Even as he reveals his interest in everything from the Rig Veda to Rock music, Dr. Karan Singh tells ANJANA RAJAN that humanity is moving into a new phase of evolution

The expression ‘man for all seasons’ pales somewhat before the career of Dr. Karan Singh. To hear him say he is “open to speak on any subject under the sun” is not surprising. He has been a close observer of history even as he participated in its making.

Born the yuvraj of Jammu and Kashmir in 1931 but never destined to be its Maharaja, he has always, it would seem, traversed the cusp with aplomb. Today, the president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Rajya Sabha member and former Union Minister is taking cognisance of changes even more momentous.

“Humanity is moving into a new phase of its evolution. It’s such a huge movement that it’s not generally comprehended. But it is as important as the movement from nomadic gatherers/hunters to agriculture, then from pastoral to urban societies, then urban to nation states,” he says. “Now the movement is to a global society. And that has all sorts of implications. It has ideological implications, it has economic implications, political implications.”

To hear Singh speak is to hear echoes of his vast reading and his multifarious interests. His capacity to hold an audience awestruck as he explicates concepts that have formed the bedrock of Indian society is well known. But how significant is the realm of ideas in a world that expects tangible solutions to practical problems — hunger, dwindling resources, disease?

“There is no doubt that there are a number of challenges facing humanity today, not only India. And global warming and climate change is certainly one of them. Over population in developing countries is another one. Lack of equity within societies — vast gaps between the very rich and the very poor, the provision of minimal health, education, services, and so on.” Enumerating ancient concepts that are relevant today, he points out that the view that the welfare of all should be furthered, rather than the few, is one such.

“Sarve sukhinah santu, sarve santu niraamayah, sarve bhadrani pashyantu, maa kaschid dukha bhaag bhavet (May all be happy, may all be free of illness, may all see what is auspicious and not suffer). Our prayers have never been for our own happiness. So I think that basic idea (of welfare of all) is one idea which is still relevant,” he says.

“The second idea that is relevant is the one that the human race is a family. Vasudhaiva kutumbakam.” The first gate of the Central Hall of Parliament bears the celebrated Sanskrit verse. Remarking, “I’m not going to comment on what happens in Parliament,” he notes the significance of the concept that the world itself is a family. “Now that is also a fundamental idea, when you talk of ideas. How you implement it is a different matter.”

The third concept is from the Upanishads: “Ekam sat, viprah bahudaah vadanti. The truth is one, the wise call it by many names. In other words, the acceptance of multiplicity of paths to the Divine.”

If these three seminal ideas were to be accepted around the world, he feels, they would go a long way in alleviating human suffering. “With technology and science growing so remarkably, we now have the means to achieve sarve sukhinah santu, but do we have the wisdom? Do we have the compassion? Do we really care, even for our neighbours, far less for people at the other end of the world?” he asks, only to continue, “I’m afraid we don’t. And it is a lack of caring and a lack of empathy shall we say, that really is the cause of much of our suffering.”

Noting that India can’t exactly be labelled a poor country, he relates with horror hearing recently about someone spending Rs.15 crore on a wedding. “I said, my god, when there are millions of people on or below the poverty line, how can you spend that kind of money on a wedding? I mean, you may have a lot of money, but do you have to display it in a vulgar and ostentatious way? I think that is in extremely bad taste. But you know we seem to have lost all sense of taste and proportion now.”

Reverting to the topic at hand, he says, “There are certain ideas that underlie and underpin the emerging global society.”

The transition to a global society has its requirements — for example, new political structures. The United Nations, he states, “is frozen in 1945. It just hasn’t changed and therefore it is no longer representative of the urges and aspirations of the people of the world.”

Change, he says, is inevitable. “Change is necessary. And change is unstoppable. So the point is only whether we’re going to be dragged along willy nilly, screaming and shouting, or whether we are going to try and understand and spearhead the movement for change.”

Art and us

Those familiar with the classical arts of India find it easier to grasp Singh’s drift, since many of the philosophical concepts he mentions are enshrined in the stories, colours, movements and sounds of India’s dance, music and visual art forms. However, this country that has produced and still produces great art has also produced a great rift, so it seems, between the passionate practitioners and patrons of these arts on the one hand, and the common people on the other. Whereas culture is visible everywhere, a stubborn belief prevails that it belongs in museums and auditoriums. And who has time for those? Even our museums are, well, relics of the past. Can they not become museums of living culture?

“They can, in fact museums have to become much more interactive than they are. If you look at the new concept of the museum, it’s no longer just a store where beautiful objects are displayed. It is a place where you interact with the people. Young people come in and go, there are seminars, there are film shows and so on. Our museums are still, most of them, with very few exceptions, still 19th Century museums, built by the British,” he says, adding “It’s a tragedy that we have great art in India, but we do not have a single great museum — something to match the Victoria & Albert, or the Prada in Spain, or the Hermitage in Leningrad.” But then, he feels, even if we can’t build a great museum, the existing ones “must become more interactive, more people friendly, and particularly, more attractive to young people. Going to a museum should be an adventure for young people, not a chore where you’re dragged along.”

Such changes don’t necessarily require more funds — a common excuse. “No. it’s just that our mindset needs to change,” he agrees. “We’re very short of museumologists. For example, most of our museums are administered by civil servants. Now you can have intelligent civil servants certainly, but museumology is a very technical subject, and we don’t have any museumolgoists in the country, or very few. One of the problems with our museums is that we don’t really have proper professional directors. And directing a museum is a professional task.”

Popular culture

In the great information exchange taking place across the world, supporters of India’s indigenous art forms often lament the influence of popular arts from the West, particularly America. Not the president of the ICCR. “I happen to be a Rock music addict as well,” he smiles. “I listen to one hour of rock music every day. I enjoy a Bharatanatyam, my favourite dance, and I enjoy a Billy Joel or Dire Straits, or Whitney Houston, or Petshop Boys or whatever. Music is music, so I don’t really see a basic contradiction. A lot of American music is coming in and some very good music, including Country Music, Soul, and so on, and some good lyrics and all.”

There is another powerful onslaught with which he is not in sync. “The films, you must remember are playing a critical role in this cultural whatever you may call it — efflorescence or degradation, it depends which way you look at it. What bothers me is the amount of violence that has entered all our films. American films, Indian films — you go into any film, there’s such a lot of blood and gore and killing, and so much torture. What are we doing to our younger generation?” Similar is the case with video games, full of killing the enemy, killing this, killing that.” He asks, “Are we building a harmonious global society, or are we building some kind of aggressive and carnivorous global society?”

As for horror films, he exclaims, “I’ve never been able to understand, never, why should anybody go to the cinema to be horrified? Why should you go to be terrified? You might go if you have a sexy film, or you might say, all right it gives you a certain romantic feeling and all, but why should you go to horror films, shouldn’t they be banned? I remember as child I saw Frankenstein. It was 1942, and I couldn’t sleep for nights. And now these days they go to be horrified. The reason of course is a lot of people make a lot of money.”