November 21, 1999
© Akhilesh Mithal

The Status of Culture in the Subcontinent


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‘When I hear the word "Culture" I reach for my gun!’

This remark of Goebbels is an eternal verity or gospel truth for all totalitarians whether Fascists, Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists, Muslim Leaguers, Akalis or the RSS/VHP/BJP/Bajrang Dal conglomerate called "The Parivaar" currently ruling or at least are in power in India as the result of the karma of its miserable people.

While others progress ahead, India goes on stewing in the fetid mire of communalism and gets left behind. China came into its own two years after India’s independence and its status in the comity of nations is far superior to that of India. There is no religion in China. Lucky devils!

The often asked question, "What is the status of culture in the sub-continent today?" Requires to be addressed because the creative energies of the billion strong Indians appear to be in torpor or stupor and culture is the key to initiative in creativity.
Culture flourishes when the rulers are interested and involved. No totalitarian regime or ruler has ever made a mark in this area. This is because culture is not important in itself but for what it can do to mobilise and enthuse cadres. It’s merely an agenda item in totalitarian thought and action. This makes for mediocre poetry getting sung and good poetry not being heard.

The first attempt made to have an independent culture institution in free India was the IGNCA or Indira Gandhi National Centre for Culture and Arts. The kind of difficulties it’s experiencing may well see this small flicker extinguished before long. This is because we suffered a culture fracture when freedom was lost and have not yet built a practice and tradition of spotting nurturing fostering and enhancing talent.

Before Independence, for 200 years (1757-1947), the Indian heritage was neglected spurned and diminished by the alien British rulers. Their rule too was a military occupation of a totalitarian nature. The velvet glove was pretty thin and no one could miss the iron fist it was meant to conceal.

The rapidity and ruthlessness with which it could be brought into play was shown at Jallianwala Ba-gh where hundreds of unarmed people were shot down in cold blo-od by General Dyer acting under the orders of the Lt. Governor of the Punjab Sir Michael O’Dwyer.

In 1942, just five years before Independence, 65,000 Indians including Gandhi, Nehru and Azad were held without trial for years. This, the "Quit India Movement," was quelled by the British using some 45 battalions of the army against a population that had been unarmed for a century.

Another important factor contributing to the death of Indian culture was that the cultural level of the British was among the poorest in the world in 1757. The British islands were bleak areas without any trace of bounty from nature. They had no current experience or racial memory of abundance and variety.
India in 1757 had been the richest country in the world since times immemorial and its name alone like "Open Sesame" brought visions of untold riches and inexhaustible treasures to mind. British manufactures such as woollens and broadcloth were not wanted in India and some £500,000 had to be brought in bullion form to enable factors of the East India Company to buy the spices and cotton piece goods which were needed for trade.

After the Battle of Plassey, the riches of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa became Company property and Clive and his successors started the plunder activity. They could only take from the treasure house which was India and give only poverty and destitution in return.

The Indians who fought for freedom drew inspiration from their golden past and hoped that independence would usher in an era of rebuilding, resurgence and renaissance. They assumed that in free India the rich and resplendent ancient Indian art forms would be supported and sustained to recover their vitality and to enable them to scale heights greater than ever before.

This has not happened. It’s time to ask questions and find answers. Across the border from India the sectarian hidebound totalitarian Muslim League ideology (whether in or out of uniform) has been in power. The growth of culture has been confined, restricted and distorted when not banned altogether by self-proclaimed Mahomedans.

This is all the more curious as the "Father of Pakistan," Qaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was Islam illiterate and there are stories galore of legal battles in which Persian and Arabic masters such as Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru "educated" Jinnah in Islamic law, jurisprudence and quoted passages from the Holy Quran of which Jinnah was quite ignorant.

To the credit of Jinnah it must be said that his first speech after attainment of Pakistan asked for equality of all before the law regardless of creed. Alas! It was too late to recover ground lost to zealots and bigots who interpreted the law in as killjoy a manner as was possible. In Pakistan today all aspects of culture like song, dance, drama and painting are suspect and large areas in each interdict. Sculpture is totally banned. Women are kept largely illiterate and held in thrall and bondage by their male relatives.

A woman seeking justice under the antiquated law governing matrimony was murdered in the chambers of her own lawyer recently. As if to illustrate the mindset prevalent this is called an "honour" killing and the sentence is expected to be nominal. All that remains "free" is poetry and its singing in the ghazal form. For even this lone lamp lightening the darkness to survive and continue new poets are needed.

Here lies the rub. There are no new poets of great talent. Who is there after Ahmad Faraz?

Itihaas articles on Culture Fracture.


© Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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