Home >Politics >Policy >The arts in an age of 140-word views | Homi Bhabha

Mumbai: Homi Bhabha , Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University, is in India to deliver the Vasant J Sheth memorial lecture —’Treading Water: Reflections on an Intemperate Medium or Swimming Lessons in Bombay’— at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya on 16 January and as a guest at the Jaipur Literature Festival that begins on 17 January and the India Art Fair in Delhi on 30 January.

In 2010, industrialist Anand Mahindra donated $10 million for the study of humanities at Harvard University, the largest ever donation for humanities in Harvard, and in the past three years, Bhabha has been leading the Humanities Center with a multi-disciplinary approach to the liberal arts.

One of the world’s most erudite and articulate cultural theorists, Bhabha has, throughout his academic career and in his seminal work, The Location of Culture, advanced the concept of cultural hybridity as a means to connect colonialism and globalization.

In an interview at his Mumbai home, Bhabha spoke about the center’s efforts, Mumbai’s pluralism and the in-between world of Parsis. Edited excerpts:

The Mahindra Humanities Center has an elaborate and multi-pronged approach. Can you tell us about some of its latest achievements and projects?

As you know, there’s a perceived global crisis in liberal arts and humanities. Digital education, new technology, bioengineering, finance—these are the growing areas. However, in the fundamental grounds of our educational experience—how to interpret carefully, how to turn information into knowledge, how to be able to describe, as literary critic, or as a lawyer or as a journalist, to be able to describe something accurately, and above all, how to understand, one, that in all practices (technological, legal, literary, whatever)—major values are involved. There is a group of subjects that we identify as humanities—literature, classics, philosophy, language, art. But beyond these, there are other areas in which humanistic questions emerge. At the Mahindra Center, we are involved with the digital humanities, legal humanities, medical humanities; we have joint seminars and conferences with these schools. I have just started a new collaboration with the school of public health. So what you begin to see then is humanities are a framework of values and a way of connecting diverse questions in a map of knowledge, and connecting the map of knowledge to the geopolitical reality outside. We are collaborating with people from environmental studies, literature, philosophy and ethics to create a course called Quality of Life. The more you develop the virtual and digital regime, the more you will need to have a dialogue with humanistic ideas.

Doesn’t academia need to adapt to this evolving “digital regime"? There is a flowering of voices and opinions on Twitter and other social networking sites, which is a democratic way of disseminating information and opinion.

You raise a very important question. If you talk of Wikipedia, according to some information put up by the Oxford Internet Institute, there are 7,600 articles published about Antarctica, which is more than there are about any country in Latin America or Africa. So the map of knowledge is very skewed. So when we think that we get information about anything everywhere, we are not absolutely sure. After every few lines in a Wikipedia entry it says this is not verified. So think about the quality of information we are getting on social media and other digital platforms. We do have much more information, but can we depend on that information? So I think there has to be some kind of conventions, and those have to be as democratically accepted and followed and accepted as we accept this explosion of voices.

Your work is primarily concerned with the idea of hybridity and cultural pluralism. Today, “multicultural" is a very common word.

Very often people think cultural pluralism is about allowing people of many cultures to thrive side by side. The real questions are about the equity of cultural expression, the access to literacy, because without literacy there can be no expression of an identity or idea. Multiculturalism’s relevance is in asking why some people do not feel represented; some people’s cultures are recognized and some are not recognized. People’s values are shaped by their histories, their geographies and political provenance—cultural pluralism of hybridization is in understanding those things. The differences existing side by side without being homogenized either by the state or by certain knowledge frameworks, which want to put everything into some kind of normative place.

In the increasingly global and hybrid world, is the local getting lost? In Mumbai, there have been alienating, nativist forces. But isn’t there merit in the nativist argument that hybridity and migration have put enormous pressure on the city’s mechanism?

It is easy for people who see themselves as the long-term inhabitants of a country or a city to see newcomers or migrants as people who are somehow getting a free ride—that they are doing the overcrowding. But in most cases, the numbers don’t tally to this view. People don’t come to places where there are no jobs. It’s not in their interest to pull themselves up from where they have a home to come somewhere. It is important to understand the dynamics of a society that creates at one time the need for a large workforce and then this market contracts and they are surplus to the city. Governance, by which I mean politicians and leaders of the industry, have to be accountable for this. It is their policies that have created surplus workers, whether it was planned or not.

You are from Mumbai. Do you feel any big mental shifts in the city; are we more insular now?

It’s a very interesting question. When you talk about a city or a people, this is such a large-scale concept. The city is not a whole; it is a mosaic, a continually mobile place. I found Bombay even 30 years ago a rather thrillingly and deeply cosmopolitan place. I found that you can sit in one corner of the city and smell five different kinds of cuisine. Add to that the foreigners. It is a city, besides Shanghai, that was extremely generous to European Jews during World War II.

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, when he was developing his thesis of cosmopolitanism, said in the 18th century that one of the most important ways in which you judge a society is how it treats strangers and the way it gives hospitality. He also said hospitality is a right for anybody who is threatened. Think of the films we make in Bombay, there are so many different kinds of people who come to work in them. It’s a city that is known to live side by side with differences. So we were shocked by the deeply exclusionary politics and culture of the Shiv Sena. The issue is: Will young people who come here every day, despite the fact that the infrastructure stinks, be allowed to explore the humanities, the liberal arts and digital studies side by side? If that does not happen, the great gift of cosmopolitanism will be restricted to a small elite. Do we have a system to sustain and nurture the everyday culture that is being produced in Mumbai?

And yet, MF Husain never felt secure in this city, and Salman Rushdie faced some real threats when he was invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival. The average Indian perception towards humanities and arts is still that it is not cerebral or it can’t make you rich or famous.

To be able to understand that The Satanic Verses is much more a book about migration than about the theology of Islam, you need to be able to read in a deep way and interpret yourself. The journalist can’t tell you this. If you don’t have that basic education in the humanities, you will have knee-jerk responses, which will be immediately politicized: ‘Husain is painting these goddesses as naked women, it is anti-Hindu and he is a pornographer’. You can never understand why Husain painted the naked goddesses if you don’t understand that the painting of the nude is a very central form of art training. So this issue goes back to education.

You have earlier described Parsis as “inhabitants of the in-between". How strongly do you feel connected to the community?

The Parsis are a precariously small community, as the President of India said in his speech to the Zoroastrian Congress held in Mumbai recently. Yet, the Parsis are paradoxically a global community because of their widespread diasporic existence. They have moved and lived across the world, and though small in numbers, they have a considerable international presence—although Zubin Mehta, the conductor, might well be the most famous Parsi today.

My Parsi heritage taught me to be inquiring and inquisitive, experimental and creative; it didn’t tie me down to hide-bound traditions that claimed to preserve the purity of our peoples. The magic wand that draws all Parsis together, whether orthodox or cosmopolitan, is Parsi food. It is largely an Indo-Persian cuisine with lashings of French, British, Goan, Hindu, Muslim and Italian flavours. I also feel very close to Parsi humour—it has a shrewd sense of irony and self-deprecation.

What is your next book about?

I am writing on the ethics of cosmopolitanism, how in a world torn by religious beliefs and secularism can we find a humanism that has values of equality and justice at heart, but acknowledges differences and out of differences creates networks or constellations of values.

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