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Is this a question of culture?

Now, more than ever before, people of fundamentally different societies not only need to understand one another to counter the culture of hegemony and hate, but also require the space to interpret their own cultures, and reconstruct identities, in a world overwhelmed by globalisation, chaos and conflict. Unfortunately, even now, culture as a field is either neglected, subverted or politicised, which is what made September 11 a turning point in history, says SHARADA RAMANATHAN.


Culture... a tool for reflection and creativity.

CULTURE has been centre-stage in the psyche of humankind since time immemorial, and the systems of governance don't seem to recognise it even as it stares them in the face. Take the three somewhat unrelated recent international and national happenings: The September 11 demystification of the seemingly invincible symbols of power reflected the confidence of an amorphous group of fundamentalists, borne out of a religious and cultural ethos. An act that defied mainstream notions of the political and economic as deceptively more powerful than the cultural. While there are endless debates in mainstream media about the new political shifts, and, will-they-get-him-will they-not, the question of whether this is a war of cultures, perhaps even a confrontation of the civilisational, is not prime-talk, and has even been dismissed by experts. The dominant voices of patriarchy both in the East and the West continue to flex their muscles and swear to counter-devastation, and the war goes on.

At the national level, the controversial effort of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Government to introduce astrology as an academic discipline, and the subsequent introduction of the education bill as an isolated initiative, did not raise hackles for nothing. Besides the issue of saffronisation, it seems absurd that astrology should be introduced in a system of education that is crying for a more wholesome transformation and integrated curriculum development; just as much as the average child in America needs to be educated more about the world beyond America that he or she lives in. For example, why not introduce Vedic mathematics, of which astrology is only a part? Furthurmore, a "fundamental right" that is starved for a strong conceptual and infrastructural basis to give the "right" any meaning. And now, the sacking of Maneka Gandhi and its ostensible linkages to her controversial probing of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts has flatteringly brought a "culture" issue centre-stage — but for the wrong reasons. Not only has the culture minister's portfolio been treated flippantly again (and loosely clubbed with tourism), but a leading national research and documentation centre, that needs to be addressed for nobler reasons, has been dragged into a political controversy — again. All these events point to one common factor: culture is a poorly addressed but a central weapon of both development and destruction.

Now, more than ever before, people of fundamentally different societies and cultures not only need to understand each other to counter the culture of hegemony and hate, but need the space to interpret their own cultures, and reconstruct their own identities, in a world overwhelmed by the thoughtless turbulence of globalisation on the one hand, and reactive chaos and conflict on the other. Unfortunately, even now, culture as a field, is either neglected, subverted, politicised or piggy-backed as a glitzy paramour, as if it did not have a life and legitimacy of its own.


The Ram Lila at the Red Fort grounds in Delhi... putting "culture" and its diverse manifestations back on the map of community life.

Of course culture is a complicated nomenclature, but it is a distinctive reality. Culture is a prefix to a characteristic way of life of any community or society that groups itself, ironically, on the very basis of culture; and a community's culture is made explicit through its music, dance, food, clothing, ritual, folklore, literature, aesthetics, and a body language that emerges over time from its constant interaction with its defined environment. Cultural identities are constructed through the constant negotiation of the "I" and the "other", without excluding or subverting either the <147,1,0>"I" or the "other"; and this is the whole point about culture. It is a way of life based on the principle of inclusivity (that could be argued as secularism), diversity and co-existence. It negotiates the precarious nuances of the Homo sapien and its psyche and produces a pattern of expression and action through what could be described as its civilisational manifestations, broadly evident in its cultural expression. Seemingly abstract, but significant in its ramifications. In fact, with culture, the medium is the message; it is inherently an integrative and decentralising dimension of development, as powerful as it is intangible. Neglecting "culture" could be as divisive and destructive as it could be integrative. And this is what makes the September 11 events a turning point in history: it was a perverse demystification of the formulae for might and right, as defined by the West, more specifically, America, at the exclusion of other definitions. As the person on the street says, it took a mesmerising self-styled ascetic and a handful of his cronies to bring down the symbols of power of the 20th Century, using two powerful civilisational tools — culture and religion. The other secondary tools, provided by the victim country itself, were merely necessary evils that enabled the execution of religious and cultural hate. And this could only be the beginning of the end, unless we resort to what could be a non-violent, non-patriarchal process of revitalising cultural resources to allow people their fundamental right of choice to their own culture of living. And this would require putting "culture" and its diverse manifestations back on the map of community life; and putting in place (or doing away with) the systems that enable diversity and pluralism to thrive away from the hegemonies of homogenisation and destruction. In India (and for that matter, anywhere else in the world), there are two pre-requisites to positive and progressive culture: one, for the State to play an enabling role rather than be a controlling agency in promoting diverse cultural expression including marginalised and dissentful cultures such as the cultural expression of minorities, and oral traditions that have been grossly misunderstood as "lesser" to textual cultures. In this endeavour, the roles of the state mechanisms such as the department of culture, the zonal cultural centres, the State and Central academies for arts and literature, and other nodal cultural organisations — such as the IGNCA, the National Folklore Support Centre and the India Foundation for the Arts — need to be collectively reviewed in the promotion of community cultures. Two, for both the state and private organisations, along with grassroots representatives, to proactively engage in a complete overhaul of the education system based on the principles of diversity and pluralism. The transformation must address the need for inclusive, value-based, relevant education towards poverty reduction and long-range sustenance of communities and their environments. And this would necessarily have to include arts and culture as tools for reflection, creativity, and empowerment. Take the case of a tribal in north-eastern India who once said to me: "Give me bamboo and I feel at home, I will make you the most exquisite basket, but put a computer before me, and you have already displaced me." This epitomises the seriousness of our own entanglement with the polarised forces of globalisation and localisation that could only have emerged from a path of "modernisation" that lacks in even a basic understanding of multiple interpretations of value and relevance; and refuses to at least enable the adaptation of the computer in the context of the other.

And one familiar manifestation of the existing paradigm is the slogan "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter"; the non-accceptance of the "other" that emerges from centralisation and homogenisation and religio-politicisation of education and development; and their alienation from culture and its two complex arms, diversity and pluralism. Culture, and its frontier expression, the arts, are perhaps the only tools that could enable a new generation of national and global citizens, who are not overwhelmed by disparate forces of globalisation, religion and geo-politics, who can construct a new world not only more accepting but more naturally respectful of the "otherness" of cultures and their peoples, and can negotiate uneven and unequal power equations towards a more equal and egalitarian world.

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