Hiren Gohain is easily one of India’s tallest public intellectuals. He was professor of English at Gauhati University until his retirement in 1999. Whether in his core academic corpus—Tradition and Paradise Lost: A Heretical View (1976), a book based on his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge and Asamīyā Jātīya Jīvanat Mahāpuruṣiyā Paramparā (1987), his much-acclaimed work on Śaṅkaradeva among others—or his political interventions, Gohain directs our glance at ideological structures that insidiously dominate our language and cultures. There are structures, he argues, that need to be dismantled for human beings to continue their search for freedom and dignity.
Gohain’s comments on politics and power appear regularly in the Economic and Political Weekly and important Assamese dailies. It is in this context that we locate his recent book Śilpa Saṅskritir Raṇāṅgan. It is a volume of twenty-eight essays that traverse issues pertinent to culture, politics and social life. Śilpa (art) and Saṅskriti (culture) are the thematic tropes here, informed by the spectres of a Raṇāṅgan (battleground). Speaking of his critical framework, the author directs our attention to ‘Hegelian Marxism which advocates the primacy of historical contexts in rendering an event into the dialectical framework’ (‘Preface’). Much of his writings articulate this position, but never in a way that is inaccessible. In fact, what makes his essays stand out is his ability to make use of an idiom that is at once scholarly and socially engaging, the latter borne out of his stature as a public intellectual.
The essays in this volume are organized in six segments followed by an appendix that contains an article in English. In the first essay of the first section, the author traces the creative trajectory of Bhupen Hazarika (1926-2011), presenting him as a successor to Jyotiprasad Agarwala (1903-51) and Bishnu Prasad Rava (1909-69), two writers whose social commitments were as important as their cultural credo. He draws our attention to Bhupen Hazarika’s PhD thesis (1952) submitted to Columbia University, that ‘starts off with the description of a farmer weighed down by misery in the middle of a drought-struck cropland in Maharashtra’ (p. 22). By allowing us to understand the making of the artist—the assumption here is that art is a social formation—the author shows Hazarika’s social commitment to the masses that battle on to make both ends meet. Of the three essays in the section, the one on Anandaram Dhekial Phukan (1829-59), the architect of modernity in Assam, merits mention here. The idea of a literary-cultural Renaissance in Assam owes substantially to Dhekial Phukan’s engagements with colonial modernity. Captain Jenkins drew a parallel between Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) and Dhekial Phukan for their efforts to engineer social change. But for Gohain, this comparison is not tenable for two reasons: one, Dhekial Phukan lived for a very short period, and two, the social space in which he lived and worked was way more parochial than that of Bengal. Given this, Gohain argues, ‘his stature seems to surpass Roy’s’ (p. 30). The essay historicizes the larger burden of Dhekial Phukan’s enterprise by pitching in the fragmentary nature of colonial modernity against the social slippages of his time.