On the composite culture of India

Print edition : January 17, 2020

The Mehtab Bagh was the last of 11 gardens built by the Mughals along the Yamuna near the Taj Mahal in Agra. In the construction of the Taj Mahal, the brilliance of Central and West Asian engineering reached its pinnacle. Its garden, true to Central Asian aesthetics, added to its beauty. Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar performing at the Delhi Classical Music Festival in New Delhi. The composite roots of Hindustani music and the culture it is located in transcend any monocultural definition. Photo: The Hindu archives

A Bharatanatyam recital at Kalakshetra, Chennai, on December 28. While the colonial masters were forcing an administrative and political unity, the different cultural forms of regions and provinces began to find their expression in the invocation of excellence. It is here that a dance limited to temples, Bharatanatyam, became a centrepiece of reform and rejuvenation. Photo: M. Karunakaran

One of the most significant frames of India’s cultural aggregation has been the idea of a joint Hindu-Muslim syncretic culture. Indians learn new forms and new aesthetic sensibilities as they inhabit new cultural and political landscapes.

The enduring images of Mahatma Gandhi wearing a loincloth, Mohammad Ali Jinnah in a Savoy-cut Western suit, Jawaharlal Nehru in a kurta and churidar, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad dressed in a long robe-like achkan tell us more than anything else would about the evolution of a culture of clothing that became subcontinental in its spread in our own lifetime. The idea of a stitched cloth and the technique and mastery of its cut and stitching, evidently coming from West and Central Asia, matched the fine cotton and handloom industry found locally in India. It must have gone a long way in making the Indian subcontinent a land with the most varied sense and choice of clothes in innumerable styles and colours. This phenomenon, which emerged in history through the processes of acculturation and acquisition of tastes and techniques, has also been made possible by the taste and tenor of the society that welcomes newness amidst myriad enduring forms and techniques. The resultant cultural form, an aggregation of these features, is referred to by historians of the early 20th century as the composite culture of India, which they thought was the coming together of the local and those who came from outside and became part of this cultural fact.

One of the most significant frames of the cultural aggregation has been the idea of a joint Hindu-Muslim syncretic culture described by Kshiti Mohun Sen in his tract called “Hindu Musalmaner jukto sadhna” (joint meditation of the Hindu and the Musalman), while the greatest historical text along these lines have been that of Prof. Tara Chand’s masterly work, Influence of Islam on Indian Culture. There has been some discomfiture with the idea among some sections of India being somewhat a monolithic social fact and being influenced by other monolithic religious community. This has, however, been overcome by now.

We are now able to understand the idea of composite culture, and, that too, particularly of India as denoting two socio-historical processes. One, its historical, evolutionary character, and two, its contemporary and contextual aspect. The contemporary and contextual character of the composite culture that we may see or describe is the fact that while we are talking about culture, we know it is a condition of flux that we are talking about. For instance, Hindustani sangeet is sung to the accompaniment of instruments that were innovated in societies beyond its national and historical boundaries, that is the West, and manufactured in the East, Japan. Yet, it remains the signature of Indian cultural identity for most of us. These syncretic influences have changed the idea of music from within and beyond. The composite roots of Hindustani music and the culture it is located in thus transcend any monocultural definition.

In historical terms, Hindustani music, for example, can claim its lineage from the Sama Vedic past, the non-vedic Adivasi tunes and the coming of the West Asian influences when people brought rhythm and instruments as well as themes. Thus, the dhrupad, which went to the heart of Vedic inspiration, has been developed by families that might have origins in India’s western zones and beyond. Today, the dhrupad is cited as one of the most deeply entrenched elements of the India cultural form. There are other realms of Indian cultural life that further display the confluence of multiple cultural traits. The construction of temples has allowed many new forms to emerge out of this confluence of styles and forms of construction, the most decisive articulation of which has been in the construction of temples, mosques and palaces in the last millennium. In the construction of the Taj Mahal, the brilliance of Central and West Asian engineering reached its pinnacle, and its garden, true to Central Asian aesthetics, added to its beauty; artisans and craftsmen, who worked on such sensitive and delicate works, must have been Indians whose forbearers must have executed the wonders of Khajuraho or Ajanta and Ellora. While we are still in search of the craftsmen of yore, the Taj Mahal and the more recent constructions have given us some indication of them being alive and kicking. The new rulers and their initiatives must have freed them of their classical constrictions of following the traditional rule book. Thus, in a historical sense, the composite culture is the continuation of the excellence with the infusion of new ideas, and styles and forms. As with clothes, Indians learn new forms and new aesthetic sensibilities as they inhabit new cultural and political landscapes.

The coming of builders from West Asia and Central Asia had set two trends in motion. One, it led to the freeing of artisans and shilpakars from the control of shilpa-sastra and provided a new field of autonomy to explore their creativity. Thus, one saw the emergence of new temple styles and also Islamic monuments displaying a range of style and forms, including adaptations from many of regional forms, fusing the local with the imperial art forms and vice versa. Therefore, the architectural style that we witness in the later Mughal period was the culmination of these processes of regional adaptations. When the British came, many of the modern forms began to be fused with either the imperial designs which try to impress the statement of power, but bring many modernist trends in architectural styles that further get concretised post Independence. Thus, the debate between the imperial/colonial architecture and the idea of the modernist architecture has been a central fact in many intractable issues where the idea of the emergence of a new architectural life world cannot be wished away. Thus, for a millennium one saw the emergence of architectural compositions—the modern spaces of Jaipur, built in the 20th century exhibiting not only regional, local and Mughal but also modernist trends.

When addressing the question of the composite culture of the subcontinent, one generally takes into account only northern India, but if one looks beyond the region and looks at a larger frame, the evolution of the Manipuri dance, the raslila, or Shankar Dev’s Bhakti tradition in the north-eastern region cannot but be explained without comprehending the kind of composite cultural expression where the cultural movement of one area spread across a larger chunk of people and landscape. It is in this context that one may also talk about the journeys that the art forms undertook from the greater tradition to the little tradition—and from standardised expression to more popular and larger social bases. The dance dramas and the enactment of classical stories in the popular dance forms such as Chau and Parijat Haranam began to exhibit the fusion of the standardised with the popular. This has a significant subcontinental dimension and thus, many popular expressions were brought into the structural forms of the standardised, which also coincided with upper-class tastes.

It is quite important that the largest of the landscapes, which saw the flowering of this cultural evolution, took place when the idea of nation began to take shape in the 19th century. While the colonial masters were forcing an administrative and political unity, the different cultural forms of regions, provinces and other places began to find their expression in the invocation of excellence. It is here that a dance limited to temples, Bharatanatyam, becomes a centrepiece of reform and rejuvenation.

Similarly, they tried to express themselves in celebrating those diverse forms and styles and provided the background to the invocation of unity in diversity. Thus, the idea of composite culture was not only accepted as the foundational value but provided a social and political context to operate—secularism, which meant not only the religion-state divide, but also protection of different cultural forms to coexist and excel.

The national movement saw the coming together of people from many walks of life. The Sevagram ashram saw the coming together of people from Rajasthan, Bengal, Bihar and elsewhere, and settling down with Gandhi and creating a new cultural space in Maharashtra. A new Gandhian form of lifestyle representing a simple and deeply humane and reflective culture became part of the new cultural choice. Many such communities came up across the country. The national movement, as Visalakshi Menon has shown, brought, for example, intercultural, interreligious and interregional marriages, which became a statement of the movement, gave it an all-Indian character and also became the inspiration for an all-India secular cultural trend to emerge. Not only that, the national movement conceptualised a national space by imagining such a space and also inspired people to constitute their families by marrying outside their caste and kin and the established norms, and bring the cultural fact of marriage into the orbit of the process of forming a larger national culture.

In this, too, the marriages of Aruna to Asaf Ali, Sucheta to J.B. Kripalani, Indira Gandhi to Feroze Gandhi and Vijayalakshmi with Ranjit Pandit, remain some of the celebrated ones, but there was also the case of Nabakrushna Choudhuri (who became Odisha Chief Minister) who married Malati Sen and both of them dedicating themselves to lead a Gandhian life. Marriage being a significant fact of cultural expression, one may see in this a continuation of the early trend in our culture of matrimonial alliances as during the Mughal period, when they were power alliances. The national movement made it a different sort of alliance, of autonomy and choice. It exhibited a new cultural adaptation, which indicated a new cultural attribute, storing enough to hurt the patriarchal authority over choice of life partners. Significantly, those who deny the idea of composite culture also try and impose the patriarchal authority of choice of authority as well as reproductive choice.

Rakesh Batabyal is Associate Professor, Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of Communalism in Bengal, The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches and JNU: The Making of a University.

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