Culture & Society

Traditional In The Modern

The coexistence of the old and the new is an inevitable part of our everyday life

The Contrast: An Indian mother poses with her model daughter. Photo: Getty Images
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Most of us, for some unknown reason, love to presume that the forceful engines of newness steamroll the traditional bedrocks for once and all. While in some cases that might be the case, in most aspects of our lives, it is not that linear or simplistic. Some of the most inhuman, barbaric and atrocious practices were brought to an end through modern legislative actions. No rational mind can possibly speak in defense of 19th Century practices of sati, child marriage and polygamy. But in most other aspects of life, we do witness a co-existence of old and new—irrespective of whether it is peaceful, confrontational, or full of contradictions.

The ‘traditional’ is way more elastic and eclectic than we attribute it to be. ‘Traditional’ is not a fixated entity. Perhaps, that is why it has survived for so long, by changing itself with time, or by adopting dosage of newness, whenever required. There remains a fair bit of past in our present. Similarly, the new need not always defy the old. The new may also recall, retain, revisit, or even relive elements of the old world at regular intervals. Besides all this, yesterday’s new could be today’s old; today’s new could seem quite old tomorrow. That happens to be the most obvious trajectory of time.

Particularly in this part of the world, the interaction and inter-textuality of the old and the new is a part of our everyday experience. The overlapping of the hijab and the denim; the co-existence of the old and the new Kolkata or Delhi and the co-habitation of the kirana store and the mall do not puzzle us. The woman with turquoise-hair colour can be found in a satsang. A physicist taking a holy dip in the Ganga does not reduce his scientific credentials. Similarly, an astronomer can be found wearing a janeu. Even Gandhi was full of Hindu religious symbolism (bhajan, Ramrajya, celibacy etc.) when it came to personal practices. This may give an impression that he was traditional, but in the political and in the public domain, he was secular. His politics was modern because it was inclusive, as it incorporated Dalits and women.

We should not get swayed by the surface-centric apparent-paradoxes. More than material manifestations and preferences, modernity is about egalitarianism, empathy and certain ethical standards. Material signs alone are not the markers and bearers of being progressive or regressive. While judging an individual by these material manifestations and personal preferences of the individual, we make this terrible judgement of error.

What if there is an AC in an old temple? Does the presence of a cooling gadget make the sacred space less traditional? What if that same temple bans menstruating women from entering the premises and offering puja? What about the practice of removing one’s fancy shoes before entering a temple (Image 1)? Does it make one less modern or more traditional? Actually, it is erroneous to measure one’s modernity quotient by observing someone’s personal faith, token symbols, or religious beliefs. Practicing or respecting certain ritual dimensions has no real bearing on being modern. Modernity is an acquired attitude premised on inter-personal attitudes. It is all about how one relates to the other and engages the ‘other’ as an ‘equal’—one’s ability to place oneself in others’ shoes. Not an easy task. And definitely a criterion that is a lot more critical than entering the temple barefoot or not. For, it is not a matter of personal choice, but a modern ethical obligation—to treat the other with dignity.

A collage of images in chronological order. Reference to each image is mentioned in the article
A collage of images in chronological order. Reference to each image is mentioned in the article
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In fact, there is no such concept of newness devoid of the old; or modernity devoid of tradition—at least in this part of the world. A part of us could be the bearer of the newness, and a part of us could be the bearer of the old world. In some domains, we could be extremely regressive, but that does not take away our entitlement to be forward-looking in several other aspects of life. That paradox indicates that it is rather hard to be fully modern or fully traditional. In fact, such purity is utterly utopian. A bit-of-this and a bit-of-that is more of a plausible possibility. Tradition modernises and modernity hosts several traditional aspects. That mixture makes each of our lives unique, and interesting. It resists and negates the possibility of mundane monotony and hazardous homogeneity. We need not embrace the new by necessarily rejecting the old, or vice versa. The threshold of accepting or rejecting the new or the old varies from person to person, from society to society, and from time to time.

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Also, the interpretation of what constitutes ‘new’ or ‘old’ depends on varying viewpoints (Image 2). The same image of ripped denim could be a sign of torn and damaged clothing; or it could be a new fashion statement—entirely depending on how one sees it. Both readings are absolutely valid in their respective contexts.

Or the implied dichotomy of the following statement—“tradition never goes out of style”— hosts a range of paradoxes (Image 3). Subsuming a multitude of meanings that ‘tradition’ implies, such a statement legitimises, foregrounds and literally advertises the undeniable coexistence of tradition in the modern. That coexistence is not just a matter of chance or coincidence, but it is an inevitable truth. Like the relationship between conscience and being—the traditional and the modern; old and new are different yet inseparable.

There could be feudal elements in capitalism, called fuedo-capitalism. There could be rural elements in the urban, called rurban. There could be feminine in the masculine, called the androgynous.

Conflict or coexistence makes possible a plethora of socially-interesting phenomena. How else do we make sense of modern educated men and women responding to an utterly regressive call for lighting diyas and banging thalis to tackle Corona? How else do we come to terms with a highly qualified professional participating in body-shaming? How else do we interpret a reasonably rational mind nursing Islamophobia? Has university education eradicated our disdain and discrimination towards our house-helps? We often give him or her food in separate utensils, or we do not allow her to rest on the beds that we reserve for ourselves. While s/he may be cooking food for us, we do not allow that person to eat the same food in the same plate that we reserve exclusively for the members of our class. Or there could be a man in a household occupying the highest rank in the office, who does not feel like contributing to household work—thinking that it is not a man’s job to cook, clean, and rear children.

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We may have a luxurious modern modular kitchen, but footwear may not be allowed in that kitchen. Or, no one has the right to enter the kitchen until they have taken a bath. What is so modern about reminding women all the time that she was harassed because of the clothes she wore, or because she was out so late? An(y) act or thought which is new and contemporaneous need not be modern. Similarly, an(y) act or thought that is considered traditional could have traits of being way ahead of its time. What we consider to be a matter of black and white is, therefore, a realm of grey. It is also an ongoing process of constant negotiations and compromises. It is continuous, unfinished, unaccomplished. It is essentially incomplete. It is a complex process indeed. Because our version of modernity is deeply embedded in and tangled with tradition, and it will continue to be. It is not so surprising that after buying a BMW, the first thing we do is a car-puja. We listen to bhajans on a Bose speaker. And we definitely continue to marry within our caste, while we advertise in the matrimony websites, stating: ‘caste’ no bar. Behind the surface glitter of a fancy destination wedding, a series of primordial ties could play their role covertly. Or a traditional arranged marriage can be facilitated by a digital platform, playing the role of a modern matchmaker (Image 4) where the space reserved for a traditional ring is occupied by uncertainty of the search; hence a question mark looms large in place of the ring.

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When a Hindi daily chooses a kulhad to express its massy identity and a dip-tea-bag is kept next to it to symbolise its presumably classy reader-base—contradictory commodities are made to coexist (Image 5). The former is a traditional earthen cup and the latter is a modern tea-pack that facilitates instant and disposable tea consumption while being on the move without brewing or boiling the tea. Kulhad, a disposable earthen vessel, is associated with a certain kind of roadside tea that does not sit well with dip-tea, which requires a different kind of a material assemblage. Both belong to different kinds of ambience, audience, crockery, consumption pattern, and price range. Accommodativeness allows one to have dip-tea in the earthen-cup—just as a Hindi daily can have an English target-audience, or an English daily may choose to broaden its reader-base by targeting a Hindi audience. Tolerance for diversity, plurality and difference is most certainly modern, as opposed to ascription, discrimination and violence.

Modern intersubjectivity always accommodates differences—differences of opinion, ideology, customs, language, attire, faith—not forcefully, but consensually. The crux of the matter is: contradictory systems, icons, materials and ideas can coexist. And they do. There could be feudal elements in capitalism, called fuedo-capitalism. There could be rural elements in the urban, called rurban. There could be feminine in the masculine, called the androgynous. Similarly, there could be a lot of tradition in the modern; a bit of old in the new; or vice versa. It calls for a lot of tolerance, assimilation, adaptation, and amalgamation—and not convulsion and retaliations against anything and everything that cannot be straightjacketed or bracketed into ultra-nationalist agendas of cultivated hatred against the ‘other’.

(Views expressed are personal)

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Sreedeep Bhattacharya teaches sociology at Shiv Nadar University

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