2019.19: Samyak Ghosh and Suraj Gogoi, "Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Twentieth-Century Assamese Political Thought"
Recently, in a public address, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, urged the people of the state, especially youth, to follow the ideology of the famous Assamese thinker Jyotiprasad Agarwala (1903-1951). Speaking at the celebratory occasion marking the117th anniversary of Agarwala’s birth, the Chief Minister reiterated Agarwala’s contributions towards building a nationalist culture in Assam along with his pioneering efforts in the field of cinema.[i] While the BJP in Assam remembers Agarwala for his nationalist credentials, his life-long commitment to the furtherance of values based on beauty and enlightenment is at variance with a ruling party that furthers hatred, ignorance, and anti-intellectualism.
In a 1947 address to the members of the Assam Sahitya Sabha, Agarwala explained that governance and its institutions (xaxantantra and xaxanjantra) are essential for guiding individuals towards peace and harmony. Success and legitimacy, he added, are found in a struggle with forces that challenge a perfected cultural condition (xanxkriti) and threaten a group or a community.[ii] Therefore, for Agarwala, governance and its institutions (the state, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy) are among the primary vectors that contribute towards the flourishing of cultural life (xanxkritikjibon). In other words, the government or a ruling faction (sarkar) is a socio-cultural institution.[iii]
But, what was culture for Agarwala? And, why did he consider it to be central to human progress? In the same public address Agarwala suggested that human desire for culture lay in the depths of darkness when humans aspired for light and worked ceaselessly towards achieving it. Culture (xanxkriti) was first conceived in the bosom of light and since then human struggle has been with forces (duxkriti) that corrupt culture and seek to annihilate it.[iv] It is the relentless struggle between these two forces, he argued, that have established humans as a cultural species. The resistance and struggle against selfishness, greed, narrowness, and power mongering aimed at breaking the shackles of duxkriti leads to a necessary condition of revolution (biplab). This necessary condition aims at the creation of a perfected cultural condition (xanxkriti) with its core in the worship of beauty and light. Thus, he said, “the practice of life is the worship of beauty” (xundoror aradhana jibonor khel).[v]
In the current state of affairs in India, when public opinion is being mobilized against learning and tolerance as core virtues of human self-enhancement, Agarwala’s 1947 address to the literary workers and artists of Assam deserves attention. Cultural refinement, according to Agarwala, is intricately related to the cultivation of the mind and the application of beauty in life. These together form the political work of artists and thinkers. Unlike the contemporary moment, when thinkers and artists across the world are being silenced by extremist governments, Agarwala valued the contributions of artists towards better governance.
According to Agarwala, the human spirit has always been at harmony with the beautiful and thus humans have tried to bring beauty to every sphere of life – be it the social by instituting dharma or righteous conduct or the moral-ethical by engaging in philosophical discourse. In fact, he suggested that the social and economic inequities that thwart a society’s progress to a perfected cultural condition have been countered by humans through their pursuit of beauty enshrined in socialism (xamyavada).[vi] Thus, the political, as understood by Agarwala, is folded with the sphere of beauty. It is never devoid of the values of tolerance, harmony, and striving towards perfection. All of these, however, have been severely challenged in contemporary India, when Parliament has been taken over by bullies chanting slogans in the name of Ram towards the furtherance of a culture of intolerance.
One might ask what is produced through the political work of beauty or a striving towards a perfected cultural condition? For Agarwala, the political work of beauty leads to the creation of a culture of synthesis (xamanyayxanxkriti).[vii] Although he was specifically speaking about Assam, his perspective has a much wider relevance in present times. Agarwala suggests that the culture that we should strive towards cannot be that of one nation, one community or one region. It has to overcome oneness in welcoming the creative process of synthesis. However, this synthesis must reflect the distinctiveness and originality with which each group, people, and community encounters and undertakes the process. The culture of synthesis must not be achieved at the cost of erasing these multiplicities. This logic of politics (niti) if practiced to perfection, Agarwala suggests, could lead to a resistance against violence. Take for instance these lines:
Tate mile goldekhbidekhor
(The spring of the hills flows down to the plains
The clouds from the plains touches the hills
In that, many people from various lands
dissolve into one another)
In a presidential address delivered at Dibrugarh College in 1948, Agarwala presented his idea of purna xanxkriti or complete culture.[ix] For him, a complete culture is achieved when there is a cultural balance in society. Such a balance is possible when we take both the insides and outsides of a human life and mind as essential elements of culture and the adarxo or ideal in life. However, there also is a danger in investing too much on beautifying our behavior and turning it into a singular meaningful aspect of human life. We need to place adequate attention in making our culture and civilization beautiful as well, if we want to achieve a cultural balance. The human journey is thus a cultural journey, one which Agarwala described as a walk along a moonlit path (junaki bat) that will shine on us in the years to come.
Responsible artists, according to Agarwala, are of utmost importance to human society. Although they do not occupy an office of power, they guide humans towards light and make the world a more habitable place. In his 1947 address, Agarwala suggested that the leader of a ruling faction, responsible for good governance, must be a possessor of cultural values. And it is the duty of the responsible artist to organize and mobilize society to acknowledge these values.
Samyak Ghosh is a PhD candidate in History and Literature at Columbia University in New York. Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral scholar in Sociology at the National University of Singapore.
[i]“Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal urges youth to follow Rupkonwar’s ideal”, The Sentinel, 18 June, 2019. https://www.sentinelassam.com/news/chief-minister-sarbananda-sonowal-urges-youth-to-follow-rupkonwars-ideals/.
[ii] Ibid, 497
[iii] Ibid, 497
[iv] Ibid, 496
[v] Ibid, 497
[vi] Ibid, 499
[vii] Ibid, 500
[viii] A poem written by Jyotiprasad Agarwala was quoted by Dulalchandra Barua in his speech in the 47th session of Assam Sahitya Sabha held in Roha, Assam in 1980
[ix] See Collected Works of Jyotiprasad Agarwala, 2017