Storytelling and social science

Print edition : January 09, 2015

India needs 500 versions of development, says Shiv Vishwanathan. Photo: P.K. Ramesh

Interview with Shiv Vishwanathan, social scientist.

Can the language of the intellect remain truly Indian? If it can, what does it constitute?

The language of the intellect can be truly Indian while being both local and cosmopolitan. This is why the mother tongue is important. The mother tongue constitutes the first frame of language and democracy. One’s dreams, one’s myths, usually surface in the local language. In fact, even today I see Indian intellectuals first think in Hindi, Bengali or Kannada and then translate into English in their heads. In that sense, English is a double burden. The bhashas have to domesticate it in the same way that they domesticated Sanskrit; only then can we make English say what the English have not said.

Essentially, one has to see the mother tongue as the basic ecology of intellectual creativity and translation as a part of any intellectual activity. This in a way was what Kannada intellectuals like Ramanujan and URA [U.R. Ananthamurthy] tried.

Most Indian cities are plural, yet they have become monochromatic and mononational. Can developments in culture change economic and consumer circumstances?

An Indian city is a kaleidoscope, it has many colours, many smells. In fact, without sensorium and memory it cannot be a city. It has different cultures between morning and night. The danger is that development, social policy and even globalisation is turning it. A city has to be recharged with diversity and history. There is a danger that the new idea of school, the new developments of consumerism, are making the city dull and uniform. One has to make a difference between choice and diversity. Choice is individual, diversity presupposes alternatives, diversity necessitates a whole range of subcultures. It demands alternatives. Alternatives need different cosmologies. They need a different kind of mentality. The linguist [P.B.] Pandit put it brilliantly when he said most urban Indians think in five languages depending on work, context and geography.

The danger is of reducing these languages. So theatre, cinema, food, art, craft, colour, crime have to speak different languages to keep a city alive. When you destroy puppetry, you reduce nomads to performing at traffic points.

Do you think if we release the story, trapped as it is in the framework of “education”, it may open up and enrich cultural spaces?

Indian narratives are caught between social science and storytelling. Storytelling involves myth, legend, and folklore. Social science is trapped in the language of modernity, ideology and science. To release the story, you have to release the storyteller. To release the storyteller, you have to liberate the myths of the storyteller. Every story has to be retold and storytelling as metaphor has to enter technology as thought. You can’t condemn people as obsolescent or underdeveloped or historically defeated. You have to retell their story. Storytelling, as Mario Vargas Llosa once said, sustains cosmology and maintains the continuity of a culture. In that sense, education has to go beyond the expert and summon the shaman, trickster and the storyteller. India needs not just 300 versions of the Ramayana, but 500 versions of development.

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