SAS Colloquium Series: Print for the People: Rabindranath Tagore, Hu Shi, and Embracing the Vernacular, Madhumita Lahiri

Event time: 
Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm
Henry R. Luce Hall (LUCE ), 203 See map
34 Hillhouse Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

This paper explores the comparative vernacularization processes of early twentieth century Bengal and China, focusing on the efforts of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Hu Shi (1891-1962). Tagore and Hu Shi are radically contrary in their politics: Hu Shi is an unabashed proponent of modernization, whereas Tagore’s works turn ever more strongly against Western models of modernization. And yet, at a Beijing dinner table in April 1924, after discussing their respective linguistic experiences, Hu Shi jumped up to embrace him across the dinner table: he saw, in this Bengali process, the reflection of his Chinese goals.
Professor Lahiri uses the comparison set up by these two intellectuals, at that chance encounter in 1924, to examine the limitations of “vernacularization” for the discussion of non-Europhone contexts. Tagore and Hu Shi are linked, in their own estimation, by an evaluative relationship to language that prioritizes vernacularization, displacing literary priorities from a classical-transhistorical model– the Chinese wenyan; the Bengali sadhubhasha – to a colloquial-contemporary linguistic framework, named as baihua in China and as calitbhasha in Bengal. Describing either result as a vernacular, however, poses several problems. The language we now call modern standard Chinese, baihua, was not a widely spoken common language but rather the language of Beijing officials, which was embraced in the early twentieth century as a desired standard for national speech. In the Bengali case, the sadhubhasha that Tagore abandoned had only emerged as a literary vernacular in the late 19th century, which renders the turn to calitbhasha incomprehensible within the classical-vernacular binary.
Looking across the Himalayas – or, in 1924, across the banquet table—enables us to unpack the transformations of Bengali language literature in the early twentieth century. Tagore’s work champions “the vernacular” in his lectures and in his educational works, and he writes in a more casual form of Bengali, yet when he thematizes the vernacular, as in his short story Nashtanir (“The Broken Nest”), he presents it as tragic, incapable of capture by the public nature of the printed page. Hu Shi’s “vernacular,” in contrast, appears first and foremost in novels from earlier centuries, resurrected from the page to the mouth, and not vice versa. The vernacular becomes, in Hu Shi’s work, a language that is somehow both already existing as common property and necessitating study to use, while in Tagore’s it is the existing speech which cannot ever quite appear in printed publication. In contrast to models of vernacularization drawn from Europe, wherein the vernacular emerges in contrast to the classical, Professor Lahiri argues that vernacularization in Bengal, and perhaps in South Asia more generally, must be studied as a response to the changing authority of print media and the unreliable authenticity of the public sphere.

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