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Home >Mint-lounge >Features >The iron hold of ‘sanskriti’ in Indian life

North Indians find south Indian languages funny. Growing up, we referred to the way “Madrasis" spoke as being “andu-gundu". Gujaratis will of course take offence at the “snakes in the hole/snacks in the hall" type of juvenile stuff aimed at our own accents, making us seem rustic.

It is not uncommon to think the foreigner uncultured because his language sounds unfamiliar. The word barbarian is onomatopoeic. It comes from the sound “bar bar" (we use the Hindustani word barh-barh for mindless talk) that the ancient Greeks thought represented the language of foreigners. And the ancient Greeks were not more closed of mind than we.

Bollywood’s Tamil characters, played by people such as Mehmood, were ridiculous, and even for people supposedly educated, such as the cinema-going middle classes for whom this content was written, quality is represented by the familiar. The unfamiliar was strange and funny. Why?

My speculation is as follows. Our word for culture is sanskriti. What is not from Sanskrit is by definition not culture, and that is why we can so easily dismiss it. That is why there is no representation of Dalit and Adivasi and North-Eastern culture in our movies, serials and music: It is not sanskriti. It is for this reason not to be aspired to by the upper-caste urban middle class: because it is not legitimate.

The word sanskriti is positively charged. It cannot be used in the negative. We can say buray sanskar, we cannot say buri sanskriti. It sounds off because of that positive charge that many Indian words carry, such as rashtrawad as opposed to nationalism, which is neutral, and about which I have written before. I do not know if there exist studies about such things, but anyone who is bilingual in the real sense will know what I mean.

The only real cultural counterpoint to sanskriti that is accepted is north Indian Muslim, because it seduced the upper castes—Kayasth and Brahmin—with its development of poetry and music and food. And also its aesthetic sensibilities regarding architecture and gardens, much of which is primitive in Hindu tradition. Hindu architecture is embarrassing, and it is a relief that the Chagatai Turk and Irani brought symmetry and openness, starting with Humayun’s Tomb, to a subcontinent where public structures, i.e. temples, were dark and closed and meant for individual, not congregational, worship. The exceptional step wells of Gujarat are exceptional.

The mixed Hindustani culture of north India comes from a softening of the Muslim’s towards that of the Hindu’s. Not the other way around, though it is seen in that way, i.e., Hindu tolerance and Islamic rigidity. Those who understand such things can spot it immediately. There is little familiarity that the Arab and Irani and Central Asian have with our music and food.

The Kayasth and Brahmin could engage with and appreciate the Muslim culturally because they were literate (5% of Indians, upper caste almost to a man, could read at the turn of the 20th century). They picked up the culture because they were willing to learn the other person’s language, particularly if it meant employment for communities that for millennia have done no proper or productive work.

I cannot resist pointing out here that it is only since Jawaharlal Nehru that the peasant has been exempted from paying tax. For millennia, the Indian farmer has been extorted by his ruler and, after the Mughal decline, also the adventurer. By whatever name the extortionist called it—the Sikh called it rakhi, i.e., protection, and the Maratha called it chauth, literally a fourth—it is the farmer who has all this time funded the state.

It is no great concession to now give him income-tax relief, and the complaint that he doesn’t contribute must be understood in context. It is the white-collar, urban upper caste that must now cough up to bring jai to Bharat. We should tax every use of that slogan and see how many of its middle-class and media enthusiasts continue to push it (digression ends).

We looked at the Muslim. Europe’s Christian also brought some of his culture, but he was not open to changing, or perhaps did not stay long enough to change, his ways as the Muslim had been. And so his music and architecture remained foreign and stand out even today only in patches. South Bombay’s neoclassical and Gothic architecture and the Symphony Orchestra of India remain. The steaks that Muhammad Ali Jinnah ate are now gone from the city of Mumbai.

It does not worry or even cross the Hindu’s mind that he deprives Bandra’s Catholic of his beef. Or the Parsi. It is the upper-caste Hindu’s sanskriti that we must all bow to, and then we must without irony be outraged by the horrors of fundamentalism in other states.

The refusal by his European master to mingle produced a take-it-or-leave-it culture that the Indian mostly left because it was not sanskriti and was difficult for him to absorb or digest.

The urban educated Indian took to the easier aspects of what the European had to offer—his language, his clothing and to some extent his food (it will surprise readers unfamiliar with south Mumbai how fanatically closed of mind the Gujarati there is about his vegetarianism though he has lived next to the Englishman for two centuries).

The Westerner’s music, which was complex, structured and did not necessarily have a chorus or repeating melodic line or refrain, was impossible to penetrate or fuse and remained totally foreign. The two Indian communities who have real cultural harmony, Parsis and Catholics, own the music. The rest switch off.

One aspect of the European’s music was absorbed, the portable church organ, which the European took to spread the gospel in the lands he conquered. Today, it is found only in Europe’s museums, but it is the rare Indian concert that doesn’t feature the harmonium.

In the modern world, I do not see the iron hold of sanskriti relenting. Popular culture is usually supple (the American surrendered to the superiority of the African’s church music and to hip hop, about which I hope to write soon). But take a look at the conservatism of our films and serials and advertising and music. All uniform and lying prostrate before sanskriti.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

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