As Indians, our preoccupation with the present, with living our hard, weary lives, leaves us with little time for anything else. We are so busy working, eating, sleeping, bringing up kids, building nests… that we have no idea of the amazing but fast-vanishing cultural riches that we have inherited. Even those who do are mostly votaries of the ‘hardware’ aspects of heritage: buildings, monuments, tombs. And here again, tastes are elitist: ‘French’ Pondicherry, ‘Portuguese’ Goa or ‘Lutyens’ Delhi, and ‘Danish’ Tranquebar are the favourites of the chatterati. Stately, century-old British-era buildings no doubt deserve our attention but shouldn’t we — as Indians — start thinking about ‘Indian’ India for a change?
The elite who are not unenthusiastic when it comes to preserving the ‘hardware’ are almost ambivalent when it comes to the ‘software’ — our languages, music, dance, oral traditions, art forms, dialects, scripts, religions, philosophies, and the like, which distinguish us from the rest of the world and make us unique — our ‘living traditions’. These are products of this land, nurtured over a few millennia and as deserving of preservation and documentation as any stone monument.
But our children, early in life, learn that their mother tongue will not take them far and so an English education of sorts (Bless Macaulay!) is thrust on them. And thus begins the process of alienation — every tradition falls by the wayside and is jeered at or dismissed without its worth ever being evaluated. Many of these traditions have survived till today. But one does not know what the future holds: they are all under threat since society has, like they say, moved on.
Look around you. The music of the nagaswaram , which reminds one of an elephant — aesthetic, majestic, aristocratic (any adjective is inadequate to describe it’s beauty) — is slowly giving way to bands (in glitzy uniforms and trinket caps) that belt out what can only be described as ‘kitsch’ (neo-Tollywood or Kollywood-baroque, shall we say?). The nagaswaram-tavil team has been a part of every wedding, temple ritual and festival in the south. To me, it is unimaginable that the nagaswaram can be supplanted from its lofty cultural perch. But sadly, that seems to be already happening. Popular culture is important; it has its place and context, but when a dubious usurper seeks to replace a hallowed traditional art form like the nagaswaram , should we not, as a society, put our foot down and say: ‘No, we will not allow this’?
If we don’t, the nagaswaram will face the fate the shehnai suffered in the north. In Hindi movies, the shehnai would invariably provide the haunting and melodious background score for a wedding scene; now, it has been replaced by more ‘racy’ tunes. Perhaps this mirrors the social changes that have taken place and is a sign of the times: it is virtually impossible to hear the shehnai anymore, even in the north.
Will the nagaswaram and the tavil suffer a similar fate?
South-Indian weddings were often occasions where relatives would gather to listen to famous maestros, who were as much of a draw as the festivities and food. The wedding kutcheri during the ‘reception’ was also a good source of income for traditional musicians: the munificence — often forced — of the bride’s father offset the parsimony that accompanied the temple kutcheri , where the blessings of the Lord were considered compensation enough. Now there are music troupes that blare out the latest popular numbers — much of which can only be described as ‘out of place’ — the words of which often are devoid of even a hint of the poetic or the artistic or the lyrical. That may be alright for an audience of riotous youth out to enjoy themselves at a college fest, but does it befit a wedding reception? Will the fashionable socialite ever allow the reverse to happen? Think of a man in a dhoti in a rock show! Sacrilege, right?
Safeguard national treasures
Other countries and cultures have a clear demarcation between what is ‘done’ or ‘not done’ on specified occasions. In a formal party, one does not wear jeans. During an opera, one does not whisper or clap. Most nations zealously safeguard what they think are their national treasures and that includes cultural practices and traditions, even going to what we might consider ludicrous lengths to preserve the authenticity and sanctity of the original cultural experience. For instance, there are colleges even now in England where they don’t use electricity since it would detract from the setting and milieu that is sought to be projected.
During the graduation ceremony — what the Americans term ‘commencement’— at Princeton University, I remember listening to a speech that was read out — believe it or not — in Latin. It was part of the ceremony, apparently included since it had been the tradition over the last couple of centuries. The graduating students had to react at appropriate points during the speech, reading aloud phrases from a pre-circulated note (helpfully, there was a supporting note in English that advised the audience to clap or laugh at the right moment).
Why would an Ivy-league university in the U.S. bother about trivialities like using Latin during commencement — because it is a link to the past; because it is thought to add a grandeur and solemnity befitting the occasion.
The U.S. is hardly a few hundred years old and this is the kind of effort that goes into preserving the few traditions they have that are a couple of centuries old.
What about us?
As a great and ancient civilization, we have living traditions — our music and dance forms in particular — in every nook and corner that are a few millennia old. They are beautiful, link us to our past, are products of this land, and are what our ancestors have bequeathed to us. Let us modernise but with sensitivity and care. Let us not dump or vulgarise our traditions so un-ceremoniously and with so little thought.
(T.K. Ramachandran is a Carnatic vocalist and an IAS officer. Views are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)