Gitanjali Dang and Khanabadosh curate this series — Invisible Light — under which various themes will be introduced. Jagte Raho is the opening theme. Read an overview of the curatorial concept, here.
Also view 'Jagte Raho' —
Chapter V: Abhishek Hazra on How to Hide Your Hegel
Whether it is the sacking of Nalanda University in the 12th century; or the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which was established in 1873 and incorporated book burning on its seal; or the scorching of 8000 rare books and manuscripts in Mosul in 2015; or the burning of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History in 2014, across time and cultures, there is an unfortunately long history of tearing into and apart libraries and books.
Be it by burning or ransacking or censorship or the interrogation of the act of reading itself.
So when the police cracked down on the civil rights activists, poets and lawyers—arrested in June and August this year, under the guise of connections to the Bhima-Koregaon violence—their probing of the books and reading habits of those under the scanner almost seemed like protocol. Books with ‘Marx’, ‘Mao’ or ‘Naxal’ in their titles were taken away as ‘evidence’. And questions such as “Why are you being an intellectual when you get so much money?” were posed in earnest.
As it (always) happens, there is also an equally long and illustrious history of stand-up responses to repressive forces.
Some 900-odd years ago, around the time of the Nalanda University, Andalusian polymath Ibn Rushd also known as Averroës’ books were gathered and burnt before his eyes. One of Rushd’s students, who was witness to this, started to weep. At which point Rushd—who has written on logic, philosophy, theology, mathematics and pretty much everything else under the sun—stated simply: Ideas have wings.
In the aftermath of Gauri Lankesh’s assassination in 2017, and then again in the aftermath of the arrests this year, Twitter responded with the hashtag: #MyAntiNationalBookshelf. Images of proper shelves and unruly stacks brimming with books like Who was Shivaji by Govind Pansare, Annihilation of Caste by BR Ambedkar and Seeing Like a Feminist by Nivedita Menon were making themselves visible.
But then what is one to make of the all the stuff that continues to remain invisible? Visibility is not a precondition for thriving. Abhishek Hazra, whose artistic work is embedded in all kinds and many layers of codes and encryptions, knows this better than most.
“When I read about the cops reacting to the presence of Marx in K Satyanarayana’s bookshelves (when they raided his house in Hyderabad) I wondered, how would the cops have reacted to spotting the name ‘Hegel’ on the spine of a book?” explains Hazra.
“Outside of outright critique, another response, regarded as ‘cowardly’ by some, entails strategies of being fugitive, of going underground and still continuing engagement. So, if it is no longer safe to keep Marx on one’s bookshelf, can one get away by hiding Marx in plain sight through a simple act of inversion? Or in other words, will Hegel, who was famously 'inverted' by Marx, still draw the attention of this same police officer? Through Hegel, can you hide your Marx in plain sight and yet continue?”
One of the main conceits of the work is to invoke Karl Marx via his predecessor, the German idealist philosopher, GWF Hegel (1770–1831).
It has long been a staple of Marxist lore that Marx turned Hegel’s idealist philosophy on its head via his materialism. Marx disagreed with Hegel that abstract ideas were the drivers of social change. Instead, he insisted that the material stuff of everyday economic activity was what drove human history forward through a series of contradictions and their resolutions.
However, irrespective of Hegel's 'correct' relationship to his famous successor, his critique of the liberal tradition has always held a special attraction for left-leaning South Asian scholars. What could be the possible reasons for this attraction? According to Hazra, “At the risk of a ridiculous oversimplification, one could say, that in the classical liberal tradition, assumptions are made about the rights-bearing individual and the 'legal' citizen pursuing their own self-interest and yet somehow magically ensuring that the greater social good is not completely ignored. Hegel doesn't take these liberal assumptions for granted and poses serious questions on the modern conception of freedom. Perhaps Hegel’s critique is exciting for people who still hope that the allegedly holy marriage of ‘free markets’ and ‘liberal democracy’ won’t have the last word and that we will find other ways to resolve the tension between one’s individual freedom and one’s social attachments."
Taking us through some of these twists and turns and more is the elaborate artistic conceit of the story of the Almora chapter of the Kankurgachi Hegel Club.
In the aftermath of the recent arrests, the Almora chapter of the Kankurgachi Hegel Club, an amateur group of Hegel enthusiasts, is worried and can’t help wonder if it is safe to keep Hegel on their bookshelves. Therefore, they have initiated a three-pronged—that is, by heart, by scroll and by marginalia—project to hide Hegel.
Fragment 1: A record (and a partial reconstruction) of the Almora Hegelians, memorising the Phenomenology by the flickering light of the old TV in their modest clubhouse
One: In order to clear their bookshelves of any and all signs of Hegel, the Almora Hegelian initiate a project to memorise Hegel by heart. Beginning with the classic Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807, which Hegel described as an “exposition of the coming to be of knowledge”.
Fragment 2: Having handwritten Hegel on a scroll, the Almora Hegelians try to read him backwards, while rehearsing with Sombhu Mitra’s Oedipus
Two: Given the obvious demands on memory such a project entails, Almora Hegelian are also exploring other options. Some of them still want to have access to the written Hegel, but prefer the ancient scroll, over the books currently in circulation.