Thursday, 21 March 2013

Indian Culture and Incipient Westernism: The Other Side...

This is the fourth article in the culture series

Disclaimer: I have used Hindu examples, as I am a Hindu myself; I have observed similar nuances in friends from other religions as well. This is in no way meant to hurt anyone's religious feelings

I have been vehemently arguing that western mores are making inroads into our society; that the impact of "westernism" (to coin a new term in the Indian context), is a felt and real impact. That much is unfortunately true. But, as always, there are 2 sides to every coin. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, something which applies to just about everything in life. In this article, I take a look at some heartening trends from Modern India that belie the hopeless tone of my previous articles. The objective is to give a balanced view of the Indian cultural scenario. 

There is an increasing prevalence and impact of Hollywood movies, western dresses, English complex, Western art, Television, Food, Lifetsyle both in terms of consumerism as well as societal changes etc. Not all of these are negative; we have seen in my previous article on Culture that culture is constantly adapting and changing. There is a positive effect to this interaction with the west; the pain is in the areas of negative influence - and in the area of ignorance of & condescension for what we can call Indian Culture. This is at pretty serious levels in the Metros, that also I grant. I further concede that the advent of television has brought these changes into practically every household. 

But, acting on the premise that we haven't lasted practically unchanged for 7 millennia without a reason (more than that, actually: it is 10 millennia; but I am assuming the cultural norms took 3 millennia to develop), I started looking around for signs that we aren't changing, after all. We Indians must realise one thing: we are the oldest surviving and  unchanged civilization in the history of Planet Earth. We were there during Babylon; we saw the rise and fall of Greece; we saw the rise, rise and fall of Rome; we saw off the Huns; We saw the renaissance in the west; we saw the brutal and amoral rise of the west; and we saw the destruction that it got them into... and we are still here in the present, unchanged, living, thriving, struggling , succeeding and growing... this is an achievement that cannot be laughed off; we still follow the same cultural mores and norms that were present 5000+ years ago - perhaps 7000 years; we eat nearly the same food, and say the same prayers. That is a colossal achievement - any which way you look at it. No one else has been able to achieve that!

And, once you change your point of view... you begin to spot the small things and nuances that indicate that our culture is already showing signs of adapting and absorbing the new influence, taking it in stride - indeed assimilating it within ourselves, and leaving us better suited to face the challenges of life. You can see it all around you; all it requires is an open mind!

For all the brouhaha about ladies in western dress that we read in the news - it so happens that I know 2 ladies who can comfortably carry a western outfit with panache. These 2 are trained not in western music - but in our very own indigenous Indian Classical Music; one of them is a rising exponent of the same on the national scene, while the other is a corporate manager! I can offhand think of several ladies and gentlemen who are in the same mould. Just wearing a western dress does not change the mind! You wouldn't know it from seeing these people: but they are truly Indian. So much for "western" dress...

  1. Observe both the sexes in a Mandir someday. Even ultra-mod people will revert to their culture; gone is the condescension and the disdain. Also observe the adherence to rituals and norms. And spot the rush in the temple which has increased exponentially over time. You will like as not spot a kaleidoscope of people from all walks of life - from the jeans-and-t-shirt clad girls and boys, to the corporate hotshot; from the conservative saree-clad lady to the western suited professional lady; from the staid middle class gentleman to the utlra-mod torn jeans and spiked hairdo-ed businessmen and teens.
    1. Observe the simple practice of hiding cigarette in front of known elders and teachers that is still commonplace today
    2. Observe a simple nuance of just brushing your chest in respect and silent prayer on passing a temple, or a church - or any other place of worship, depending on your religion. Hindus even do that to all places of worship. And observe the person who does this; these people will defy all attempts at stereotyping
    3. Observe the habit of respectfully touching the body of a person whom you have inadvertently touched with your feet
    4. Observe Indian Classical music festivals - and note the increasing number of modern youngsters who are taking to it - both as fans as well as artists
    5. Observe how even the most obdurate of non-vegetarians will observe a vegetarian day - as per their individual beliefs
    6. Observe the adherence to familial hierarchies: how the elder brother is always the elder; how the elder always marries first, how elderly people are shown respect
    7. Observe the increasing equality of women in our society; and observe how we are learning to take it in our stride. Yes, problems remain - but my point is that ladies are increasingly equal, and that this has not impacted any other parameter. Observe how the familial unit has re-structured to this new reality. Observe the increasing support some males give to their working spouses
    8. Observe the continued preference for arranged marriage; also observe how, in case of love marriages - everything else proceeds as though in an arranged marriage - parents of the kids meet, decide everything and so on
    9. Observe the continued strength and resilience of the family unit, and the close relations between cousins, uncles and aunts from both sides of the family
    10. Or take a look at the top-rated shows as per trps...

    This does not mean that the identified areas of worry need not be attended to: namely, the fawning over the west, the threat to our languages, our art and our culture. We ignore these threats at our own peril. But the above does mean that some among us are already adapting, that the pull of our culture is significantly stronger than we had thought possible. We can already see the first and second waves of a cultural backlash - the first being the "moral police" that has been seen in New Delhi and Mumbai. With 97% of the population not in tune with what these "oh-so-modern" (????!)  3% were doing, it beats me how anyone can expect anything else to happen. The second cultural backlash is more balanced - and decidedly more welcome. The slow but steady emphasis on being Indian, on our culture as is evident in the examples shown above.

    The above points further underscore the theory lesson I told in my article The Culture Conundrum. The outward manifestation of culture does not change the internal make-up so very easily. The core values are still strong; the core norms of our culture are still unchanged. As I said, this does not mean that they are not under challenge: but they have been challenged before, and have overcome. This reduces the problem from that of a cultural threat, to the level of a cultural - and more particularly - nation building challenge...

    What needs to be kept in mind is that, perhaps for the first time in 7 millennia, the scale of the challenge is massive; for the first time, the entry of extra-cultural norms is into each and every home; for the first time, the challenge is coming at a time when India is not the top nation in the world; for the first time, our children are fawning over an alien culture with totally different norms... while there is no reason for panic; there is every reason to pull up our socks, and think of our direction...

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