Pavan Varma | Amrit Udyan: A tokenism unmindful of our legacy
How much we have done beyond name changes to actually reclaim our cultural heritage?
Name changes of places, towns and roads are not uncommon since 1947. An independent country has the right to reclaim its cultural and historical heritage, usurped by a colonial master. The latest change is the renaming of Mughal Gardens to Amrit Udyan. My own view is that this was undesirable, because even if Babur came to India from Uzbekistan (1526 CE), the Mughals — unlike the British — were integrated through the centuries into the many-splendored tapestry of a multi-religious and plural India. Moreover, William Mustoe, the horticulturist who created it patterned it on the traditional gardens of the Mughals.
The make-belief by the BJP that Muslims, India’s largest minority, numbering some 180 million, and constituting the third largest number of Muslims in the world, just do not exist, or are all Hindus in disguise, and their presence and contribution in India for centuries can simply be erased, does great harm to our country’s plural fabric, the Constitution’s inclusive mandate, and the image of India abroad. There were, indeed, atrocities committed by the Muslim invaders. But to revive that memory today, by such transparent tokenism like name changes, or to conflate the Muslims of today to their conquering forbearers centuries ago, is simply politically motivated jingoism.
But the really important point is: How much we have done beyond name changes to actually reclaim our cultural heritage? Our colonial educational system has only seen marginal change. Our history books have been inadequately revised to fully reflect the sheer canvas of our history. For instance, not enough space is given to great kings like Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagar empire or Raja Raja Chola I. Very little has been done to study the political insights of Kautilya’sArthashastra, or the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. The unprecedented renaissance of the bhakti period, lasting six centuries and producing some of the most exquisite devotional poetry, is only a peripheral part of our educational curriculum.
Philosophy and metaphysics — the great contribution of Indic civilisation — are largely marginalised in philosophy departments, still dominated by Western thought. Most people are ignorant about the audacity of thought of philosophers like Jaimini, Kapila, Gautama, Kanada, Patanjali and Adi Shankaracharya, to name just a few. The great achievements of Nalanda hardly figure in teaching courses. Science is taught without sufficient reference to the great contribution of Indian mathematicians and astronomers. English courses are sought after, but knowledge on Panini’s great work on grammar, the Ashtadhyayi, the scores of other works on etymology and linguistics, and the classics in Sanskrit and other Indian languages, are mostly ignored. Our elite schools know about Shakespeare, but have rarely read Kalidas. Even our airlines carry only papers in English.
The great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, don’t figure in our educational imagination, and the remarkable insights of Tulsidas and Thiruvalluvar remain neglected. So many wisdoms of the past, such as the four ashrams of life, the nishkama karma of the Bhagwad Gita, and the remarkably balanced four purusharthas or goals of life — dharma, artha, kaama, moksha — have not received serious academic scrutiny. Architecture is taught without a knowledge of important treatises like the Vaastu Shastra, and the many other treatises that elaborate an indigenous aesthetic idiom. Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra (200 BCE) — perhaps the world’s first comprehensive compendium of the arts — is still largely confined to anonymity. India’s seminal contribution on aesthetics, the theory of rasa — again a pioneer in the world — is little known even to students of schools of art. The curriculum of art colleges even now is dominated by Western notions of form and proportion.
Our cultural infrastructure is shabby. There are few world-class auditoriums and conference centres in the country. Even the Siri Fort auditorium in New Delhi compares poorly to international standards. Some temples have, indeed, been renovated, but most of our monuments — apart from a few high-profile exceptions — are dilapidated, defaced and neglected. Our museums remain in visible neglect. There is no proper display, no worthwhile scholarship, and no cataloguing compared to international standards. The National Gallery of Modern Art and the National Museum — repositories of so much of our rich heritage — get a few thousand visitors annually. By contrast, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris get 2.5 million visitors a year, and the Tate in London 4 million.
We have the most sophisticated tradition of classical music and dance, going back to the dawn of time. How much has the government done to fund and train artists as part of the guru-shishya parampara, or popularise these genres at the school level so that great artists do not have to worry how to fill up an auditorium for their performance even when entry is free? On the contrary, only recently at the famous Hampi festival of classical music and dance, the organisers brought in ‘Bollywood’ performers, arguing that the audience would hardly respond to anything else. The humanities departments of most of our universities are cesspools of mediocrity, with hardly any scope for the original thought — moulik soch — the hallmark of our civilisation. The state of Indian theatre is even sadder. There are few playwrights with a national following, little state funding, no committed audiences — except perhaps in Maharashtra and Bengal — and India in nowhere close to having its own Broadway.
Reclaiming culture needs resources. In 2019-20, the ministry of culture’s (MOC) actual spend was 0.012 per cent of the GDP. The allocation of the MOC in 2021 was Rs 451 crores less than the previous year — a 15 per cent reduction. This came after a 30 per cent mid-year downward revision of the cultural budget in 2020. The latest budget has only an incremental increase. Simply put, culture is not a priority. Even the National Culture Fund, set up to enable private participation in culture, has become dormant.
Even where name changes are concerned, why is it that in New Delhi — with the exception of two insignificant lanes named after Tansen and Kaifi Azmi — there are no roads or squares or gardens named after our great poets, writes, musicians, artists and philosophers? The simple truth is that renaming the Mughal Gardens to Amrit Udyan is empty and dangerous tokenism, that has very little to do with the far more difficult task of actually reclaiming our cultural heritage.