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.

MoMo Vs MMS

Its the second MMS for me and I’m enjoying it a lot.

My mind was drawn to a comparison of MoMo and MMS formats. MoMo format (as in Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad) usually has one presentation/theme a meeting and intense discussion about that one topic only. It also has a fairly high frequency with one meeting a month. MMS on the other hand has no theme and last at least one whole day. In fact, it is like a BarCamp around the theme of mobility. So, one sees a whole lot of variety in a single day.

In summary its depth vs width. Take your pick.

Barcamp Delhi 2

I’m at the second BarCamp Delhi. As usual, gyan sessions are boring. Deep tech/product demos are interesting. Discussions start. I guess it has simply to do with the fact that insights/new thoughts make one think and thats where the connection is made.

First Impressions – Moet’s shack

I noticed Moet’s shack in defence colony while on way to dinner to Little Italy last Friday. Returned with another friend the next day. I wanted a quiet place but gave in to the joy of exploration.

Shack offers Chinese and sea-food. We went for Chinese not being sure of sea food in Delhi. Again, the place was closely packed and noisy. Again I ordered Chardonnay hoping for a repeat of the last week. Alas, the wine was too cold. But any regret was short lived as food was served a lot faster than we expected. It was pretty good. But it did not delight. It merely met the standard of good chinese food in taste and in size of helpings. A place worth another visit but not the kind of place where one can vow people.

Rating: 3.5/4