Modernity and the sense of loss or why Bhansali’s Devdas defied experts to become a box office hit
In the political cultures of Asian and African societies, where colonialism helped set up a binary opposition between tradition and modernity, tradition usually has two meanings. The first meaning insists that tradition is what modernity is not and, hence, tends to be hostile to reason and democratic spirit, frozen, rigid, and insensitive to new knowledge. This meaning often goes with vehement pleas to the natives to shed their prejudices and mutual animosities and learn from the country’s former rulers and its brand-new, modern élite the beauties of rationality, flexibility and tolerance. Those who make these pleas with evangelical zeal often behave as plaintiffs, witnesses, jurors and judges at the same time. This meaning of tradition may not be shared by many social thinkers or researchers, but it remains an important strain in many cultures of politics, all the same.However, this use of traditions as an antonym of modernity is not always a monopoly of hollow or insensitive authorities or of the ill-educated. Some very distinguished thinkers, from Rammohun Roy to Mohandas Gandhi to Ananda Coomaraswamy—have creatively deployed the same dichotomy, as a variant of Weberian ideal-types, during the last two hundred years. Using this negative definition—tradition is what modernity is not—some of the fines minds in Asia and Africa have assessed and critiqued the contemporary, to re-envision, tame or ‘nativize’ modernity or breed alternative visions of a good society, informed with but not dominated by the Enlightenment values. These alternatives are not controlled by traditions; the idea of tradition only facilitates a journey into the interiors of self—to search for resources that may allow one to transcend the limits set by our times. In the West, in recent decades, this has been the project of some like Ivan Illich and a section of the ecologists, to give two random examples. In South Asia, this project used to be once epitomized by the worldview of Mohandas Gandhi but has survived in a diffused, scattered form in many activist-scholars ranging from Vandana Shiva to Ziauddin Sardar to Claude Alvares.
Ashis Nandy is a political psychologist and sociologist of science who has worked on cultures of knowledge, visions, and dialogue of civilizations. He is a Fellow and former Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Distinguished Fellow of the Institute of Postcolonial Studies, Melbourne. Nandy is the author or co-author of thirteen books, including The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves (1995), Barbaric Others: A Manifesto on Western Racism (1993), Traditions, Tyranny, and Utopias (1987), The Intimate Enemy (1983), and Alternative Sciences (1980). Nandy has also coauthored a number of human rights reports and is active in movements for peace, alternative sciences and technologies, and cultural survival.