Did you know there were only 2,293 “motor vehicles” registered in India in December 1940 as compared with 37,181 in December 1938? This random fact is on the back of a newspaper clipping in an old family scrapbook, behind Pandit Nehru’s sister Krishna Hutheesing’s account of her visit to Uday Shankar’s long ago dance retreat in Almora. It’s next to the clipping of ‘Queen Farida of Egypt’ with elegant eyebrows like scimitars and a smart cap on her head at the right jaunty angle.
There’s a car fact in Mrs Hutheesing’s article too, she writes, “On the fixed day, Uday Shankar’s car was to come for us… and there amid the pines stood a lovely new cabriolet, an embodiment of modernism in our primitive motor surroundings.” But the visitors did not feel at ease “even in that luxurious car because the road was so bad with sharp turns and with a not very inviting khud (precipice) on one side of it.”
What compels attention is that it was all right to say this in 1940 when the British ruled India and we could blame them. But 72 years later it is deeply annoying to think that public roads in many parts of India are impassable or just impossible and it’s our fault. Equally vexing is to have Thai friends disparage some place in India, say, Aurangabad, as “primitive, Thailand was like that 40 years ago.” I don’t know about you but I find it increasingly difficult to trumpet the glory of Indian culture when its context tells another story. We have some of the best content in the world. Why must its presentation be inappropriate? Why can’t we care about good finish, even in an elementary matter like designing nice fasteners for classical dance ghunghroos? Why have those klutzy leather straps and buckles for the ankles of a nayika whose fingers flutter in millennia-old mudras that summon the very gods to the rangbhumi (stage)?
Everything I have, I owe to daal-chaval. But is it unreasonable to want our dearly beloved motherland to be like Kalidasa’s notion of dance in Malavikagnimitram, if I have that right, as ‘ekam samaradhanam’, the one full banquet? Let’s change that slogan to ‘Indomitable India’ and build that better mousetrap like Emerson urged so that the world will beat a path to our door. We want to keep the good bits of the millennia. But aren’t you ennyuee with the Nineteen bleeding Forties?
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture firstname.lastname@example.org