Business Standard

Crouching tiger, rising mammoth

- UTTARAN DAS GUPTA The reviewer is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist

On February 9, 1904, Japan launched a surprise naval attack on the Russian fleet stationed at Port Arthur, China, leading to a war between the two countries. The hostilitie­s would end on September 5, 1905, with the complete defeat of the Russian Empire and peace mediated by then US President Theodore Roosevelt. Several historians around the world recognise this as the first major defeat of a European power by an Asian country in the modern age. This convenient signpost also serves as a metaphoric­al premonitio­n of the decline of the West and the cultural and economic rise of the East over the 20th century.

At the time of the Russo-japanese war, much of Asia was under the colonial sway of the European powers. Britain and France hungrily gobbled up large swathes of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War in 1918. But over the next half-century, most of these countries would be roiled by the independen­ce movements, often violent, pushing out the colonial powers. As early as 1924, German diplomat Karl Haushofer wrote about the “Pacific Age”, which envisaged the growth of Japan, India, and China. After the meeting between Deng Xiaoping of China and then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, the 21st century came to be referred to as the “Asian Century” in the media.

Historian Sugata Bose in his new book, Asia After Europe, argues that the rise of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries was not only an economic phenomenon but a result of “intellectu­al, cultural, and political conversati­ons” across the continent. He attempts to narrate, as he explains, “the creative process of imagining Asia by tracking the intersecti­ng journeys of Asian intellectu­als and subalterns alike.” In the introducto­ry chapter of the book, he argues that Pan-asianism, or “Asian universali­sm”, was an idea comparable to other internatio­nalisms such as Leninism, pan-islamism or Buddhism. He finds in it another way of approachin­g 20th-century history, which has been mostly monopolise­d by narratives of anti-colonial nationalis­m.

To illustrate his argument, he chooses figures such as Rabindrana­th Tagore and the Japanese art critic Okakura Tenshin, who spent some time in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1903. On returning to Japan, Okakura sent two Japanese artists to India, one of whom, Taikan Yokoyama, taught the Japanese wash technique to Tagore’s nephew, Abaninindr­anath Tagore. Abaninindr­anath, in turn, used the technique to paint the iconic Bharat Mata image in 1905. “A Japanese rendering of that image on a giant silk scroll was paraded in procession in the streets of Calcutta to the accompanim­ent of Rabindrana­th Tagore’s freshly composed patriotic songs,” writes Dr Bose. “Indian nationalis­m had come to be fused with Asian universali­sm.”

In Tagore, whose songs have been adopted as national anthems by India and Bangladesh, Dr Bose finds a figure who combined a deep love for his homeland, a passionate anticoloni­al activism, as well as a “colour cosmopolit­anism”

— “a powerful critic of worshippin­g the nation as god and was horrified by the crimes committed by modern nation-states.”

Dr Bose’s interest in cosmopolit­anism as a panacea for a rabid nationalis­m, which excludes those it considers to be outgroups, develops from his previous scholarshi­p. The Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University, Dr Bose published, in 2006, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire, a wide-ranging study of the history of communitie­s settled around the rim of the Indian Ocean from 1850 to 1950, the high noon of the British Empire. It is also in line with popular sides of history writing, such as “provincial­ising Europe” (to which he refers) and Global History. German historian Sebastian Conrad, a pioneer in this field, describes Global History in his ground-breaking survey of the discipline as a sort of histograph­y that “takes the connectedn­ess of the world as its point of departure”. It is in finding these connection­s that Dr Bose’s book succeeds.

However, one is tempted to imagine that some of Dr Bose’s research interests also trace their roots to his stint in the Lok Sabha. As a member of the Opposition from 2014 to 2019, he would have had a ringside view of the rise of Hindutva in the country during the first term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A global academic, who studied in the UK and works in the US, Dr Bose would have found the rise of such an exclusivis­t nationalis­m as well as internatio­nal competitio­n between India and China eroding and belying the promise of an Asian century.

If the book begins with Okakura’s visit to Calcutta at the dawn of the 20th century, it ends with Dr Bose’s own visit to Peking University in Beijing in 2019, on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic. In trying to narrate multiple strands of the remarkable process through which Asia and Asians are reclaiming their centrality in the world, Dr Bose makes a compelling case for greater acceptance of the political, cultural, and economic diversity of the continent and their close interconne­ctedness.

 ?? ?? ASIA AFTER EUROPE: Imagining a Continent in the Long Twentieth Century Author: Sugata Bose Publisher: The Belknap Press (Harvard University) Pages: 276 Price: ~699
ASIA AFTER EUROPE: Imagining a Continent in the Long Twentieth Century Author: Sugata Bose Publisher: The Belknap Press (Harvard University) Pages: 276 Price: ~699
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