Misunderstanding Indian Culture

Aakar Patel, in his Mint column, quotes some very interesting data on culture but draws incomplete conclusions. I think that the real story underneath the data is very different and more complex.

Aakar took Time Out; “the most comprehensive events magazine in the world” and counted the no of cultural events listed in roughly the same time period in Oct 2010. The time span for New York and London was 1 week each whereas it was 2 weeks each for Mumbai, Delhi and Hong Kong. I’ve summarised the Aakar’s research in the table below:

This is good data that quantifies the cultural volume across major cities. It also shows the difference in scale in both absolute and per capita terms. In Aakar’s words:

Two things become clear, and they’re related. One, that we have few events. Two, these are free.

Aakar goes on to conclude that:

No culture is sustained much less advanced by such a poor audience. We assume that other Indians somewhere are carrying the tradition forward. Those who believe culture is happening in the small town are mistaken.

Being modern in India means being uninterested in classical Hindu tradition and ignorant of classical Europe. Our civilization is past.

This is good data but bad research. Let us see why.

First, New York and London score over other cities because they have had a longer history. London’s first landmark theater, the Royal Opera House, started in 1734 and New York’s first landmark theater, the Carnegie Hall, started in 1891. Compared to this, Mumbai’s NCPA started in 1969 and Prithvi started in 1978. In Delhi, Kamani started in 1971 and Sri Ram Center in 1976.  Over time, other institutions and groups have grown around each of the landmark theaters. But this local ecosystem takes time to develop. Given the decades of head start, its not really any surprise that London scores over New York and New York scores over cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Hong Kong.

Second, people tend to care about culture only at higher levels of economic achievements. After all, spending on culture as an expression of refinement is not the first priority for anyone. Historically also, all great cultural movements have come at the zenith of civilizations where peace reigned and wealth was at a height. Again, cities like London and New York have a much higher level of per capita income and a higher no of people with a high level of income; another reason why there are more patrons of culture in these two cities.

The point is that the numbers are actually as expected. Once we realise that culture in Indian cities is actually in its early stages rather than late (an assumption that Aakar starts with), its easy to see why volumes are low and that culture is being promoted and hence a higher proportion of free events. In fact, there is a high correlation between age and the % of free events. Older the history, lower the number of free events. Only New York beats that correlation.

What is happening in India is that the culture itself is undergoing a massive shift. What is classical is not really the culture of the current Indians; as Aakar currently points out. People find it difficult to understand classical music. School curriculum is also more focussed on creating earning capacity in the students than inculcating culture. The new culture is heavily influenced by the popular western culture and Bollywood. This new culture is just coming out and is low in volume. The old culture survives but either as promotion in larger cities or on its own in older cities. For eg look at the tradition of music concerts at the Sankat Mochan Mandir at Varanasi or the Sabhas at Chennai. The older Indian tradition of arts was focused around temples and courts. For example, Ustad Bismillah Khan played Shehnai almost every week at the Kasi Vishwanath Temple at Varanasi. Thus, looking at Time Out is probably an incorrect way of measuring Indian classical culture as neither these cities nor the temples figure there.

I think its easy to sit in Hill Road and write columns that Indian civilization is dead compared to really understanding what Indians see as their culture and how they interact with it. In reality, India is just too big and too complex to be explained in a few columns. Any claim, implicit or explicit, to the contrary appears false to me.

Bangalore Barcamp 2 – Large Turnout

Bangalore Barcamp was over this weekend and we had great fun. Interest levels are best indicated by numbers: 382 registered, just over 200 attended day 1 and almost 100 on day 2. When you end at 6.30 PM on a Sunday with many people still hanging around and some speakers not getting a session, you know it was a great hit.

We all started at 7.30 AM so that we have everything in place by 8.30 when the registration was to begin. The first registrant appeared at 7.40 AM and we were still waiting for keys to unlock the conference goodies. By 8.30 AM we had 25 people in from the registered list and 4 in a the waiting list. All flood gates opened by 9.00 AM. But by 9.30 we were down to a trickle and still away from the 200 mark. Next I checked was at lunch and we had around 200 in.

Still a 50% dropout rate makes me think about the fate of the upcoming barcamps. As someone pointed out, this was bangalore after all!

The team behind the efforts including yours truely:

First Impressions – Hyderabad House

Its not easy to get Haleem except for places that specialise in Hyderabadi/Nizami cuisine. So when I saw a Hyderabad House in front of Forum, I was thrilled. I used to visit the one in Versova in Mumbai but it closed down some time back.

First shock: Haleem is served only on sunday. Nothing available except for Biryani.
Second shock: “But Sir, you ordered chicken Biryani!”
Third Shock: Mutton Biryani was nothing like Hyderabadi biryani!!

In all, first impression is the last impression.


First Impressions – Magnolia

I love chinese food but somehow the only chinese place that I’ve frequented in Bangalore is Rice Bowl on the Lavel road. These days I come to Bangalore quite frequently but stay near domlur/Indiranagar thus ruling out rice bowl completely. So, its been time to experiment with places in Kormangala.

Tried Yo China but its way crowded for any entry. Minimum wait time: 30 mins. Too noisy and hence not worth the wait or another visit. Visited another place near 6th block. Nice decor which reminded a lot of rice bowl. Again long wait time but not as long as Yo China. Another time perhaps. Went over to Magnolia near Raheja residency and then visted again.

Magnolia is half km off the Kormangala main road (BDA road) into the road between Nandini and Utsav. A nice quiet area compared to most of kormangala. Its a house converted into a restaurant and it shows. Still very tastefully done interiors and very polite subdued service. Consists of two floors each with two rooms. Ground floor is non-smoking service while the first floor has one smoking room. Being rooms, smokers are completely isolated compared to most other places. Seats can be uncomfortable for large people and lack of armrests is uncomfortable for any. Tables are placed far apart so one can actually hear the music which is a huge plus.

I usually like to evaluate a Chinese place by the quality of soups and the rice. So far, I haven’t tried the rice so I’ll keep to the soup here. I’ve tried a clear soup and a thick soup. Both had the just the right aroma and the flavour. However, the thick soup is not really thick even by Bangalore standards, forget Mumbai places like Chopsticks (Nariman point). Still, the taste is just right.

Magnolia also serves Thai food. So, I ran my eye over the menu looking for kai (Thai for Chicken). Surprisingly, only one item. Then I realised that all the names are translated and the Thai dishes are with the prefix Thai. A first time for me definitely! I believe in the saying that a rose smells as sweet by any other name and so shall certainly try the Thai fare in near future.

I’ll certainly come back for more to this place.


Inch is on the 100ft road in Indiranagar right next to Cafe Coffee day. I went in there for the first time as it was vacant compared to CCD and then just fell in love with the place.

It has a very interesting decor. One side had hanging seats with high tables while the other has low wide sofas with low tables. Beanbags for seating outside. They can put them inside too if you ask them to. Wooden floor. Plenty of space in between the seats. Comics lying around. I read an Archie there after a long time!

They have some good salads and pasta. Simple, light and tasty stuff. I’d recommend the Mocha frappe to go with just about everything.

Wish they had wi fi and I could stay for hours. My 1xRTT card is quite slow at its best and i yearn to get back to my hotel’s broadband wi-fi. Still, a great place to hang around.

A definite for every of my Bangalore visits.

Rating: 4.5/5