Long live Culture! Culture is dead!

“You hear that Mr. Culture? That is the sound of inevitability. It is the sound of your death. Goodbye, Mr. Culture…”

I have always wanted to use this awesome dialogue which Agent Smith says to Neo in the the iconic movie Matrix – and what better context to adapt the dialogue than for culture, whose demise is often denounced and commisterated, although it’s inevitable.

Some might say you can literally hear the sound of culture dying. Listen to today’s loud and what some might call crass songs or the loudspeakers at Ganesh Utsav mandals belting out bollywood-song tune based bhajans and party songs. But those are just some of the smaller complaints.

The broader issues that are pointed out in popular media, through social media or in discussions with family and friends are variations of the following remonstrations:

  • We are losing our culture and values or
  • Westernization is ruining India

Such might be the lament of the cultured Indian man:

What a time that was
When I was young and the world cultured
The day began with me prostrated
At the feet of our elders

Followed our values resolutely
When we respected our elders
No matter what they said
Oh glorious were those days

Our hallowed heritage bestowed upon us
Customs that were dear to us
Women covered from head to toe
Women who wouldn’t look up at men

Where is this country of saints and sages headed to?1
This “pavitra bhumi” that’s our mother
Women with women and men with men
Do they have no shame?

Valentine day’s, friendship day, mothers day
Chatting, facebook, and the use of mobile phones
Is what’s making us hollow from within
Do we have to ape the west in all?

Can’t bear the death of culture
This hole in our morals and values
A call to arms to all those cultured
Off with the arms of those uncultured

This is probably the extreme version of the grievances related to the decline of culture. However, there are a range of culture-decline issues that we are concerned with – how we behave with our elders, related to our how we celebrate festivals, what we cook and eat, what we sing, what art we consume and produce, what language(s) we speak (or don’t), the clothes that we wear today, the change in societal norms regarding love, marriage and sex. The most vocal category among these grievances is the one addressed first here.

The demise of Bhartiya Sanskriti

The issue with Bhartiya Sanskriti that it’s way too generic. Depending on an individual’s interests and background, it can actually mean anything but the most common complaints in this category sound like these:

  • We no longer respect our elders, we don’t listen to them or touch their feet
  • We don’t wear traditional clothes anymore – and anything other than our traditional clothes is a sign of depravity, which is also responsible for eve teasing, molestation and even rapes
  • We don’t speak our traditional languages such as Sanskrit, or even our mother-tongues and are besotted with English
  • We celebrate valentine’s day, friendship day which are not part of our culture
  • Public display of affection is against our culture
  • Homosexuality is against our culture
  • Non-vegetarian food is against our culture
  • Marrying across castes or religions is against our culture and/or is converting our youngsters from one religion to another forcefully (an issue raised more often by the self-proclaimed defenders of India’s majoritarian religion)
  • We are aping the west for everything – clothes, technology, education, etc. and have lost track of our roots

When we see the issues above, they are diverse, and while these issues can’t be analysed from one perspective alone, but let’s look at these issues first from a liberal lens. From a liberal perspective, it is evident that many of the issues above are nothing but rants of conservatives who are also often hypocrites.

Most Indian men who lament that we have lost our culture also eat bread and wear trousers and shirts. They also send their kids to study in English medium schools or even abroad, use technology from the “west”. In fact one of the biggest self-proclaimed protectors of our culture doesn’t have traditional Indian wear as their uniform, but shorts and a shirt which are quintessentially foreign. These complainants are also the kind who choose to ignore facts altogether – it’s clear that over 70% of Indians eat non-vegetarian food2, with even some Brahmins eating non-veg food. Valentine Day is obviously not bhartiya sanskriti – but neither is terrorizing young lovers on Valentine’s day nor platonic friends roaming about on Friend’s day.

So when they talk about loss of tradition, it’s often hypocritical. According to them, whatever they do is right and their culture, even when different from “ancient culture” and can’t be questioned. But what they don’t like in others are the things that they decry in the name of culture. A case in point is when the brunt of upholding the culture falls mostly on women, who according to them should wear saris, not show their face in public, or indulge in public display of affection, or love / marry across castes or religion.

In reality, what these grouches mean when they lament the demise of Indian culture – is that things have changed and they have lost control and power over the society, especially over women and youth who have become far more empowered. And no one likes losing power or control, do they now?

I would go as far as categorizing the commiserators of the type above as “the hypocrites” who consist of the following:

  • the young “bhakts” whose ability to think for themselves is as pathetic as their ability to have a normal conversation with members of the opposite sex
  • the elderly curmudgeons (mostly men, and sometimes women)
  • the middle aged men who are tigers on social media (and often wimps in real life)
  • And finally the political nationalist types who stoke culture-decline bogies to gerrymander their constituencies to make vote banks out of people who get swayed by such hypocrisy

The other broad set of people who have concerns related to the decline of Indian culture could broadly be categorized as “the saviours” consisting of the following:

  • the culturally elite, for whom everything cultural is sacred, for whom culture is a matter of identity, and their mission is to preserve culture
  • The aspirational but confused middle class who no longer does cultural things the way their parents did them because of change in lifestyle, but they miss those things but are not sure if they are willing to put in the time for it, or even how do to those things (especially related to celebrating festivals or cooking traditional food)
  • And finally the doers, who make the efforts to preserve culture by undertaking projects related to art, music, religious practices, food, celebration of festivals, language learning, or other things cultural

Of course this isn’t to say that India is divided into these two categories. A significant majority of people are indifferent or completely unaware of these discussions about the decline of Indian culture, but then those are not the kind of people who are the focus of this post. The issues that the saviours have may overlap with those of the hypocrites, but their lens is different – it’s about maintaining the culture because it adds value to our lives either aesthetically or in some cases practically. Their issues include:

  • We recognize that English is a necessity today but by losing our mother-tongues, we lose our cultural heritage and richness, we lose perspectives, we lose part of our identity.
  • We are losing our traditional art forms – whether warli, or gond, or classical music (carnatic or hindustani), our dance & theatre forms (kathakali, odissi, jjatra, nautanki, bhavai) and so on. Our youth are far more interested in pop-art (popular art) such as filmy music, films, bollywood dance.
  • We aren’t making or eating enough of our traditional food and have lost our traditional wisdom of how to eat right, to western fads and lifestyles (cereals, quinoa, etc.)
  • We aren’t celebrating our festivals as we did – the rituals have been diluted, the spirit not being met. For e.g. Navratri in Gujarat has just become an excuse to dance away the night, or Ganesh Utsav has become just about games and socializing.

These issues have merit and to evaluate the impact of these issues on our lives we first need to understand the very nature of this multifaceted beast called Culture.

Culture is everything

Because culture is so many things, like the ones mentioned above, it’s difficult for something not be part of our culture. The way we speak, live, eat, dress, how we interact with each other, the technology that we use and how we use it, how we educate our kids, how we do business, everything is our culture. But that itself brings out the first major issue with culture – that when something is everything, then it’s difficult to define what is our culture, because there are small to big variations from one town to another, from one region to another, from one socio-economic class to another, from one region to another, from one generation to another, from one religion to another.

So while the ghungat (covering of a woman’s face by their sari) is prevalent in large swathes of rural Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, it would be alien concept to North-east Indians (and many other parts of India). While the concept of having a girlfriend / boyfriend in high school or college is far more acceptable in middle & upper class homes in the bigger Indian cities, the same concept attracts a lot or derision, taunts and even threats in many parts of India, especially when it’s “forbidden love” cutting across caste or religious lines.

So those loud claims of the demise of culture often comes from those who are placed strongly politically or socially, are from larger or influential communities and are NEVER a representation of every Indian culture. An example of this is the CM of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan banning the serving on eggs at Anganwadis across the state, despite clear evidence that eggs are an excellent source of protein and essential vitamins like B12, which are difficult to get in similar quantities for vegetarian sources3. This was done at the behest of a Jain delegation who along with the CM have chosen to impose their “culture” on others despite the fact that child malnourishment is a serious issue across the country and the fact that eggs being served along with mid-day meals raised children’s nutrition levels significantly4.

Similarly the strongly denounced West is also not a monolithic culture with significant differences. For e.g. the fast food chains that we see in India are mostly from the US (Mcdonald’s, Subway, Dominoes, KFC etc.), which is also reflected in the dietary trends of Americans, who tend to eat a lot more fast food as compared to Europeans who have a varied diet, with each country in Europe having significant variations. Portion sizes in the US are much bigger as well, which is also reflected in the fact obesity is much bigger concern in the US as compared to Europe.

Therefore Culture ≠ (is not equal to) the traditions of the majority or the loud ones. In reality, Culture varies significantly – and must allow for small to big variations from one community to another, and even from one individual to another.

Culture is what we have doing for ages

This view of culture is almost always short-sighted. When we claim this has been our culture for ages, it’s rare that it has been our culture for more than a few generations. Things change rapidly from one generation to next and we don’t even realize it. Potatoes and tomatoes seem to have been an eternal part of Indian cuisine, but were only introduced in India in the 1600s by the Portuguese and the Dutch respectively and were grown widely across India only by the early 1900s respectively.

Fashion historian Toolika Gupta asserts that what is accepted today as the traditional (North Indian) method of wearing sarees in India was in fact popularized only in the early 1900s by Jnanadanandini Debi Tagore. When Mrs. Tagore was refused entry into British clubs because her traditional Bengali blouse-less method of draping saree didn’t meet the Victorian decorum, she adapted the British blouse and petticoat and invented today’s popular method of draping a saree, which is now seen as the gold standard (although even today there are significant variations across India). Gupta also mentions that pre-British and pre-Mughal dressing was significantly different and varied both for men and women from what it is today5.

The law (Sec 377) against homosexuality is another example of Victorian era prejudice seeping into our culture and Indians starting to believe that homosexuality is against our culture whereas a lot of historical texts and art mentions and even celebrates homosexuality and sexual liberation in general, which is very much the opposite of what the hypocrites would like to establish as Indian culture today. Our short-sightedness makes us believe that that values imposed upon us by Mughals and then the British are our values; but not really. So when someone claims that this has been our culture, question – for how long and how did this come about? Was the “culture” that we fear losing out on the same as it was 1500 years back? Not really.

Therefore Culture ≠ what we have doing for ages. There’s no such thing as a static culture. Culture is a dynamic beast and it has changed significantly and will continue to change forever. To understand the nature of the change, we need to understand what drives cultural change whether in big or small ways.

The culture assassins: What brings about cultural change?

Migration: As we move out of tribes, villages, communities, and the society gets more heterogeneous, the more “culture” one loses, whether food, or clothing or language. The same women who wear ghunghat in their villages get rid of the ghunghat and adapt new fashion. Dialects change, languages change – as is the case with most Marwadis and Sindhis who don’t live in Rajasthan or Sindh; these communities have mostly switched from their mother-tongues to speaking Hindi at home. At the same time, migrants also bring new cultural practices to where they migrate to. Millions of Italians who moved to the US in the 19th century made the humble Pizza into the its national dish, so much so that it is estimated that 12.5% of Americans eat a pizza every day6.

Globalization: As the world becomes better connected, as we travel more, as we see more through TV and the internet, as we more global companies set up shop locally, again we make some of those our own habits. Like the US made the Italian Pizza it’s de-facto national dish, India made the Portuguese bread “pão” into the widely available and popular dishes of pav bhaji and vada pav (how widely available & popular in India is something I can’t quantify given the diversity of India). When the concepts of girlfriend, boyfriend, dating, same-sex relationships, living in relationships and other cultural phenomenon related to clothes, language, food, human interactions appear regularly on our screens and books, even if they originate in the “west”, it’s going to become an accepted norm socially – first for our youngsters, where change of cultures of these kinds most often start, and then over a period of time to larger sections of the society.

Economics: English being the preferred language of use in corporate businesses, hospitality, tourism, medicine, higher education and many other sectors makes it the obvious choice to learn at school, and not just in elite sections of the society but across socio-economic sections. That makes English aspirational and it’s learning at school or at home may come at the cost of other languages. Economics will also play a role in our choices of entertainment, the “art” that we choose to view and appreciate, the food that we eat with mass processed lower quality raw material & cooked food being cheaper, making the foreign “pav” and bread (or double-roti as it was known earlier) widely available and regularly consumed by the masses.

Technology: Technology = disruption = death of culture; easy and cheap to access films, TV and other digital entertainment have made traditional forms of entertainment such as the dance, theatre, classical music forms mentioned earlier into niche events which struggle to get audiences. Technology also makes these forms of entertainment much cheaper than the traditional forms of entertainment, which often requires significant live manpower to produce. The costlier movie tickets may be Rs. 250-300, but that’s mostly cheaper that the cheapest tickets for a theatre production.

Culture Change: what wins and what loses?

Other than the culture assassins above, there are a number of factors that affect cultural change, and some of them are far more influential, which leads to is a certain predictable type of change or trends that can be observed.

  • Function wins vs. Form: In a tug of war between Form and Function, function will win for most quotidian purposes, but form may emerge victor for special occasions – our fashion being a case in point. Trousers, shirts, jeans, tshirts, salwar-kameez, dresses have become our culture not because we are stupidly ape whatever the west does, but because they are functional on a daily basis. For that matter, much of the world has adapted “western” wear for the same reason. Form however does remain important for special occasions such as festivals, weddings and other celebrations, where you see rituals, food, clothes and other traditions that aren’t seen on a regular basis.
  • Cheap wins vs. Expensive: Across India, the cheaper but-environmentally deadly disposable styrofoam cups and plates are preferred despite our culture of using environmentally friendlier paper or “patal donas and thalis” (traditionally made of Banyan or Sal leaves). In fact, religious centres and travelers who should uphold traditional Indian practices are probably huge producers of non-biodegradable garbage, strewing towns, public places, cities, rivers, mountains, oceans and roads with processed food plastic packets, flowers packed in plastic packets, plastics / styrofoam cups and plates. Surely not Indian culture but then the reality is that what’s cheaper wins over what’s expensive in general, including for cultural practices.
  • Convenient wins vs. bothersome: This applies to our food habits, where we are eating more and more food from our packets rather than making food from fresh ingredients, which is time-consuming, requires more effort and is often costlier.
  • Loud wins vs. quiet: Loud “dhinchak” party songs are more popular than quieter songs across genres. You just can’t party with classical music, can you now? Similarly, fire crackers have become louder and ostentatious, with each family / neighbourhood competing to be loudest. Between two aspects of culture, one loud and one quiet, the loud one is more likely to win.
  • Big wins vs. small: Big Ganesh sculptures of non-degradable materials such as Plaster of Paris (POP) win against traditional sculptures which were made of clay and therefore can’t be made beyond a certain size, can’t be mass produced or as colourful and decorative. They can certainly be as the large as Mumbai’s Lal Baug ka Raja, which has become a huge cultural phenomenon over the years influencing Ganesh Pandals to compete on who can showcase the biggest / richest / loudest sculpture.

Having explored what culture means and what it doesn’t and having understood that cultural change is as inevitable as death, as well as the factors that change culture, it’s time to now distill the impact of cultural change on human wellbeing. The impact is varied with some changes having positive impact, others being insignificant, and others having deleterious impact.

The impact of cultural change on human wellbeing and whether we should care

Positive impact on the individual and the society

Some cultural practices when lost or banned are good for the individual and therefore the society. Examples include the sati system, the old but ongoing fight against the caste-system especially untouchability. While today very few Hindus fear traveling abroad, but it was a big deal at least a century ago as you could “lose your caste”. Famous people such as Swami Vivekanand and Mahatma Gandhi also faced criticism for their travels abroad.

Modern examples include better LGBT rights, liberalization of women whereby they are increasingly able to make career and life choices, although a lot of needs to be done on that front. Cultural change of these kinds are obviously good for society and should be celebrated and encouraged.

No real impact even though it feels like a loss

The clothes that we used to wear traditionally, or the music we listened to have changed and will continue to change, or whether youngsters still touch the feet of their elders, or whether festival rituals are followed as rigorously as they were earlier, are all changes in culture that feel like a loss, but don’t really present a real economic or social loss for an individual. The hypocrites may feel it as an ideological loss – but that’s not different from socialists who feel the capitalism isn’t right, although economic growth says otherwise. A lot of art is driven by religious culture. As religious culture changes or becomes less pervasive, the nature of art changes. Art however will survive – but some art forms will either change or die out. Is that a loss? In some ways – yes, but it’s inevitable.

The kinds of cultural loss that the hypocrites bemoan are not really losses. When culture is equated to forced respect for cantankerous elders, which really means “just saying yes to elders” no matter how much nonsense they are spewing, that culture will die because women and youth today are far more empowered. These are the kind of ideological or power issues in the guise of cultural loss lament and should be ignored.

On the other hand, some genuine aspects of culture will die out. Bengali youth may no longer be learning Rabindra Sangeet as religiously as earlier generations did. We may no longer celebrate festivals as our grandparents or even parents did. Similarly, some languages will die. Some will morph – for e.g. Hindi for the youth is mostly Hinglish.

Yet, some aspects will survive. For e.g. in Gujarat, Navratri in the form of Dandiya and Garba celebrations survive because people enjoy it. Even if the songs have changed and the sound system has gotten louder. And so what if the “Mata” doesn’t really demand hours of dancing every night in her honour. However, people of all ages can be actively dance, socialize, meet new people, or express themselves through dance – the tradition thrives in newer forms.

You have to wonder why should culture remain the way it was? Now I am no philistine but my view is that non-scientific, just for the sake of it cultural stuff which holds back people, hinders their liberty and is environmentally / mentally / emotionally harmful needs to die. As for culture that’s good to have, some of that will be seen on special occasions. On a daily basis, convenience, cost, rationality (to an extent and painfully slowly) will drive our practices. As we have seen cultural change can in fact be liberating for individuals and beneficial for societies.

What’s important for both the hypocrites and the saviours with respect to the cultural losses that they fret about is that even if they choose to something about it, they shouldn’t be forcing their agenda down the throats of individuals or society at large.

Those cultural changes that may have genuine repercussions that we need to worry about

Loss of traditional food habits is a genuine issue caused by cultural change because adapting “foreign” food habits and fad without understanding has a deleterious impact on our bodies and the society as a whole, with lifestyle diseases together becoming the number one cause of unnatural death in India. Similarly, when in the name of cultural promotion you become insensitive to the needs and rights of those around you or the environment, you hinder the liberty that other individuals have. Examples include the massive noise, light, sound, environmental pollution that happens during many Indian festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, Navratri, Diwali etc.

Regulators do take action on some of these issues at times. For e.g. pollution of water sources due to POP sculptures has reduced as many cities have constructed artificial water bodies for the immersion. Similarly, the Supreme Court has attempted to reduce air pollution due to firecrackers. However, not all such cultural can or should be countered by regulation. For e.g. changes in societal structure will happen due to the ongoing shifting from joint families to nuclear ones and some of those changes may not be positive. But that doesn’t give anyone a reason to force people to live in joint families. Just as it doesn’t give any right to the hypocrites to ban people from celebrating valentine’s day whether they like it or not.

Cultural change is inevitable, mostly irreversible, but can sometimes be preserved

As we have seen in this post culture is a dynamic beast that can’t be controlled. It will change. And the tears that the hypocrites shed are as shallow as a crocodile’s tears or motivated by political or ideological concerns rather than any real ones. On the other hand when there are genuine cultural losses such as the loss of languages, food systems, or art. Those who choose to be saviours can work to preserve what they believe is important of what they cherish. They can create awareness, take action, champion the right causes such as eating traditionally; but accept the changes as they happen and adapt ourselves mentally and emotionally. Importantly, no one, neither the hypocrites or the saviours have the right to impinge on anyone else’s fundamental right to disagree.

Love live culture. Culture is dead!

Footnotes

1. This statement has been taken from a speech by Laloo Prasad Yadav made in the Lok Sabha in 2011
2. Many Indians are non-vegetarians
3. Chouhan denying eggs to malnourished children is a trend in BJP ruled states
4. Eggless meals at anganwadis Madhya Pradesh’s ban pitches nutrition against politics
5. Dressing the Indian woman through history
6. The history of the pizza

2 comments

  1. I was wondering how can you (also why would you) write so much on something like “Culture”. However when I read it, I understand why this post was important for you to write and for everyone around to read.

    Also I could think of what I read in Tuesdays with Morrie “The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it”

    I always thought culture is just to create barriers and should surely DIE. But I guess your post adds a different perspective to it now.

    Liked by 1 person

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