Interview: Sugata Bose, Author of ‘Asia After Europe: Imagining a Continent in the Long Twentieth Century’

In a world shaped by Euro-American narratives, Professor Sugata Bose’s groundbreaking work, “Asia After Europe,” emerges as a beacon of intellectual defiance, tracing the evolution of Asian solidarity and universalism. Delving into the continent’s rich tapestry of cultural and philosophical conversations, Bose illuminates how Asian thinkers of the early twentieth century challenged Eurocentric norms, rejecting the hegemony of nation-states and embracing a “colorful cosmopolitanism.” His narrative transcends pivotal moments like Japan’s triumph over Russia in 1905 and the aftermath of World War II, showcasing the resurgence of Asian identity on the global stage. By spotlighting visionary figures such as Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin, Bose unveils their pivotal roles in revitalizing Asianness amidst Western modernity’s pressures. Furthermore, he dissects the complex interplay of tradition and modernity, debunking simplistic dichotomies and heralding a nuanced understanding of Asian identity. Through Bose’s lens, we confront enduring struggles against nationalist rivalries and religious tensions, urging a departure from European constructs of reason and identity. As the world witnesses the rise of China and contemporary globalization, Bose’s reflections point towards a renewed era of solidarity and cultural exchange among Asia’s diverse peoples. In a candid moment, he shares his hopes for a more inclusive future, lamenting the entrenchment of religious majoritarianism in India’s upcoming elections while calling for a renewed commitment to genuine democracy and federal unity. In Bose’s vision, “Asia After Europe” not only unveils the past but also charts a course for an uncertain yet promising future, where Asia reclaims its global significance with vibrant unity in diversity.

Asia after Europe by Sugata Bose Book Cover

1. Can you elaborate on the significance of tracing the evolution of Asian solidarity and universalism in challenging Euro-American paradigms, as discussed in your book “Asia After Europe”?

An exploration of the intellectual and cultural conversations across the continent reveals Asian notions of universalism and cosmopolitanism embracing multiple races and religions defying the constraints of European concepts of reason, national identity, and federation. The best Asian thinkers of the early twentieth century steadfastly refused to accept the nation-state as the normative or natural political unit. Also, they believed in what I call a “colorful cosmopolitanism” that did not accept any necessary contradiction between cosmopolitanism and patriotism during the anti-colonial struggle. They rejected the European claim to a monopoly over universalism that easily slid into imperialism. It is vitally important to rediscover the more generous and broad-minded conceptions of universalism that emanated from Asia to address intractable global problems of the twenty-first century.

2. Your book discusses pivotal moments in Asian history, such as Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905 and the aftermath of the Second World War. How do these events shape the narrative of Asian identity and its role on the world stage?

My book places such key events in the context of broader historical processes. Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905 sent a thrill about Asian resurgence across the entire continent. Tokyo became an anti-colonial metropolis drawing larger numbers of students, scholars, and political activists from India, China, Turkey, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The immediate aftermath of World War II witnessed a revival of ideas about an “Asiatic Federation” that had been articulated by leaders like Sun Yat-sen and DeshbandhuChittaranjan Das since the early 1920s and re-iterated by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose between 1943 and 1945. In addition to the 1947 Asian Relations Conference in Delhi and the 1955 Bandung Conference, there were a whole range of unofficial and semi-official congregations in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This was before European-style conflicts between nation-states shut down many creative possibilities drawing on the best in Asian political thought. I should mention that my book shows that the quest for Asian universalism in the cultural domain began before the political-military event of 1905. It had its roots in the 1880s. The Japanese art critic Okakura Tenshin and artists like Yokoyama visited India between 1901 and 1903.

3. In your exploration of Asian intellectualism, you highlight figures like Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin. How did these individuals contribute to the revival of Asianness amidst the pressures of Western modernity?

Okakura Tenshin was a key theorist of the oneness of Asia and wrote an influential book titled The Ideals of the East (1903) during his stay in India during 1902. As Sister Nivedita put it in her introduction, Okakura had shown Asia “not as the congeries of geographical fragments that we imagine, but as a united living organism, each part dependent on all the others, the whole breathing a single complex life.” He then sent Japanese artists, including Yokoyama Taikan and HishidaShunso, to India leading to artistic conversations and collaborations across Asia. Abanindranath Tagore’s iconic “Bharatmata” was painted deploying the Japanese wash technique that he learned from Taikan. Rabindranath Tagore met Okakura both in Calcutta and later in 1913 in Boston where Okakura was curator of Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts. In fact, Okakura was instrumental in getting Tagore invited to Harvard in 1913 to deliver the lectures that came out as a book titled Sadhana. Much later in 1924, Tagore made a moving reference in Japan to Okakura as a pioneer in the quest for Asian universalism. Tagore’s journey to China and Japan exactly a hundred years ago was designed to foster closer bonds among these Asian peoples.

4. Could you share more about the themes of tradition and modernity in shaping Asian identity, particularly in the context of Meiji Japan’s embrace of Western tools and the resurgence of Pan-Asianism?

I have tried to avoid the easy dichotomy between tradition and modernity in my analysis. In fact, I have shown that Okakura and Fukuzawa were not the opposites in the way they have been often portrayed. In the economic sphere, the rest of Asia had much to learn from Meiji Japan about the importance of primary education and labor-intensive industrialization. Benoy Kumar Sarkar had a key insight into Japan during his 1915 visit: “In its heart and mind Japan is a part of Asia – it has only imported some scraps of iron from Euro-America.”

5. Your book touches on the enduring struggles against nationalist rivalries and religious tensions in Asia. How do these challenges intersect with the quest for political thought beyond European constructs of reason and identity?

I argue in my book that the 1937 war between Japan and China showed that Asia had not been able to immunize itself against the European nationalist virus that had resulted in the catastrophic war of 1914-1918. Again, the 1962 war of China against India after a decade of bonhomie had much to do with the inability to shed European conceptions of unitary sovereignty and hard borders. The rise of religious majoritarianism to buttress centralized authoritarianism may impede the role that India ought to play today in an Asian resurgence. As Tagore put it in 1932, “If a new age has dawned in Asia, let Asia give it utterance in a new authentic voice. If instead Asia merely imitates Europe’s beastly cry, were it even to be the lion’s roar, it will be a loss.”

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6. Drawing from your discussion on the recent international conference “Asia on the Move,” how do historical exchanges among traders, pilgrims, and intellectuals inform our understanding of Asia as a space of both unity and diversity?

I was not present at the conference you mentioned. However, I can see from Shyam Saran’s review of my book in The Tribune that there was some resonance between the arguments in my book and what was discussed there. The rich history of Asian mobility can certainly be drawn upon to soften some of the harsher edges of the European model of the modern nation-state. The vision of Asian unity in diversity was beautifully expressed by Sarojini Naidu in 1947: “Who wants a monotonous culture? Who wants a uniform culture? Who wants a colorless culture?” In my view, it is only a colorful cosmopolitanism respectful of difference that can bring Asians together.

7. As you reflect on contemporary globalization and the rise of China, what potential do you see for a renewed era of solidarity and cultural exchange among the diverse peoples of Asia?

In the early twenty-first century, Asia was in the process of recovering the global position it had lost two hundred years ago. Towards the end of my book, I ponder on what kind of China is now rising. In a 2013 book titled Renewal, the historian Wang Gungwu had asked, “Can it avoid being a nation-state that, when powerful, will emulate the national empires?” There are certainly intellectual resources in Asia’s past, such as the vision of the early twentieth-century scholar Gu Hongming, that would enable a renewed era of solidarity and cultural exchange. As I wrote my book, I could see that Asia stands today at the end of an era as alternative futures beckon. By delving into the history of Asia as a connected zone during the long twentieth century, Asia after Europe identifies which inheritances we should take from the past on the uncertain journey ahead.

8. On a smiley note, when was the last time you Googled yourself and what did you find?

On reading your question I Googled myself and saw that my name is misspelled as Sugatha Bose. On being alerted to the mis-spelling several months ago, I tried to get Google to correct the spelling but without success. If Storizen can persuade Google to drop the ‘h’ they have added to my first name, I shall be ever grateful.

9. If you could invite any three authors for dinner, whom would you invite?

I have had many imaginary dinners with the characters in my book. I would really like to invite three poets from the past – Sarojini Naidu, Yone Noguchi, and Bing Xin (she translated Tagore’s poems into Chinese) – with cuisine from Hyderabad, Tokyo, Beijing, and Kolkata on the table.

10. What is your opinion on the upcoming Loksabha Elections?

In my first speech in the Lok Sabha in 2014 I had warned the government of the day not to confuse majoritarianism with democracy and uniformity with unity. Unfortunately, the elections of 2024 will likely entrench the forces of religious majoritarianism and centralized authoritarianism even further. Even while acknowledging the ruling party’s unfair tactics, it is a pity that the opposition parties have failed to put forward a coherent and credible alternative. Once the upcoming elections are over, we will have to renew the struggle for genuine democracy and the federal unity of India under new leadership so that our country can play its legitimate role in Asia and the world.

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