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  Opinion   Columnists  11 Apr 2024  Patralekha Chatterjee | Unpacking cultural pride in election-bound India

Patralekha Chatterjee | Unpacking cultural pride in election-bound India

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com
Published : Apr 12, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Apr 12, 2024, 12:00 am IST

Exploring cultural pride amidst diverse Indian narratives, embracing unity beyond religious divisions, in a country of myriad influences

India — one of the world’s greatest fusion stories — cannot be divided into insiders and outsiders without splintering its soul. (Representational Photo:PTI)
 India — one of the world’s greatest fusion stories — cannot be divided into insiders and outsiders without splintering its soul. (Representational Photo:PTI)

You do not have to say “I love you” to express love. It is the same with cultural pride -- you do not have to wrap yourself in a “proud Indian” tag to take pride in India, its culture. This may be obvious to many, but it bears repeating as the world’s biggest election exercise inches closer.

“Cultural pride” is a persistent theme in the poll discourse, and in the social media , as the country jostles with contesting narratives of the idea of India, and what it means to be an Indian. It is no secret that the ruling BJP, which is expected to return to power with Narendra Modi at its helm, views Indian culture as co-terminus with dominant strains of the culture of the Hindu majority. The parties opposing the BJP do not share this worldview. The political battle is a cultural battle.

Unpacking cultural pride, therefore, is critical. What is cultural pride in the everyday sense of the words? Is it only about high culture, the grand narrative around magnificent monuments, art, music, dance, literature — the “Incredible India” beamed to tourists? Or is it also about lived experience? Can cultural pride be reduced to Hindu pride, and is Hindu pride monolithic? What about the cultural pride of believers in other faiths and Indians in whose lives religion plays a minimal or no role?

To me, cultural pride is deeply personal. It can surge in the oddest places, at the oddest time; it is not only about “high culture”. It is also about the small things that make me so proud to be an Indian no matter where I am. Recently, it surged while I was sitting inside an Irish sports bar in the heart of Bangkok, where The Bangkok Beatles, a Thai band, was playing ‘Norwegian Wood’. The original track, recorded in 1965, features segments of sitar, played by George Harrison, the lead guitarist of the Beatles, who was inspired by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. The song, which became a huge hit across the world, marked the first appearance of the sitar on a Western rock recording. For me, it was a moment of cultural pride when the lead vocalist of the Bangkok band looked at our group, smiled, and paid a public tribute to India’s sitar.

I felt proud to see devout Thais gathering to see the sacred relics of Lord Buddha sent by India to Thailand. It also surged when I was dining with a Thai family at an Indian restaurant. It was a moment of cultural pride to introduce our guests to Indian history — past and present — through an Indian meal. We had a long and rich conversation over rogan josh, kebabs, decoding “being Indian” and “being Thai” and the pluralism that is integral to both our cultures.

To me, cultural pride is fundamentally about choice — my choice to pick elements about my culture which inspire and nurture me, and reject what I find divisive.

I love origin stories and found a delightful blog in the food portal Slurrp, where writer Jasmine Kaur tracks the interplay of cultures — the confluence of Central Asian and Persian flavours with Mughal cooking techniques and tastes — that gave rise to the famous lamb curry, the much-loved rogan josh.

Memories from my childhood came rushing back the other night when I was talking to a Mumbai-based filmmaker. The filmmaker was disturbed that in this incredibly diverse country of 1.4 billion people, a growing number see cultural pride solely through the prism of religion, through the prism of Hindutva. While Hinduism offers multiple choices, Hindutva in its current avatar narrows it down to specific acts and choices. “Why does one’s cultural pride have to depend so much on demeaning other faiths and cultures?” he asked. Why indeed?

I remembered my grandmother, a child bride who switched from being a Shakta (believer in Shaktism) to being a devout Vaishnavite. My grandfather was non-religious and a great admirer of the Bhagavad Gita and Bertrand Russel, philosopher, and vocal atheist. “Do not mock my faith. I do not mock your lack of faith,” my grandmother used to say.

Why can’t cultural pride tap into the multiple influences that have gone into the making of India as it is? For many of us, national identity does not pivot around religion. I am as proud of the Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar, Red Fort as about the Sun temple of Konark or the Shore temple in Mahabalipuram and other temples, old and new, across the country. Talking about fusion, I cannot forget my hometown of Kolkata and its famous Nahoum’s bakery, the oldest Jewish bakery in the city and probably the only place in the world where Hindus stand in line to buy Christmas cakes made by Muslims from a Jewish bakery to celebrate a Christian festival.

Increasingly, assertion of cultural pride is leading to culture wars which take a violent form, every now and then. As I write, comes the news that a a 19-year-old Muslim student at Savitribai Phule University in Pune was reportedly assaulted by a group of young men who accused him of involvement in “love jihad” — words that have come to mean Muslim men luring Hindu women into romantic relationships to convert them to Islam in the Hindutva lexicon. The young student told reporters that he had stepped outside the university cafeteria with a female friend when they were intercepted by a group who demanded to see the Aadhaar cards of the student and his friend and who enquired about their religions. They accused the young man of “love jihad”, and not only beat him up but also allegedly called up his father and threatened dire consequences.

Investigations are on. This happened to a teenaged student in a university named after India’s first female teacher and renowned social reformer. Many of us are immensely proud of Savitribai Phule and reject the cultural pride that cannot accept a Hindu woman freely mingling with a Muslim man in a university.

India — one of the world’s greatest fusion stories — cannot be divided into insiders and outsiders without splintering its soul. Cultural pride is good and great. The problem arises when it becomes exclusionary. In a country of numerous faiths, flavours, and shrines, we do not have to destroy anything that makes life delicious and delightful. Whether it is the mouthwatering rogan josh or the magical Taj Mahal, the most visited monument in India and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, not all of us instantly think of invaders. Who can deny us cultural pride?

Tags: cultural pride, indian identity, religious diversity