the son of Dasaratha for loyalty, Bharata the son of Dushyanta for valour–it is on this tripod that Bharatha Dharma securely rests. And for every true son of Bharatha Bhumi she is at once mother and goddess. There is a mystic presence behind her myriad shapes and forms. There is no vana but has its vana devata. And not all the political chicanery of partition and division can persuade me–and millions like me–that we must look with an alien eye on any spot in this sacred land that has since the dawn of creation owed allegiance to the supreme ideal of Nara-Narayana.”

On the other hand, when the occasion calls for it, he can freely draw upon the resources of irony, sarcasm or satire; and his writing can be pungent, it can be fiercely edged, it can be almost deadly:

“...today our hybrid legislators would give us Estate Duties without Beveridge. We make the Worst of both worlds.”

“...in a world that has lost its moorings, the Secular State is the Servile State.”

“Between the Congress of 1948 and the Congress of 1887 there is nothing in common except the name. Its claim to be regarded as the pattern of a non-communal secular democracy is about as sustainable as that triple misnomer, the Holy Roman Empire.”

“In the post-Gandhian war for power the first casualty is decency.”

“Mankind everywhere from Moscow to Madras asks for bread, and its rulers give it ersatz.”

“Congress, as Deputy Providence, is bent upon rewarding virtue here and now. The ‘political sufferers’ are not only to have their parcel of good land but also a fistful of money to play with. Who suggests that this is to breed a new class of parasites?..”

“And as so many geese have become swans overnight; what with the exodus of the Britisher and the conviction, firmly fixed in the minds of Congress bosses, that you have only to put a man in the big room to make a big man of him, every first-division clerk hopes to be Secretary-General in five years.”

“The fallen Archangel was forever preoccupied with God. And the architects of our secular State are incessantly thinking of religion.”

Brilliant and devastating, these pellets of prose have the Potency of dynamite in the relevant contexts. All is apparently calm; the sky is clear and deceptively Serene; then there is a sudden pouring, followed by a streak of blinding lightning and the sound of deafening thunder: and presently all is quiet and reassuring again. So it is with the expanses of prose in the Sotto Voce collection.

From the first causerie to the last, one realises how correct Buffon was when he said that the style is the man. Mr. Raghunathan was more than the grave leader-writer of the Hindu. As Vighneswara he is seen as the man of steady wisdom, the scholar steeped in Sanskrit, Tamil and English, the reverent student of the sacred lore of India, and the bemused and ironic observer of the Indian scene from the vantage ground of his scholar’s sanctum. He writes with classic sobriety although the pen may be dipped in sarcasm or satire; he is unperturbed even when the mighty or the majority are against him, and he is imperturbable whatever the immediate provocation. With a disdain worthy of Queen Victoria’s “We are not amused!”, he often flings his verbal chastisements with never a semblance of agitation or fret. The river of his style–broad and slow and clear, with a deep rumbling organic richness of sound–flows on and on, and we too are carried along with it. It is no use murmuring or protesting: the massive scholarship, the rapier intelligence, and the momentum of the dialectic make a formidable irresistible combination. The style is indeed the man, and is the expression of a consistent and rounded philosophy of life: one must respect it even if one cannot always agree with its conclusions. It is a very personal style, too, for nobody else in India or abroad quite writes–or can write–like Mr. Raghunathan. Less razor-sharp than Rajaji’s, less nervously sensitive than Nehru’s at his best, less candidly crystalline than Srinivasa Sastri’s, less obviously high-sounding than Radhakrishnan’s, less chattily informative than Pothan Joseph’s, less brilliantly epigrammatical than Chalapati Rau’s, less recondite or heavily impressive than Nirad Chaudhuri’s, yet Mr. Raghunathan’s style has a distinctiveness of its own, marked by a Sanskritic richness in phrasing, a sweep of comprehension that takes all knowledge for its province, an understone of dhwanithat insinuates many things actually unsaid, and, above all, a poise, a cadence, a structural amplitude and adequacy that go with an almost absolute mastery of the medium. Autobiography fuses with reminiscence, literary echoes mingle with criticism, and candid comment nestles with jewelled obiter dicta; the quotations are apt and telling, and are drawn from divers sources; and the pen-portraits–be they full-sized or in miniature–are electrically charged with life. Mr. Raghunathan writes as one who has a sense of belonging utterly to the great cultural tradition of our country, and as one who is unafraid to participate in the splendorous adventure of marching towards the future. He is often critical because he is so wise, and also because he writes on things that really matter to him. Sotta Voce is undoubtedly a gallant blow struck for Culture, and is in itself an act of purposive commitment. It is a book to treasure, to dip into again and again, and to have at one’s elbow always.
1 Sotto Voce: A Social and Political Commentary. I. ‘The Coming of Freedom’. By ‘Vighneswara’ (N. Raghunathan). (B. G. Paul & Co., Francis Joseph Street, Madras–1. Rs.4.)

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