Behind the Scenes with Professor Akeel Bilgrami

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Behind the Scenes with Professor Akeel Bilgrami

April 01, 2016

Q. As an academic, could you reflect on how it felt to act? How is the narrative of theatre different from that in academic discourses? How is the audience different in the spaces of a classroom and auditorium?

A. I had acted quite frequently in plays many years ago as a student in Bombay at Elphinstone College, and even considered doing it more seriously then, but never did.   Returning to it at the NCPA Little Theatre last winter brought back many memories of those earlier times.  The experience is nothing like giving public lectures. Acting is basically impersonation.  Even play-readings (where one is not impersonating) are a quite distinct from lectures.  One is not thinking aloud, as in lectures, though one is trying to give the impression that one is.  One’s voice is self-consciously seeking elocution, something that would amount to sheer and, in most cases, pretentious artifice if one attempted it in a public lecture or class room.

Q. Could you share your experience on performing in Mumbai and collaborating with the Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai?

A. The occasion in Mumbai was very worthwhile, though I must confess to having been very nervous since I had not been involved with theatre for four decades and I was aware that a lot of distinguished people who knew a lot about theatre and film were going to be in the audience, not to mention Rajmohan Gandhi whom the Columbia Centre had invited to preside over the occasion.  Working with my old friend Anmol Vellani, who is by now a veteran in the theatre scene in India, and a man of wide talents, was extremely instructive and pleasant.  I left all the direction to him and restricted myself to merely voicing the Gandhi lines with as much expression as I could summon for the ideas and emotions that the lines were intended to convey.  It was a real challenge which I was happy to take on and learnt a lot from trying to do so.  Anmol, apart from directing the play, read the Tagore part and was masterly in his reading, a harder role to play, since Tagore is older than Gandhi, more weary of the world by the end of the correspondence, and with a more subtle idealism since its sources lie more in a literary sensibility than an activist/philosophical one such as Gandhi’s.  Because of his accumulated experience and also because of his more innate talents, he was more at ease on the stage than I, more knowing of its space and the possibilities of movement on it, and a wide variety of technical details of that sort.    The key thing to achieve in a play such as this was to find the right balance between the completely genuine affection (love, really) that Gandhi and Tagore felt for each other and their clash over ideas and politics.  There are of course many agreements in ideas and public sympathies too, but it was the disagreements that provided for the drama.  And it was drama that we were seeking on stage.

The Columbia Global Centre | Mumbai did a very unusual and inspired thing in putting this play up and should be congratulated for this effort to get past the familiar routines that such centres ususally sink into in the events they put up.  How successful the effort was is up to others to judge since I was a participant on stage and didn’t get a very clear sense of how effective the production was.

Q. Education, knowledge and culture is a key thematic focus for Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai. Do Gandhi and Tagore’s teachings specifically with regard to education converge in the current scheme of things? Could you elaborate?

A. Yes, I think that is exactly right.  The Columbia Global Centre seeks and should seek that combination of knowledge and culture that Tagore’s ideas of education exemplified.  Both Gandhi and Tagore shared the view that education must be suffused with ‘doing’ and should not merely be cognitive.   Or to put it differently, its cognitive elements should nest within an embodied orientation towards the world.  Tagore’s loftier literary and artistic temperament took this ideal of doing in a more self-consciously cultural direction, for which Gandhi did not have the same temperament, though he admired it in Tagore.  I hope the Centre will pursue more such events as our play and take the chance not to merely replicate the classroom in its events, not that more purely intellectual events such as seminars and workshops should not be a central part of its activities. They, of course, rightly and inevitably will, since it is a centre attached to a university. 

Q. How are the philosophies of Gandhi and Tagore relevant to India and the world today?

A. Well, I won’t try and answer that question with the depth and detail it deserves in a brief interview of this kind.  What is discouraging is how much the wrong understanding of globalization (one that Columbia has consistently tried to correct and continues to do so) has made it seem that their philosophies are irrelevant today.  Tagore was the more explicitly cosmopolitan figure among the two, but Gandhi’s humanism was deeply cosmopolitan too.  It’s just that Gandhi’s thought was so much more passionately and uncompromisingly geared to anti-imperalism than Tagore’s was.  The play and the correspondence brings this out rather sharply.  And a question that is raised in the correspondence is: can one be anti-imperialist without in some sense also being anti-modernist?  Gandhi’s insistent anti-modernism suggests that there is a deeper connection between the two than Tagore allows. No correspondence I know, in the history of letters, raises such profound and urgent questions in such detail over so many decades. 

Q. Having studied Gandhian philosophy as a scholar, did you engage with Gandhi differently during the course of the play? Did you rediscover Gandhi? If you had to write a play on Gandhi, what aspects would you highlight?

A. I can’t say I revised my view of Gandhi’s thought by doing the play. Acting in a play is not like writing an autobiography (a kind of exercise in self-discovery).  It is, at least for me,  more presentation of one’s intepretation rather than discovery of new interpretations.  One presents the lines through an interpretative angle of one’s own, and the interpretative element really lies in what one wants to stress and enliven in one’s speech. I can imagine that it could happen that as one does so, one forms new ideas.  But it  did not happen with me on this occasion. I don’t believe that I took away new ideas about Gandhi, just worked at bringing such ideas as I already have about what he thought to bear on the lines I had to speak.

Q. What are your reflections on dissent, as it coexisted between Gandhi and Tagore? How is dissent changing in the present day?

A. Well, I think dissent is at the heart of that correspondence since they both were nationalists in the freedom struggle.  At the moment there is not much dissent among the middle classes in India, though the recent events in the universities may be changing that tendency towards domesticated and careerist forms of complacence.  A real question that is worth discussing in detail is: Is anti-imperialism still relevant today after decolonisation? Or to put it differently, is ‘imperialism’ still a relevant category of analysis in a world of globalised finance capital? I have strong views on this subject which I won’t try and present here.  I hope the cente will take up that issue sometime in a seminar or a series of seminars.

Q. Could you elucidate how Gandhian ways are used with regard to protest (as a tool of dissent) globally?

A. I think the idea of global dissent is mind-bogglingly difficult.  Think of it.  What the dismanting or the re-mantling of the Bretton Woods instutions did was to create a neo-liberal version of capitalism in which nation-states lose their sovereignty in shaping their national economies in a more progressive direction, mostly due to fear of capital flight owing to the inordinately facilitated mobility that capital is allowed since those changes.  So if some dissenting movement in some country (Brazil, say) yields a progressive government in an election, the government may still not be able to carry out the mandate on which it was elected because of fear of capital flight, which would create massive unemployment.  What would be needed is for such a dissenting movement to also be waiting in the wings to happen in the place that capital flies to. That requires a form of international soiidarity that I can’t even begin to imagine as a serious possibility at the moment.  I can’t see that Gandhian or any other ideas would provide serious guidelines for building such solidarities.  I mean one can say scattered, wise things about it, but nothing serious or systematic.  I really do think that a far more plausible direction – one that Gandhi’s ideas certainly imply – might be for countries of the South (in Africa, Asia, Latin America) to think shrewdly towards a partial and carefully selective form of de-linking from the global economy which bears down on them so oppressively, while creating the illusion that it is opening up opportunities for ordinary working people. This would require dissent not of a global form, about which you ask, but dissent on national sites against the wrong form of globalisation.