About the Book
How do we understand India's culture? This book takes us on a fascinating journey of exploring this country through an analyses of broader themes and events and some personal accounts. It investigates India's diversified cultural base-language and literature; religion and spirituality; visual and performing arts; philosophy, science, and economics; and India's role in Asia. B.P. Singh discusses the relationship between the state and market, the debates regarding cultural preservation, harmonious aspects of Indian culture, the role of administration and the government agencies. India's Culture integrates the two ideas-the uniqueness ofIndia with a developed culture but a developing economy and the recent trend of considering culture as a factor in determining the status of a nation in the world after market and military strength. Providing a wide- ranging view of the various dimensions of culture, B.P. Singh explores the interconnections of culture with the social and political life in India.
This edition contains a new prologue which links India's culture and important contemporary issues like terrorism, secularism, religion, development, education, technology, pluralism, democracy, and ecology. This book will appeal students and scholars interested in society, culture, and history of India and have a significant general appeal.
About the Author
Balmiki Prasad Singh is the Governor of Sikkim. A distinguished scholar, thinker, and public servant, he has held numerous important positions like Additional Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests (1993-5); Culture Secretary (1995-7); and Home Secretary (1997-9) in the Government of India. He was also the Executive Director and Ambassador at the World Bank (1999-2002). He has been the recipient of several awards and fellowships including the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship (1982-4); Queen Elizabeth Fellowship (1989-90), and Mahatma Gandhi National Fellowship (2007-8). Other important recognitions include Gulzari Lal Nanda Award for Outstanding Public Service (1998) and Man of Letters Award from His Holiness the Dalai Lama (2003).
The relationship between the artist and his or her patron is complicated and delicate. Analysing it presents a challenge to any critic and art historian. This is the very area in relation to Indepen- dent India that Mr B.P. Singh has chosen to survey in the present book. He documents and analyses the state's policy and achievements in connection with the protection, preservation and support for the Indian artistic and architectural heritage from the earliest times to the present day. Independent India's approach has been to create specific institutions to address this need: the National Museum, state museums and academies for the major arts and crafts.
In India, as elsewhere, royalty and the nobility have historically been the traditional patrons of learning and the creative arts and crafts. The hereditary right to land, wealth and power brought with it a responsibility to the people under their care. As well as defending them from attack and offering help in times of disaster, this included protecting and supporting local culture. Needless to say, not all those who inherited such responsibilities fulfilled them, but invariably those who did retained popular respect and affection. The arts have long played a major role in Indian culture in the ways people understand and express themselves and the physical and spiritual aspects of their existence. Similarly, it is through the universal language of art that different peoples and cultures can come to know each other at a deeper, more intimate level.
As the author observes, the nature of the patron-artist relation- ship changes when society is governed by a democratically elected government and traditional royal patrons no longer have the resources to support the arts and education as they once did. Here he examines the crucial problem of state patronage and promotion of art and culture. Where some people have declared that the State and culture are antagonists. Mr Singh claims that contemporary Indian experience is just the opposite. In his book he casts light on the ideals and intentions behind the formation of the Central Department of Culture and its workings, and the ways in which those Ideals have been fulfilled. This will be of great interest and value to readers concerned about the state of Indian culture today.
Early in his book Mr Singh celebrates the rich qualities of India's ancient and pluralistic culture. He then examines the impact that independence and economic liberalization have had on that heritage, citing the Nehru-Azad dialogue as an example. When he turns to the prospective development of Indian -culture in the twenty-first century, he asks whether this is likely to lead to greater harmony or conflict. I share his optimism and belief that human nature is predominantly gentle and creative, and that our own need for love and friendship goes hand in hand with our instincts to be compassionate towards others. However, I have also observed that when we place too great an emphasis on external development and physical comfort, there is a corresponding decline in our sense of basic human values. Therefore, I believe, it is very important that technological and economic development is accompanied by a corresponding inner development.
In his prescription for the future role of Indian culture, the author has drawn inspiration from Buddhist scriptures and the writings of Mahatma Gandhi. He writes: 'In the long history of ageless Indian culture, two personalities stand out as world figures: Gautama Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. If their messages are properly harmonized with the social and economic realities of our life and times, they seem to have the potential to avert any future clash among civilizations and also to strengthen the forces of democracy, ecology and culture.
India has indeed a long and rich ethical tradition exemplified by self-sacrifice and non-violence. These remain among the most potent forces for good in the world today. But it is not enough to talk admiringly about these qualities, we must incorporate them into our daily lives. We must apply them to our relations within our own families and communities. Indeed, the application of non-violence is not restricted merely to other human beings. It also has to do with ecology, the environment and our relations with all the other living beings with whom we share the planet. Non-violence can be employed whatever our position or vocation. It is even relevant to medical procedures, education systems, legal affairs and so forth. If we look forward to greater peace justice and honesty in society, we must start by applying these values ourselves.
For the past 18 months, I have been thinking, speaking and writing about one or the other facet of India's culture. The exclusiveness of such a concern is unprecedented in my life, including my long years of service and years spent in academic pursuits, except perhaps in my childhood days in the company of my parents and particularly of my grandfather. This book is not only a reflection of my recent mental journey but also relates to my whole being.
The book, however, has prosaic and unromantic origins. I had reluctantly accepted the invitation of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) to inaugurate a two- day seminar at New Delhi on 11 April 1996 entitled 'Art, Culture and Business in a Liberalized Economy: Towards Synergy'. I had then articulated two interrelated ideas: one, that India is one of the unique nations in the world in that it possesses a developed culture and a developing economy; and second, that in the last decade of the twentieth century one could clearly see that culture is emerging as a third factor in determining the status of a nation in the world after market and military strength, the market having replaced military strength from its position of supremacy in the post-Cold War world. These ideas have led to the writing of this book.
Every student of India's culture has found India both fascinating and baffling, with its multiplicity of languages and dialects, gods and goddesses, values and beliefs, customs and practices, sensuality and asceticism. One is enchanted with high levels of thinking among Indian rishis and arhats, the imagination as well as earthiness of painters and poets, the achievements of sculptors and architects, musicians and dancers, weavers and artisans. The Ajanta and Ellora caves and several Buddhist stupas are physical manifestations of the Hindu concept of the Absolute. This becomes evident when one looks at the way in which these sites were built with a grand design to sculpt mountains, to construct edifices of reason as well as prayer in conformity with Hindu thought, its architecture and sculpture. Octavio Paz catches this ethos beautifully when he writes.
The Indian genius is a love for abstraction and, at the same time, a passion for the concrete image. At times it is rich, at others, prolix. It fascinates us and tires us. It has created the most lucid and the most instinctive art. It is abstract and realistic, sexual and intellectual, pedantic and sublime. It lives between extremes, it embraces the extremes, rooted in the earth and drawn to an invisible beyond. On the one hand, a repetition of forms, a superimposition of concepts, a syncretism. On the other, the desire for totality and unity. And in its highest moments; the incarnation of a totality that is plenitude and emptiness, the transfiguration of the body into form that, without abandoning sensation and the flesh, is spiritual.
In the interpretation of history and culture, a particular aspect about the past can be described in a certain way depending on the nature of the questions that engage and motivate that enquiry. In writing the first chapter I have been guided solely by a desire to provide factual information about the attainments of Indians prior to the beginning of the Christian era arid how these have influenced the succeeding generations of Indians. These attainments have imparted a distinctive personality to Indians and to people of Indian origin. The fact that through all these years the original character of Indian culture has been retained and continuously renewed, is of consider- able significance.
During the freedom struggle special emphasis was laid on the unitary features of India's culture and superiority ascribed to the Indian mind; the observations of foreigners in this regard were liberally quoted. This was necessary as the colonial rulers continuously highlighted the disparate elements of India's culture and justified their presence as a civilizing mission and for the preservation of Indian unity. We are not under any. such obligation today. Yet at the same time, the need to describe certain achievements of the past is important in order to understand the issues facing the Indian nation today. The concept of a nation state is of recent origin; and if one compares the Indian culture of the times of Chandragupta Maurya with that of the ancient Athenians, or Romans, or Germans, one would understand very clearly that, despite the diversity of languages and religions, the multiplicity of caste and ethnic ties, and the wide economic differences, there is an over-arching unity of Indian culture. Amartya Sen has rightly observed.
The interpretation of India's past cannot but be sensitive to the concerns of today. Our identities cannot be defined independently of our traditions and past, but this does not indicate a linear sequence whereby we interpret our past first, and then arrive at our identity, equipped to face contemporary issues. On the contrary, our reading of the past and understanding of the present are interdependent, and the selectional criteria that are central to interpreting the past have to take note of the relevance of the different concerns in the contemporary world. While we cannot live without our past, we need not live within it either.
India's role in the world of the future lies in the hands not only of politicians, bureaucrats and military men, but rests very significantly with creative persons in the realm of art and culture, philosophy and science, media and education.
Both the market and the state have played pioneering roles in the promotion of art and culture in India's ageless history. During the last fifty years the policies pursued by the Government of India have facilitated cultural progress under the guiding philosophy that it is not for the state to guide culture but only to provide an environment which would facilitate dialogue among creative persons and encourage freedom of their expression. We in India are fortunate to have had leaders and creative persons like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sri Aurobindo, Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar, Maulana Azad, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Amrita Sher-Gil, Lata Mangeshkar, Bismillah Khan and many other to illuminate our political and cultural world.
The leaders of the early Republic were not only freedom fighters and persons of vision but also individuals of distinction in the realm of culture.
The second chapter of this book is mainly concerned with the situation obtaining after 1947. This chapter provides an account of institution building efforts by Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abu1 Kalam Azad, and the care with which they handled matters of art and culture to the minutest detail. The result is for all to. see. Many Indians occupy pre-eminent positions in the world in the respective fields of their creative activity. The role of the market is gradually unfolding itself and economic liberalization in India has created new opportunities for the market in the realm of art and culture. Some concerns about the role of the market and the growing influence of westernization on India's culture as also the interventionist role of the Indian state are discussed as well.
Stalwarts like Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad and Sarevapalli Radhakrishnan often chose to pen their inner thoughts on official files. These remarks have helped officials and creative persons to jointly establish and shape national academies and organize cultural pageantry on national days. Chapter 3 of the book is a faithful portrayal of dialogues between officials and leaders about art purchase policies and cultural aspects of the Republic Day parade, and is, a kind of replay oi bistoty. The aim is to provide an insight into the cultural climate or the early years or the Indian Republic. At a time of deepening rivalries between individual wielders of power and the reckless use of authority for personal gain, the ideas and conduct of leaders and officials in the early days of the Republic have both relevance and value. The need to strengthen the forces of integrity and public service in the polity, and even to influence the conduct of the market is imperative. We have to activate national forums to allow artists and writers representing the vast diversity and plurality of the nation to meet and reflect upon the nation's problems, and to guide the instruments of national unity and cohesion.
This book was first published in 1998. But its themes and concerns- issues relating to India's culture have continued to engage me in my public service activities and through lectures, monographs, seminars and dialogues. I have tried to develop and reflect further on the ideas that initially prompted me to write this volume.
How should one try to understand one's own country? The country grows on you and you grow in the country. Understanding one's own country becomes more difficult if you are an Indian. India, a civilization of hoary antiquity, of great achievements and numerous shortcomings, fills one's mind and often causes bewilderment. Some finest Indian minds and also travellers and scholars from abroad have tried to unravel India and in the process several of them have provided rare insights. All these are valuable aids to understanding.
In some ways the theme of the book is linked to my own consciousness. I was raised in Bihar-a large village! in north Bihar. I was born on 4 November 1941. This was a momentous period in the history of India from three significant angles: political, religious and literary. On a small but highly meaningful scale, Bihar, my village, where I grew up was an important centre of freedom struggle, religious harmony and culture.
The political landscape was dominated by the Indian National Congress and leaders of the freedom movement. Bihar had a senior minister in the Bihar Cabinet during 1947-57. National leaders of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party also regularly visited us.
At the global level, the Second World War was on its peak causing bloodbath and inflicting untold miseries on people of Europe and Asia. The war cries were heard and witnessed in India's north-east too. The major political battle in India was struggle for freedom under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi which reached its zenith in Quit India Movement (1942-44). Freedom could be smelt. Mahatma Gandhi mobilized the people of India for a non-violent struggle against foreign rule and its scale and depth was unprecedented in history. The repression of such a non-violent struggle by the British only eroded their moral authority and also of their Indian collaborators, the zamindars, the landed gentry and the princely rulers and thus, unintended though, served the cause of struggle for independence. Alongside, the freedom movement also had the distinction of bringing, for the first time, millions of women into the political realm of civil disobedience and satyagraha campaigns.
These eventful years also witnessed hardening of attitudes among the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League. The talks between India's two top leaders Mahatma Gandhi, supported by Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, of Congress and Mohammed Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League were showing signs of strains. The communal divide between the Hindus and the Muslims had stiffened leading to political division of the country. On 15th August, 1947, India attained freedom but it was an India divided into India and Pakistan. It was accompanied by unprecedented violence with more than one million dead. Many then felt that the partition was temporary while others feared that this will impede India from getting her due position in the comity of nations. The shame of violence was widely shared.
In the cultural field, we had the dominant influence of Tulsidas' Ram Charit Manas-a holy as well as a popular book, recitation from which was the centerpiece of every evening in many family homes. Ramlila too, was regularly staged particularly during the Dussehid' festival. A neighbouring village had a poet of stature of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar who frequently visited my village. Politics and culture influenced and infused each other in subtle ways.
Side by side, on the national level there was a literary movement to which Rabindranath Tagore in the north and Subramaniya Bharati in the south provided leadership with imagination and fervour. This had all begun with Raja Ramrnohun Roy in West Bengal in the eighteenth century. This new literary movement not only talked of beauty and nationalism but the new and rapidly growing corpus of books and monographs also revealed to its readers India in terms of its spirit, its philosophy, its arts, its poetry, its music and its myriad ways of life. This was a revolution in literature which made deep impact on revolution in politics and also got influenced by that. All these brought a new perspective in an Indian's understanding of his surroundings, of emerging challenges and, of course, of his country. An age was ending and the 'soul' of India 'long suppressed' was finding 'utterances'. India could be understood in many ways.
In retrospect, it seems we were raised at a time when India's spirit and national ideals were finding new expression. The age-old stagnation was being dismantled and the ferment of democracy, together with new schools and colleges, was changing village and national life. Along with an outpouring of creativity one also saw the amazing power of India's inner soul, her essential spirit finding expression among ordinary folk in the new era of freedom. Anyone living and participating in this ethos could only resonate to these manifestations.
Civilization and Culture
At times I have used civilization and culture in an interchangeable manner in this book. But there is a vital difference between the two. Civilization is much bigger and may contain in its fold several cultural expressions and values. Culture took root as soon as human beings transmitted or passed down knowledge both orally and materially from one generation to the other. Culture, therefore, is closely related to the arts, customs, habits, beliefs, values, behaviour and community life. Culture is the basic ingredient of civilization. Civilization, however, is marked by a high level of social complexity and organization and includes diverse economic and cultural activities. Civilization is also characterized by refinement of thoughts, manners or tastes.
Culture and civilization have, however, a close relationship.
Civilizations are actually large cultural spheres containing many nations. In short, civilization in which someone lives is that person's broadest cultural identity. Like all human creations, Civilizations also experience cycles of birth, life, decline and death but the basic tenets of culture are somewhat indestructible.
India's civilization and culture have strong roots in its geography and society. These have immensely contributed to the uniqueness of the Indian mind. The learning and conceptions of past and present that inform the Indian consciousness are manifold. Only a multi- dimensional view will facilitate better understanding.
Viewed in terms of geography, the Indian subcontinent 'is a world of its own, extensive yet enclosed by marked geographical boundaries'. To the north, it's bounded by the massive mountain ranges of the Himalaya. Its shores are washed by formidable oceans: the Indian Ocean to the south, the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east. The east is also marked by tightly grouped mountain ranges extending upto Burma (Myanmar). In the west, India opens to the arid and contorted mountains on the edge of the Iranian Plateau.
India stretches from 38 degrees north latitude well above the Tropic of Cancer to 7 degrees above the equator and that groups it with only a few countries on the earth that extend over so many latitudes.
Foreword by His Holiness The Dalai Lama
Prologue to the Paperback Edition
India's Culture: Some Facts, Some Perspectives
State and Market in India's Culture
Arts, Cultural Pageants and the State: The Nehru-Azad Dialogue
The New Millennium: Harmony among or Clash of Civilizations
Postscript: ICT and Mahatma Gandhi
Culture and Administration: A Study of Interaction as a Means of Social Change in India
Tile Monumental Challenge: The Role of the Archaeological Survey of India in India's Culture
Democracy, Ecology, and Culture:The Indian Experience
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