Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine"

... "During three childhood years (between the ages of 3 and 6) I was in Mandalay in Burma, where my father was a visiting professor. But much of my childhood was, in fact, spent in Dhaka, and I began my formal education there, at St. Gregory's School. However, I soon moved to Santiniketan, and it was mainly in Tagore's school that my educational attitudes were formed. This was a co-educational school, with many progressive features. The emphasis was on fostering curiosity rather than competitive excellence, and any kind of interest in examination performance and grades was severely discouraged. ("She is quite a serious thinker," I remember one of my teachers telling me about a fellow student, "even though her grades are very good.") Since I was, I have to confess, a reasonably good student, I had to do my best to efface that stigma.

The curriculum of the school did not neglect India's cultural, analytical and scientific heritage, but was very involved also with the rest of the world. Indeed, it was astonishingly open to influences from all over the world, including the West, but also other non-Western cultures, such as East and South-East Asia (including China, Japan, Indonesia, Korea), West Asia, and Africa. I remember being quite struck by Rabindranath Tagore's approach to cultural diversity in the world (well reflected in our curriculum), which he had expressed in a letter to a friend: "Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin... Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine."

I loved that breadth, and also the fact that in interpreting Indian civilization itself, its cultural diversity was much emphasized. By pointing to the extensive heterogeneity in India's cultural background and richly diverse history, Tagore argued that the "idea of India" itself militated against a culturally separatist view, "against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one's own people from others." Tagore and his school constantly resisted the narrowly communal identities of Hindus or Muslims or others, and he was, I suppose, fortunate that he died - in 1941 - just before the communal killings fomented by sectarian politics engulfed India through much of the 1940s. Some of my own disturbing memories as I was entering my teenage years in India in the mid-1940s relate to the massive identity shift that followed divisive politics. People's identities as Indians, as Asians, or as members of the human race, seemed to give way - quite suddenly - to sectarian identification with Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh communities. The broadly Indian of January was rapidly and unquestioningly transformed into the narrowly Hindu or finely Muslim of March. The carnage that followed had much to do with unreasoned herd behaviour by which people, as it were, "discovered" their new divisive and belligerent identities, and failed to take note of the diversity that makes Indian culture so powerfully mixed. The same people were suddenly different." ...

Amartya Sen

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1998, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1999.

Rabindranath Tagore meets members of Iran's parliament. Image is from early 1930's in Tehran's Majles.

Photo credit: Public Domain (originally Iranian copyright protected) via Wikipedia Commons. With thanks.


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