The Culture We Rarely Ken

R L Bhat
Indian culture is something of which every Indian is rightfully proud of. To be sure, this pride is ‘huge’, with the longish ‘u’ as Donald Trump invariably gives the word. Of course, one is not talking of the people who are enamored of the alien loyalties. There was Iqbal, the allama, meaning an adept one, who drifted so far away that he actually rewrote ‘saaree jahaan see achhaa…’ to begin a tryst with the new allegiance. ‘Saaree jahaan see achhaa…’ is today over a century old. It is known to most Indians as the cherished laudation of the land, an invocation par excellence of the greatness of Indian culture. Poesy has this strange vitality – it lives on even as the author has moved away. Not so with culture. It evances as the practitioners move away, deviate from it or discard it for more alluring practices.
Culture has a being which lives through the conglomerate of its practitioners. It lives even as beings here and there move away from it, but only till a sufficient body of adherents practices it. With its teeming millions milling around the country side, there is assurance that Indian culture still lives. However, with two-fifths of India having moved to the urban habitations, the mass of adherents is certainly dwindling. As the proportion of urban Indians in the overall population of India goes yonder, there would be a determinative deviation. For many of the subcultures, which do not command millions, it is almost a touch and go state. As it is, the urban folks looking to, if not taking after, the metropolises, are emulating a global, occidental the general Christian way. Blowing off the candles on your b’day is just one manifestation, discarding ‘tamsoo maa jyootirgamaya…’ The dress, speech, food-choices, music preferences, life ideals and goals… all tend away from the indigenous ways. There they may end up being good imitations or poor copies, but would be away from the Indian way, away from their own culture, though they may keep asserting the ritual pride in it.
The urban habitats are hardly evolutes of the indigenous mores. They may have included a mode here, a value there, but the ideal is elsewhere, far from the Indian field. That is the metro frame, the metro focus. Not so long ago, a gathering of Indians was a sea of dhootiis, dastaars, ttoopiis and chappals. Today those accoutrements are seen in fancy dress shows or upon the personas of politicos out on sightings. The Indian routine now is jeans suitably worn-ed out, or suits and boots, the costlier the better. While food and victuals are getting less and less indigenous, what is more signal is that the mannerisms even sensibilities are tending to be more foreign. The behavioral modes, as well as the value systems there are evolving less as per the Indian trajectory. Global, as mentioned above, is overwhelmingly European and American and essentially Christian. There are few other, say Indian, Chinese or Arabian, elements in it.
Here one must emphasize that there is no inherent superiority in one cultural mode or the lack of the same in another. It is as inane to hold that Indian way is ipso facto superior to, say, the European way, or even Chinese or Arabian way for that matter. Nor, is it inferior to any of these. It is the Indian way and that is that. Of course, there is the innate consonance of Indian culture with the clime and flora of India, the social and moral system obtaining in the Indian subcontinent. There is a similar consonance of other cultures with the geographic and socio-cultural milieu they have evolved in. Tight garments and exposed bodies don’t suit the desert climes. Besides, the industrial revolution arose in Europe. The European mode is more in sync with its requisites, demands and devolutions. That has generally been seen as easeful in operation of the machine era and has proved very persuasive in other lands as well. Call it the efficiency argument, but it is not so very easeful nor quite indispensable.
Different cultural modules are distinct for having arisen in different locales and differing physical, social political and ethical conditions. Thus Indian culture is simply the Indian way, with its distinct modules. It is Indian way to eat with your hands instead of the shiny cutlery. While batting for the innate superiority of one mode over others is little less than prejudice, an assumed inferiority of one’s own cultural module is little more than a colonial capitulation. India over the last millennium has been battered by many alien clubs, which had no innate merit in them. They, however, had the authority of force and their writ inveigled India. That inveiglement has not entirely left the Indian psyche. That said, it is a fact that the Indian reform has not been able to work the Indian elements. More often it has been a knee-jerk laudation of Indian culture, followed by an inveterate emulation of the alien ways.
Nuclear family is a prime example, here. Indian way is built around joint family, an extended one at that. The reverence to the elders, care for the members, the hierarchy, the inclusive affection, the neighbourly relations and regard to the point of considering every girl a daughter of the village and every elder a father figure or motherly matron: all these revolve around the family system. One could call them feudal elements but then the Indian way was nothing like the lords of Europe or those of the Central Asia. It was more like trusteeship as the Mahatma saw it. At the same time, the tribal loyalties are not very apparent here, thanks to an incipient universality of thought and religion informing the diversities of the Indian locales. The callous zamindaariis, as depicted say in Prem Chand’s Hoorii, were developments of the later centuries when India was under foreign yokes and got parceled out into jaagiirs and fiefdoms. And they grew quite baneful. They also became elements of the milieu that we now know as Indian culture.
In tandem with these calluses, came the restrictive strictures upon the females. The old tradition of equality and incorporation had been trampled under the harsh hoofs of the tumultuous millennium.
Vulnerability of the female folk to the rapacious marauders added further restrictions to their operation and action. In the process, the ancient liberalism and equality changed into a thorough deprivation of women folk, of almost all their rights and initiatives. It also became a signature of the Indian ethos, as it evolved in the circumstances. Patriarchy pulled to extremes is a defining feature of the culture that we laud with pride. Today, it is debilitating half of the populace of the country side, which is also the most robust repository of Indian life and living. The same can be said of the caste system. While Krishna was emphatic that varnas came from svabhaava – nature – of the person, birth has been the practical basis of caste. Nobody can dispute the fact that casteism of birth is exceedingly debilitating, discriminatory and unjust. Again, caste distinction has been an essential aspect of this culture we are so enamored of.
Culture is a totality. It is also a dynamic entity. While it comes from tradition, that tradition has also changed and been changed by choice as well as force. However, the changes came gradually,over centuries, and got incorporated. The veil that covers the face of ladies in countryside has become almost a natural element of their life. There is little realization that it having been an adoption of the purdah system, come lately to India. A cursory look at the southern part, which saw little central Asian impingement, tells only the north of India became veiled under alien occupations. Many changes were made during the Raj era too, but being more legal than brutish, they were not imbibed remaining legal stipulations, like sati. The custom, how so brutish, was seen to be in sync with the Indian way and the reform brought disruptions, pushing people to a this-versus-that choice. Other changes that have come about in recent times have been similarly supercilious. Being imposed rather than evolved, they have led to discordances.
Women’s education is a case in point. Though allowed, the reluctance has not entirely vanished. More significantly, the logical accruals to the education of women, the equality and initiative, have not seeped into the societal modes and expectations. The women are still expected to conform, to surrender in behavior before they would belong. Where they get accepted it is a helpless resignation rather than a happy acceptance. While the situation in urban areas is less constricting, it is rarely a resolution. Indeed there is much discordance within the vis-à-vis the parental families which are often in the rural areas. Those in urban areas have gone nuclear and discarded it all, including the culture. The Indian ways in dress, food, day to day living, social mores, thoughts and ideals get similarly set aside, if not kicked away. At best they may be endured during the occasional ‘home visit’. For the rest, the life has switched to the metro-mode. So, the next time you invoke that prideful cultural distinction, ken what you are lauding. Per chance, examine how farther we have moved from it in practice.