Despair and Modernity (Reflections from Modern Indian Painting)

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Item Code: IDJ938
Author: Harsha V. Dehejia, Prem Shankar Jha, Ranjit Hoskote
Publisher: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd
Edition: 2000
ISBN: 8120817559
Pages: 123
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5" X 5.5"
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Book Description
From the Jacket

Dehejia has tried to create a place within the main frame of culture and philosophy of Indian art for a legitimate analytic theory called despair. Dehejia's effort creates a space for the modern within Indian classicism, by negotiating the philosophy of despair in classical terms. As a result the basic schism that has grown in recent years between the philosophy and history of modern art, on the one hand and the philosophy and history of traditional arts, is today closer to being breached. This is no mean achievement.

Scholars, activists and observers of the Indian life and contemporary arts will be grateful to Harsha Dehejia, Prem Shankar Jha and Ranjit Hoskote for the scope and innovativeness of their venture.

Harsha V. Dehejia has a doctorate in Medicine and Ancient Indian Culture from Bombay University. He is also a member (by examination) of the Royal College of Physicians of London and Glasgow as well as Canada. He is a practicing physician and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Religion of Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontaria, Canada. He is married to Sudha and has two sons Vivek and Rajeev, both of whom are economists.

About the Author

Harsha V. Dehejia has a double doctorate, one in Medicine and the other in Ancient Indian Culture, both from the University of Mumbai. He is also a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London, Glasgow and Canada, all by examination. He is Professor of Religion at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada where he teaches Indian Aesthetics. He has published three books, The Advaita of Art, Parvatidarpana (both by Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi) and Parvati, Goddess of Love (by Mapin, Ahmedabad). He is Curatorial Advisor to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Dr. Dehejia is a practicing physician and lives in Ottawa.

Prem Shankar Jha, studied at the Doon School, St. Stephen College, Delhi and Magdalen College, Oxford. He holds a B.A. in Economics and an M.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. After five years in the United Nations Development Programme in New York and Damascus he returned to India in 1966 to become a journalist. In the past thirty years, he has been Economic Editor of The Times of India, Editor of The Economic Times and Financial Express and finally editor of The Hindustan Times. From 1986 to 1990 he was the India correspondent of The Economist, London. In 1990 he was Information Advisor to Prime Minister V.P. Singh. At present, he is a columnist for The Business Standard and The Hindu and writes in several other papers both in India and abroad. He has been a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford and Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, Cambridge and a visiting Professor at the University, Cambridge and a visiting Professor at the University of Virginia. Mr. Jha is the author of four books: India, A Political Economy of Stagnation, Management Of The Public Sector in Developing Asian Countries: a handbook, In The Eye Of The Cyclone: The Crisis of Indian Democracy and Kashmir: Rival Versions of History. At present, Mr. Jha is working on a book on The Impact Of Globalization On International Peace. A book on the capitalist transformation in India, China and Russia is currently under publication. Mr. Jha has written extensively on Indian classical music and dance and is the co-founder of Baithak, a society devoted to the promotion of Indian music in intimate settings.

Ranjit Hoskote, is a poet, art critic and translator. In 1995, Hoskote was Visiting Writer of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, U.S.A. His publication include Zones of Assault (1991) (tr), A Terrorist of The Spirit (1992), Pilgrim, Exile, Sorcerer: The Painterly Evolution of Jehangir Sabavala (1998). His poems have appeared in anthologies and various journals, including The Poetry Review, The Lines Review and The Indian PEN Quarterly. Mr. Hoskote won the Sanskrit Award for Literature in 1996 and the British Council Poetry Society prize in 1997.

Ashis Nandy trained as a sociologist and clinical psychologist. Nandy's research interests are political psychology, culture of knowledge, utopias and visions, popular culture and futures. He is presently Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies and the Chairperson of the Committee for Cultural Choices and Global Futures, both at Delhi.

Preciously, he has been Director of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (1992-1997); Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington (1988); Charles Wallace Fellow, Department of Politics, The University of Hull (1990); Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities, The University of Edinburgh (1991); UNESCO Professor, Center for European Studies, University of Trier, Germany (1994); and Regent's Fellow, University of California, Los Angeles.

Among Nandy's books are: Alternative Sciences (1980,1995); At The Edge of Psychology (1980); The Intimate Enemy (1983); Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias (1987); The Tao of Cricket (1989); The Illegitimacy of Nationalism (1994); The Savage Freud and Other Essays in Possible and Retrievable Selves (1995); He is also a co-author of The Blinded Eye (1993) also published as Barbaric Others, and Creating a Nationality (1995). Nandy has edited two books: Science, Hegemony and Violence (1988) and The Secret Politics of our Desires (forthcoming); and co-edited The Multivlerse of Democracy (1996). Oxford University Press is now bringing out an omnibus edition of all his works. Nandy's works have been translated into a number of languages, among them Bengali, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Malayalam, Marathi, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Tamil. He has also contributed to major human rights reports on ethnic and communal violence and democratic elections.


The classical forms of creativity and philosophy of arts in India do not have any recognized place for three states of consciousness: despair, banality and absurdity. Indian classicism, however, does have a place for sorrow, cynicism, pessimism, and even self-alienation. It has also a place for, as anyone who has read Bhasa will know, the trivial, the low brow and the comic. But, till now it has shown no sign of formally registering a state of despair, an emotion that afflicts, for instance, some works of Van Gogh or Franz Kafka, involving a sense of the futility of it all, melancholia or total hopelessness. Nor have they created a place for the cultivated pop that celebrates the banal the way Andy Wharhol does or for the unashamedly surreal. Of the three states, this book is concerned with the first, as it affects aesthetic philosophy and awareness.

The absence of a proper philosophical and aesthetic status for despair is not unique to Indian traditions. Despair is alien to most traditional cultures, including pre-modern Europe. True, some have mentioned the personification of despair in Judas Iscariot in Late Antiquity Europe. His betrayal of Christ and subsequent suicide, it has been argued, have left their mark on European consciousness. Surely, one sees the shadow of that Biblical instance of desperation and self-destruction in modern times on the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, when he takes on the voice of a madman to proclaim that God is dead and that we are the ones to have killed him. However, it is doubtful if that pre-modern model of despair has any close philosophical links with the full blown recognition of ontological despair in our times that Nietzsche himself comes close to admitting. One is tempted to affirm that, in pre-modern West, despair as a philosophy of art or of literature was not known. The most one can say is that some works of art and some characters in literature, Sophocles' Oedipus and Shakespeare's King Lear, for instance, can be read as pointers to, rather than instances of an ontology of despair. Perhaps, despair traditionally is not so much an unknown state of mind as a rare analytic category. It is an existential state that has acquired a serious moral, philosophical and aesthetic status only in modern times.

It can be argued that in South Asian traditions one guesses that even when confronted with total existential hopelessness, in a world imbued with sacredness and alive with transcendental possibilities, existential hopelessness does not easily translate into the hopelessness of the soul. In these ancient civilization despair remains a psycho-social response than a philosophical position. I use the term 'transcendental' broadly here, not necessarily in the sense in which it has been used at places in this book. In Mahabrarata, after Krsna reveals to Karna the secret of his birth, Karna has every reason to give in to despair, but he does not. Both life and death continue to make sense to him, as does the difference between them. Even in contemporary Europe the open-ended, fuzzy transcendentalism in the world-view of Albert Einstein and Arther Schroedinger supplies, in the form of a unified or integrated philosophy or meaningful frame of life a defense against an utter hopelessness that infects the creative efforts of many like Samuel Beckett. Even when his world-view comes close to the idea of despair, Albert Camus remains somewhere in touch with hope, unlike Van Gogh. Indeed, Camus imposes a framework on an existential experience that recognizes the first or primordial question: why should I not commit suicide? He answers it by imposing a meaning on his world by a sheer act of will.

On the whole, however, a philosophy of despair has more immediate relevance and appeal in secularized and urban societies where the individual has been atomized and cut off from most community ties and where impersonal, contractual relationships have come to dominate social life. For, everything said, for despair to be something more than an artistic posture, the gods have to die. Harsha Dehejia's term for despair, nastika nairasya, makes that clear. Even existential despair is primarily the disease of a society, that offers its inhabitants not merely the option of a nihilistic world-view, but also fragments a way of life that contributes to or underwrites the nihilism, and the tacit, if sectional, codes of conduct that legitimize it. However, it is doubtful if even the term nastik nairasya captures for the older South Asian philosophies of art, the range of meanings associated with the concept of despair. This book itself recognizes that atheism enjoys certain legitimacy in the Indian spiritual domain that Nietzsche could not have dreamt of. In Buddhism, Jainism and in Philosophical schools represented by the likes of Carvaka, for instance, atheism, godlessness or the denial of the authority of the Vedas does not convey the feeling of total abandonment and hopelessness, tinged with a touch of rebelliousness, that it does in European Judeo-Christian traditions. South Asian atheism certainly does not convey any impassioned acknowledgment of utter loneliness in a godless universe, that forces one to define one's own fate, morality and meaning of life. However, things have been changing in South Asia during the last hundred and fifty years.

The reasonably stable psycho-ecological balance, which large sections of people have experienced in the region for centuries is now under severe stress. First of all, the introduction of modern political economy under an apathetic colonial regime and the gradual spread of values and systems of knowledge, inadequately sensitive to the cultural, environmental and community-based concerns of the region have been traumatic. The breakdown of embedded theories of life that once mediated between the sacred and the profane and above all, the introduction of a ruthless theory of progress and its cannibalistic progeny developmentalism, have released cultural forces that threaten to destroy that balance. Not so much by subverting a pan-Indian way of life, as Prem Shankar Jha in his essay seems to suggest, as Prem Shankar Jha in his essay seems to suggest, as by subverting and desacralising the diverse integrated concepts of life. Jha's argument has, however, a hidden dimension of which he seems unaware. Many of the communities now facing despair are exactly the ones that have lived with world views that are more integrated and do not allow the controlled splits with which the Brahminic world view is more at ease. What was once a source of strength has thus become a source of vulnerability. Between them, the breakdown and uncritical progressivism have turned despair into a recognizable state of mind in the landscape of Indian creativity. Despair is not incomprehensible in Indian arts and letters any more; it hounds many painters, writers and thinkers. Despair has become an unwelcome house guest who shows no sign of cutting short its stay.

Dehejia has tried to create a place within the main frame of culture and philosophy of Indian art for a legitimate analytic theory called despair. Till recently, art criticism in India kept double ledgers. There have been aesthetic theories of the pre-modern and the folk, and there have been aesthetic theories of the modern. Dehejia's effort creates a space for the modern within Indian classicism, by negotiating the philosophy of despair in classical terms. As a result the basic schism that has grown in recent years between the philosophy and history of modern art, on the one hand and the philosophy and history of traditional arts, is today closer to being breached. This is no mean achievement.

1.Introduction-Harsha V. Dehejia1-7
2.The Sociology of Despair-Prem Shankar Jha9-25
3.From Ancient Duhkha to Modern Despair-Harsha V. Dehejia27-48
4.Adi Purusa to Manava, From Primal Man to Mankind-Harsha V. Dehejia49-94
5.Ancient Homes to Modern Homelessness-Ranjit Hoskote95-113
6.The Dead and the Dying: Post-Modern Reactions to the Despair of Modernity - Harsha V. Dehejia115-120
About the Author121-123
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