Culture under stress

As a value, culture has become increasingly marginalised in our land. Whether we are doing enough is something that we need to think about. There is not much time to be lost, writes B. N. Goswamy

TO produce "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect". The words are all too well known: they come from Lord Macaulay’s famous/infamous 1835 Minute on Education, something that laid the ground for the massive changes in the Indian system that the British brought about.

“Nagamandala”, possibly by Sita Devi Pigments on mud-wall: in the ‘Baag Madhubani’ Ahmedabad
“Nagamandala”, possibly by Sita Devi Pigments on mud-wall: in the ‘Baag Madhubani’ Ahmedabad

Not equally well known, however, is the content of another statement attributed sometimes to the same gentleman. The exact source of this statement, which I came upon in a recent publication, remains unknown to me but there is a chilling quality to it, a cold measure of calculation that leaves one numbed when one realises its full implications.

"I have travelled across the length and breadth of India", the Lord is reported to have said, "and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief". And then continued:

"Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage.

"And, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation."

The attribution of this statement to Lord Macaulay is a matter of some doubt, I have gathered (after having publicly cited it in a recent speech, I confess), and efforts are afoot towards checking it out. But while that goes on, I find very little to question in the formulations on culture – whether Macaulay’s or not – that it contains.

Those about culture being "the backbone of a nation"; the loss of culture meaning "the loss of self-esteem", for instance. But do we pay heed? To how many of us does the thought matter? Are we able to distance culture from commerce? In our ways of life—there is no one way of life now, one realizes—does culture figure in a substantive, not peripheral or formal, manner? At the highest level, does culture appear anywhere as a part of the national agenda?

The answers to these questions, I am aware, can get lost in clever arguments: what do we mean by culture, for instance, or who will determine which culture we are speaking of and so on. But there is no getting away from the fact that, as a value, culture has become increasingly marginalised in our land. For the most part, we are making furrows in a barren tract of land

In what I say, there is no denial, no lack of acknowledgement, of well-meaning efforts. I am perfectly aware of many organisations, and individuals, engaged with matters cultural. But whether we are doing enough, collectively, and at a level at which it will all bear fruit, or again, become a matter of visceral concern, is something that we need to think about. There is not much time to be lost.

As I wrote in a slightly different context not long back, more sharply perhaps than most others who occupy spaces in public life, those involved in, and committed to, preserving our heritage hear the hiss of time as it slithers by, see the sands of passing moments slip though our fingers. For with each year, the list of things that are getting lost keeps becoming longer: fauna that is endangered and has all but vanished from the face of the earth; flora that will now blossom only in our memories; distinctive ways of life that are ending up on heaps of shared ordinary-ness; monuments lurching on the edge of destruction and disappearance.

Also on that shaky list are countless skills and forms of art that were developed and nurtured over the centuries by great, mostly unsung, masters, but are now entering the uneasy zone of twilight.

All this sounds a bit like Cassandra’s wail, I fear. And this piece can go almost in any direction. But the ache of loss returned sharply to me when I read something about the way wall paintings of Madhubani have gone, virtually disappeared, before our very eyes. There was a time when these artless, but utterly beguiling, works—bold and uninhibited and colourful, singing in an open-throated voice, as it were—adorned virtually every mud-wall in the Mithila region of Bihar.

This, because they formed at one time the core of a way of life, a celebration of the majestic cycle of seasons by a community. Today, possibly the only ‘Mithila’ paintings on mud-walls that we might be able to see are those in far away Ahmedabad. For there, in a Sarabhai-built mud house, they still stand, having been painted by two of the most gifted of Madhubani artists, Sita Devi and Jagdamba Devi, as long ago as 1963.

On these walls, the Ganga still flows into earthen pitchers, Durga still fights the demons, Krishna still plays his flute while dancing on the hoods of the great serpent, Kaliya. And young boys go for a ride on a newly acquired bicycle.