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What is 'culture'?

Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert in the things I am about to say; so there might be mistakes, it would be appreciated if those are pointed out to me. This is also not a rant, it is what I feel at times; now more often, than before. Also, it is a long note, over 1800 words.

I will not claim to try to answer the question in the title of this note. I will also not claim to understand the word ‘culture‘ in it’s entirety. I will however claim, that I have so far believed the things I will say below to be an accurate description of my view in this matter.

I have been thinking about the whole concept of ‘culture‘ from some time now; partly due to the incessant posts on my Facebook timeline about how one type of activity or the other is directly against our ‘Indian culture‘. Most of the articles that I have read so far on these issues tend to have a very straitjacketed approach and only highlight the viewpoint of the author (which I think is quite al right, up to a certain extend), and leave away anything against that viewpoint. I also feel, very often after reading these articles, that perhaps the author does not really understand how one defines ‘culture‘. Even, I have not claimed to understand it, but from my limited knowledge I believe, the nature of the word ‘culture‘ is dynamic. It is not a fixed entity which remains constant over time. Like everything else, it evolves. This, it seems is quite difficult for most of the people to comprehend, they tend to thing that culture is this fixed entity which no one has the right to change.

I am not one to put out my views on social media, I have refrained on multiple occasions to speak out. But the whole paradigm of free speech has been brutally abused countless times, in the recent past. So, I thought, why not? The incident which has triggered this post is the recent issue with Zubeen Garg’s show at Noonmati. Most of you know about it, but to state it briefly: Zubeen was performing at a Bihu function, and he was singing a Hindi song when some of the organizers abruptly stopped him midway and asked him not to sing Hindi songs because it was against the tradition of the stage. Zubeen left midway after hurling at least one abuse. And lo and behold! The Facebook community of Assam had something to talk about for an entire day; some even now. This post is not in favour of either party, so please do not think that it’s intended objective is such.

The concept of tradition, is unlike culture not dynamic in my view; at least not in the same sense. It is passed on from generation to generation, not only to instil itself into a new generation but also to evolve in a way that brings out the best in its objective. But, what I see is that people use these two terms: tradition and culture interchangeably most of the time. This can be excused up to a certain point, but later it trudges on towards blatant abuse in many instances. I have followed numerous traditions since my childhood, some even now. However, I have also given up many traditions, when, with the passage of time I realize it is not for me. It is not a bad idea to give up a tradition and pick up something better; no one wears a traditional Assamese attire for the whole year, trousers and shirts are much more comfortable for instance.

Coming back to ‘culture’, I also feel that for majority of the people, culture is only about music, art, cinema and dance. They are not even aware that there can be a concept of ‘culture’ in technology, in mythology, in science and also in agriculture. This narrow attitude towards culture is brutal for a developing country like ours, more so for Assamese people. I have seen many people praise when a good song is released by a young musician; I have never seen anyone praise when a young student writes a research paper and have it published (my youngest collaborator from Assam, was at that time 17 years old). Most of the time, this news is not even known. This is not the fault of the public, it is how we are taught to look at culture. A technologist, or an engineer, a lawyer, even a biologist is thought to have done almost nothing when it comes to preserving ‘culture’. But a singer, a musician, a film-maker is considered the sole bearer of the flag of ‘culture’. It is a bad precedent for the generations to follow, and it is something which if not changed will hamper the society as a whole, in the long run. Even ‘traditionally’ the superpowers now, most of them have had either an age of enlightenment or a scientific or industrial revolution. This has, so far not happened in India. Hankering on what we did, thousands of years ago, is just a poor reflection of the fact that maybe we are no longer capable of doing better things.

I have been living in one of the most ‘cultural’ cities in the world, since almost two years now: Vienna. There is a famous quote by Karl Kraus which says “The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt.” While, it might be true that Kraus really meant these words, it is also likely given his humour that he might be alluding to something totally different. But whatever may be the case, I tend to believe what Kraus has said. Vienna was an Imperial city, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire for a long time; so it is almost a given that it will be full of ‘culture’. No other city I have visited so far, except probably Paris would equal Vienna in its cultural richness.

But where is the culture in Vienna? Is it only at the museums? Or at the café, where Freud used to drink coffee? No, it is everywhere. It has moved on to newer delights. People tend to have a relaxed attitude about this culture, but here truly you feel a change. The culture has evolved like it is supposed to. They are not pinning their hopes only on a musician, or maybe a singer; for them culture is what the great minds have taught them. I pass by a building almost everyday to work, where it is proudly mentioned that the physics faculty of our university was once housed at that spot, where legends like Schrödinger, Boltzmann, Mach, and many others studied or taught. This is for them, also a part of their rich cultural heritage. This aspect of cultural heritage is missing in India. The house where Ramanujan worked while he was in India, is not managed by the government, like it should; but by a private university. How many of us know that about 30 km from Silchar is a tea estate where Sir Roland Ross did some of his research? How many of us even know who Sir Ross was? Maybe, no one knows that his instruments have been preserved in that tea estate. Isn’t that also a part of our cultural heritage? The streets in Vienna are mostly named after it’s famous residents, as well as many others not even from Austria. Would it really hurt to name a street in Bhupen Hazarika’s honour at Tezpur? Or Narayanpur? Can we not have a street named after Mamoni Raisom Goswami at a central location in some town of Assam? I believe such things are also a major component of our cultural heritage.

I have been to numerous museums all over Europe, all of them have been a learning experience. Contrast this to India, where even when we have a museum in almost all the districts of Assam, very few people know of its existence. The Sonitpur district museum had at some point some canons, which were displayed in a very haphazard way, I do not know if the situation has changed now. When I went to Poki, which is quite well kept; there was no one in the library to let me open the shelves and browse through some books. On a recent trip to New Delhi, I visited the tomb of a Mughal general, Adham Khan near the Qutb Minar. The structure was magnificent, but in a dilapidated condition. I understand both of these words mean quite different things, but that is what I felt. The tomb inside the structure was full of bird droppings, there were people spitting everywhere; is this how our culture is preserved? Shouldn’t the ASI or the government do something to preserve such an old structure from ruins? I have however had good experiences too, the Rashtrapati Bhawan museum is an excellent museum; except for their very disappointing virtual reality show. I would strongly recommend this museum to everyone. One museum, I would like to go to is the National Museum in New Delhi, maybe on my next trip to India.

What is the point of this note? The point is, we do not even understand what the word ‘culture’ actually means; then how can we claim to understand Assamese culture or it’s superset of Indian culture. I am aware that there are some people who are quite proficient with these aspects, sadly not many of them are active on social media, and even if they were, would the trolls or bhakts or whatever one calls them, be able to understand and assimilate what the learned have to say? I have so far been led to believe that they would not.

Coming back again to the incident which triggered this post, a sad thing which I have seen in Assam (at least in Tezpur) is that, there are numerous organizations, numerous societies and numerous groups, whose sole aim (not on paper, but in practise) is to do one thing, only one thing in the name of culture, and after that is done they sit back, relax and wait for the next year to do that same thing again. This is particularly true for the Bihu committees, I do not know about the Noonmati committee but I have never seen any Bihu committee in Tezpur do anything else, apart from organizing a Bihu function each year. Is that the only way one preserves our culture? I hope not.

The last thing which comes to my mind is this, on a television news channel the person who was speaking on the microphone apart from Zubeen at Noonmati was explaining how they get their money. I now write from memory, I would be happy to be corrected if there has been a mistake. He said the budget is 20 lacs for the function, they have 300 permanent members and 100 or so beneficiaries. All the permanent members contribute 5000 rupees each for the function (comes to 15 lacs), the beneficiaries contribute bigger amounts, lets just assume they also contribute 5000 rupees each (comes to 5 lacs), then there are the sponsors. Simple math says the budget is lower than the amount collected. Where does the rest go? Do they also do something else to preserve our ‘culture’?