Where does culture live? In the past, or the present? In stony monuments, in hallowed museums and temples and mosques, in laws and codes, or in homes and on the streets, in sights and sounds and assumptions so often taken for granted? Is it everywhere we have touched with the ways in which we live, and the ways in which we imagine our collective lives?
Clearly it doesn’t help that culture, despite its alleged roots, is on the move all the time; or that it travels with a couple of equally restless and many-faced companions. History is one; heritage is another. (There is civilization too, hanging over our travellers like a cloud heavy with rain. But we will keep our eyes on the ground for now.
For those who are not particular about truth, or are enslaved by a politically expedient narrative, all three—history, culture and heritage—can be reduced to one dominant, authoritative narrative. It’s happened before, in other places and times, to other people. But we are most concerned with the world we live in, with the India, or Indias, we live in. We live in times when Indian culture has become a battlefield, with the object of capitalizing the ‘I’ and the ‘C’ and distorting an already lopsided dominant narrative of culture. What does this do to the concept, voice and identity of culture? Culture becomes even more singular; it excludes more and more people. This unfriendly beast on the prowl today, everywhere from universities and courts and government to cinema halls and art galleries and television and streets and the Internet; it is afraid of diversity, of contestation, of intersections and collusions. This Indian Culture is a fabricated ‘Hindu’ culture which has, at best, tiny token spaces for Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Christians, women. And with the friendship between Hindutva and global neo-liberalism, the working class lives in an even smaller place in the grand new scheme of India Rising.
Most of all, this beast can only breathe freely if there is as little freedom as possible to ask questions. Dissent, scholarship, and the mere asking of questions, the great method available to humans to understand who we are and why we are as we are—all these are anathema to the new guardians of Indian Culture.
Luckily, we still have people who refuse to give up asking questions. Romila Thapar is one such—she is a historian who has taught so many of us in the classroom and outside; and, equally important, she is a historian who continues to learn. In her new collection of essays, Indian Cultures As Heritage: Contemporary Pasts, Thapar probes the contexts of culture and heritage in both past and present, so as to suggest links between patterns of living and cultures. Thapar takes on the notion of the singularity of a culture, a notion that has generally limited culture in the past to ‘high culture’; and equally, if differently, in past and present, to the ‘dominant narrative’. Throughout, she seeks to investigate—with the questions of a historian and a citizen in the Indian present—contexts beyond the obvious. Whether it is specific objects such as the Ashoka pillar or the astrolabe, or science as culture, or concepts of time, or the creation and dissemination of knowledge, or the exclusions practised on the basis of caste and gender, the essays construct, in broad strokes, sometimes definitive, sometimes tentative, the intertwined, multiple, incomplete narratives of history, culture and heritage.
So, what are some of these broad strokes? First, she considers how best we can identify the nature of culture. Culture in the singular is limited to the dominant narrative; it is vulnerable to status and hierarchy and, possibly, the homogenizing impulse of those in power. To put it crudely, it usually gives voice to who is writing the text and who the patron is; and what the purpose of the text is, whether it is to give legitimacy to a ruler or prescribe norms for different sections of society. ‘We know only that which has survived, dependent on the patronage of those that cultivated that heritage. We seldom enquire into who and what ensured its survival and what has been its individual history. Nor do we consider what might have been the forms that have not survived but are perhaps hinted at or incipient in what survives.’
If we are to understand culture in a less blinkered way, we obviously have to reconsider existing definitions, not only of culture or heritage, but of civilization. To begin with, Thapar reminds us that ‘Indian culture’ became a distinct category and a subject for study in the nineteenth century. Even when we speak of objects and ideas from an earlier time, our definition of culture is rooted in the nineteenth century perception. Thapar then looks at how the earlier definition of culture has, in our times, been extended to the notion to cultures, ‘segments’ that may be somewhat or radically different in how they approach ideas and ways of life but may not be neatly discrete segments. Status and hierarchy are invariably involved, but so is a sense of community. (Could we even say a sense of contiguous communities?) At any rate, there is interaction between cultures; there is interplay among segments of a culture and between cultures at different points of time, and not all of it is easily apparent. In other words, culture has a porous skin.
Thapar sums up this interplay by linking it with the ‘authenticity’ (minus the jingoist reading) it bestows on a cultural form:
1) To treat all Hindu and Muslim cultures as separate cultures, entirely segregated and demarcated from each other, is historically untenable, nor is it viable in cultural terms. 2) The form taken by facets of these cultures, and from earliest times, from the architecture and ornamentation of monumental buildings to the compositions of music whether as ragas or qawwalis, derives from the interplay of more than two cultures. The recognition of this multiplicity gives authenticity to a cultural form.
This strikes me as a far more useful way to view many of our monuments, or much of our music and dance, rather than falling back always on the ‘syncretic’ or the ‘secular’, words that have been beaten into a confused state by both attackers and defenders. Thapar goes further to emphasize the link between the multilayered and open-bordered nature of culture and the concept of civilization. ‘Our current definition of civilisation’, she says, ‘is too rigid and in some ways ahistorical. It misses out on the significant areas of overlapping cultures, and therefore the layers implicit in heritage.’ Culture does not live in ghettos though official minders may prefer such an arrangement for more efficient oversight.
The way we recall, make and relate culture has profound implications for knowledge. Knowledge, arguably the most important resource of a culture, grows best when it flows freely. Is knowledge possible without speculation, discussion, debate, and argument based on method and logic? We might add imagination as well, as opposed to the kind of fabrication that is falsehood. So there are counter-narratives if there is to be culture. To learn a culture, it is important to ask about the modes of dissent at a particular point in time. Who were these dissenters and what response—violent or accommodative—did they evoke in the mainstream?
Culture isn’t something that lives only in the partially known past. Like ideas, like ways of seeing ourselves and the world, it changes, even as we do. Culture is not static because it reflects societal patterns, and these change all the time. Even a very short-span exercise of comparing the ‘cultural values’ of your grandfather with yours, or my grandmother with mine, would give us a glimmer of the shifts in the framework.
I have dwelt at some length on the characteristics of culture that work for us as citizens of our times, partly because Thapar returns to them time and again in the different essays, but also because this remembrance of culture/s will raise our understanding of heritage; civilization; the classical; the traditional; the nationalist—in short, the entire gang of heavyweights.
The learning of culture entails, then, understanding the past and seeking to understand the parts of the past we don’t know or know little of; but also asking what it is we want to change in that ‘heritage’ and how. We learn culture; we live it; we make it. Learning culture is an exercise in ‘making’ culture—gaining knowledge bit by bit as we ask questions about gaps, missing accounts, suspiciously lopsided or hyperbolic narratives, or linkages.
Thapar conducts this business of gaining knowledge through a wide range of questions, very often interlinked. They are directions for further study. This enables her to consider, for instance, the question of science as culture. The segregation of science and culture continues in a formal sense in our education, as well as in our more informal received wisdom. How often do we come across the conviction that science is value-neutral, living in a laboratory independent of society or its dominant groups? And how often do we hear the equally debatable view that it’s science, or technology, to blame for everything from the loss of jobs to wars to loneliness? Thapar admits that historians need to think more of ‘how ideas of a scientific kind may have affected other ideas or even activities that we regard as essential ingredients of culture’. Of course, this call is a very general one, and a very modest beginning. Perhaps the call can be sharpened in more specific ways. Best historical practice is based on sound method and tool. Surely this list of tools can be enlarged and enriched by new knowledge offered by science? For instance, if historians use the indications of recent genetic studies to make ‘tools’ that work within the framework of historical scholarship, this would mean a step forward in shedding light on a range of questions, from migrations to the practice of endogamy.
Whether it is class, gender or caste, the history and practice of exclusions is an essential part of learning our culture and making it anew. In her discussion of caste—as varna theory and jati practice—and her discussion of those outside the caste system, the untouchables, Thapar points out that it is in the so-called golden age of the Guptas that ‘the presence of the untouchable is heavily marked and emphatically defined.’ She also describes the ‘hereditary pollution’ of the Asprishya as permanent and, in an unfortunate choice of word, genetic. Thapar goes on to ask ‘how such a severe degradation of the human person’ can be reconciled to ‘an impressive aesthetic and pursuit of thought…’ This, of course, is a question we have to address time and again if we are to come to grips with the fractured society bred by varnashrama-dharma. Even more pressing may be the question of filling in the empty or shadowy spaces in our culture maps to flesh out what Thapar calls ‘alternate ideologies of dissent’.
Romila Thapar’s book should be read by everyone: by those who think of culture as a handful of monuments or an evening’s cultural event or an exhibition of Incredible India; by those who cry themselves hoarse about nationalism but borrow every colonial construct about Indian cultures; by those who distort or shrink culture to make it a tool of exclusion; by haters of dissent and questioning. And above all, by the rest of us, who are partial to good questions in the plural. There’s such a high premium on answers that we often forget how challenging it is to ask a set of questions that stand on the solid ground of reason, method, background knowledge, and above all, openness.
Githa Hariharan has written novels, short fiction and essays over the last three decades. Her highly acclaimed work includes The Thousand Faces of Night which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1993, the short story collection The Art of Dying, the novels The Ghosts of Vasu Master, When Dreams Travel, In Times of Siege and Fugitive Histories, and a collection of essays entitled Almost Home: Cities and Other Places. For more on this Delhi-based author and her work, visit www.githahariharan.com
. . . Thapar reminds us that ‘Indian culture’ became a distinct category and a subject for study in the nineteenth century. Even when we speak of objects and ideas from an earlier time, our definition of culture is rooted in the nineteenth century perception.
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Exploring Agency in the Mahabharata:Ethical and Political Dimensions of Dharma edited by Sibesh Chandra Bhat-tacharya, Vrinda Dal-miya and Gangeya Mukherji, looks at transactions between Mahabharata’s modern discourses and ancient vocabulary. Located amid conversations between these two conceptual worlds, the volume grapples with the epic’s problematization of dharma or righteousness, and consequently, of the ideal person and the good life through a cluster of issues surrounding the concept of agency and action. Drawing on several interdisciplinary approaches, the essays reflect on a range of issues in the Mahabharata, including those of duty, motivation, freedom, selfhood, choice, autonomy, and justice, both in the context of philosophical debates and their ethical and political ramifications for contemporary times.
Routledge, India, 2018, pp. 268, R770.00