With India finally adopting an “Act East” foreign policy, China’s New Silk Road policy and increasingly warm Indo-Japanese relations, it’s time to take the above painting out of its obscure corner and dust it off.

The artist is Abanindranath Tagore, the brother of the Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

At first glance, the painting appears to be done in a typical Mughal style. Upon closer inspection however, it becomes evident that the artist has replaced the clarity characteristic of Mughal art (bright colors, sharp lines) with a dim and moody style of painting.

This latter technique, called “wash” painting, had originated a few years earlier in Japan.1 But how did a contemporary Japanese technique make its way so quickly to rural West Bengal, where Abanindranath painted at his family retreat?

 

At the turn of the twentieth century, intellectuals in the emerging modern nation-states of Asia began, for the first time, to talk about a common Asian civilisation.

 

Historically, Asians, if at all they thought about such things, had a very different understanding of what constituted their common cultural underpinnings. That understanding underwent a radical transformation when it came in contact with the European definition of “civilisation.”

In the European formulation, “civilisation” was firmly identified with Christianity, the Enlightenment, and later on, social Darwinism. Dividing the world into civilised and non-civilised nations, imperialists used the term to justify their conquests as civilising missions.

In this brave new world, Japan was the first Asian nation to determine that the only way to play this game was to become “civilised” itself. Thus was born the Meiji reformation era, when the Japanese government called on its citizens to adopt European customs or perish. Japan’s elevation to the ranks of the “civilised” nations was affirmed by its defeat of Russia (a European nation!) in 1905.

But not all Japanese intellectuals were on board. One such dissenter was Kakuzo Okakura Tenshin, a prominent art historian and critic. Okakura was prescient enough to see the “civilising” process leading to warfare. He began to seek an alternative definition of “civilisation,” one not rooted in social Darwinism.

Why, if Europe was an assembly of nations united by a single civilisation, couldn’t the same be said of Asia? In other words, couldn’t there be an Asian civilisation distinct from a European one?2

Over in India, Rabindranath Tagore felt similarly. He was a vocal critic of the narrow nationalism of his compatriots (and later of Japan too). He extended an invitation to Okakura to come visit him at his family retreat. Okakura jumped at the offer. Following in Okakura’s footsteps were two acolytes, Hishida Shunsō and Yokohama Taikan, who studied and painted with Abanindranath.

The outcome of the ensuing intellectual exchange between East and Far East can be seen in Abanindranath’s painting above and read in Okakura’s famous words:

“Asia is one. The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilisations, the Chinese…and the Indian…But not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought inheritance of every Asiatic race…”3

Unfortunately, this idealistic vision was later perverted to justify Japan’s violent conquest of Asia. Still, now that we are entering an era of pan-Asianism once more, it’s worthwhile understanding that it was not always a bad thing.