Tag Archives: Asia

Tagore and the West

Chilean academic Claudio Coloma applies Peripheral Thought Theory to the response to Rabindranath Tagore to the Japanese defeat of the Russian forces in 1905.

Frequently, Rabindranath Tagore is known by his artistic work, especially in Latin America. This is demonstrated most obviously in his Nobel Prize in literature. But throughout his life, Tagore also had an important role in the area of non-fiction. Many works were composed to interpret the Indian and Asian political reality during the first half of the twentieth century. It is thanks to these works that it is possible to see the Western influence on Tagorian thought.

It is possible that the Western influence on Tagore’s thought came from two ways. First, Tagore, the Indian man, had to suffer with the European imperialism in Asia, and specifically in India. To have born and lived in a downtrodden people had to be a hard experience when a man, as Tagore, had knowledge about the historic greatness of India as well as of Asia.

Second, in spite of European imperialism, Tagore was able to discriminate between the European domination in Asia (specifically in India) and the virtues of the Western modern thought. In this sense, Tagore admired some Western ideas related to freedom and, in consequence, he was motivated to achieve a better Indian society.

To understand both the impact of European imperialism as the influence of the Western thought ways, it is necessary before to consider briefly the Peripheral Thought Theory[1]. This theory is used systematically to study the non-Western thought formulated especially in the last two hundred years. According to this theory, Europe is called the ‘centre’.

Thus, during this time we have been able to see Western influences and motivations, in cases where peripheral leaders, intellectuals and politicians have gone beyond their own cultural borders in order to think about the future, welfare or development of their own societies. Specifically this kind of thought has been yielded when non-Western thinkers have followed a special feeling of fascination, perplexity or rejection about the centre.

The peripheral intellectual thought has swung between two mainstreams like a pendulum: in one side, there have been intellectuals who have rejected the intellectual and cultural influence from West and at the same time have valued their own social and cultural roots. In the other side, there have been intellectuals who have yielded ideas with the purpose to imitate aspects from West into fields such as policy, economy, or culture.

The first way of the Peripheral Thought is called “Identitario” which means “be like us”, whereas the second way is called “Centralitario” which means “be like the Centre”. According to this theory, this dilemma is the main feature of the non-Western thought and it would be most important than another academic dilemmas such as Negro/White, Rich/Poor or Women/Men, because this kind of oppositions can be analyzed thanks to this two notions of Peripheral Thought Theory.

Another important feature of this theory is that, in spite of that the intellectual peripheral production around the world has rejected or approved the Western culture, at the same time among peripheral intellectuals there have been a common perception that the West is the most powerful social formation.[2]

Some of main works in which we can see the Western influence on Tagore´s non-fiction ideas are “Nationalism”, “Greater India”, “The problem with Non-Cooperation”, “Crisis in Civilization” and “The Spirit of Japan”.

The Impact of the European Imperialism

According to Tagore, Europe had increased its power over Asia. This reality meant humiliation. But paradoxically, this humiliation was not produced by Europe´s dominion over Asia; the root of the humiliation was could be found into Asia.

As one adherent of Pan-Asianism´ ideas, Tagore thought that Asia has been a more successful society than Europe, but this situation changed because Asia stayed in the past without progress; to Tagore Asia “is like a rich mausoleum which displays all its magnificence in trying to immortalize the dead (…) For centuries we did hold torches of civilization in the East when the West slumbered in darkness (…) then fell the darkness of night upon all the lands of the East”.[3]

It was not new say that the West was not guilty, or at least, that West was not the prime culprit for Asian humiliation. Throughout the history of India, several Indian intellectuals, from Rammohan Roy until Hamid Dalway, including Syed Ahmad Khan, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, B.R. Ambedkar, Rammanohar Lohia have written about the roots of problems of India, which in turn were firstly the caste system, religion struggles and gender injustices, and then were problems related with the independence from United Kingdom.[4].

But, the worth of Tagore´s ideas, compared with his countrymen, was his interest on Asia and not only on India, for this reason is important his intention to establish the Pan-Asian movement. In this sense, Tagore´s connection with many intellectuals from the rest of Asia was important, especially with Japan, because this country was an exceptional case after Meiji´s Reforms. Basically, the Japan of Meiji had been the period in which this country was able to successfully achieve "Modernization".[5]

Thanks to its success, Japan became a new magnet to many peripheral intellectuals. There were two Japanese organizations that had a key role in this achievement: Kokuryukay and Genyosha. According to Cemil Aydin, both organizations fostered ties with many nationalists and intellectuals from Asia; one of them was Rabindranath Tagore[6].

The summit of Japanese modernization process was the triumph over Russia at war of 1904-1905. Many intellectuals thought after triumph that it was possible to be free from the Colonization and retake the self-government. The impact of the Russo-Japanese War crossed the East Asia borders and was able to achieve inspiration from leaders of West-Africa, black leaders in the USA, Muslims, Indian, and other peoples.[7]

Thanks to his special relationship with Japanese intellectuals (one of them was the father of Pan-Asianism, Okakura Tenshin) Tagore was not indifferent to the Japanese triumph. In respect of this, Tagore wrote “One morning the whole world looked up in surprise, when Japan broke through her walls of old habits in a night and came out triumphant”.[8]

But he was not totally at ease with the celebrations of Japanese triumph. In fact, Tagore became worried about the Japanese nationalism that strongly emerged after 1905, because nationalism was enemy of heterogeneity of Asia, especially in India. According to Tagore, nationalism was the root of violence. Furthermore, after victory, Japan colonized Manchuria and Korea (1910). According to Tagore, if in India people acquired these kinds of fanaticisms, the consequences could be devastating[9].

Thus, Tagore rejected the Japanese attitude, and by contrast to his first impressions, he stated: “I have given up Japan. I feel more and more sure it is not the country for me”.[10]

What was the reason to declare this? The reason would have been: Japan adopted the modernization with “all its tendencies, methods and structures, and dream that they are inevitable”. That is, thanks to the Meiji Reformsm Japan had to be a new creation and not a mere repetition. To be a copy was like wearing the skeleton with another skin.[11] Their modernization meant a deception because the main difference between Asia and West was the use of wisdom, work and love versus the use of violence.

Despite the deception, the Japanese experience and the contact with West were not always unfortunate facts, because it was possible to understand that the world needed the values of India and of the rest Asian peoples. Thanks to this understanding, it would have been possible re-light the torch of civilization in the East and put an end to humiliation.

Six years before that Tagore wrote “The Spirit of Japan”, where he warned on Japanese menace. He wrote a series of essays (1909-10) about the meeting between India and the Englishman. In these essays Tagore wrote about expectations that India could achieve thanks to its encounter with the West: “On us to-day is thrown the responsibility of building up this greater India, and for that purpose our immediate duty is to justify our meeting with the Englishman. I shall not be permitted to us to say that we would rather remain aloof, inactive, irresponsive, unwilling to give and to take, and thus to make poorer the India that is to be”.[12]

The Tagore´s Respect for Western Thought

Tagore thought that “in the heart of Europe runs the purest stream of human love, of love of justice, of spirit of self-sacrifice for higher ideals (…) in Europe we have seen noble minds who have ever stood up for the rights of man irrespective of colour and creed”. These Europe´ good features were countered with a contrary tendency—“supremely evil in her maleficent aspect where her face is turned only upon her own interest, using all her power”.[13]

Certainly, the concept of freedom was the best aspect of Europe and this notion complemented Indian concerns with injustices related to caste system, the Untouchables´ situation, Muslim-Hindu disputes, and gender differences. In this sense, India had to learn from West.

In addition, Tagore admired the European literature and art for its beauty, because both mean “fertilizing all countries and all time”.[14] According to Tagore, both freedom and culture beauty were seen as an opportunity to get a balance between spirit and material things. But, unfortunately to get this purpose would be difficult thanks to temptations of power. In this sense, reviewing the Japanese experience, this country was a failed instance: “unfortunately, all his armour is not living, some of it is made of steel, inert and mechanical. Therefore, while making use of it, man has to be careful to protect himself from its tyranny”.[15]

One successful instance of benefits of European culture, which in turn was learnt by India, was the reign of law. The law meant the balance between power and freedom, because the British government established order (or at least more stability) and respect among castes, colours and religions. Nonetheless, according to Tagore, this instance would be mirror of the spirit of the West and not of the nation of the West.[16]

To be fair, his estimation of European civilisation did not imply that there was only one alternative. Tagore was concern to be clear on this point. In this sense, his speech entitled “Crisis in civilization” is emphasises the existence many civilizations with noble purposes, such as Japan (despite its failures) Russia, Iran, Afghanistan or China[17].

Finally, reviewing Peripheral Thought Theory and this small sample of Tagore´s ideas, it is possible to state that this Indian intellectual was a man who strove to achieve a balance between ideas from the Centre and the Periphery.

This point is important if it is considered that Tagore is mainly known as a poet and mystic man, at least in Latin America, instead of as a non-fiction author who was able to state original points of view about the encounter between different civilizations.

Thus, the Tagorian thought was able to be “Centralitario” or “Identirario”. His main concern was the thread to the freedom of downtrodden peoples across Asia. Hence Tagore was able to “be like the Centre” or “to be like us”, demonstrating that he had an open mind to understand and to explain the complicated reality of Asia at the first half of past century.

[1] The Peripheral Thought Theory have been proposed in Chile by Eduardo Devés, from the beginning, as an academic parameter to study the Latin American thought throughout the 20th Century, but actually this theory is being used also to research about contemporary Asian and African thoughts, in order to achieve a global perspective and a best understanding about the non-Western thought. Eduardo Devés Valdés, “El Pensamiento Latinoamericano en el siglo XX”, 3 volúmenes, Editorial Biblos, Buenos Aires, 2000-2004.

[2] Devés Valdés, Eduardo, “Las disyuntivas del pensamiento latinoamericano y periférico”, Seminario de Investigación Interdisciplinaria. Facultad de Estudios Generales, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto Río Piedras. Ciclo de conferencias Octubre-Diciembre 2006. p.1.

[3] Tagore, Rabindranath, “Nationalism”, Norwood Press, USA, 1917, p.65-66.

[4] These priorities can be demonstrated in Ramachandra Guha´s book entitled “Makers of Modern India”, Penguin Books, India, 2010.

[5] Understanding “Modernization” as a concept from the West.

[6] Cemil Aydin, “The politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia”, Columbia University Press, USA, 2007, p.57.

[7] Coloma, Claudio, “Disyuntiva y reivindicaciones periféricas ante el impacto de la Guerra Ruso-Japonesa”, Universidad de Santiago de Chile, Santiago de Chile, 2010.

[8] Tagore, Rabindranath, “The Spirit of Japan”. Sisir Kumar Das editor, “The English writings of Rabindranath Tagore, volume three, a Miscellany”, Sahitya Akademy Edition, New Delhi, 1996.

[9] Sen, Amartya, “Tagore y la India”, Fractal nº10, julio-septiembre, 1998, año 3, volumen III, pp. 121-168.

[10] Rabindranath Tagore´s letter addressed to C.F. Andrews, 11th June, 1915, cited by Patrick Colm Hogan & Lalita Pandit, editors, “Rabindranath Tagore: universality and tradition”, Associated University Press, USA, 2003, p.47.

[11] Op.cit.

[12] Rabindranath Tagore, essay includes in Ramachandra Guha´s book entitled “Makers of Modern India”, Penguin Books, India, 2010, p. 189.

[13] Op.cit, p.195.

[14] Op.cit, p.194.

[15] Rabindranath Tagore, “The Spirit of Japan”, ManyBooks.net, 1916, p.5.

[16] Rabindranath Tagore, essay includes in Ramachandra Guha´s book entitled “Makers of Modern India”, Penguin Books, India, 2010, p. 198-199.

[17] Rabindranath Tagore, speech includes in the Rakesh Batabyal´s book entitled “The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches: 1877 to the Present”, Penguin Books, India, 2007, p.453-459.

Islands and Archipelagos: Mapping Contemporary Art from Australia, Asia and the Pacific

A talk by Francis Maravillas

Wednesday, 12 May, 12-2, TfC Bagel, UTS Building 3, Room 4.02.

Abstract: In its six iterations since 1993, the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art has established itself as the premier ‘international exhibition’ that focuses on the diverse artistic cultures of the region. Significantly, these Triennials also offered a powerful and proleptic image of Australia’s place in the region, one that accented Australia’s desire for such a place. This paper seeks bring into relief the cartographic dispositions and representational logic underlying the Asia-Pacific Triennial’s curatorial imaginary. I argue that the curatorial agency and imaginary of the Triennial is constituted by the way it positions itself within wider cultural, geographical, and epistemic frames of reference. From this perspective, the Triennial’s engagement with the contemporary artistic cultures of ‘Asia’ and ‘the Pacific’ represents an attempt by the Australian subject to come to terms with its decentred positionality – that is, its peculiar experience of being located ‘South of the West’– by re-positioning itself, via strategic alignments along the periphery, as a cultural-artistic centre in the region, the putative centricity of which is defined by the space of invisible liminality marked by the hyphen that connects ‘Asia’ and the ‘Pacific’. 

Francis Maravillas completed his PhD in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney, where he teaches cultural studies. His current research interests include contemporary art and visual culture in Asia and Australia, curatorial practice and international art exhibitions. His work on Asian art in Australia appears in various journals as well as recent edited collections including Crossing cultures: conflict, migration and convergence (2009), Cosmopatriots: On Distant Belongings and Close Encounters (2007) and In the Eye of the Beholder Reception and Audience for Modern Asian Art (2006). He was previously a board member of the Asia Australia Art Centre (Gallery 4a) Sydney (2003-2006).

Please RSVP to [email protected]

Remapping Environmental Histories



Date: Thursday 25th March, 2010
Venue: Royal Society of Victoria
9 Victoria Street Corner of Victoria St. and Exhibition St.  Melbourne 3000

Monash University Faculty of Arts and School of Geography and Environmental Science invite you to public lectures by two leading scholars of Africa’s social and environmental history

Professor Edwin Wilmsen Centre for African Studies University of Edinburgh

  • Globalization before the globe was known: Asian-African interactions in the 1st century CE
  • Professor Wilmsen will discuss the extension of biological and cultural exchanges between south-central Africa and the Indian Ocean region from ca. BCE 100 – CE 1000.

Professor Judith Carney Department of Geography University of California, Los Angeles

  • Seeds of Memory: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World
  • Professor Carney will examine the inter-continental plant exchanges that took place as a consequence of the transatlantic slave trade and the presence of enslaved Africans in the Americas

RSVP is required by Monday 21st March at: [email protected], or Sharon Harvey on  (03) 9902 0398