Monday, 30 April 2012

Indian Culture : In Retrospect...

Path vividh chintan, nana vidhi bahu vidhi kala pradesh ki,
Alag vesh bhasha vishesh hai sundarta is desh ki.

This may be paraphrased as:

'Tis the land with diverse paths of philosophies, the cradle of numerous arts and skill,
Different attires, multiple languages- unique is the beauty of this land!

These lines I sung as a young school student brings back sweet memories of the nascent love of a child just beginning to understand the identity she carried. The identity we all term as: ‘Indian.’  I am not sure if back then I understood the reason behind the passion which flowed out of the anonymous poet’s quill. Today, as I sit back and reflect upon the state of the Great Civilization that India was and is, these words reverberate within my head and instill a thrill for having been given this opportunity to examine India’s culture- in retrospect.

Arts, religion, music, languages, literature, dance, practices, rituals, architecture and people themselves are broadly the constituents of the culture of a place. India is one of the oldest civilizations of the world, dating back to 8000 BC. Our oral and written traditions have been studied and documented carefully and a near continuous body of work details the evolution of our motherland from about 2000 BC onwards. Inscriptions, numismatics and texts in the then developing Indian languages are the sources archaeologists have hunted to understand how this vast country was shaped and reshaped for millennia and what gives it its present day form. As a collective identity, undoubtedly, we Indians are proud of the infinite glory of land which we stand on. However, a pertinent and disturbing question which needs to be asked is, while all of us understand the importance of preservation in context of hotly debated topics like environment, how many of us understand the relevance of the same word with reference to culture. The fact that this once flourishing current has at some places been reduced to a mere trickle is not as easily perceptible.

I did examine in brief the fecundity of India which has since the time of Indus Valley Civilization begotten many a traditions and cultures in my last article. It is not only India’s fertility which is responsible for its rich diversity, but also its ability to assimilate various foreign elements which set foot on it. Indian culture, which is mostly viewed by westerners as a subset of the larger Asian culture, has its own idiosyncrasies. For starters, we are perceived as a deeply religious collective community, where spiritual entities (gods, spirits, etc.) have had an important part to play in day to day functioning. Indian cradle today nurtures religions both indigenous and imported with secular protection, at least in theory. Our culture has also been identified with strict social ordering- both inside and outside a family set up. It is precisely this aspect which has contributed majorly towards prevalence of taboos and social ills in the Indian society.

My personal concerns regarding cultural landscape of India emanate from both regressive and progressive aspects of it. The metropolis which I inhabit is losing out on beauty of its roots in a haste to progress ahead. The rural interiors of India are languishing away because of a rigid adherence to antiquated customs leading to an inevitable stagnation. The paradox is striking. The self-professed modern masses cannot wait to pace ahead sacrificing the knowledge of intrinsic details of their culture and the deprived of development hinterlands stagnate at will by refusing to allow deviation from practices being followed since centuries.

Culture is not inscribed on a stone- tablet. In fact it is an organic- living, breathing- concept. A static culture is non-progressive. A culture which snaps its umbilical relation with its roots faces the same fate. Our country has evolved scores of different types of folk and classical dances, but their ultimate source can be traced back to a single treatise- Natyashastra. Similarly, the royally rich pages of Sanskrit drama and prose and poetry mostly draw from ancient compilations of stories called Brihad-Kathas. Needless to say, this has been a constant evolutionary process which as brought us to where we are today. However, while an austere way of moving ahead would have been to preserve the best from the past and accept the best of modernity, either modernity has been shunned or past has been shut.

Various movements to glorify physical and non- physical aspects of culture are increasingly manifesting themselves in my city. Heritage walks to feel awe for the grandeur of the walled city, ‘mushairas’ to revel in the intoxication of Urdu poetry, seminars to revive ancient literary Sanskrit traditions, increasing awareness of Ayurveda and successfully displaying their healing properties in tandem with modern medicine and a lot more- all these efforts are being made to slow down the ‘mall-culture’ from mauling the coruscating cultural elements of our city. Concepts like Ayurveda and Yoga are making their mark on the global scale as well- concepts derived from the most ancient of all Indian traditions. Efforts sponsored by government, civil society and media are contributing in a small way but a long way is still to be traversed before the coming generations can fully be stimulated to the importance of our cultural background and the significance of growing while preserving one’s roots.

To understand India, one must learn to savor the uninhibited, luscious, beguiling and deeply instructive history of cultural evolution of India. When you do, you will be met with realization of what an oblivion the deprivation of such knowledge was leading you into.

Saumya Kulshreshtha
@Saumyakul on Twitter.

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