Misunderstanding Indian Culture

June 20, 2010

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.

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