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Will culture make the difference?

Events around the world show that culture, in which all positive human aspirations are embedded, needs to be steered from neglect and abuse to positive, concrete engagement. This is because in the new, global economic order, which impels resentful masses into counter-hate, cultural activity has the capacity to reclaim human spaces, says SHARADA RAMANATHAN.

LET'S face it: All predictable efforts have failed at the negotiating table. All, without exception; across cross-border and regional conflicts from south Asia to the Middle East. Diplomacy has reached an impasse, and economics and trade are indifferent enough to socio-cultural dynamics to be self-destructive; and religion in the absolute has exclusionary boundaries. If anything has to change from cul-de-sac to borderless empathy, then culture, in which all positive human aspirations are embedded, needs to be steered from neglect and abuse to positive, concrete engagement. It is the only sphere that can fulfil the desperate need for people to reclaim their mutual visitation rights; and reclaim the coerced constituencies of politics, fascism and terrorism back to the "human" zone. It is the only sphere in which you cannot do the giving; in which you cannot easily push hidden agendas and vested interests, because "culture" is what belongs to the people, it is the people, not something that is bestowed upon them like politics, religion, loans, dams and war.

India has always been a laboratory for cultural diversity and pluralism, which has been singularly responsible for India's pride in the world map. In every other conceivable field, it is a notorious second citizen of the globe. Diversity is the existence of diverse traditions, and pluralism, the constant negotiation of diversity and difference towards a flourishing community life. Together, they form a matrix that sustains a sense of wonderment and discovery. Consider the fact that India does not even speak a common language! And it is the celebration of this diversity that has propelled Indians into connecting through profound and creative cultural symbols of identity and communication — food, ritual, clothing, oral and literary narratives, music, dance, craft, et al. Even positioning religion within the context of culture and diversity takes it away from absolutism and totalitarianism, and locates it in pluralistic balance. For example, mainstream discourses have stunningly excluded religion beyond the great trinity — Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. Even Indian law only recognises the Hindu, the Muslim, the Christian and the Parsi. When Dalits convert to Buddhism, the state holds them in the clinch as Hindus.

But a culturally engaged scholar, activist or practitioner would acknowledge the thousands of tribal, religious and spiritual traditions like Duoni Palo, Buddhism and Sufism. And these traditions are integrated with their topographic and environmental contexts, which are, in turn, embedded in the cultural.

Where is culture? "Culture" has an ironic place in society. It is as much an everyday language, as, say, the weather: It pervades and determines the order and mood of the day, and yet we do not address it in a timely fashion. The "culture" of intolerance emanates from the "culture" of majoritarianism and hegemony; and the "culture" of politics is governed by the "culture" of corruption, which is beset by the "culture" of lumpenism. On another plane, the "culture" of music and dance in Indian cinema comes from the "culture" of its oral traditions. And even the "culture" of rural India in relation to its environment is described in terms of the "sacred groves" of forests and village communities. It would be foolish to deny that culture pervades human behaviour. And yet, while other aspects of human behaviour — sociological, anthropological, political and economic — have gained the attention they deserve, culture is a much undervalued, even trivialised, area of study and engagement. And there is no time like now to minimise its abuse and put culture back where it belongs — as a vehicle of not just tolerance but respect, not just co-existence but understanding, and not just existence, but life and its celebration.

What is culture? Perhaps one of the reasons why culture as a field has not developed is because it is a difficult term to define, even describe. "That in its widest sense, culture may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterise a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs." (Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development, Stockholm, 1998.)

Distinctive characteristics: SO what is culture? In simple terms, it could be described as the pattern of human response to its defined environment, mostly evident in its artistic statement. But to push further, two intangible aspects of human behaviour are manifested in cultural activity that may not be considered essential in defining other areas of human activity — the "subtle" mind and aesthetics. The "subtle" mind contains the intangible aspects of human response, mainly, the energy of the creative, emotive and the spiritual, aspects that are hugely destructive or constructive for the very reason that they are powerful. Human dimensions that hate to be ignored, and when addressed, throw up defining moments in history. Aesthetics is the creative and artistic manifestation of the subtle mind, using the tangible mind and intellect. The recognition of aesthetics is the acknowledgment of the fact that the human being is not satisfied by bread alone. The state and its supporting systems are expected to provide and facilitate common minimum civic amenities, and allow for the human being to explore his or her creativity. And needless to say, the results of a failed world order in this context is all around us; the construction of negative identities based on the principle of marginalisation, and a steady regression towards an order dominated by a clash of cultures — across region, language, colour, religion and race, which is, in turn, catalysed by the skewed focus on politics, economics and information technology.

While policy makers, resource centres and academies have globally recognised subjective and normative social sciences, they have failed to address creativity that emerges from pure abstraction; where the terms for "values", "process", "method" and "output" get established purely through creative statement of the subtle mind. This adverse trend has popularly been deemed as the "westernisation" of the globe, where industrialisation and marketing determine the legitimacy of the human being; where the common theme between even religion and industry is entrepreneurship and merchandising; where power, hegemony and global dynamics are determined by the hypocritical presence of, and relationship between, economics and politics and their trivialisation of culture in development; and where co-option, standardisation and sameness take precedence over creativity, individuality and basic human dignity.

If the dignity for human existence is to be restored, then creative rights must gain recognition, and substantial and sensitive support for cultural activity must return to the radar screens of those with the ability to support. Support that is necessarily based on a paradigm that draws lessons from, rather than replicates, the grave errors of the past and the present. Why, how, and what then, could be the basis for a focus on culture?

Why culture? It is the pluralistic nature of India's cultural traditions that has produced some of the greatest works of innovation and excellence that no other field can claim to match. A pride of place that is borne of more than one way of doing the same thing, and the possibility of more than one type of result from two similar or dissimilar processes. How else would one explain Tejan Bai, Thyagaraja, Arjun Dangle, Raja Ravi Verma and Javed Akhtar as outcomes of the same civilisation? Independent India has seen the erosion of this great laboratory and the ghettoisation of community life. And conflict has been the recurring reaction to subversion, particularly infields like economics and religion, which, in their current forms, force linear and narrow identities and do not acknowledge the diversity of the human mind.

Culture as a field has to be reclaimed by people, communities and their artists. And such a movement needs to be reinforced through empathetic support from across the public and private sectors and community benefactors themselves. From those who understand that conflict resolution through cultural means will match the nuances of conflict itself but not act as a confrontationist counter-conflict; those who understand progressive, integrated development as going beyond political and economic empowerment to socio-cultural enfranchisement; those who aspire to veer away from the vested interests of violence and war towards a cultured and civilised celebration of life. And invigorated support to this field would have to be based on four broad parameters:

Emphasise diversity and pluralism: Exit the Taliban, and enter Bollywood pin-ups. Sri Lankans love Tamil cinema, and Madhuri Dixit has been a rage in Pakistan. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hassan and A.R. Rehman are as popular in South Asia as in New York; the great American singer, John Higgins, was a self-confessed "citizen" of Carnatic music; and the Beatles belong to the universe. And yet, the Sinhalese is a Sinhalese, and the Afghan, an Afghan, on their terms. These are multiple identities, generated through cultural identification, that redefine community borders and challenge geo-political boundaries.

THE acknowledgment of difference and multiplicity is fundamental to restoring world peace. Human behaviour gets defined by its culture, and culture and community borders get defined as much by difference and multiple identities, as by commonality. The understanding, rather than the rejection, of the "other". And the degree of volatility or stability of borders is determined by the space for difference and lateral identification among various communities and the systems that govern them.

This is possible only if the support mechanisms for the cultural field follow community agendas and nurture pluralism as a positive force. One, by enabling diverse histories that address the socio-cultural dimensions to give space to multiple truths. Two, by devolving infrastructure for cultural activity. And three, by fostering cross-fertilisation. Says danseuse Chitra Visweswaran "Enacting Nandanar, Mary Magdalene, Chandalika and the story of a Nabi came naturally to me. They are spiritually the same waters that come from the same source and pour into the same oceans. While their forms were diverse, their basic content was the same. And I used a fifth form to connect." Former Chief Justice Ismail is an authority on the Gita and the Ramayana; and the legendary Prem Chand was lured by the Urdu language. All typically cultural possibilities.

Recognise cultural rights: Gazi Khan, the charismatic Rajasthani folk singer composes the song "Nimbooda" as his original score. A commercial film plagiarises it and gives him no credit whatsoever. And Gazi Khan stays vulnerably in the margins while the apparently unaware commercial singer collects her awards; and the film director concerned rakes in the profits and pontificates about his "struggle" in cinema.

Should culture be a fundamental right? Although that may be a complicated poser, certain aspects within cultural rights such as land rights, collective and individual copyright, intellectual property, religion, rituals and languages could be argued as cultural rights. Take the example of the banned ritual of cow slaughter. Who determines whether this stands the test of rationality, and the "civilised"? Such a discourse would require the representation of state law, customary law and the field of environment to arrive at feasible frameworks for the fragile relationship between governance systems and community practices.

Culture..much undervalued, even trivialised

Focus on creativity, innovation and excellence: A Dalit writer once deconstructed a potential benefactor when he said: "Your money is only a means and cannot be a determinant of my creativity. It is only a means to evoke the imagination and genius of my ilk." This was a defining moment in my consciousness about creativity. It is said that the great composer, Thyagaraja, was once requested by the then king to compose a eulogy for an attractive compensation. Thyagaraja refused to compromise his creative journey. Would Thyagaraja have been a legend if he had succumbed? Perhaps the nuances of his Rama would have turned out very differently!

Creativity is a religion unto itself that cannot be determined by simulated boundaries. Fostering creativity is an investment as fortuitous as operations research, and also as worthwhile. It is about betting on moments of revelation, of truth, that come through unpredictable timeframes and gestation. It is not about "granting" or "awarding", but evoking the artistic genius; about facilitating the software for innovation and excellence; and about unearthing individual creators with subliminal significance in society. Creators who we need and may lose because we were so wrong, and it was too late.

Infrastructure and support for creativity as the protagonist is probably a thing of the past. We now live with ironical nostalgia about unconditional systems for artistic creativity, even as state cultural organisations are steadfastly bureaucratic and the private sector is not forthcoming. And there is very little else in terms of support except for a handful of modestly endowed private and quasi-government organisations and languishing universities dedicated to arts and culture. In fact, support for creativity could have hit an all-time low.

While the cocktail circuit is an old-fashioned, but thriving, way to determine "beneficiaries", folklore has it that a new state-of-the-art career opportunity has hit the stands. It is called beating the officialdom. About the former, the less said the better. But one wonders if the creative promise of Koothu master Kannappan Thambiraan, Arundhati Roy and Pt. Ravishankar could have been determined on the basis of benefactor agendas and bureaucratic mechanisms. For example, customised proposals have often become the determinants of decision-making rather than play the perfunctory role of streamlining support activity, and the "best" proposal wins. It is inconceivable that a poorly showcased request for, say, Kerala martial arts can include a massage room and a barefoot doctor, and not be dismissed, not only for its unrecognised approach, but also because it may defy the many laws of donorship and productisation. This implies a standardised mechanism that automatically rules out innovation and creativity even based on accepted community traditions.

The system needs an overhaul of not just mechanisms but attitudes. Socio-cultural movements must be revitalised and they must hold the trusteeship of cultural and artistic imagination. For a start, cultural visionaries and artists must be recognised in the mainstream consciousness. They are everywhere, struggling in the mainstream and dying in the margins. And they do not necessarily comprehend or fit the compulsions of support organisations. But they will make the difference.

Address globalisation: A Baul singer from West Bengal once proudly played his cassette that was recorded 20 years ago in a simple studio setting. He described the experience with delightful reminiscence and talked about how heartened he was that his music would finally reach a wider audience and help him to subsist. A few months later the same glowing face was crestfallen. He said: "Twenty years ago, they adjusted the microphone to my voice. Today, they want me to adjust to the microphone. I could not get myself to do it. Although I have no money I cannot sell my soul." This is the dubious face of a technology and virtuality that has layered ramifications. And within this, the predicament of an unsold soul. Globalisation now has a new incarnation. It is different from all other times in history for two frightening reasons: First, humankind has consciously developed the capacity to wipe out generations of fellow beings. Just like that. And hate-culture is the artillery for that prospect. As a corollary, hate and holocaust become easier as virtual reality replaces real-time human spaces, and regresses into well-engineered real virtuality.

There are now technological middlemen who mediate how we even see each other. This is the new, pervasive global economic order that impels the resentful masses into counter-hate.

Cultural activity has the capacity to counter both these trends. The capacity to reclaim human spaces from the virtual world. The capacity to use music, dance, theatre, film, creative writing and craft as real-time experiences that evoke positive sensibilities through vibration, breath and touch, expand horizons and enable a fundamental shift from the culture of hate.

In order to revitalise the humane face of creativity, arts and culture must be an integral part of the living experience, driven by the same cultural visionaries who are deemed redundant by the new globalised system. Support organisations must limit their roles to enable imaginative and even organic growth of real-time activity, lung-to-lung, note-to-note, instead of focussing on projectisation and satellite agendas. International organisations and movements must enable the flow of cultural life across multiple borders, across grassroots; strengthen their own positions in relation to other bodies like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Economic Forum; and enhance the presence of south-based countries on international platforms.

Conclusion: An entire generation of cultural visionaries and creators will be lost unless society rediscovers them to revitalise "culture" with renewed imagination; sustain creative spaces from being hijacked by the commercial and technocratic; and also set the terms for the support mechanisms. For this, state organisations must be debureaucratised and they, along with the private sector, must heed to community wisdom. A renewed approach to cultural activity that enables artistic exchange and human experiences through cultural movements and expanded infrastructure. An approach that leads to the evolution of a civilised society based on inclusivity and access. A paradigm that indeed evokes the genius of the grassroots and community laboratory called culture.

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