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Penang Story Lecture: Pan Asianism and Rabindranath Tagore’s Ideal of a common Asian civilisation

Speaker: Dr. Ruby MaloniPhoto Dr. Maloni (i)

Date: Saturday, 21 September 2013
Time: 8.00pm-10.00pm
Venue: Level 5, Wawasan Open University

This Penang Story event was organised by the Penang Heritage Trust and Think City Sdn Bhd.
Synopsis of Lecture

In the words of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), “If Asian civilization constituted a great reservoir of spiritual power, and if modern civilization was about to destroy humanity itself, then it must be from a regenerated Asia that man’s salvation would come.” This statement of a visionary has great relevance today, when the quest for peace continues unabated in a world riven by conflict and aggression.

The kind of Pan-Asianism to which Tagore subscribed was of a community that sought to transcend the territorial nation-state and redeem and regenerate the world through Eastern spiritual morality. However idealistic this may be, Tagore’s view of Pan-Asianism reflects a trend towards a future world order dominated by large regional blocs, replacing the existing order characterized by the sovereign super power.

Visits of the celebrated poet and first Asian Nobel Laureate to Japan and China created a deep impact. Tagore spoke on several occasions in favor of Pan-Asian unity. Despite some criticism, he drew crowds wherever he went. Unlike other Asianists of his time, Tagore also wanted to spread the message among Islamic Asia, visiting West Asia in 1920.

Tagore’s house in Jorasanko in Bengal became the hub of Asian idealists like Okakura and Coomaraswamy. In 1921 Viswa Bharati was founded, as the first institute of Asian culture, with a department of Sino-Indian Studies, which continues to flourish. His poetry, particularly 3 Haiku poems, and lectures, such as on ‘Swadeshi Samaj’, further elaborated his Pan-Asian sentiments.

Tagore’s perspective needs to be understood along with other Pan-Asianists like President Sukarno and Sun Yat-sen. Asian intellectuals observed the intrusion of the West, and the interface of Western modernity and Asian traditions. While it has been held that modern Asian identities emerged only with the process of decolonization, undoubtedly, the central event of the last century was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia.

Pan-Asianism is important for the contemporary global debate, as global power shifts towards the East. The critical question is how Asian thinkers will and leaders react to their region’s power shift and renewed capacity to assume world leadership.

About the speaker:

Dr. Ruby Maloni is Professor of History at the University of Mumbai. She is an alumnus of both Calcutta University and Mumbai University, having done her graduation from the former institution, and obtained the Masters and Doctoral degree from the latter. She has published extensively on Modern India and Medieval India, particularly on aspects of the socio-economic history of India. She is the author of ‘European Merchant Capital and the Indian Economy’, among other books. She has contributed articles to several national and international journals, such as ‘Itinerario: European Journal of Overseas History’, published at Leiden University, Netherlands. Her research article, ‘Satyendanath Tagore’s “Bombai Chitra”: Bombay Presidency in the Nineteenth Century’, has been published in ‘State Intervention and Popular Response: Western India in the Nineteenth Century’, a work co-edited by Ruby Maloni and Mariam Dossal.

Dr. Ruby Maloni’s area of specialisation is ‘The Indian Ocean and Maritime Trade’. Recently, she has been awarded ‘Recognition for Excellence’ by the University of Mumbai. Her research work is frequently cited by noted Indian as well as foreign scholars. She is currently engaged in several research projects, including ‘The socio-cultural trajectories parallel to commerce in the Indian Ocean Region’.

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