African Connections: Dhlomo cites Tagore

the country and the town, the old and the new, the exotic and the indigenous, jostle and kiss.

1. This was how Herbert Dhlomo, a leading South African writer of the 1940s, described the city of Durban in an editorial for the bilingual (isiZulu/English) Ilanga Lase Natal (‘Natal Sun’) on 23 April 1949. ‘Even its racial (and, therefore, cultural) composition is unique, perhaps—African, Asiatic, Coloured, European’, he continued, adding ‘it is also a busy port—even a boiling pot!’ The ‘boiling’ he had in mind included protests by the Industrial and Commercial Union in the late 1920s, then the country’s largest worker organisation, the Indian passive resistance campaign, one of the first mass movements against white rule, which ran from 1946 to 1948, and the communal conflicts between Indians and Africans in Durban that came to a head in January 1949. Still shocked by the ferocity of the latter, he then asked: ‘who knows if these & others were not Fate-fanned fires to produce in a different mould newer & finer racial & cultural God-wrought ingots?’ Taken together, he concluded, the port city’s cultural diversity and the more positive aspects of its activist history reflected its promise as ‘a great centre for an African—and South African—Cultural experiment.’ As the immediate future was another country for the architects of apartheid who came to power in May 1948, Dhlomo did not live to see his hopes realised. He died in 1956, aged 53.

Dhlomo headline

2. His editorial for that Monday in April 1949 focussed on ‘the unique collection of African art and crafts’ the Africanists Killie Campbell and her brother William had on display at their Durban home. Dhlomo wrote not just to celebrate its ‘treasures’ but to encourage ‘African leaders, patriots and artists to co-operate and to help preserve’ them by relocating the collection to ‘a public building’. Yet he also had other, larger reasons for affirming its public value. Writing less as a journalist than as a poet, playwright and author of short stories, he argued the collection had a vital part to play in the future of a new African art. To clarify what he meant he turned to the Indian ‘poet-philosopher’ Rabindranth Tagore, prefacing his editorial with the following quotation:

Tagore quotationThus placed between two contending forces, we shall mark out the middle path of truth in our national life; we shall realise that only through the development of racial individuality can we truly attain to universality, and only in the light of the spirit of universality can we perfect individuality; we shall know of a verity that it is idle mendicancy to discard our own and beg for the foreign, and at the same time we shall feel that it is the extreme abjectness of poverty to dwarf ourselves by rejecting the foreign.

Given the intercommunal (African/Indian) violence that had recently convulsed Durban, this was a multiply significant gesture to make in the pages of Ilanga Lase Natal in April 1949. Yet, for Dhlomo, what Tagore offered first and foremost was a cultural lesson for African artists of the 1940s. Glossing the sentence he explained: ‘we can only create true art and thought by being rooted in our own native soil even if outwardly we soar high and imbibe the foreign.’ Tagore’s second lesson was more broadly political. ‘Politically and socially we are fighting tribalism and building a united African nation’, Dhlomo commented, referencing the larger project to which he and other New African intellectuals of the time were committed. This made understanding the value of the Campbell collection in Tagore’s terms more significant still. While the collection would ‘help our creative spirits to merge the various tribal forms into one rich and varied national idiom,’ Tagore encouraged them to do so without succumbing to a narrow nationalism by closing themselves off to the ‘foreign’.

3. Dhlomo cited Tagore in translation. His lengthy prefatory sentence comes from the conclusion to ‘Bharatbarser itihaser dhara’ (‘The Flow [or Tradition] of Indian History’), an essay Tagore first published in Bengali in 1912. When it appeared in Calcutta’s Modern Review a year later, the translator, Jadunath Sarkar, re-titled it ‘My Interpretation of Indian History’. As an academic historian, Sarkar probably had professional reasons for highlighting the idiosyncrasy of Tagore’s vision—he was always a little wary of his esteemed compatriot’s creative approach to scholarship and the past. Yet his rather antique Victorian English produces idiosyncratic distortions of its own. Rewording the sentence in a more contemporary English idiom, which is also closer to the suppleness of Tagore’s Bengali, puts a different gloss on Dhlomo’s citation:

In this way, falling between the push and pull of two sides, the middle true path will mark our national life and we will then realise that it is by knowing other peoples that we truly know ourselves and by knowing ourselves that we know all others; we simply must understand that just as to sacrifice one’s self in the desire for the other is useless beggary, so too, to diminish one’s own self by forsaking the other is the ultimate impoverishment.

The ‘we’ in this case refers primarily to India’s diverse communities and the ‘two sides’ to the rivalrous but, for Tagore, equally and problematically absolutist forces of British imperialism and Indian anti-colonial nationalism. Characteristically, however, he did not have in mind only the relations between the colonizer and the colonized, the foreign and the indigenous. Thinking interculturally along the lines he developed in the last three decades of his life always had as much to do with relations among India’s own communities where the ‘self’ could be Muslim, say, and the ‘other’ Hindu, or, to cite the two ancient caste-groups on which he focussed in the essay, Brahmin and Kshatriya. The alternative translation keeps all these possibilities in play. It also shows that his vision was underpinned not by a vague or otherworldly ‘spirit of universality’, as Sarkar had it, but by an approach to knowledge (and a way of life), derived in part from the Baul singers of Bengal, which centres on the vitalizing and potentially transformative interdependency of self and other, the known and the unknown.

Amit quote
‘in the midst of the known i have found the unknown’, line from a Tagore song, part of Amit Chaudhuri’s new “Indian road signs” series.

4. Understood in these terms, Tagore’s sentence speaks as much to Dhlomo’s artistic ambitions as to his New African conception of nation-building and his concerns about Durban’s recent history of intercommunal violence, adding further weight not just to his citation but to his hopes for a future in which the city might become ‘a great centre for an African—and South African—Cultural experiment.’ Dhlomo may have been the first New African intellectual to take up Tagore’s challenge at a particularly charged moment in South Africa’s history, but, as I argue in the book, he was not the last. Having found his own way to Tagore in the early 1940s, Es’kia Mphahlele continued to draw inspiration from him well into the 1980s and beyond (see Chapter 4).

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Ntongela Masilela for alerting me to Dhlomo’s citation, Rosinka Chaudhuri for re-translating Tagore’s sentence, and Amit Chaudhuri for permission to use his street sign quotation from Tagore. This forms part of his exhibition The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta & Other Ideas at The Harrington Street Arts Centre, Kolkata, 14-18 August 2018: for a tour see the YouTube video of exhibition.

Though the Campbell collection is still in the family home ‘Muckleneuk’, the house and the collection were both bequeathed to the city of Durban in 1965 when Killie Campbell died and since then the collection has been curated by the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

References

H. I. E. Dhlomo, ‘Great Contribution To African Culture‘, Ilange Lase Natal, 23 April 1949. See also Ntongela Masilela’s website: New African Movement.

Rabindranath Tagore, ‘My Interpretation of Indian History: II’, Modern Review, 14.2 (September 1913), 231-36. For the original Bengali, see Tagore, ‘Bharatbarser itihaser dhara’, Rabindra Rachanavali, XIII (Calcutta: Government of West Bengal, 1990).

For more on Tagore’s creative approach to history, see Tapan Basu, ‘Caste Matters: Rabindranath Tagore’s Engagement with India’s Ancient Social Hierarchies‘, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 35:1 (2012), 162-71; Rosinka Chaudhuri, ‘The Flute, Gerontion, and Subaltern Misreadings of Tagore‘, Social Text, 22.1 (2004), 103-22; Rajan Ghosh, ‘Rabindranath and Rabindranath Tagore: Home, World, History‘, History and Theory, 54 (December 2015), 125-48; and Ranjit Guha, History at the limit of of World-History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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