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Atheism, Brexit, Music And Dictatorship: Big Ideas At Jaipur Literature Festival 2017

A meeting of great minds.

21/01/2017 5:01 PM IST | Updated 26/01/2017 8:09 AM IST
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The third day of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2017 was dominated by big ideas — about atheism, Brexit and the influence of dictatorship on art in the contemporary world.

Early in the morning, acclaimed translator Arshia Sattar, best known for her English version of the Valmiki Ramayana, had a spirited conversation with Alex Watson, Tim Whitmarsh and AND Haksar. While Watson and Whitmarsh are scholars of Sanskrit and Greek cultures respectively, Haksar is famous as the translator of secular texts in Sanskrit such as the Kamasutra.

Sattar opened the session by asking Haksar to speak on the Orientalist view of that all literature in Sanskrit is primarily religious. In his response, Haksar made a presentation of the Lokayata school of philosophy, not as famous as the Vedic of the yogic schools of thought, which is involved with materialism and empiricism.

This is the school that didn't believe in god or rebirth or the immortal soul. "Soul is only consciousness, this school of thought said," Haksar explained, "It is a product of the body and dissolves with it."

Watson extended this exposition with his discussion of the Carvakas and the ideas of astika and nastika (orthodoxy and heterodoxy). Whitmarsh, in his turn, went on to show the evolution of atheism since the classical era, as opposed to the misconception that it is a product or modernity, particularly of the modern West.

The highlight of the question hour was a young man asking Whitmarsh, "How does one talk to someone like Mum, who's obsessed with religion?" The answer was brief and crisp: "One doesn't."

Europe Reconsidered

When you have some of the great minds of our time in conversation about a global upheaval, you expect friction; on Indian TV, you tend to get explosions. AN Wilson, Andrew Roberts, Linda Colley and Timothy Garton Ash spoke with Jonathan Shainin about Brexit — the referendum through which a majority in Britain signalled its decision to opt out of the European Union (EU). The entire session remained civilised in spite of the opposing perspectives.

Roberts, a pro-Brexit voice, made a case for the move by citing the demographic deficit in Britain as well as the imperative to be independent of the EU jurisdiction. He was robustly countered by Garton Ash, who spoke of Brexit as a "disaster for Britain as well as for the EU" and about their long history of togetherness through the World War I, the World War II and the Cold War.

Colley pointed out the fallacy in believing in "geographical determinism" and forgetting the affinity of Britain and Europe through the centuries — in their culture, politics and economics. So even as Britain reckons with its Europhobia, it's important to remember historical details such as Queen Victoria's private choice of language of communication, which was German.

Music And Monsters

For admirers of Western classical music, a chance to listen to Alex Ross talk about his work is a privilege. A staff writer with The New Yorker, Ross has been one of the leading music critics, historians and theorists of our time.

Speaking about his work with poet Ruth Padel, Ross addressed the knotty subject of artistic freedom under dictatorial regimes — his inspiration being the inauguration of the new presidency in his home country the day before.

Reading out from a section of his book, The Rest Is Noise, rewritten to suit the occasion, Ross traced the relationship between art and dictatorship in the 20th century, especially in its intermingling during Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, to meditate on ideological manipulation of music and the fate of art and artists living in an unfree state.

Through a rich tapestry of ideas — from the appropriation of the music of Richard Wagner and Dmitri Shostakovich to the playlist at Donald J Trump's inaugural address, prominently featuring the Rolling Stones — Ross took the audience through a rollercoaster of ideas that defined art and artistic freedom in the 20th century.

(In the first section, the question from the young man in the audience was about his Mum, not NaMo, and addressed to Whitmarsh, not Watson. We regret these errors, which have now been corrected.)

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