Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Little “Renaissance” Rant

What is "renaissance"?

You may have come across the word "nee" used as in "Madhuri Nene nee Dixit". That means that the lady is now called Madhuri Nene but was born Madhuri Dixit. “Nee” is the adjective form of the French verb "naitre" or "to be born". The noun form is "naissance" or "birth" and "renaissance" is simply "rebirth".

The classic use of the term "Renaissance" is to describe the movement (mainly artistic) across Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries which saw the gradual transformation of that continent from the late middle ages to more or less what we fondly call "modernity".

As is true with all history, it is written by the victors and we seldom get to hear the other side of the story.

I have always wondered where the "re" part of the word "renaissance", as used in this context, came from. The people who today so proudly lay claim to this term were, at the start point of this so-called “rebirth”, in the bloody "middle ages". And as you surely know, the term "Middle Ages" is synonymous with "lack of civilization". So, what were these guys being "REborn" into? Are they insinuating that they once had a glorious civilization that somehow decayed into the middle ages and then they clawed their way back via this fabled “renaissance? You bet that’s what they are insinuating. Nay, asserting.

And that’s the tragedy of recorded history - written by the victors to shamelessly propagate expedient myths.

My point is that the Europeans are laying claim, in one fell swoop with this word “renaissance”, to the entire cultural, political and social “golden age” of Classical Antiquity which saw its apogee in the Greek and Roman civilizations - a period that roughly stretched from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD. This heritage is what purportedly they were being “reborn” into.

I’m no historian but I think that this is not historically, technically or factually correct. Continental Europe, with the exception of Greece and Rome, was never “born” into that heritage in the first place….

Even if Greece and Rome were the epicenters of the “golden period”, the breadth and the vistas of this era were southward (North Africa) and eastward (Asia Minor, Middle East and farther East) looking. This age was the fruition of a complex process of cross-pollination between Mediterranean, Central Asian and Middle Eastern cultures which were already highly evolved at that point in history…

While most of Europe was inhabited by barbarians who still had a long way to go before they could even consider themselves “born” in terms of "civilization". Much less, as the term “renaissance" blithely insinuates, “reborn”….

Am I getting too heavy? Fuck it...we'll get into that in detail again another time, preferably after a couple of stiff ones.

If that’s a tricky one from pop history, here’s one from pop culture closer home for you.

One of the associated terms of "renaissance" is "renaissance man". This was used to describe the eminent personalities of the period like Leonardo Da Vinci (yup, the guy who made the Code, god bless him!) and Michelangelo.

More recently, some rather over enthusiastic, imagination challenged, desi journalists have rehashed the term to describe miscellaneous prominent, contemporary INDIAN personalities. I have no grouse per se with the individuals who have been accorded this sobriquet by our page 3 press. But, I certainly feel that we Indians tend to over-dramatize and thus trivialize the achievements of individuals with our weakness for hyperbole. What sense does it make to compare, say, a retired Post Master General, however accomplished, with Da Vinci and Michelangelo?! Who defines the parameters of excellence that one must achieve to qualify as a “renaissance man” in India? Does Shobha De, for example, qualify? Or, MF Husain?

I’m very interested in knowing what “renaissance person” means to you and if you have ever come across one.

1 comment:

  1. yup..i agree..In fact my take on renaissance is by calling it re-naissance, it is a subtle way of covering oneself by saying "we never called it naissance and it is not new" but at the same time appropriating all developments of the "naissance" group to oneself.