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'Be culturally rooted'

It is worrying to see the lack of roots of the educated Indian in his or her own cultural soil, writes Pavan K Varma.
By HYDE PARK CORNER|Pavan K Varma | PTI
UPDATED ON AUG 23, 2004 07:35 PM IST
On August 9, the Nehru Centre held a special function to commemorate Rabindranath Tagore’s 63rd death anniversary.  The event, organised in association with a local group, The Tagoreans, heard a stimulating speech by Tapan Raychaudhury, Emiretus Fellow St. Anthony’s College, and formerly Professor of Indian History and Civilization at Oxford.

The speech was stimulating because it avoided the usual soulless panegyrics which have become the bane of such events. Instead, Tapan Raychaudhury said bluntly that the numbers of those who read Tagore is rapidly declining, and has probably become non-existent outside Bengal. He said too that those who claimed to venerate him were increasingly ignorant about his legacy. Tributes to him were becoming more and more in the nature of tedious and predictable tokenisms. The great intellectual corpus of his work was lying neglected, and certainly not being followed in practice by a younger generation swept away by western cultural influences and the seductions of a consumerist society.

Unlike Raychoudhary, I am not very concerned about the growing menace of consumerism. Many foreigners think that Indians are other-worldly. Indians know this is not true, but quite like the spiritual halo. In truth, Hinduism must be the only major religion which includes the pursuits of the material world -artha- as among the four major goals of life, along with dharma, kama  and moksha. Our most popular gods are Ganesha and Lakshmi, who stand for material prosperity and well being. That is why most Indians make such good entrepreneurs when given a chance. They have their feet on the ground and their eyes on the balance sheet. And like everybody else we love what money can offer, although, unlike most others, we do our best not to admit it.

However, I do agree with the learned professor on the growing cultural shallowness of the educated Indian. I have nothing against popular culture, such as the growth of Indi-pop. Nor do I rail against the much maligned influence of the West. The first is legitimate, and, often a rather useful challenge to the traditionally elitist and unapproachable world of classical arts. The second is unavoidable in a global village blessed with the wonderfully intrusive talents of satellite technology. What is worrying is the lack of roots of the educated Indian in his or her own cultural soil.

The young in our cities know very little of our folk lore. They have not read the classics of their own language. They celebrate festivals without knowing what they stand for. A few years ago Mahashivratri  fell on the same day as Valentine’s Day. Metropolitan kids knew all about the latter but almost nothing about the former. I once asked a representative group of professionals in a metropolitan city in India to give me a line by line meaning of our national anthem. They couldn’t.

There is a mistaken notion that if we are rooted in our own culture and know of our traditions and heritage we are somehow antiquarian, un-modern and backward. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, we have to guard against the fundamentalists who blindly glorify everything in the past. But any nation whose people take pride in what they have learnt about other cultures and life-styles at the cost of their own cultural authenticity and identity are like the proverbial dog in the adage: na ghar ka na ghat ka.

Rabindranath Tagore is an icon whose legacy and writings need to be commemorated. But this should not become a ritual where those who routinely pay homage to him are least concerned about the actual state of his legacy. In Russia, even today, a new edition of Pushkin’s writings sells a million copies. In India how many books of Tagore sell today? Sitakant Mahapatra, the Bhartiya Gnanapith Award winning poet, once told me that a collection of his poems in Oriya could not sell more than a thousand copies in Orissa. This is a sad reflection on not only the condition of Indian literature, but on our selves.  Ultimately, the nemesis is not the West. The nemesis is our inability to be authentic Indians, for if we were, we would imbibe what the West has to offer without becoming culturally rootless our selves.

(A Stephenian, Pavan Kumar Varma is a senior Indian diplomat and presently Minister of Culture and Director of the Nehru Centre in London. Author of several widely acclaimed books likeGhalib: the Man, the Times and the recently released Being Indian, he will be writing the column Hyde Park Corner, exclusively for HindustanTimes.com)

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