Deities that get chastised by people, anthropomorphic animals and syncretic cultures, tales that almost transform Sir M. Visvesvaraya into a modern myth, Kuvempu’s disagreements with Nehru... Another India by Chandan Gowda is a collection of essays that gently nudges the reader to take notice of the rich cultural vision we have inherited but often fail to see. The book speaks through folklore, historical anecdotes and episodes from the lives of prominent personalities, with the idea of revealing the complexities and progressiveness ingrained in these tales from the past and could provide answers to the questions of the present.
In a conversation with The Hindu, Mr. Gowda talks about the many worlds that make up Karnataka, limitations of the modern ideas of progress and the answers from the many subcultures to the jingoistic narratives of today.
‘Another India’ starts with an essay on how Karnataka is a land of many worlds, but there is an absence of a ‘generic Kannada identity’ unlike in the case of communities from other states like Kerala, West Bengal, Punjab or Gujarat. Why is this the case?
The essay on ‘A People Without a Stereotype’ was trying to say that a stereotype or an image of a Kannadiga doesn’t exist at a national or global level. That is partly to do with the fact that the people of this state haven’t really gone out much or done things that have generated talk about them from others. The biggest literary figures in Kannada haven’t been translated.
There is indeed a repertoire of icons, dynasties and tourist places that connote the state of Karnataka. But what I’m trying to show in the essay is the fact that an image of a Kannadiga hasn’t emerged to submerge the numerous cultural worlds that makeup Karnataka. I feel that is something to feel pleased about.
There are official memories of Kannada history and culture handed down through textbooks and popular culture. And then there are cultural worlds outside these that appear in the essays and the stories in Another India. Talking about these was not only to make local readers alert to the very many layers that make up a static phrase like “Kannada culture,” but to be able to recognize them as living currents in the present, an awareness of which lends depth and texture to the somewhat thin political and moral imaginations seen in public discussions.
I also felt that this was of getting the non-Kannada speakers moving into the city to become curious about Karnataka and of provoking them into doing similar kinds of looking around within their own cultural histories.
The book is a collection of essays and stories on a range of topics. So, what was the overarching idea when you put them together as a book?
One of the ideas behind the book was to share a confident scepticism about the modern vision. This can be an affirmative and not a negative attitude. That is why I held myself from offering commentaries that directly indicted modernity.
Take the chapters titled ‘Tales of Modern Mythology’ and ‘Of Hustling and Other Seductions,’ which share several myths and anecdotes about Sir M. Visvesvaraya. All of them lay bare a fascination for the achievements of the industrial West and for the idea that development could help us attain those – this cultural pathology has only grown in power in the present.
The modern vision can do several things. It puts city life as the preferred way of life of the present and the future and relegates rural life as a form of life that is sure to die someday. This stance then makes possible cultural indifference towards rural society as well as justifies policy neglect in terms of not caring enough for the livelihood of people in rural areas. The essay, ‘The Secure Selves of the Past,’ shows individuals relating to each other freely without letting religious identity set limits on their capacity for identifying with one another.
Policy experts constantly talk about skilling the youth from rural areas and make them part of the service industry in cities. But do they realise that when they do that, they are deskilling them first? It’s not as if rural youth are without skills. Agricultural skills are valuable and are not easily acquired, but our policy people are illiterate about this fact.
One of the things that makes it easy for the modern mind to not take rural minds seriously is to not recognise the value of the creativity that emerges from those spaces. The section, ‘The Words of the People,’ retells stories from rural communities that show extraordinary moral sophistication. I wanted to question the rural-urban binary that the modern world has designed in favour of urban life and culture and ask that they both belong in our imaginations of our present and our future.
Overcoming the social science and literature divide is another aim of Another India. The research methods of social scientists limit their curiosity about where they could be looking while carrying out their work. A concern of the book is to restore the dignity of thought to “folk tales” and community memories that don’t proclaim themselves as thought, but are actually offering refined reflections on major questions. Democratizing our knowledges through an engagement with these texts is also a means of making them open to the wider participation of people.
How do the essays and stories in the book hold a mirror against modernity?
Many of the essays and stories in the book hold out pictures of our cultural life which should make it tough to subscribe to simplified views of our cultural realities. Many of these stories take place in remote points of time, but they are contemporary and show great aesthetic and moral creativity.
Many of the right-wing orthodox views are as modern as secular viewpoints. Their vision of religion and history is a colonial one. India in ancient and medieval times was a complex cultural world. We know of the Sanskritic imagination but texts in non-Sanskritic languages show great creativity too.
Brahmin culture was no doubt powerful, but the other communities did not simply stay passive or submissive – in spheres of worldly power as well as that of ritual and moral imagination. So, one of the aims of the book was to go beyond the binaries of modern-traditional, secular-religious and oral-written that modern discussions routinely work with and help ourselves see these worlds of dissent and creativity.
In the section titled ‘Some Ideas’ you talk about Ambedkar’s ideal of Maitri, Kuvempu’s vision of Vishvamanava, Lohia’s Samata and so on. Did you feel there was a need for these ideas to be heard louder in today’s times?
Be it Kuvempu or Ambedkar or Lohia, they have reached out to a moral conversation in the past that they found helpful for offering a response to modern situations.
Kuvempu elaborates his ideal of vishvamanava through an engagement with Vedantic thought. His model of the Mantra Mangalya wedding or the plays he wrote, like Jalagara and Shudra Tapasvi, were all enactments of the vishvamanava ideal in modern times.
Ambedkar’s ideal of maitri which he elaborates on from Buddhist philosophy in his later years signals a shift in his thinking on social liberation. He asks that hatred and enmity be given up towards all, including one’s oppressor, and that respect for all life, including plant and animal life, be cultivated.
Lohia found the idea of ‘samata’ (spiritual equanimity) valuable for having an independent relationship with the present. Marxism will point to the future as the time of revolutionary emancipation and liberal thought will also say that we are moving towards progress in the future. And, revivalists will talk about historical wounds which need to be remedied in the present.
For Lohia, individuals need to act morally in the present without using the past or the future as grounds for justifying their actions in the present. He was an atheist but took a deep interest in Indian epics for thinking political and aesthetic values in the present.
So, what is Another India?
Another India asks that India cares for the best of its moral inheritance while keeping itself open to everything from anywhere and not close in on itself in an insular way, and become jingoistic about itself. We need to have a sense of seriousness about how we care for ourselves as a civilization in the midst of so many transformations. The book profiles several extraordinary Indians who exemplify this seriousness in very different ways.
When the British tried to undermine the cultural confidence of Indians by saying that India was not a nation and that it was culturally backward since it lacked modern science and technology, a modern democracy, etc, one response – which drives the Hindu right-wing imagination – was to insist incorrectly that India had all these things in the past and that it could become a nation with one religion again.
On the other hand, Gandhi refused to accept the British claims as valid and argued that a civilization was an issue of morality and not of material achievements. India ought to evolve, he held, as a society where the state and the economy were decentralized, where religious communities co-existed with heart-unity (sadbhavana), where unjust practices were reformed continuously.
The question of who we are as a country in modern times continues to be an unsettled question. Another India is an effort to visit this question.