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Growing Culture Deficit of Contemporary Indian Society

The aggressive postures adopted by increasingly successful groups in the country against other cultures are antithetical to India's traditions. Some generate an arbitrary hostility to groups of different subcultures, others violently oppose any exploratory approach to analysis or expression of ideas and forms that do not coincide with their own cocksure beliefs.









Growing Culture Deficit of Contemporary Indian Society

Vinod K Gaur


inevitably, translate into injustice and discomfiture for some or other section of society. However, before we proceed further, it is desirable to clarify at the outset as to what is understood by the word “culture”, and in what sense is it interpreted here.

The word culture rooted in the latin cul-

The aggressive postures adopted by increasingly successful groups in the country against other cultures are antithetical to India’s traditions. Some generate an arbitrary hostility to groups of different subcultures, others violently oppose any exploratory approach to analysis or expression of ideas and forms that do not coincide with their own cocksure beliefs.

I believe that my ideas about culture first acquired a clear meaning many years ago, on reading T S Eliot’s, Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948). I am grateful to Sadanand Menon for the quotations from justice Kaul’s famous judgment.

Vinod K Gaur ( is at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore.

A diversification among human communities is essential for the provision of incentive and material for the Odyssey of the human spirit. Other nations of different habits are not enemies: they are godsends. Men require of their neighbours something sufficiently akin to be understood, something sufficiently different to provoke attention, and something great enough to command admiration.

–A N Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

he title of this article makes a statement. But it is not intended to express an opinion. Rather, it verbalises a perception abstracted from the felt views of a large number of fellow citizens from a variety of different lifestyles and belief systems. I therefore felt it to be a statement to be explored for its representative validity and to be then analysed for possible societal developments responsible for its fair or unfair prevalence. This is provoked both by a deep feeling of personal concern at the assumed distortion of a deeply cherished heritage and by the belief that by projecting this issue squarely on our consciousness, we may begin to reduce the burden of irrational responses and prejudices on our psyche, which also,

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tura, meaning “to cultivate”, was for long, meant to signify the product of social cultivation: the progressive refinement of human behaviour. Theorists like Matthew Arnold consistently regarded culture “as the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters that most concern us, the best that has been thought and said in the world”. Contemporary society, however, recognises “cultural relativism”, that is, there are no logical criteria for judging one society to be intrinsically superior or inferior to a nother. Accordingly, UNESCO (2002) d escribed culture “as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living t ogether, value systems, traditions and b eliefs”. It is in this latter sense that the word is used here.

Cultures are constituted of a complex set of objects, both mental and material, fashioned by their world views and beliefs, abstracted in the form of symbols: objects of everyday use1 or ceremonial, tools, art works, habitats, institutions, and subliminally learned norms of behaviour in


d ealing with the family, community, and members of other cultural groups. However, since socially constructed specific culture traits of different groups still share the biologically determined generalised abilities such as the making of symbols, specially language, as well as hypothesis formulation and deduction, and perhaps a striving towards perfection, not only do we expect to find some universal traits in every culture, but equally significantly, the possibility of their being inter-fertile. These shared yet differentiated traits of cultures inevitably serve as a gene pool constantly mutating to evolve new symbols, as a group devises new cultural strategies and wields them to confront new emerging conflicts either within the social structure(s), as for example, in the wake of functional complexity and differentiation, or from without by the threats posed by aggressive invasions or dramatic changes in the natural environment.

Thus, catalysed by conflicts, cultural symbols are forever transforming through a more or less harmonious organic development and by the free interplay of their internal elements: the arts, literature, belief s ystems, resource bases, technology, and institutional structures, each at their own characteristic pace, some even retrograde. And thus, new symbols evolve, of thought, lifestyles and behaviour, and the old yield place to more evocative ones. In a liberal social milieu that supports alternative spaces for their free play, these d evelopments may lead to a new cultural harmony which may be adjudged to be of a higher order, or retrogress in a less s upportive society.

We thus recognise that the structure of a culture, whilst itself distinctive, has no claim to its being normative and that its dynamics is mediated by mutations of cultural symbols and the autonomous development of its constituent elements, with no clear possibility of being steered towards a desired goal through deliberate action.

Arbitrary Concern?

Does the aforesaid unavailability of a reliable frame of reference with which respect we may compare and evaluate different cultures or the different stages of the same culture imply that a concern for the i mprovement of culture is fundamentally ill-defined and any prescription for realising this goal is, at best, arbitrary? Or, are there some enduring constituents that exist at the core of every culture, which could then be distilled to yield some intrinsically human attributes which, whilst supporting the integrity of that culture, can also be expected to prove congenial to other cultures and even contribute to them, some of its nobler aspects? We therefore, ask whether there exist any deeper “value systems” that are central to the totality of a culture, that is, its preferred avowal concerning the issues of truth, justice, equity, coexistence with different world views and belief systems, and commitment to supporting alternative spaces for the exploration of new literary, artistic and conceptual forms and symbols that may enrich the ever expanding expressive world of emerging ideas, emotions, hopes, aspirations, and creative responses required to meet strange unforeseen challenges.

In addressing this question, we first note some particulars of the human c ulture. First, that these cultures are dynamic and grow organically, in many respects, much like an organism, both in the fashioning of an identity through a harmonious synergy of its functionally differentiated elements, and in its hereditary transmission, not of course by heredity but by learning (enculturation), from generation to generation. And, organic development is a historical process with a consciousness of the past and its potential for the future. Second, that whilst culture represents the collective identity of a people and an embodiment of their symbols and conventions, its attributes can only be abstracted from the personal behaviour of individuals and groups.

This underlines the conflicting roles of individuals in fostering and advancing group culture through unusual motivations and creative approaches to perfection on the one hand, and remaining a representative of the group on the other. Further, it is well to appreciate that t ensions within a society that arise from the struggles between its differentiated

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e lements, by becoming tensions in the minds of its more conscious members, enhance the creative potential of the society for evolutionary embellishments. A certain balance between uniformity and diversity would thus appear to be a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the advancement of culture.

Third, we note that almost all human cultures have evolved in association with certain world views subscribed by the people, as crystallised religions or way of life, and ask as to what implications may it have to the future development of a culture with the ever present conflict potential residing in the growing inconsistencies between the articles of faith and the products of more consensual knowledge gained from scientific investigations.

Generic Conditions

From the foregoing, it is possible to identify a few generic conditions which, if present, would furnish the necessary ingredients for the advancement (improvement/ascent) of culture, even though they do not provide a guarantee that it will happen.

The first condition, I abstract from the organic character of cultural development, that is the sense of a consciousness of the inherited past and its potential for the forming future. This, in turn, requires the existence of an uncompromisingly supported, dogma-free social instruments and processes needed to strengthen fidelity of investigation and an honest approach to interpretation of past historical events.

The second condition is the dominance in society of a liberal social philosophy that supports and sustains alternative cultural spaces for the experimental development of new, more evocative cultural symbols and modes of thought and behaviour even if they appear to be heretical to currently held conventions. A related corollary is the maintenance of a healthy balance between the need to forge unity and the desirability to preserve diversity which has the potential to spark fruitful directivity to the future. My last condition is the existence within a society, of a cultivated tradition for scepticism and the progressive minimisation of the inconsistencies between the authoritarian world view of belief systems and our epistemic k nowledge of the physical world. At this stage it would be instructive to examine whether in the vast body of Indian c ultural accretions there are examples that bear witness to the existence of these conditions.

Indian culture is strongly conditioned by the cyclic view of the world and the prominent role played by the process of creative destruction in moving the evolutionary wheel forward, incorporating the past without lamenting of its passing away, into the present and the already arriving future. Indeed, there are rituals practised by many of its subcultures, that annually observe the significance in their lives of their origins, traced not only to the immediately preceding generations but to “old stones that cannot be deciphered” (T S Eliot in East Coker). And, if the value of a culture is to be measured by the contributions that it has made to other cultures, history has much to credit it.

Indian society has also harboured a l iberal culture over long periods of its varied historical traditions, allowing novel ideas to develop in astronomy and mathematics, and in poetry, sculpture and architecture without any threat of persecution or at least, in spite of it, by believers and the prurient. These dogmafree traits are eloquently expressed in the epic Ramayana, as Javali’s admonitions to Rama as to how he should behave: “follow what is within your experience and do not trouble yourself to what lies beyond the province of human experience”. The philosophy of scepticism, as against the cocksure, too has a long tradition in Indian culture dating back to the Rigveda: “whence this creation has arisen…, perhaps it formed itself,…,..perhaps..”, flourished as Lokayat system of thought from the first millennium BC, along with the more aggressively atheistic system of Charvaka and of other beliefs. Indeed, the simultaneous presence of materialistic, atheistic and a variety of theistic belief systems including Islam, continued to be accepted right through the 16th century and given royal patronage by emperor A kbar who regularly held multi-religious discourses. These realised conditions in Indian cultural progression through the ages, I believe, still live subliminally w ithin the psyche of an average Indian, continually experienced by moving r esponses and behaviours in everyday e ncounters with fellow countrymen of varied groups and persuasions.

Threat to Cultural Integrity

There is, however, a deep concern today arising from the aggressive postures adopted by some increasingly successful groups in the country, that are antithetical

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to the conditions for cultural ascent identified above that have indeed characterised India’s cultural traditions for a major part of its long history. Some of these elements generate an arbitrary hostility to groups of different subcultures whilst others violently oppose any exploratory approach to analysis or expression of ideas and forms that do not coincide with their own historically unsupported and raw interpretation of history and religion, and cocksure beliefs. In recent years we have witnessed a growing clamour for banning books, paintings, exhibits, films, even ways of dressing, by certain groups on the basis of narrow perceptions, and more regrettably, the impotence of the civil society in combating these. This violence-laced tendency to abridge the public space essential for the staging of new experimental creations of the human mind and spirit from which society may select the genes for its future advancement, are ill portents and have serious implications to sustaining the cultural integrity of India.

In a bizarre incident of this nature, the dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the M S University, Baroda, Shivaji Panikker, was suspended for having upheld the law by supporting the fundamental and artistic rights of his student Chandramohan who was attacked by a mob which had illegally entered the university premises, vandalised artistic works mounted for an internal evaluation exercise, and finally, schemed to get the student arrested by the authorities, in the words of justice Kaul of the Delhi High Court “to protect the pervert or to assuage the susceptibilities of the over-sensitive” (judgment of 8 May 2008). And the seriousness of the situation grows with the steady victories gained by such groups, corralling a series of individual artists like Bhupen Khakhar, Arpita Singh, Surendran Nair, Chitrovanu Mazumdar, even torching the Hussain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad which housed the Chester-Herwitz collection of H ussain’s works. Indeed, while quashing a bunch of cases against the beleaguered artist M F Hussain, justice Kaul in his l ucid judgment observed “we could have been pardoned for imagining that a particularly nauseating moment in contemporary Indian history had come to a close, where illiterate, ignorant and i nflammatory charges were foisted upon an isolated artist with the deliberate intent of paralysing him”. Caught between daily threats to his life and freedom on the one hand and an impotent State unable to guarantee him protection on the other, Husain has been living abroad, in self-imposed exile, for over two years now. And further, quoting the Supreme Court’s observations in the 1970 K A Abbas vs Union of India case:

Our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read… The requirements of art and literature include within themselves a comprehensive view of social life and not only in its ideal form, and the line is to be drawn where the average moral man begins to feel embarrassed or disgusted at a naked portrayal of life without the redeeming touch of art or genius or social value. If the depraved begins to see in these things more than what an average person would, in much the same way, as it is wrongly said, a Frenchman sees women’s legs in everything, it cannot be helped. In our scheme of things ideas having redeeming social or artistic value must also have importance and protection for their growth.

The test of the title statement, I leave to the thoughtful criticisms of the reader, against the backdrop of the foregoing arguments and snippets of some characteristic developments in our contemporary society, along with the sage words of T S Eliot:

we must try to embrace so much in our view, that we may avoid, in putting one thing right, putting something else wrong….for it is as much, or more, because of what we do piecemeal without understanding or foreseeing the consequences, that the culture of one age differs from that of its predecessor (Notes towards the D efinition of Culture).


1 One of the fascinating symbols of Indian culture is the lota, an all-purpose vessel used for a variety of purposes from storing and transporting a purposeful amount of milk or water to ceremonies and rituals and maintenance of personal hygiene. Charles Eames, an early visiting professor at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, lists a wide range of cultural values that, distilled through centuries of perception and thought, have apparently been iconised in its amazing form: the optimum amount of liquid to be fetched, carried or poured; size, strength and gender of the hands to manipulate it; balance in various states of its fullness; relation of its mouth size to volume; fluid dynamics of the filling, pouring, cleaning and carrying it; its sculpture in fitting the palm of the hand, the curve of the hip or the rhythmic motion of walking; the texture inside and out for cleaning; its material and size relating to cost, workability, durability, salvage value, preservation of contents; sounds evoked by various forms of handling it; the light reflected by its surface; and the feelings evoked by p ossessing one, selling it, or gifting it.

Professor M. N. Srinivas Memorial Prize 2009

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The Professor M. N. Srinivas Endowment Fund was jointly set up by the Indian Sociological Society and the Indian Council of Social Science Research in 2001. This Fund has instituted a prize for young sociologists/social anthropologists for publishing the best sociological/social anthropological paper in any of the social science journals/edited volumes, in English, in India. The prize will carry a sum of Rs. 2,000.

Papers published during 01 January 2006 - 31 December 2008 are eligible for consideration. The authors, who are life members or ordinary members of the Society with at least one year’s standing, will be eligible for the contest. The author must be 40 years or less in age on 31 December 2008. If the paper is co-authored, all the authors must be 40 years or less in age on 31 December 2008. The authors will submit only one paper for consideration.

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