Hindu priests offer evening prayers on the banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi. (MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Is resurgent India trapped in a thin cultural wedge between re-colonisation and revanchist reaction? Or is a third way, not just of revival or reassertion, but of a truly far-reaching cultural and civilisational renaissance, possible?

In the first part of this series, the challenges and opportunities for a resurgent India in the cultural world-system were explored. Struggling against various forms of domination and destruction, as embodied in the encounter between the colonisers and the colonised, Indians, especially Hindus, developed their own unique idea of swarajya. The word, shortened to swaraj in the popular imagination, came to stand for the struggle for autonomy, selfhood, and complete independence from British imperialism. Earlier, under the Marathas and the Vijayanagar regimes, swaraj meant resistance to Muslim rule and feudal servitude.

Our exertions for swaraj in last 200 years or more may have led to a fairly stable political order, with many millions of Indians enjoying full sovereignty for the first time in almost a thousand years. But cultural and intellectual swarajya, though no longer a distant dream, is still far away. That is because most Indian intellectuals, especially the cultural elite, sometimes known derisively as the Lutyens’ Delhi, do not seem to be interested or committed to true swarajya. No wonder, we may have signs of a Hindu resurgence, but not quite a renaissance, a wide-ranging and deeply-felt transformation of all aspects of our national life, including the social, cultural, intellectual, and political.

Capital and culture

In focusing on India’s place in the cultural world-system, we noticed how local culture is influenced, if not determined, by a global system, controlled by capital and politics. On the other hand, more conservative thinkers, especially in India, consider the domain of culture to be protected, even charmed, remaining farthest from dominant economic or political forces. It is even viewed as a space from which to resist the latter. We only need to go back to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s seminal text, Ananda Math (1882), to see how the rebellion against colonial oppression is seeded in the “Abbey of Bliss,” inside a jungle hideout, culturally and spiritually insulated and protected. The deepest aspects of Indian culture were thought to be almost unaffected, if not autonomous of capital, politics, and external influence.

In a traditional society like India, even today, many of the cultural practices of ordinary people are almost unaffected by the forces of global capital. The ordinary Indian, even if adept at using new technology such as TV or a mobile phone, lives a part of his or her daily live, practically unaffected by cultural globalisation. This is somewhat of a paradox because entire groups of people, including adivasis and vanvasis (aboriginal people and forest dwellers), who were almost entirely outside the market system for most of their economic needs, are embracing communications technology, which is an important purveyor of culture, with amazing enthusiasm. In other words, though Indian culture is deeply penetrated by the larger economic world-system, many aspects of it are arguably, still, relatively insulated from it.

Even a contemporary cultural materialist namesake of Bankim Chandra, Partha Chatterjee, in The Nation and Its Fragments (1989), theorised that the private, inner, “woman’s” space of the home constituted a spiritual site to preserve identity and national culture in the face of the invasive and normative material forces of colonialism, rationality, and technology.

The discourse of nationalism shows that the material/spiritual distinction was condensed into an analogous, but ideologically far more powerful, dichotomy: that between the outer and the inner. ... Now apply the inner/outer distinction to the matter of concrete day-to-day living and you get a separation of the social space into ghar and bahir, the home and the world. The world is the external, the domain of the material; the home represents our inner spiritual self, our true identity. The world is a treacherous terrain of the pursuit of material interests, where practical considerations reign supreme. It is also, typically, the domain of the male. The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world — and woman is its representation. So, we get an identification of social roles by gender to correspond with the separation of the social space into ghar and bahir. (Chatterjee 1989: 239)

Though he doesn’t directly mention it, the reference is clearly to Rabindranath Tagore’s great novel, whose title combined these two words, way back, in 1916. [1]

Tagore’s Ghare Baire

Re-reading the novel, however, raises fundamental questions about Partha Chatterjee’s notion of the “ghar” resisting the “bahir”. Perhaps, in Tagore’s text, we actually see an effective counter to Partha’s two-domain model. In response to the overwhelming force of modernity, the gentleman zamindar, Nikhil, wishes to educate — and out — his reluctant wife, Bimala, from the confines of the antahpur (female quarters). He wants to confer equality and freedom on her so that she can choose to love him, rather than feel duty-bound to do so. Into this privileged sheltered, if experimental “ghar” in steps the disruptive Sandeep, representing the “bahir”, this time in the shape of seductive, if unscrupulous swadeshi. He exalts Bimala as the very embodiment of the Bengal, inviting her to be his Shakti, in his noble mission to emancipate his homeland.

The story is too well-known, also adapted in a popular celluloid version by Satyajit Ray, to be retold in detail. But suffice it to say, that in Ray’s re-casting, Bimala’s transgression is not only more dangerous, but her punishment more severe. Ray actually shows her and Sandeep in a compromising clinch, ending the ambiguity in the text about whether their relationship was only platonic or actually sexual.

Why does Ray turn Bimala into an actual adulteress, thereby trivialising Tagore’s subtler notion of infidelity? The story and movie both end in a communal clash and conflagration, but in Ray’s version, the adulterous Bimala ends up in white, shorn of ornaments and tresses, forehead unadorned, a widow. Nikhil has succumbed to his wounds in trying to protect his neighbouring Hindu zamindar’s family from marauding Muslim peasants, revolting and incited, partly by Sandeep’s improvident and reckless hyper-nationalism.

For Tagore, therefore, destructive nationalism of this variety was a fanatical cult, a species of mass delusion and deception. In addition, given that he also saw the state, with its political apparatus, as the flimsy superstructure whose base was society, with everyday conventional relations between the members, it was the undermining of these bonds that he found alarming. Social reform, education, and internal capacity-building were, thus far, more important to Tagore than the removal of imperialism or the change in governments. But what scared him most, it would seem — more than ill-thought out attempts at nation building, were violent and self-seeking pseudo-revolutionary ideologies, whom he considered avenues of psychic perdition.

Globalisation in our front yard

With cultural globalisation galloping apace, more and more areas of our culture are directly invaded by the market as they are also entering into it. Take, for example, food. Except for a few large cities, Indian towns and villages did not boast of restaurants until a few years ago. The culture of eating out was, by and large, restricted to wayside vendors catering to workers or travellers.

Even sites of pilgrimage, frequented by millions, had only small and functional eateries offering reasonably priced meals to devotees to supplement the prasad or gratis victuals at shrines and ashrams. Food, then, was very much a matter of local tastes and traditions, even the restaurant business controlled mostly by local entrepreneurs. In any case, global capital had not entered the food business until quite recently.

But with the influx of Macdonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Domino’s, and so on, all this has changed. Gradually, the eating habits of metropolitan Indians have been affected by mass-produced fast food, not to mention more expensive imported cuisine and fine dining. Similarly, several dishes which used to be made only at home and which had no large-scale commercial production, are now manufactured largely outside the home, either by professionals or even by large companies, because their preparation is too difficult and cumbersome.

Good examples are papad and pickles. The earliest Indian brands I remember are Lizzat and Bedekar’s, which became household names only in the 1960s. Till then, homemakers made papad and pickle at home, whereas today, hardly anyone does so.

Similarly, ready-made idli-dosa mix or puran polis and shrikhand were unheard of until a couple of decades back. Now, buying them from outside is almost de rigueur.

Soon, as in many countries abroad, we will also get ready-to-make, frozen chappatis and paranthas, doing away with the chores of preparing the dough, rolling out the rotis, and preparing them fresh daily.

Another cultural trend which has registered a dramatic growth after the influx of global capital is that of celebrating special days like Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Friendship Day, and so on.

Take the example of Valentine’s Day. Until a few decades back, it came and went almost unmarked in the Indian calendar, which was already so full of all kinds of festivals and feasts. In fact, April Fool’s day, an occasion for pranks, was more observed than Valentine’s Day.

While in college, I remember tramping all the way to Archies in Connaught Place, one of the few outlets for Valentine’s Day products. Of course, I ended up terribly disappointed. Apart from flowery, pink cards accompanied by feeble, mawkish lines and curlicues, tasteless teddies and hideous stuffed toys, tacky wrapping and tasteless writing paper, there was little else on offer. The shop, nevertheless, was filled with gushy and excited teenagers.

Now, Valentine’s Day, despite strong opposition and moral policing, has become a huge and rather costly ritual in many Indian cities, with cinemas, theatres, restaurants, greeting card and music promotions, chocolate-hampers, designer labels, even diamond jewellery on sale — all to promote romantic, even reckless, spending. Many hopefuls are sucked into the racket, guilt-tripped into splurging, hoping to impress. The prices of roses, especially the red or pink shades, double around this time.

When it comes to clothes, however, resistance seems futile; even farmers in rural India have taken to wearing jeans. Though dungarees are supposed to have originated in India as did the indigo used to dye them, jeans were scarcely available in the domestic market in the 1970s. When I was growing up, the most sought-after gift from overseas was a pair of Levi’s, which didn’t come cheap. Those not lucky enough to have relatives or friends visiting from abroad, went to Mohan Singh Place, just outside Connaught Place, in New Delhi, to try to get a fake desi pair.

But now, there’s a big difference. Many a brand of imported jeans is not only available readily, but also often made in India. These brands, moreover, must compete with a host of desi labels, the latter, of course, vying with one another to sound more foreign than the foreign brands. Some years back, there was a report that a family court in Mumbai granted a wife’s divorce plea against her husband on grounds of cruelty because the latter objected to her wearing jeans! If you can’t beat them, join them — that seems to be Baba Ramdev’s approach. He has announced that he will expand to the apparel business, making his own brand of swadeshi jeans.

Forces of capital, then, are not only penetrating even the most insulated aspects of culture, but creating new patterns of behaviour, supplanting older value-systems with habits of thought and consumption. The whole production and marketing of culture — of music, dance, theatre, cinema, art, literature and so on — likewise, are now being pursued more vigorously than ever before.

For instance, when it comes to movies, our most popular medium, foreign-owned studios, have already begun to fund and produce much of Bollywood cinema, though with desi collaboration. The big international media conglomerates and studios have not only made their inroads into Indian media, but seem to control much of the production and distribution of a lot of our creative content. Naturally, there has also been a backlash, with several groups clamouring for more Indian substance, resulting a new mytho-pop genre inaugurated by a blockbuster like Bahubali.

The road ahead

We have come a long way since either Anandamath or Ghare Baire. But the tussle between a desirable patriotism as in the former and the dangers of deceptive demagoguery as in the latter, arguably, still persists. Is resurgent India trapped in a thin cultural wedge between re-colonisation and revanchist reaction? Or is a third way, not just of revival or reassertion, but of a truly far-reaching cultural and civilisational renaissance, possible?

(To be continued)

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