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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Balachandra Rajan

Dr. Balachandra Rajan, India, 1955-1956

K. B. Gulati

At 87, Balachandra Rajan lives today largely by himself in his London , Ontario , home. His wife, Chandra Rajan, an avid and talented translator of Kalidasa and other Sanskrit texts, lives a major part of the year in New Delhi . Just a short walk away from his residence lives his brilliant professor-daughter Tilottama Rajan , Canada Research Chair in English and Theory at the University of Western Ontario . B. Rajan is a man of legendary discipline and energy in his personal life as well as his scholarship. His stellar achievements generate respect and admiration among academics anywhere.

He has published seven books and edited or co-edited fourteen others. He is an honoured scholar of the Milton Society of America and the recipient of the James Holly Hanford and Irene Samuel awards. An English scholar, Catherine Belsey, describes him as the “subtlest of Milton ’s readers,” and an American scholar, Janel Mueller, now Dean of Humanities at the University of Chicago , calls him “one of the (twentieth) century’s leading Miltonists.” Joseph Wittreich, himself an honoured scholar of the Society sees Rajan as “having blazed the way to a new Milton criticism…, refitting Milton to the twenty-first century.”

But the fact is Rajan is not simply a Milton scholar. He has written highly influential books on Eliot and Yeats and a wide-ranging study, The Unfinished Poem (the only one of its kind) beginning with Edmund Spenser and ending with Ezra Pound. The extent and distinction of his scholarly accomplishment earned him the Chauveau medal of the Royal Society of Canada in 1983, eight years after his election to fellowship in the Society.

Latterly, he has interested himself in the comparative study of imperialisms, editing two books on this subject and publishing a far-flung exploration, Under Western Eyes, of western perceptions of India from Vasco da Gama to Macaulay.

His two novels on India , are surprising for many in that most academic readers are not prepared to accept that the critical mind, even at its best, can also be a creative one. One wonders if Rajan would have been the major critic that he is had he not had the talent to create the imaginative worlds of The Dark Dancer (1958) and Too Long in the West (1961). Both the novels have been translated into three European languages. The first of these was a Book Society Choice. George Woodcock is among those who have written appreciatively on both novels.

When The Dark Dancer first appeared, Kirkus Reviews described novelist Rajan's theme as "the parallel struggles of individual and state." Lewis Garnett observed in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, “Young Krishnan's problem is not his alone, but is shared by the whole world. Seldom, in the West, are such themes explored with such a combination of honesty and charm."

Reviewing The Dark Dancer for The Yale Review, M.K. Spears wrote,

Here at last is a novel that honestly confronts the dilemma of the Indian intellectual, caught between East and West, and instead of expounding some neat solution, explores it with magnificent intelligence and awareness.

Whereas The Dark Dancer, according to The Times Literary Supplement, “was concerned with racial division, Too Long in the West is about the clash of Indian and American cultures." In its treatment of the immigrant's experience and its multi-cultural dimensions, the novel anticipates many future novels by South Asian writers in Canada and the U.S. It offers a gentler view of life than The Dark Dancer and remains singular in its comic tone. Santha Rama Rau had a telling (and still valid) comment on the novel:

Nobody ever believes that Indians can be funny. We are known to be neutralists, revolutionaries, mystics, serious, disagreeable -- anything except funny. Well, at last [in Rajan’s Too Long in the West] the score is evened. And by an Indian. That's important.

June 2006 witnessed the publication of his Milton and the Climates of Reading . The book is a unique attempt to bring the South Asian fields of interest and concern to Milton studies. As well, it is almost alone in engaging Milton in various contemporary reading contexts: post-structural, post-colonial, and global. His co-edited publication Imperialisms: Literary and Historical Studies (2004) attracted glowing praises from the doyen of post-colonial studies, Harvard professor, Homi Bhabha:

Our anxious moment of global achievement has ushered in a new age of the politics and poetics of Empire. This complex and contested term represents a crucial turn in the revisionary thinking that is nowhere better explored with greater critical acuity and more creative panache than in Rajan and Sauer's volume.

In 1938, when Rajan was barely eighteen years old, he left Presidency College , Madras , to go to Trinity College , Cambridge . Three years later, he completed his Tripos with first class in economics. The following year, he earned another degree, with first class in English. In 1944, he became the first person to be awarded a fellowship in English in the 400-year history of Trinity College and earned the Ph.D. in English from Cambridge University in 1945. From 1945 to 1948, he was Director of English Studies at Trinity College . Rajan's first publication, Paradise Lost and the Seventeenth Century Reader (1947), contextualized Milton within the intellectual milieu of the poet’s own times. The book quickly established Rajan as a leading critic in Milton studies. Sixty years later, it is still in use. During 1945-50, he also founded and edited Focus, a journal dedicated to criticism on contemporary authors. Rajan would have continued to teach and write at Cambridge , but despite his achievements, England in 1947 was not yet ready for an Indian professor of English.

Having been active in Britain among Indian students as the President of the Majlis at Cambridge working for India’s independence, Rajan returned to his interests in economics and public policy and joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1948. During the thirteen years he was with the IFS, he was the Chairman of the Executive Board of UNICEF and a member of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna . He was on the team that drafted the Statutes of the Agency. Joseph Wittreich draws attention to Rajan’s consistently “mediatorial role” in a half century of Milton scholarship. That role is the academic translation of his experience as a diplomat.

It was during those busy years as a diplomat that Rajan branched out from literary criticism to writing fiction.

In 1961, Rajan resigned from the Indian Foreign Service to resume his academic career. During 1961-1964, when he was Head of English and Dean of Arts at the University of Delhi , he wrote W B Yeats: A Critical Introduction (1965). One reviewer described it as being "as deep as it is broad, everything is related, everything is synthesized in this sound and sensitive book.”

After moving to Canada in 1965, Rajan published three collections of essays on Milton, as well as three other books: The Lofty Rhyme: A Study of Milton's Major Poetry (1970), The Overwhelming Question: A Study of the Poetry of T S Eliot (1976), and The Form of the Unfinished: English Poetics from Spenser to Pound (1985).

He was a senior professor at the University of Western Ontario for nineteen years preceding his mandatory retirement when the University held in his honour a two-day conference titled "The Poetics of Indeterminacy" and then conferred on him an honorary doctorate.

After retiring, Rajan continued to direct doctoral work in imperialism and post-colonialism until an advancing disability made that difficult.

In 1994 he delivered the Tamblyn Lectures for the University. This is a series that has been graced among others by Northrop Frye, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky.

In 1999 he published Under Western Eyes: India from Milton to Macaulay. This book is a scholarly interpretation of historical events such as Vasco da Gama's voyage to India and colonial documents such as Macaulay's Minutes on Education that were involved in the imperial discourse. Rajan focuses on the feminization of India by the West and the way in which India responded to that feminization, i.e., not by denying it but by making a virtue of it.

This study marks an important advance in documenting the understanding, or more correctly, the misunderstanding, of India . In this volume of unprecedented depth, it is Rajan's contention that the history of the West's perception of India commences with Vasco da Gama's voyage, and not with Kipling. By taking the narrative back to Vasco da Gama's voyage to India , Rajan gives the reader a proper perspective on the roots of Western perception of India and its consequences for both India and the West.

The turn from literary criticism to post-colonial studies in Rajan's career may seem abrupt to some observers, but it had been in the making for some time. It had anticipations and even roots in his previous work. For example, The Form of the Unfinished (1985) ends with a strong statement on the politics of the fragment and includes a note (p. 307) on misunderstandings of Indian thought. The post-script (a translation of Rig Veda X, 125 by Chandra Rajan) fortifies the shape of things to come.

More importantly, Rajan's paper, “India and the English Mystics,” which he read for the BBC's Third Programme and which was subsequently published in The Listener (November 20, 1947), anticipates much of what was argued by Edward Said thirty years later in Orientalism (1978). Similarly, The Dark Dancer arguably anticipates some of Salman Rushdie’s perspectives on expatriate writing, his “imaginary homelands.”In fact, Under Western Eyes might be viewed as a large-scale implementation of the propositions originally advanced in India and the English Mystics, where Rajan wrote:

Englishmen have gone out to India to make quick profits or carry the white man's burden. At their worst, they have been tyrannically arrogant and at their best benevolently paternal. But they have not understood; to understand a civilization is to see it on its own terms and within its native values; the British have seen only that part of Indian civilization which their imperial commitments made them see.

Surely, Rajan’s work on colonial history and post-colonialism will receive its due recognition in the years to come. Meanwhile, his reputation as a scholar of Milton , Yeats, and English poetry remains quite strong. In describing Rajan’s presence in the academic community as a “pure bonus,” Canada's other Miltonist and literary theorist, Northrop Frye, goes on to make clear that his contribution to that community is more than scholarly:

He is a most effective speaker at academic conferences, but his effectiveness is not itself simply academic; sincerity and authority have their own body language which is intelligible in itself. He is the kind of colleague who inspires a sense of security even in those at other universities who hardly ever see him; they still know that in his office or classroom at least, the job is being done right.

K. B. Gulati is Professor Emeritus of English at George Brown College, Toronto . He was Professor Rajan's student at Delhi University . More at: Literary Voice


Anonymous said...

". . . it is hoped, will help in building bridges in the society."

Thank you for this article. It has definitely served as a bridge to me, a student in southern California.

You see, I am a student of a student of Dr. Tilottama Rajan. Dr. T Rajan's work is absoltuely amazing and I aspire to her level of meta-historical awareness and prodigious output. Her student is also amazing, and I have learned a lot from both (though I have never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Rajan.)

And your posted article informs me that Dr. Rajan has an equally prodigious scholar father. Amazing.

My university's library has 14 of Dr. Balachandra Rajan's books, I come to discover. I aim to check out his "The Form of the Unfinished."

Thank you so much for posting this article. I am gratified to learn of this chain of Masters that have (un)wittingly shaped my learning.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

Trinity College, Cambridge, with which Dr. Rajan was associated in the early years of his long and illustrious career, has a special place in the history of modern India. Nehru was a Natural Sciences graduate of Trinity. The mathematical genuis S. Ramanujan (1887-1920) was a Fellow from 1914 to 1920, as was his discoverer and collaborator G.H. Hardy. The distinguished mathematically oriented astro-physicist S. Chandrasekhar (1910-95) was there from 1930 to 1937.
I read Dr.Rajan's two novels more than 40 years ago, not long after their publication, and, as an English academic from India on an American campus, found them very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Rajan verbal polish was staggering. He both wrote and spoke a kind of musical prose that's rare in the academia these days. To listen to him deliver a lecture was a pleasure to the ear and a treat to the brain; while to read him in cold print is equal to experiencing the quiet but deep joys of intellectual enquiry and discovery. he is undoubtedly the greatest Indian scholar-critic in English studies to have emerged in the 20th century. What a far cry he is from from the loud,agenda-ridden, self-aggrandizing bunch of self-promoters who crowd the groves of the English and American academia. Prof. Rajan desrvs a salute more than a tribute. He was an inspiration while he lived and will be hailed as a path-breaker in the times to come.

Anonymous said...

Of all my lecturers at Delhi University, Professor Balachandra Rajan is the only one who stands out with the greatest clarity, despite the passage of half a century. I particularly recall his clear presentation of various theories of literary criticism. His dissection of the poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ by Yeats was a tour de force. I can still see him speak in my mind’s eye. No hesitation and not a word out of place. He had the genius of infecting you with his passion for fine writing and the higher life of the mind. In my experience, the other lecturer who could do this and similarly hold your attention was Professor George Steiner of Cambridge University, now in retirement. Both could consider themselves in good company!

His great mind had a modesty to match.

I also read both of Professor Rajan’s novels with great pleasure.

His book on Milton was pioneering and widely respected in Cambridge.

I feel privileged to have had an association with a person of Professor Rajan’s intellectual distinction, humanism and academic stature.

Kamalesh Sharma

Candadai Tirumalai said...

About a year ago I read Dr. Rajan's "Paradise Lost and the 17th-Century Reader," based on his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge University. It struck me as astonishingly mature for someone still in his twenties.