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Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 01/26/15 8:42 AM

Feature: Culture Chameleons

Those Culture Chameleons!

It’s official. India just won the culture war. Which culture war, you ask.

Why, the one that our netas tout like some tired old mantra every chance they get: the war against westernization, against the evil influence of burgers and quesadillas, Louboutin heels and Cavalli outfits, against  arguably execrable singers like Snoop Dogg and Keisha, EDM and Pride parades.
You don’t believe me?

Think on it, as we say in the heartland. Let`s begin with the small details. More people queue up for 14 types of stuffed paranthas and dosas than they do for ravioli and sashimi; as for pizza, why, we’ve totally colonized that food item, whacked the Italian stuffing out of it and replaced cheese, onion, ham with good ole chicken tandoori and aloo tikkas…and that crust ain’t complaining, I promise you.

Of course, we like molecular gastronomy; in fact, we just love what that form of nouvelle cuisine can and does do to the gajar halwa! For the few who can drop serious blunt on haute couture from Paris or Milan, there are more who sport stunning saris, lehengas, bandhgalas and short-sleeved kurtas from Jade Blue.

And do a headcount at any Honey YoYo Singh or Arijit Singh concert, and compare it to the declining numbers who take in those international rock or post-Punk acts. The crowds at lit fests go to stare at that rocking film star, or listen in right earnest to Chetan Bhagat or Amish. On the dance floor, they may begin dancing to the Dougie or Cat Daddy but very soon, it’s a Bollywood mix people are bopping to.


Heartland revolution

It’s a strange situation, indeed.All clichés can be thrown into the ring and will hold good.There has been a paradigm shift, only it hasn’t shifted in the way you would expect it to.

Also, this chutnification of cross-country and cross-global culture has also resulted in a smooth crossover, a blurring of the India/Bharat  lines. The rural came to town and wrought a forceful but peaceful takeover.

Today, the uber-rich stick to their defined ghettoes (every city has these ghettoes) while the heartlanders roam the streets cheerfully.

What enabled this is something typically Indian. We did what we do pretty well:  take all that other cultures offer us, whack the otherness into a pliable mass,  infuse it with an indigenous flavour, puff up its pretentious quotient (we are a  very pretentious lot), and proudly use it to death. Garv se kaho and all that jazz, see.

At which point, the bestselling items automatically become completely, sincerely, happily Made in India. It’s the desi mix, sistahs and mistahs, and yes, it totally works!

As a recent New York Times article put it, no culture is philosophically monolithic, or promotes a single conception of the human. A culture is an internecine contest  between alternative conceptions of the human.Where we are concerned, with some refinement but mostly retaining the basic tenets of our culture, we are doing it all.

We take culture, the broadest canvas ever, and cut ourselves a nifty coat from it. We take the international drape, the silhouette, and embellish  it with mokaish, kashida, zardosi.We are still travelling to exotic locales abroad  for our adventure holidays or chill-pill time, but we are also taking heritage walks around our city and rediscovering our native heritage.

We are people who support  stem cell research while reserving judgment on the made snana.

On the work front, we have moved from being glorified back-office coolies to  feted entrepreneurs, some as young as 14, like the Parippu Vada Media`s Shane Mathews and Jai Kishan Sudhi . There are as many creative startups  as there are creative ideas; I mean, who hasn’t heard of Varun Agarwal and his Anu Aunty?

Ongoing affair 
In this post-digital day, we’ve taken to social media like the mahseer takes to the waters at Gangotri. Every bit of our lives is up thereon Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and all those online retail sites. That ad about the girl wilting under a devastating absence of `likes’?

That’s our story! We took the paparazzi culture and gave it that necessary tweak: we became paps, all of us! Just how involved are we in all that’s happening around is, apart from a barrage of enthusiastic `likes’?

That, now, is debatable, but for the most part, we are getting there.

For all our fascination with the virtual world, our age-old traditions keep us rooted in reality. As of now, it’s all about quantity; quality curation will inevitably follow, but after a while.

And oh, it’s an ongoing affair, this westernization thingie. We are still scanning  the horizon for all things foreign that we can grab, adopt, adapt and put on a  t-shirt.Also, pop culture is youth driven. As Amitabh Bachchan said in the pages of this very newspaper, the young are fearless and somersault over  their failures and disappointments with insouciance. This young and fearless India has the most jaded heart convinced about the renaissance on home shores.

However, before you wonder if the young merely pay lip service (if that) to  heroes of another age, all the random and specific surveys that our magazines  undertake with unfailing enthusiasm show that some people of a certain age,  some things of a certain antiquity, still hold sway: Amitabh B, Sachin Tendulkar,  RD Burman, Asha Bhonsle, MF Hussain, Shobhaa De, certain cool-dude lifestyle gurus; old Hindi film songs, mojris of the most supple leather and  chaat of all kinds. Like them or loathe them, but people talk about them.

Relevance is as relevance does.

Our films, now, are actually getting better and better. So okay, puerile action thrillers, horrex films and stories with indescribable plotlines (Happy New Year,  anyone?) still break the box office but quiet sleepers like Queen and Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania bring in the crowds, too.

If the idiot box has taken on a relentless, haranguing avatar, our standup comic acts lampoon uniquely Indian  traits and situations, and do a darned funny job of it. Of course, we will take razzing from an Anubhav Pal or a Kanan Gill, or the reigning funnybone monarch  Kapil Sharma, with more grace than from a Russel Peters or a Papa CJ, for reasons we aren’t too sure of.

As for art, we have always nurtured (and sometimes destroyed and hounded) local talent. Two times out of three, connoisseurs as well as enthusiasts would  rather buy a Ganesh Pyne, Samir Mondal or a Subodh Gupta than an artwork  by a western painter.

Our theatre scene has taken some big jumps away from western bedroom farces: now they stage Indian bedroom farces. However, across the board,  more playwrights are tackling socially relevant issues, more theatre-goers  are going to see these plays.

What Atul Kumar has done with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is just incredible: Piya Behrupiya has to be seen to be believed.

The rough and the smooth
It’s not all a roseate situation, of course, not with all the escalating violence  against women, the hardening of prejudices against those not like us, a cementing of retrograde right-wing positions, enforced homecomings and the like.

As Rushdie famously said, we live in an Age of Offence, and the times are detrimental to unfettered creativity, openminded debate or even walking in another’s shoes. Intolerance rules the roost. Yet all is not gloom and doom, mainly because wherever there is something wrong, a strong searchlight is  almost immediately shone on that dark corner. All is not gloom and doom  because of the subaltern tradition.

But. Are our roads traversable? Barely . Are our children educated or on the way to being educated? Same answer as before. Is our drinking water potable?  Hardly. Are our netas looking out for us?

Excuse me while I barf.

Then again, the LCD (least common denominator) endures. We are a country  rich in cultural diversity and today , even if there doesn’t seem to be too overt a celebration of that diversity, we are still doing our own thing and doing it in a pretty cool manner, for the most part.

And in the end, as the poet said: there is much madness but the centre continues to hold firm. (No, not that Centre, guys!) The point is, we are an old country with a young soul. Or do I mean a young country with an old soul? Well, it works both ways, and thank heaven for that.

It helps us wear our culture lightly.

(The writer wishes to state that some amount of cherry-picking has gone into this article. It was inevitable, so please bear with her.)

This ran on 26 Jan in THE TIMES OF INDIA REPUBLIC DAY 2015 supplement. 



chutnification of cultureculturediversityFeatureFeaturesIndia/Bharatunity

Sheila Kumar • January 26, 2015

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