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Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007

A friendship's influence across Asia

Japan's Okakura Tenshin and India's Rabindranath Tagore


Another Asia: Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin, by Rustom Bharucha, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006, 236 pp., $35 (cloth)

This book examines the friendship engendered between two significant thinkers — one Indian and the other Japanese — who were highly representative of their time when they met in Calcutta in 1902. The great Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), was then approaching the peak of his reputation and would go on to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, the first author laureate from the continent of Asia. That same year, the influential art historian and curator, Okakura Tenshin (1862-1913), would reach the end of his shorter life, though his writings would outlive him.

Though the two distinguished men met only on a few occasions, the friendship born between them endured, and the ramifications of it deeply involved the artistic and intellectual movements of the early 20th century. Rustom Bharucha endeavors to establish a context for all of this, not only in terms of the age, and the countries that the two men came from, but also in terms of Asia as a whole.

The idea of "Asia" was then a recent notion, positing a common inheritance and purpose among the countries of the East to counter the dominance of the West. The eventual result would of course be liberation from imperial control, and independence, but this would not be a straightforward matter. We learn, for example, that the "authentication of Indianness," came primarily through "the assertion of upper-caste Brahminical Hindu cultural values." But in Okakura's 1903 volume, "The Ideals of the East," "Asia was less a political entity than a metaphysical and spiritual realm," according to the author of this study.

Bharucha gives particular attention to another volume by Okakura, "The Awakening of the East," which was not published in his lifetime. Bharucha's close reading of this work by the Japanese writer finds threads of "national exclusiveness" and "cultural schizophrenia" in the thinking that it presents. Despite Okakura's earlier claim that "Asia is one," subtle disparagements are made. Clearly some kind of hierarchy is involved, with cultural weight being accorded to India and China, even while Japan is accorded a special place in drawing them together, and leading their preservation.

It is not only the writings and ideas of Tagore and Okakura that are studied: Their personalities are looked at closely too. Both were evidently "master performers" in their elected roles, but they diverged substantially in their attitude to "nationalism," which is the subject of the longest chapter. While Tagore remained in his own country, Okakura — who comes across as more opportunistic than the otherworldly Indian philosopher and poet — positioned himself as the leading collector of Asian artifacts for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which now has one of the richest collections in the world.

Under Okakura's tutelage, the Boston Museum acquired mainly Japanese and Chinese artworks, but scarcely anything from India. When Tagore visited Japan in 1916 on a lecture tour, he was critical of its preoccupation with material progress and did not mention Okakura in his lectures. When Okakura's book, "The Awakening of the East," appeared posthumously in 1938, a breach took place in Tagore's relations with a younger Japanese friend, Yone Noguchi (1874-1943), over Japan's actions in the war in China.

Bharucha makes a fascinating contrast, in terms of dress and language, between the "cosmopolitan" Okakura, who presented himself as a Japanese in traditional costume but communicated mainly in English and scarcely wrote in his own tongue, and the "universalist" Tagore, dressed in flowing robes, to whom English was merely an inadequate tool, and whose deepest expression was reserved for his native Bengali. Oddly enough, the antinationalist Tagore is the only person known to have become the author of two national anthems (those of India and Bangladesh).

While Okakura enhanced a marvelous museum collection in a country other than his own, Tagore established a university to continue his legacy in Bengal. The university and arts collective of Santiniketan has failed to attract all the funding and support that it might deserve, despite having helped to foster talents such as the great Bengali film director Satyajit Ray. Important personal relics belonging to Tagore, including his Nobel award, have been stolen from his former home, while Okakura is remembered in two smart museums in his hometown.

This complex, detailed and informative study raises as many questions as it attempts to answer. The scholarly apparatus makes up almost a quarter of the book, and the reader will be naturally led on to further reading by the thoughtful contents. The meeting and friendship between these two important men resonates far beyond their individual aspirations.



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