Cultural encounters

Published : Jul 02, 2010 00:00 IST

A camel in the old part of Jerusalem is dressed up for tourists with woven textile bands of a Kulu shawl design. Nearby the proud possessions of the Armenian Church of St James are the block-printed cotton altar curtains from Madras, dating to the 18th century, with one depicting the plants of Tamil Nadu with local names in the Armenian script. In Georgia's State Museum, the Virgin Mary sits cross-legged on a lotus, while in Penjikent, Tajikistan, Shiva and Parvati in high boots sit astride a bull. And then there are the languages which are waiting to be tapped for words that will reveal their long journeys, concealed histories, stunning revelations and quirky transformations.

The opening paragraphs of Kalpana Sahni's introduction to this disarmingly personal yet extensively diverse collection of cross-cultural encounters, Multi-stories, spread out before you the promise of treats and treasures to follow. And you are not disappointed. If anything, as you traverse the globe with the author, her infectious humour and sharp eye and ear for detail and nuance generate an energy that almost sends you spinning through magical realms. What was once distant, out there, becomes intimate and immediate as the experienced. There is an element of surprise in the way the disclosures of each encounter overtake you and much delight in the recognition that the familiar and the alien are more often than not akin.

The opening piece, The Black Virgin, drops you in at the deep end right away. In 1999, Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York who became a household name following 9/11, was threatening the closure of an art exhibition and withdrawal of city funds from the Brooklyn Museum of Art because he was offended by one of the exhibits depicting the Virgin Mary. It portrayed her as black and decorated with elephant dung. The fact that some Catholic organisations had found the work sacrilegious and that Catholics form an important segment of the electorate of New York probably played a part in so offending his sensibilities. It is the sort of situation that is becoming nauseatingly frequent in India and makes one realise that the sophisticated Giulianis of the metropolitan world are not, after all, that far removed from the raucous moral police of our less enlightened cultures.

Kalpana Sahni's response is to delve into the early history of Christian iconography, to its Coptic, Assyrian and Egyptian roots. The depiction of Mary was widespread, not only as black, West Asian, certainly non-European, but also as incorporating features or adopting the persona of earlier female deities. Black Madonnas continue to be worshipped at important European shrines although the blue-eyed blonde is now dominant. The Egyptian goddess Isis, often portrayed with the infant Horus in her lap, is sometimes acknowledged as having inspired the much venerated image of Roman Catholicism, Madonna and the Child.

In France, a famous shrine of European gypsies pays homage to the Black Madonna they call Kali Sara. At an annual festival she is dressed in new clothes, then sanctified through immersion and carried back to her church! So, which of all these Madonnas is the authentic one? asks Kalpana Sahni.

What is genuine?

The notion of the genuine article as the pristine, untouched, unmixed is chipped away and undermined through accounts of a series of encounters with people, places, languages, and cuisines. Where are these pure races, pure cultures and languages, local dress and food?

The regions of the Pamir, Altai and Hindukush mountains are the natural home of the exquisite tulip, and the flowers grow wild in Kazakhstan. The Ottomans brought them from Central Asia to Turkey and to other parts of the empire; by 1726, as many as 900 varieties had been listed by the Sultan's botanists. In the mid-16th century, the Austrian ambassador to the court of Suleman the Magnificent brought back some bulbs, mistakenly referring to them by the Turkish word for turban ( tulbent) instead of the original name lale. So the tulip reached Europe. Today Holland produces nine billion bulbs annually and a travel website invites tourists to enjoy Dutch tulips in Kazakhstan.


Turkish coffee evokes connotations of the brew's country of origin. Although a method of brewing is distinctly Turkish, the author informs us, with a characteristically tongue-in-cheek reference, of a renowned satirist's declaration that there are two items our country does not produce: coffee and democracy. We import them from abroad.

Originally from Ethiopia, coffee spread to the Arab world in the 14th century and to Europe in the 17th century. The name is a derivative of the Arabic kahva, which could itself be a derivative of the coffee-growing area Kaffa in Ethiopia where the brew is known as buno.

The globe, the map of the world, will never be the same again. Not only because Kalpana Sahni invites you to turn it upside down, or to recognise that the perspective of the cartographer elongates, expands or shrinks zones and regions, but because the journeys she takes you on leave the world of socio-political boundaries and geographical obstacles blurred behind a dizzying network of races, communities, languages, plants, products, foods, and practices that are woven into the dynamic fabric of the lives and histories of human beings.

Everything is on the move, always words, flowers, clothes; even that common staple of our diet, sugar, starts off as shakkar in northern India and returns to us, leaving footprints across the world, as cheenee.

Through all the encounters, power and the instruments of power political, economic, social and administrative emerge as so many attempts to apply the brakes to this process, with consequences that are often amusing but frequently tragic. The colonial experience (for Kalpana Sahni this term would also refer to the relationship of Russia to its satellite states in the erstwhile Soviet Union) and the impact it has had, empirically and theoretically, in devaluing the entire gamut of Arab, Asian and African cultures that embodied centuries of exchange, interaction and cross-pollination is recounted with both directness and humour to devastating effect.

There is irony at work here (Authentiques) and also a refreshing absence of bitterness or rancour, for the author is genuinely cross-cultural in orientation and, given her academic specialisation and an enviably wide exposure to a variety of cultures, delightfully irreverent towards the pulls of competing regional or national loyalties.

Nation states

Familiarity with the methods and consequences of colonial domination could be one of the reasons why Kalpana Sahni identifies the nation, including various democratic and non-democratic governments and organisations, with attempts to conceal cross-cultural influences to the detriment of others. The predator nation states of the 19th and 20th centuries were carriers of ideas of racial purity, superiority and the right to domination over lesser races and cultures.

A far cry indeed from the 17th and 18th century conceptions of the nation state as a power above religious bigotry and feudal despotism to articulate and defend the rights and freedoms of individuals irrespective of their social estate, history and contemporary experience nevertheless show that the complex genealogy and class composition of the nation state have shaped and continue to shape our present-day world.

It would be naive to think that Kalpana Sahni's conceptions of multiculturalism and of an ongoing cultural intercourse and exchange are suggestive of an inherent democratisation and flexibility of societal configurations in contrast with oppressive regulation by governments or states. The porous nature of all cultures is obstructed by persistent hindrances. If, as the author informs us, some European states now provide lists of sanitised names that can be given to their newborn citizens, it is worth recalling that even today many communities in India do not allow a woman to touch the plough, ostensibly to protect the community from misfortune but in fact to shore up patriarchy.

The audacity and promise of the famous poster-image of Hindi cinema's leading actor Nargis shouldering a plough in the post-Independence film Mother India has been belied despite constitutional and legal guarantees of gender equality. Clearly, the oppressive nature of discriminatory and hierarchical social practices is too deep and vicious to allow all the bad eggs to be simplistically put in only one basket.

However, what is significant is that this mundane truth does not diminish the strength of Kalpana Sahni's celebration of the ebullience and creativity of human life in negotiating and transforming the obstacles it encounters. With the merest hint of romanticism, the gypsies with their innate love of freedom, nomadic lifestyle and disregard for geographical boundaries remain her iconic symbols of liberty.

The volume contains 15 pictorial plates, which are a welcome addition illustrating some of the ideas and artefacts referred to in the text. Particularly interesting is the picture of the coronation mantle of the Norman King Roger II of Sicily, with its borders embroidered in the Arabic script in praise of the King and giving the date according to the Islamic calendar. From 1220 up to the 18th century, this coronation mantle was worn by 48 Roman emperors and kings.

A personal favourite, however, is a photograph of the author defiantly standing astride the white line dividing India and Pakistan at Wagah. The caption reads: The author at the Wagah border with one leg half an hour behind the other.

Madhu Prasad teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Delhi.


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