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The problem

‘It is not often realised that the most modern amongst Indians, more tacitly and by implication and not so much as intellectual commitment and ideology, continues to be guided by the paradigm of conducting his life in a manner by which he would sequentially pass from one ashrama (the brahmacharya, grahastha, vanaprastha, sanyasa) to another, and the call of arriving at a balance amongst the four goals of the life of the senses (kama), the pursuit of material life (artha), the ideal of right duty (dharma), and the remote possibility of getting away from it all, or transcendence (moksha).’

Kapila Vatsayana, ‘Individually and Collectively’,

Seminar 276, Our National Character, August 1982.


IS it surprising that despite the rapidly growing field of cultural studies, with its emphasis on relativity and context, on deconstructing the symbolic in every artefact and practice, the commonplace, everyday understanding of culture continues to be mired in a plethora of essentialisms? Not only do we continue to valorize the ancient nature and timelessness of Indian culture and civilization, many of us believe that we are a different and privileged (chosen) people, not like the others. Even more that it is the sacred duty, not just of the state but of the elite, individuals and institutions, to both protect and propagate our cultural essence.

What, however, is this essence that both defines us and we are expected to protect? One that has come down to us from the Vedas, the do’s and don’ts as exemplified in the Ramayana and Mahabharata? Is it that we are a religious and spiritual people, non-violent, holding duties rather than rights, sacrifice and renunciation as primal values? Few today, if ever, would recognise such descriptions as conforming to their life experiences. And yet, the myth holds sway.

If for a moment we sidestep the textbook definitions of Indian culture and civilization, descriptions which critics claim reflect the values and bias of the powerful – upper caste and class, male, Hindu, what have you – it will be apparent that all cultural constructs remain deeply contested. Equally, that whatever the pervasiveness of primal and founding myths, culture is better understood as an ever-changing, evolving process rather than a given.

True, some notions, beliefs and behaviour patterns are more enduring than others – particularly those related to rituals concerning rites of passage (birth, marriage, death) or purity and pollution. Yet the sooner we realise that we are not particularly unique, that we respond to conditions and stimuli in much the same way as most humans in similar situations do, the earlier we might divest ourselves of the hangover of the past (tradition) and begin learning the accoutrement of living in a modern, interdependent world.

Despite the enduring imagery of India as a land of villages, over a third of our population lives in cities and probably as many in semi-urban areas. We may be an old civilization but our population is young. It is impatient, mobile, far more willing to break out of the confines of caste and community in its search for opportunities to make good. Fewer of us today live in joint families and many more women from the upper castes, traditionally kept out of the labour market, work in a variety of occupations.

The change, more so its pace, is apparent wherever we look – in choices of consumption, occupations, lifestyles. In many ways, we are on the route to becoming an individualistic, this-worldly, modern society. Though, as sociologist Dipankar Gupta, in his popular tract Mistaken Modernity: India Between Worlds, reminds us that this is a shallow process, one displaying characteristics of westoxication rather than westernization. True modernity, he argues is not about symbols of technological progress, but about the mode of relations among people. ‘Modernity is an attitude which represents universalistic norms, where the dignity of an individual as citizen is inviolable and where one’s achievement counts for more than family background or connections.’

What sense then is one to make of the growing presence of new goods in the marketplace, the shifts in apparel, food, housing styles, music and art – more broadly the way we actualise leisure? Is what we see reflected in our magazines, films and TV shows, the aggressive consumerism and hedonism, representative of only a thin, urban, upper class and caste strata, a strata much smaller that what the NCAER surveys of India’s growing middle class would have us believe?

Whether or not estimates of new consumption are overdrawn, it is difficult to deny that aspiration levels have vastly increased. The growing desire to learn English, both as status symbol and as a route to mobility, continues to rapidly spread, despite the warning of pedagogues. Studies of voting behaviour show a marked decline of traditional solidarities and emotional appeals have to be clothed in new forms for successful mobilisation. The spread of TV has altered the modes of communication and language with face to face interactions being replaced by unidirectional messages.

It is likely that the growing industrialisation and urbanisation over the last century, more so in the decades after Independence, has irretrievably altered us as a culture and people. But because our intellectual and political elite is still governed by notions based on readings of ancient texts and has so far failed to evolve institutions and rules of collective, public behaviour different from those in Mughal or colonial times, that we remain mired in a half-way house, wanting to be modern individuals but still not free of the confines of caste and community, norms and behaviour patterns more suited to a feudal, agrarian society.

Not that the shift towards an individualistic, urban existence comes without its negatives – anomie, rootlessness, growing violence. Many of the changes that we are experiencing, primarily in urban India but also elsewhere, are disturbing. But to read these as undesirable effects of westernization/globalization and thereby seek to restrict and control cultural interaction would be falling prey to a xenophobia. The brouhaha over Fashion TV, over Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Water, or the recent knocking out of contention of the National Film Awards the movie Split Wide Open because it is ‘unrepresentative’ of Indian culture is reflective of this tendency. As is the continuing and somewhat tiresome debate that Indian writing in English is not rooted, not representative, only pandering to a western market.

We have for long been a hierarchical and exclusionary society, constantly demarcating the high culture from the low. Equally, we were a cellular society with limited interaction among the different solidarities. The process of being moulded into a mass society has not always contributed to internal democratization. Rather ‘traditional’ forms of differentiation have been replaced by ‘modern’ ones.

The emergence of a new elite, powerful and assertive, is invariably accompanied by a new cultural style, one which the traditional elite finds vulgar, if not despicable. Little wonder that every process – democracy, affirmative action, or an opening out of markets – is seen as destabilising. It is just that the current ire is focused on globalization – how the incursion of the outside world is corrupting our purity.

The need today is to free ourselves of shaky constructs of authenticity, to honestly record and map the myriad changes marking the Indian landscape. Also, not to rush to judgement about desirability. Nothing stifles creativity more than hidebound notions of correctness. Finally, the need to move beyond a preoccupation with artefacts and symbols of consumption to evolving institutions and procedures in tune with the times.

This issue of Seminar explores some of these debates in their various manifestations. Like the Mahatma, our hope is that as a nation we will be confident enough to experiment, to let different winds blow through our house, and yet not be swept off our feet.