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.

Mumbai twitter meet 3 – Second Life soundbytes

Mumbai just had its third Twitter meet up and it was a blast. Several new Tweeple, some from earlier meet ups and some re-acquaintances. Brajeshwar, who I met after a gap of more than a year, had a cool gadget from Adobe. Its a small video camera with a USB port. He has been testing it for Adobe by recording small snippets and then uploading it to Youtube. In no time we were talking about SecondLife which he captured and put up on Youtube. You can that he has had a lot of practice as he’s asking all the right questions. Or maybe just natural talent! That’s his voice from behind the camera.


This one has been long time in pipeline!

Samrat is in backbay reclamation area near Churchgate. Its not as well known as its cousin Status which sees Nariman point flocking to it for lunch. But trust me its a lot better.

Its a medium sized place spread over two floors. One is struck by two things upon entry: most of the patrons are families taking a day out and that there are so many trophys declaring Samrat as the Best Veg restaurant in Bombay! It seems they have won for every year for a fairly long time!

Its a nice clean place with tables packed together and waiters in uniforms bustling about. A glance around will show that Thali is popular and indeed its tough to go wrong with the choice. I would also recommend the Masala Khicdi here. I’m split between the Thali and the Khicdi everytime I come here and just can’t make a decision on the gastronomic criteria. So I take Khicdi when in hurry/when I need to stay light and Thali otherwise. My recommendation for these two should by no means take you away from trying other items on Menu. They’re great too! Its just that I haven’t been able to break myself away from the hold that these two items have over me! I have tried some others when we went in a group and I can tell you that the Tandoori paneer is the best I’ve had anywhere in the world. For dessert, the aamras is incomparable.

I’ll dwell a bit on the thali as its the most attractive option here. Costs Rs 170 a head. The items are the same as any Gujrathi thali. But its vastly superior to any other in two aspects: taste and service. One can keep eating just one or two items and completely immerse oneself into them at the cost of others and still feel satiated. Item to item, samrat beats other gujrathi places hands down. When it comes to service, you feel you have come in a wedding. There may be people lined up and waiting to get in and you may be protesting that you’re filled upto the mouth, the waiters would still implore you to have more! They actually run to get items you haven’t tried lest you run away before they return! Other gurathi thali places like Aaram in Mahim also serve huge amount of food but this service is beyond anything I’ve ever seen.

I can go on and on about Samrat. I have already used more exclamation marks here than all my other posts combined and I can still add more. But suffice it to say that its MUST visit place in Mumbai. Its the benchmark for good quality food as far as I’m concerned.

Rating: 5/5

Guru da Dhaba

Most people, particularly non-vegetarians, find vegetarian food boring. Its usually paneer this, paneer that, paneer something else and so on and so forth. But it need not be. I’ll attempt to review two great places for veg food in Mumbai in this and the next post. The first off is Guru da dhaba.

Guru da Dhaba is a small place in the Lokhandwala market, Andheri west. Just turn left after the McD at Lokhandwala and its the small place on your right. A dhaba in name and in looks. No AC. You share your table with others and food is plonked/slid on your table. Small kids run around with amazing energy serving all.

The menu is on the board in front. I suggest you ask for a glass of chaas while mulling over the menu. Its really the best chaas I’ve ever had. It worsened a bit in the past 4 yrs but still great. Everything is great so just go ahead and order. I usually favour the makhani rotis with dal/rajma and one subji. Rotis keep coming hot off the plate and no time I usually order for the second subji. Gobhi aloo, methi aloo, mushroom are my favorites here. I always think of trying other stuff but I relent to the urge of reliving past experiences. Some day, the law of marginal utility would play out and I’ll move to other stuff. But it looks far right now!

I still remember my first time here. I got two shocks. First the realisation that I had eaten around 14 rotis! and second that the bill was around Rs 100!! Its no longer that cheap and the place has started to close down by 10.30 but its still great.

One can follow-up the great food here with Naturals ice-cream around the corner. A mix of tender coconut and malai tastes heavenly after guru da dhaba.

Rating = 5/5.

Mumbai landmark

I have a confession to make and also want to expose the evil called landmark. I am a bibliophile. And the newly opened Landmark is to me what a pub is to a recalcitrant tippler.

For those who do not know, landmark is a book shop that started out of Chennai and is now spreading across metros. The most recent one opened at Infiniti Mall at Andheri Lokhandwala. It is small by landmark standards but already beats any other large Mumbai book store in its collection. And these people say that the collection is just starting out!

Let me paint a picture of Mumbai Book shops. There is the venerable Strand in the fort. Great books become available here ahead of any other store and that too at great prices. Its the smallest book shop amongst all the shops I keep visiting but it inspires awe with its collection and its dedication to book lovers. The only comparison I can draw is with Midlands in Delhi. But then, which other man has won a Padma Vibhushan for selling books than Mr Shanbhag! They have the best Indian collection that I have seen on fine arts and on chess. But they really are famous for creating trends. A freakonomics/world is flat etc are released at Strand simultaneously with the rest of the world while the other shops wait for market reaction and then follow. Strand knows what its readers want and goes out and gets it ahead of others.

Crossword is the large chain that everyone knows of. There are many branches and affiliates but only two are any good: kemps corner where the original Mahalaxmi one moved and the Powai one. Some are actually examples of how not to run a book store: Juhu one. This is the place where most ppl go first and caters to the mainstream. But there has been a stagnation in the Sriram recommends category and the emphasis is on the predictable few authors/books. Crossword has nice decor and allows browsing but where are the books!! The only one I’d recommend to a serious reader is the Powai one.

Granth is a new comer and they made a good start with their Juhu shop. Nice collection in a small space. Really challenged its Juhu rival: crossword. Nice ambience and very helpful people. Didn’t have a loyalty program but quickly corrected it. The goregaon one is avoidable. The juhu one would have done very well over time but for the arrival of Landmark.

In this setting came landmark. Anyone who has been to the Chennai one would attest to it being amazing. I’ve been to the usual suspects in Delhi, Mumbai, bangalore and Chennai and have had the help of bibliophiles in each city. So, trust me when I say that the best book shop in India is Chennai landmark. Where a cross word has a shelf on a topic, the Chennai landmark has a few racks and no cheap tricks of multiple copies of the same book. The variety brings me the the only word that describes it: Amazing.

The Mumbai landmark follows the same principal. Huge collection.
Strand has now no chance is the science section. Its a section it used to lead with good competition from the Juhu Granth. Landmark even has a section on Maths though its not very well stocked right now.
Literature: I once looked by Jorge Loius Borges in Mumbai. Found 2 books in Powai crossword. Others had not heard of it. landmark has many of them and two complete anthologies of fiction and non-fiction. It will be ages before anyone catches up here.
History: Crossword has nothing here. Granth led but now landmark blows them away with the sheer collection
Business & management: Huge surprise. landmark is worse than all except perhaps the Juhu crossword! Need to bring it to the level of chennai one.
Indian languages: Crossword kemps corner has a section but no one else. Its a pity that indian literature is not offered in India! Landmark had made a start with Hindi, Gujrati and marathi volumes. But the selection is not as extensive as its own other sections and lags behind the Delhi stores in the Hindi collection.

The landmark however has a huge disadvantage: no place to sit and browse. One can tolerate the narrow aisles where you have to brush against others as you pass but no place to sit and browse is a big pain. there is a small divan but its too little for the amount of traffic and frankly I like some personal space when reading.

But on the whole, landmark is the name of a increasing hole in my pocket.