Wed, 09 Mar 2005

Indian culture, an intricate tapestry

Arup Kumar Dutta, Jakarta

Modern-day Indian culture is a complex phenomenon, not easily understood or appreciated, even by academics or students.

There are many reasons for this complexity.

First, Indian culture as we know it today, is not merely a product of the 20th Century but of a multitude of strands woven through millennia to create a rich and intricate tapestry.

The culture began 4,000 years ago, in what historians call the Pre-Vedic Harappa society, marked by an astonishingly progressive social structure and urban planning.

The Aryans who migrated to the Indian subcontinent around 2,000 years ago ushered in the Vedic era which gave to the land the Rig Veda, and many of the important gods, hymns and rituals of Hinduism, as also abiding social and family systems.

The spiritual foundations of Indian culture were laid during the later Vedic period (1000-600 BC), when doctrines such as transmigration of the soul, and the search for release from the cycle of rebirth were introduced, and the three other Vedas, Yajur, Sama and Atharva, were composed.

From the base of Hinduism, sprang other great religions such as the Jainism of Mahavira (599-527 BC), and Buddhism propagated by Gautama Buddha (567-487 BC). Particularly, Buddhism with its Mahayana theology spread to China, South East Asia and other neighbors of India. Two great empires in ancient India, were that of the Maurya dynasty (320-185 BC) and the Gupta dynasty (184 BC- AD 320).

Apart from being a golden age for literature, arts and architecture, these periods also saw the emergence of the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, in their modern form.

In the subsequent centuries the devotional religion, Bhakti, spread from South India across the entire subcontinent. Fresh cultural influences were felt with the advent of Islam, and the Sultanate period (1192-1526) and the Mughal period (1526-1707) witnessed the introduction of new schools of painting and architecture, as well as performing arts such as music and dancing. Sufi saints propagated the doctrines of Islam and the Urdu language became popular along with classical languages like Sanskrit.

When the British empire replaced that of the Mughals, the Indian subcontinent was opened to Western influences, and came into contact with Christian theology and beliefs. Political, judicial, economic unification came with the British, until the Freedom Movement led to the emergence of a free and democratic India.

The above are but some instances of the innumerable currents and cross-currents marking the evolution of modern-day Indian culture. It was not a question of the culture of one era being replaced by another, but a continuum, whereby each period left a permanent and lasting imprint on the broader tapestry, widening its base and enriching it.

Moreover, such imprints were not static but dynamic, playing as they do a part in the life of the common man even today. Some practices and beliefs of the Harappan era, for example the cult of the sacred bull, remain integral to Hinduism. Even today Brahman priests recite Vedic hymns composed over 3,000 years ago, while epics of yore and art forms associated with them are vital features of the common people's culture.

The complexity of such a cultural legacy has been compounded by the mind boggling array of people who had since time immemorial entered India from different directions at different periods, bringing with them cultural traits peculiar to their origins --- the Eolithic Negroids from Africa, the Proto- Australoids and the Austrics from Western Asia, the Mongoloids from the Far East, the Palaeo-Mediterraneans (Dravidians) from the West, the Caucasoid Aryans as well as Proto-Hellenic, and other various races and peoples too numerous to mention.

The advent of each people added to the list of racial groups, languages and cultures venturing into India --- out of this welter of race movements and linguistic and cultural exchanges was established the rudiments of an entity that can be said to be modern Indian culture.

India's vast size and the lack of communication facilities, had in the past allowed the growth of smaller socio-cultural groups independently of one another.

Also, the variety of geographical features ensured that the groups evolved different ways of life suited to their own environments --- the culture of the people in the fertile plains was vastly different from those of the deserts, that of the valleys being different from those of the mountains.

Adding to the intricacy is the multiple components of culture itself, folk and classical strains being merely two of the broader divisions. If we look at individual components, we discover that India has distinct strains of music, dance, drama, literature and painting at both the classical and folk levels and with the numerous ethnic groups in the country, the variety of culture is impressive.

There are over a hundred different tribes in India, primarily of Proto-Australoid and Mongoloid origins. The diversity of folk music among the tribes, including songs and music for ceremonial occasions like births, initiation, marriage, death, at times of sowing seeds and harvesting, hunting, fishing, secular songs like lullabies and ballads, can well be imagined, as also can the variety of musical instruments used as accompaniment, of which there are heaps. As for the non-tribal folk music, it is even more variegated from region to region, and includes both a secular tradition as well as devotional songs such as qawwalis and bhajans.

Similarly, distinct forms of folk-dance among tribals and non- tribals are all too many to mention, even in this extended cultural feature. In a small area of north-east India, for example, there are no less than a dozen folk-dance forms, many of them having links with similar art-forms in South East Asia.

However, if one expects the classical tradition to be less varied and intricate, one is in for a surprise. There are many forms of classical and semi-classical dance forms in India, Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kathak, Manipuri, Kuchipuddi, Odissi, Sattriya are just some.

India has around 20 fully-developed languages with scripts, apart from hundreds of dialects with mainly oral usage. The variety of literary output in different languages is understandably complex and rich. Also, the vastness of the Indian subcontinent has ensured that even treatises common to all of India, such as the Ramayana, evolve into unique literary entities at regional levels. The Ramayana enacted in North India is significantly different from that in South or Eastern India.

In fact, there is multiplicity in every aspect of culture. Even in the case of humbler aspects the variety is incredible. When, for example, we talk of puppetry in India, we are not referring to a single tradition, but around 20.

Different styles, with puppets of varying sizes, and varying themes and in varying languages, are practiced in different areas.

How do you describe the culture of a billion people in one article? Like this: India is a huge country comprising many cultural sub-groups within a broader nationalistic and geographical framework. And it is the underlying diversity which makes its culture so unique and fascinating.

However, the primary process of racial and cultural amalgamation has been going on for centuries, and by today many argue a definable "Indian" cultural identity has taken shape.

Yet even today one needs to take note of the individual strands if one wants to acquire a genuine understanding of the rich and intricate tapestry that is Indian culture.

The writer is director of the Jawaharlal Nehru Indian Cultural Centre.