Not taking the good we have for granted
Own your culture, know the worldauthors Updated: Feb 16, 2018 19:49 IST
I support the deeper cultural intention that I think I see in designer Sabyasachi’s sharp remark about saris. And I think it’s a shame that the elegant dhoti, pancha-kachcha, kurta, sherwani and so on are forsaken by so many Indian men except at ceremonial events. Indian men can look very smart and dignified in traditional clothes without needing to look like they’re auditioning for a re-make of Jodhaa Akbar. As to which, just as the salwar-kameez, the regional dress of the north-west, has become nationally popular, I would like to see the mekhala-chadar of the north-east become well-known. It is smart, practical and superbly dignified. It is more suited to our tropical weather than jeans but when I wore one years ago, I got stared at like I was from another planet. It’s a strange situation that an Indian dress like the mekhala-chadar got stared at but not jeans. The Republic is old; when are we going to re-learn sophistication?
Nevertheless, when walking by the seashore in Chennai last week, the clean air, the cool breeze and the foaming waves of the Mahodadhi (the old Indian name for our eastern sea) made me very grateful for the immense size of India and its astounding variety. It felt nice to go in the space of a week ‘from sea to shining sea’, from the Ratnakara (the old Indian name for our western sea) to the Mahodadhi. I thought it sad that it took me years to discover our own lovely names for the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea whereas I knew the phrase ‘from sea to shining sea’ pat from the US national anthem. Talk about being an English by-product.
Indeed, the ASEAN countries knew the name ‘Mahodadhi’ but most Indians no longer did. It was fascinating and frustrating. How many secrets did the sea brim with that modern Indians never got to know? It was as though an entire body of knowledge that was the birthright of every modern Indian had been swallowed in one gulp by Macaulay, the way Rishi Agastya swallowed the asura Vatapi. ‘Vatapi jheerno bhava’, ‘Be digested, Vatapi’, said the sage. Colleges in the West appeared to own our old knowledge now, though all the fieldwork still happened here. But they were the ones respectfully quoted on you since they ‘owned’ the English discourse.
In Sanskrit, the pithy phrase goes ‘Udara nimittam bahu krita vesham’, which means, ‘For the belly’s sake many rôles are played’. This is an utterance by Adi Shankara. It seems to perfectly describe the doings of those Indian scholars who went where the money was. They needed scholarships and grants from the west and had to adopt that ideology in order to attach themselves to that ecosystem. One needn’t blame them for survival. But one can resist their consequent culture of negativity without turning into a troll. Knowledge is our spiritual shield and Naam is the ‘God-knowledge’ for our times. Overall, it seems important that outwardly and inwardly we should know and own our Indian choices while freely helping ourselves to choices from the rest of the world.