April 04, 2020
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A Familiar Anatomy

Empty, cash-driven cosmopolitanism vs the 'real' India

A Familiar Anatomy
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India'S Culture: The State, The Arts And Beyond
By B.P. Singh
OUP Rs 425; Pages: 208
Several writers, critics, historians and statesmen from A.L. Basham, D.D. Kosambi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Rabindranath Tagore to Octavio Paz, R.C. Majumdar, Ramdhari Dinkar, K. Damodaran and Nirmal Verma have attempted to characterise, historicise and problematise Indian culture from different points of view.

The attempt to define our civilisation has gone hand in hand with the evolution of our nationalist consciousness. This has been an area where conflicting concepts and ideologies from those of Orientalism and Marxism to Neo-Hinduism and Subalternism have been battling for hegemony.

B.P. Singh, the scholar-bureaucrat, has chosen the well-trodden liberal nationalist, secular passage to Indian civilisation, following the footsteps of pioneers like Jawaharlal Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad. His project is to examine the conceptual foundations of Indian culture, to relate cultural development to the overall development of the community and to critique the vision and practice of State patronage to the arts. The book has immensely succeeded in achieving these modest goals.

At the outset, the author points to the complexity of the mosaic that is Indian culture. The interpenetration of history and culture is complete in India; every phase of her history, every race or group that came for trade or for conquest, has left its stamp on its culture. Continuous renewal has been its hallmark. Our present identity is as much a composite product of our past as our past is a product of our contemporary perceptions of history that determine our choice of its elements.

The author believes that India's role in the world of the future will be decided not only by politicians, bureaucrats and generals, but equally by artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, academics and media persons. The leaders of our freedom struggle were deeply aware of the need for a cultural renaissance but for which political freedom would remain meaningless and inane. The national academies, the national school of drama, the national museums and the zonal cultural centres established since independence are the products of an awareness on the part of the State, of the need to keep alive vital links among the creative communities and the people without jeopardising cultural autonomy and freedom of expression.

The opening chapter attempts to locate the foundations of Indian culture. The author examines the geographical and demographic factors that helped the growth of our unique civilisation, and marvels at its continuity. The encounters between religions, races and cultures strengthened India's civilisation and taught us generosity and tolerance. The author reiterates Dinkar's remark that "Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Parsi religions have as much a claim over India as Hinduism or Buddhism has."

He then traces the evolution of Indian culture and literature, from the Harappan period to the modern days. He examines the linguistic landscape of India and the inter-relationship among the various languages, citing important literary and philosophical texts from the Mahabharata and Dhammapada to Tholkappiyam and Silappadikaram. The fundamental concepts of ancient Indian philosophy like ashramas, gunas, varnas, rinas, karma, dharma and moksha are examined with equal attention to Vedic and non-Vedic systems of thought. The growth of visual and performing arts, poetics, philosophy, sciences and economics is highlighted; the place of India in the larger Asian context is examined and the Indian value systems based on sruti and smriti are brought to light in their contemporary relevance.The author builds his arguments on these foundations, projecting culture as the key concept in human progress.

He sees culture as a dynamic variable, a form of creative power that can influence communities. Pleads for the inclusion of science in our concept of culture on the basis of our traditions of knowledge. Investigates the links between economy, science and culture. And asserts the role of culture in minimising the negative impact of money on life, art and thought. Sustainable economic growth, durable peace and social progress require that we grow without any traumatic break from our heritage. In reviewing the role of the State in the promotion of culture, the author calls for a widening of the horizons of the State-run cultural institutions. He is acutely aware of the dangers of culture-industry that is constantly attempting to replace India's character with a pale, empty, characterless cosmopolitan veneer. He also perceives the growing need to preserve our cultural plurality and our secular democratic polity in front of the threats of standardisation, revivalism and authoritarianism posed by anti-national forces in patriotic masks. The book also comes as a warning to the champions of unlimited globalisation that is sure to lead to a loss of cultural identity and autonomy by a gradual institutionalisation and commercialisation of our art and culture.

Our tradition from the Buddha to Gandhi, he hopes, will help India regain its fast-eroding public morality and accountability, and fight the greed and corruption promoted by a competitive consumerist economy. The book with its stylistic lucidity and clarity of argument is sure to encourage a healthy debate on the role of culture.

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