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Being original isn’t in Indian DNA

Indian mind is so used to ‘borrowing’ from other cultures, that the assumption that native skills are incapable of producing anything of value, still lurks, writes Gautam Bhatia.

india Updated: Oct 28, 2007 04:03 IST

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If such an advertisement were to appear in a national daily, it would cause barely a ripple; so used is the Indian mind to ‘borrowing’ from other cultures, that the assumption that native skills are incapable of producing anything of value, still lurks. And lurks it does across the economic divide. Shaving blades are better in America, so are American lyrics, American films, Japanese televisions, Korean cars…. If you have to copy, copy the best.

In fact, in the ’70s, it was a matter of Punjabi pride that the world’s most successful innovations could be copied in Ludhiana. Grimy workshops filled with slave labour were kept busy producing German machine parts, American denim, and other sundry items picked up in foreign markets. Indian businessmen traveled abroad to European industrial fairs and American specialty stores merely to pick up items that could be duplicated in India at a fifth of the cost. In the face of foreign goods and services, Indian productivity and inventiveness was highly suspect. Copying was much easier.

The recent history of popular Indian objects, film, design and music plainly states that copying is a form of flattery and appreciation, not plagiarism and subsequent legal action. The IT industry has proved that in substantial measure. California-based industries created the invention, Bangalore provided support and manpower to facilitate American ingenuity; European steel companies consolidated and altered manufacturing process long before their Indian counterparts modernised. The Japanese brought automotive technology to India in the ’80s. Cricket, a game invented in the English countryside, as a gentle pastime, is now a sub continental obsession. Indian building bye-laws are an interpretation of English building regulations of the ’20s, framed to protect peoples’ safety, health and property rights. In virtually every sphere, we are willing to play by the rules as long as others set them. Indian culture, after all, has always been one of absorption, assimilation and adaptation to local conditions.

Invention was, and still is, a wholly western idea, associated primarily with science. The arts persisted in a mythological vacuum. It was enough to be a Hindu, the product of an ancient civilisation. Culture defined the rules of the game: you lived frugally, did yoga, made peace by meditation. Absorbed in the cocoon of the family, Ramayana and Mahabharata seeped into your life at different times of the year — at festivals, through plays, later through television. While other cultures invented to stay alive, India interpreted. A thousand versions of the Ramayana, thousands more of the morning rag. Invention and its patenting were an American obscenity, the greedy ways of self-absorbed cultures.

Even today, there is no greater evidence of the Indian discomfort with change than the television ad for Incredible India. The series of finely crafted still images — a trumpet player in Ladakh, a Kathakali dancer in Kerela, a Rajasthani woman in a jharokha, another in a mud plastered courtyard — all display a sanitised view of tradition and regional diversity. Not the India of Davos and 10 per cent growth rate.

Yet, the regional diversity of Incredible India remains only pictorial, and doesn’t translate into substantive practicality. Behind the Ladakhi trumpet player today, the Danes are constructing solar-aided houses; in the Kerala of the Kathakali dancer, a Swiss company is building spas. Change, when it comes to these places, is always American or European.

Last year, when Kaavya Vishwanathan supposedly ‘absorbed’ a para or two from a chick-lit novel and claimed them as her own in How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, the world threw the book at her. But when Indian script writers, architects, graphic and industrial designers ‘absorb’ entire ideas as their own, little action is taken.

Complete and unabashed borrowing of whole scripts often promoted as original, creates little problem for Indian producers. Nishabd’s happy borrowing of Lolita or indeed the transformation of Hollywood’s Hitch into Bollywood’s Partner leaves you wondering if the copyright law even exists in India.

(Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and author)