Culture and identity

Scholars and writers engage in a discussion on the Indian way of thinking at the culture course at Ninasam in Heggodu, Karnataka.

Published : Dec 24, 2014 12:30 IST

Ashish Nandy at the Ninasam culture course. He said that the idea of India could never be captured in a single definition.

Ashish Nandy at the Ninasam culture course. He said that the idea of India could never be captured in a single definition.

THE atmosphere at the annual culture course in October 2014 at Ninasam, the cultural institution at Heggodu village in Shimoga district, Karnataka, was as dynamic as ever. Yet, there was an emptiness because of the absence of U.R. Ananthamurthy. His bright and enthusiastic presence which had touched everyone on the campus in one way or the other for over two decades was sorely missed.

The theme of the course was “Is there an Indian way of thinking?”, designed around A.K. Ramanujan’s essay by the same name, written 25 years ago. The commemoration of this essay was also a serendipitous coming together of Ananthamurthy and Ramanujan, two widely acclaimed scholars, internationally known yet rooted in their own thought and culture. Addressing the gathering, K.V. Akshara, head of the institution, put it aptly: “Ananthamurthyness embodies many things, and at Ninasam, we have to celebrate that, not lament his absence.”

The stage seemed set, but the memories were not easy to deal with. When the social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan, a trusted friend of Ninasam, came on to make his presentation, he said: “Today is a strange day at Heggodu. It is perhaps the first time that I had my coffee here without URA.” He recalled how he always ran into trouble with institutions and faced dismissal. “Years ago, when I was almost going to be eased out of the Centre, it was URA who rested his faith in me and in a way saved my job. Without him, I feel orphaned, and dwarfed. He loved rituals and Heggodu is full of them.” There is no sociology without stories, URA had chided him in affection. “Years ago, he told me ‘learn to listen’. He taught me the art of listening, storytelling, and it began with grandpa’s snuffbox.”

The week-long course had talks, short theatre performances, the presentation of the 150-year-old folk theatre form Chitrapat, plays by the Ninasam repertory in the evening, music concerts and dance performances, apart from discourses by various subject experts through the day. The days were packed, and the atmosphere buzzed with scholars, performers, students, participants, among others, talking, sharing, exchanging.

Is there an Indian way of thinking? Ramanujan said: “There was an Indian way of thinking, which is no more.” He revised his statement: “On the contrary, India never changes. It still thinks like the Vedas.” Further: “There is no single way—Great and little, rural and urban, ancient and modern…. Each language, caste and region has its specific way of thinking. There is a unity of viewpoint. A single, super system.” Keeping some of the questions at the centre of the discussion, each scholar looked at the “Indian way of thinking” with respect to his area of expertise.

“To be an Indian you have to be illiterate,” said Shiv, controversially. Only an illiterate in India can speak five languages, thereby keeping cultural memories and stories alive. For Shiv, it was Gandhi and Tagore who created Indian politics; into their vision was embedded a simultaneity of time and the nature of their philosophies was always intertextual. “The challenge of Indian democracy is, is there an Indian way of change? Bharathipura , one of Ananthamurthy’s best works, is a meditation of time and change,” he argued. It is, he said, a social science of great traditions, and at its centre was the storyteller of all these traditions. “The language of democracy is outdated. Storytelling has to become a part of the social scientist.”

“But is there an Indian politics?” asked the writer-scholar Gopal Guru. And if there is, it is certainly not about a territorial entity, it has to be a deeply moral and spiritual entity. “Nationalism has to be in the middle of all things, of all the suffering that is there, it simply cannot be long-distance nationalism. If we say Ananthamurthy is Indian, it is not because he was opposed to the West, but because he was intensely critical of the East,” observed Gopal Guru. Giving an image for literally being in the “thick of suffering”, Shiv spoke of the haunting picture of the Narmada dam activists standing in protest in bitingly cold water. “Where is this language of suffering?” asked Shiv. The Planning Commission may have a dictionary of poverty, but suffering as an emotion must enter that dictionary. When mines in Odisha were destroyed, the tribal people broke down because it spelt the end of a waterfall that they worshipped. “Do we understand this? The secular language speaks of the cost benefits of suffering. More people have been displaced by dams than riots. When the horrific tragedy of Union Carbide happened, the families said, ‘we want understanding and justice, not money’.” Gandhi wanted to love, but the question we need to ask ourselves is, can we creatively hate in democratic politics?

On this introspective note, the scholar Lakshmish Tolpady narrated an interesting story. He recalled Vasishta’s Ramayana in which Rama goes on a world tour. On his return, he apparently says that he saw only masks, and no face at all. “Am I also wearing a mask in that case?” asked Rama. In the absence of introspection, there is no room for evolution of the self. Indian philosophy advocates constant self-examination. “Without pain,” explained Tolpady, “there can be no internal dialogue.” Speaking about the core of Indian philosophy, truth cannot be reached without a fundamental turmoil within the inner self. Vachana, he explained, was not the creation of the word. “It is that which you can listen to without anyone saying it. If meanings have to evolve they have to happen in a free space. And without this evolution, the antahkarana , or the compassionate self, doesn’t evolve.” In its essence, Indian philosophy is what the 12th century vachanakara Basavanna says: “Thought is like flower,” it should go on blooming and spread the fragrance around. Allama Prabhu, the Buddha, everyone spoke of ephemeral life and the nature of truth. Truth exists outside the “I”, beyond the preoccupation of the self.

So if the motive of philosophy is to question the question, is there an Indian way of knowing? Making his presentation Prof. Raghuram Raju argued that knowing was greater than thinking and it was the West that equated the two. “A child ‘knows’ a language before it thinks,” he said. “There is so much tension in the very question that Ramanujan raises that you feel you cannot even go beyond the question,” said Sundar Sarukkai. “Thinking is a private act, but being Indian is part of a collective,” he argued.

This very idea of every performing artist having to belong to a collective seemed challenging for the Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, because however rooted you are in tradition, a truly creative musician thinks and does not merely reproduce. For a musician who has been performing since 1988, questions about his identity as a musician and the purpose of his music can be unsettling. “In the past decade, I have felt the need to ask questions of what I have been doing, where do I come from, where am I going?” Krishna said, speaking about prevalent notions of Carnatic music. “It is such a hoary, antiquated tradition that each time I sing, I feel a fear, a burden on my shoulder. I have to transport myself and my listeners to that glorious world; else it is like I have failed.”

He felt that though most musicians claimed they were just channels to the past, this was not true. What seems like an Advaitic “I” is not really one because every musician thinks “he” is above the audience and is, in fact, their route to the higher realm. However, if a Carnatic musician is told he is innovative, he will quickly disagree, saying: “I didn’t do anything, it has all been done in the past, I am only carrying it forward.” Krishna explained: “The word innovation is a problem. They think it is against tradition. Innovation is a word of science and tradition is a word of art, as per common perception.”

Krishna, who in recent times has been trying to work innovatively with the Carnatic kutcheri pattern, says in the days when this music was popularised and propagated by harikatha vidwans , it laid a lot of stress on improvisation, or manodharma . But when Carnatic music was tailored for the concert stage, much of this changed. “Madras became the centre of many movements in the south. Nationalism was happening at around the same time. What was fit for Carnatic music in the new circumstances was decided. A kind of Brahminisation of Carnatic music took place. What we call Carnatic today is a late 19th and 20th century construct.” This, Krishna says, has affected the idea of the aesthetics of Carnatic music. “It needs revisiting. When we talk of a concert experience, we mean that we should come back with the same feeling that we had 30 years ago. The art form requires parallel interpretation and non-literal perception,” he said.

The metaphor of waste

Shiv Vishwanathan said that it was the need of the hour to take a relook at democracy through the metaphor of waste. Waste, in today’s world, is equated with unemployed people —“wasted lives” has become the new metaphor of economics. “You are not unemployed, but unemployable. Thousands have been thrown out of the IT industry and it is our middle class good behaviour that keeps us silent. You are wasted. Is there a place for waste in our lives? How can waste be brought back to democracy?”

Giving instances from various points in history about how societies have perceived “waste”, he said the concentration camp for the Nazis did not begin with the Jews, it began as a social-work programme of clearing “wasted eaters”. The great biologist Garrett Hardin called Mother Teresa “a useless woman… as she picks useless people from roads”. Henry Kissinger said Africa was useless (“Let’s eliminate Africa”). A Helpage report on old age says that families want to get rid of old people. The number of old people who starve to death in India is huge. “They are useless heritage, as property. Waste is becoming a stunning category. The young cannot stand the presence of defeated cultures, of wasted people.”

We laugh at the scavenger, but he is the greatest possibility. “I am not making a Dalit statement but a holistic economic statement. This is why Gandhiji argued that the idea of waste has to be respectable.” His quarrel with Kasturba began with cleaning toilets. Every Gandhi ashram is a lab of treating waste. You find not only the charakha , but 10 to 15 ideas for building toilets. Narrating the extraordinary story of Nek Chand and the plastic village of Mundka near Delhi, Shiv emphatically argued: “Recycling is not just the reuse of matter. When you throw something, a story dies, but when you recycle, the story is reborn. A slum is a collection of storytellers who retell the stories of wasted materials. Waste is a new language; it is not the language of economics or science. It is the way of creative alternative democracies, alternative theories of citizenship. By looking at waste in a new way, we can have new notions of memory, storytelling, new ideas of literature and citizenship. Maybe we can save Indian democracy from Modis and the Planning Commissions.”

In a heart-warming talk, Ashish Nandy said that the idea of India can never be captured in a single definition because it has the capacity to subvert all definitions of Indianness. “Partition victims have a wonderful nostalgia. Some of the most notorious victims like Madan Lal Pao didn’t think Muslims were their enemies. Large pockets of India have handled differences differently. The ‘other’ has to be hosted within you,” he said. Speaking of a survey of Chennai, he said 1 per cent of the population was Christian, but at least 10 per cent of them said Jesus was their “favourite god”. Even during the battle of Kurukshetra (described in the Mahabharata), the opponents visited each other’s camps and spoke about the good old times when there was no war. “Everyone in India has had a different idea of India. A statistical concept of India cannot exist. India is a collection of hopes, ideas and imaginations.” Kochi, which has an oral history of 3,000 years, has 14 communities living in it. To date, there has been no instance of communal violence. “The ‘other’ is not always the enemy; this is India’s epic consciousness. Society is a ‘Western’ concept, in premodern India, the idea of society was the community,” he said. To capture the journey from community to society, Ashish Nandy narrated a story. During Partition, a Sikh boy dragged a Muslim woman into his house as an act of revenge. His father repeatedly told him to return the woman to her home, but the boy refused. The father killed his son and dropped the woman home. “But in the 2002 post-Godhra carnage, Muslim women were raped and burnt indiscriminately… this is our journey,” he noted, echoing the words of Tolpady, who had said that only inner pain could lead to a higher consciousness.

The intellectually charged culture course reflected what Ramanujan says in the essay, speaking about the epics. “Every story is encased in a metastory. And within the text, one tale is the context for another within it; not only does the outer frame story motivate the inner sub story, the inner story illuminates the outer as well. It often acts as a microcosmic replica for the whole text.” This manner of constructing the text, says Ramanujan, is in consonance with other designs in the culture. When he says “not unity (in the Aristotelian sense) but coherence seems to be the end”, nothing seems to capture the Indian way of thinking better.

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