Of Colonial Relics, Multi-culturalism and Swadeshi

When someone talks of throwing away the relics of ‘British Colonialism’, it’s natural to voluntarily extend his opposition to ‘Neo Colonialism’, that is, globalization, simply because periodic ‘Colonial Culture’ cannot be targeted unless you fulminate against ‘World Culture’, or rather say, ‘multi-culturalism’, a by-product of globalization. Nonetheless, it’s hardly true in the case of our Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who advocated dispensing with the ritual of wearing Western gown in convocation ceremonies a moon ago, given the fact that it was his government that introduced globalization in the country.

The issue is more, complex, though, one that involves an old, hard-fought ideological war between those who hanker after preserving their culture, language, roots and so forth, and those who seek the benefits of Westernism and modernity. I have no qualms to say that these self-styled saviours of everything deshi have unfortunately – and may be unwillingly, too, in some cases – acted all along in a way to finish up being inflexibly hostile to foreignness, seeming more like staunch opponents to Western culture than keepers of their own, so as to speak.

I think while thinking of the matter we need to take into account both foreign and Indian colonialism, the lack of initiative in India to make Indian culture more appealing and the outcome of globalization.

As for colonialism, just as British and Dutch and Mughals left over relics of their culture and language in their colonies or the countries they invaded or traded with, so can be said of India. There’re Hindu temples in Cambodia, Champa civilization existed in what is today called central Vietnam, an indianised kingdom was based in eastern Java some six to seven centuries ago; Buddhism was exported from India to the eastern countries and then to the world; enough Hindu cultural influence is palpable through southeast Asia, all relics of Chola military and trade expeditions.

Going further back in time, Indus Valley civilization had good trade relations with other civilizations, with Indian art and craft, food etc influencing their cultures. This continues to this day and things like Yoga, Kamasutra could be called India’s biggest contribution to ‘world culture’ presently. To bring home the point, you cannot simply advocate discarding a convention or practice merely because it’s colonial contribution. If a colonial relic has to be scrapped in India, there’s strong case of rejection Indian colonial relic abroad. Even then, India has still to throw away colonial left-overs, a dilemma lies ahead, of choosing what to be discarded and what not, for relics range from conventions and practices to eateries and beverages to life style and architecture to science and technology to languages and historical monuments.

The second is very significant point, the lack of initiative in India to modernize and innovate, based on our culture, what we eat and drink, how we dress and act, and what we preach and practice. Suppose if convocation gown is dispensed with, what will students put on in convocation ceremonies, Western formal dresses or Indian dhoti and kurta? Ramesh supported the former, another colonial relic, without explaining why shirt and trousers are more acceptable to him than gown. Yes, they’re – have become over decades – inseparable part of our dressing as if it’s our own while gowns are not.

The point to be noted here is that in history of last 2000 years, Western clothing underwent scores of changes, one wear and style giving rise to other and other to still other; there was modern innovation in Western clothing in almost every century, and today, there’s a whole breed of fashion designers around the world innovating it every moment to make it more comfortable and attractive. Indian clothing, on the contrary, underwent no change or innovation in known history except one that pyjamas replaced dhoti.

Talking of food and beverages, deshi opposition to Western food and beverages has been wrongly based on culture. If those with strong sense of swadeshi find McDonald objectionable, so do health conscious Britons and Yankees and argue and protest against junk food. With non-vegetarian dishes being part of Indian cuisines and vegetarianism being argued in the West, it’s not a matter of one culture or the other anymore. In India, western influence is seen more in beverages than food. While there’s been sufficient attempts to better and popularise Indian cuisines, there was no such effort to compete with foreign drinks like coke, no attempt to pack and preserve and market a deshi drink, say, aam ka pana.

This lack of initiative to innovate components of deshi culture has worker more in favour of the West than India in this current era of globalization which seeks exchange of cultures like never before. No wonder, ‘world culture’ popularized chinese and continental more in India than they were before but Indian food couldn’t get that status abroad, though it didn’t lose out completely and is now part of some official dinners in the West.

Language issue explains best why judicious, selective acceptance of foreign culture is beneficial than a blind, outright opposition to it. Take for instance Hindi, Urdu and English. Urdu – an amalgamation of Arabic, Persian, Hindi, English and so on – was treated as foreign language till Hind started accepting words from it and it eventually became an Indian language. Now many Hindi words in Urdu are recognized as Urdu words and several Urdu words in Hindi as Hindi words. The relation between Hindi and English is yet more remarkable. ‘Report’, ‘Mood’, ‘Rail’ are well known Hindi words now and ‘Guru’, ‘Gherao’, ‘Mantra’, ‘Pandit’ are officially English words today. Major languages of the world have becomes world languages rather than being languages of certain countries.

The idea of snubbing foreign culture is grounded on the flawed concept of ‘roots’. What keepers of culture and language have done over the centuries, well, millennia is a failed to attempt to not allow a change – even indigenous – to keep these roots. They yearned to have root of eateries, dresses, conventions, practices and language; no change in the form of innovation allowed. People, who were on look out for better options, consequently adopted reformed versions of foreign culture. It’s where we lost. Western culture didn’t defeat us, we offered, I would even go on to say volunteered, victory to them.

There is no such thing as ‘roots’ as the idiom goes ‘old order changeth yielding place to new one’ but there does exist a strong public craving to find cosy, better options. It existed at the beginning of civilizations and it will exist at their end. What we need innovation of deshi culture and acceptance of good parts of that of others.

Saurabh Dharmesh

[Image courtesy: http://philip.greenspun.com/images/200103-d1-mumbai/animal-power-and-mcdonalds.half.jpg]