The second discussion in the series commemorating five years of tehelka brought together an articulate panel that debated tradition, modernity and the indian.
‘Modernity has killed tradition’
Do you feel the currency of the tradition vs modernity debate is devalued in popular culture by bringing it down to the level of clothing?
Absolutely. Also, most of these debates presume that modernity is a good thing and that traditions have to be destroyed. But traditions are dying in any case. Many of the things you see are the backlash, because traditions are defeated. New pathologies are being released because modernity has killed traditions.
What kind of pathologies?
Take for example what the Ram Sene is doing in Karnataka. That is not a pathology of tradition. People have been wearing modern clothing here for at least two centuries. There were no protests. Now that tradition has been defeated, people are anxious, afraid that something is going out. The old values are dead, the new values are not fully born. In this moment of confusion, somebody comes and says I will protect you. The Ram Sene is not a pathology of traditions. It is a pathology of modernity.
How do you react to Tarun Vijay’s argument that the existence of vigilante groups is a backlash to secularism?
In India, religion is being made subservient to statecraft. Values derived by tradition are no longer allowed any play. Values determined by statecraft are supposed to determine what is ‘good’ tradition and what is ‘bad’ tradition — when Husain’s art is attacked, for instance. It is a tradition in this part of the world to have gods depicted that way. You argue with gods, you bargain with them, you show disrespect to them. You address god as ‘tu’ not ‘aap’. They are using tradition instrumentally. Only one whose faith and tradition has weakened, who has one foot in modernity can see the point of using religion instrumentally, as if it is a spade.
‘We are Rapid, Quick-Change Artists’
Why are the loudest debates in India about tradition and modernity around women’s bodies and sexuality?
That is so in most traditional societies, which seem to find something terrifying about women’s bodies and sexuality. Nothing threatens our society more than the thought of a woman having total sovereignty over her body, mind and soul. A woman with a mind of her own is scarier than a heavily armed terrorist in our society.
As Indians, do you think we are coping successfully with modernity?
Indians are remarkably innovative and flexible when it comes to dealing with change. We are the world’s most rapid quick-change artists. This is at once our strength and weakness. We improvise a bit too soon, a bit too foolishly at times.
Do you think the moral vigilante groups are a formation of an excess of tradition or a failure of modernity?
These groups reflect a failure of the State more than anything else. They prey on vulnerable sections of our society for political gain, clout and money. There are no ideological issues involved.
What is the criteria by which you decide that a person is ‘modern’?
An open, receptive, non-judgemental, aware and curious mind does it for me.
Have you ever found yourself thinking, “Thank god we live in a modern world!” Or “thank god for this tradition!”?
Not really. I don’t think of it as an ‘eitheror’ dilemma. There are wonderful aspects to both, especially for women like myself who lead pretty independent lives. I love rituals and don’t confuse them with tradition. And I do hope we don’t abandon traditions like bowing before our elders and seeking their blessings by touching their feet.
‘We Are The Worst Hypocrites’
Do you think of India as a modern nation?
I think India is one of the most modern nations on this planet. I can cite examples of 50 countries where modernity was accepted at a very late stage, if at all. Modernity means to be able to adapt with the tune of the times and to change with the era. Adaptability is the best in India because of its Hindu ethos and culture.
When young people are attacked by right-wing groups, is it because your ideas about change and an adaptable Indian culture have not trickled down to the grassroots within the Sangh Parivar?
We have never supported these attacks. Never. Secondly these attacks are also a reaction; a precipitated anger caused by the vicious attacks of a section that calls itself ‘secular’. This ‘secular’ section goes against Hindu sensibilities and attacks the Hindu worldview. This is fashionable and simply unacceptable. These are Talibanised secular groups who think that encouraging the calendar marketing of women, to use them to sell beedies, tyres, furniture, whiskey are permissible and acceptable labels of modernity and women’s empowerment.
What about discriminatory practices that seem very specific to India such as the caste system? Or expectations of women in our personal lives?
We are the worst hypocrites as a society. We worship Durga for power, we worship Lakshmi for wealth, Saraswati for knowledge and yet we’ve become the worst murderers of the devi. We keep our temples dirty. We say that we are Hindus but we don’t give an honourable and exalted place to Sanskrit scholars. ‘Pandit’ has become a hated name, even among the elite and English speaking, de-Indianised sections. We are adapting to modern values. We are forgetting the soul of this country.
‘Modernity Is A Reaction To Prudishness’
Does modernity or the loss of traditions cause any particular kind of suffering that you have encountered?
I don’t think there is any particular practice which can be described as ‘modern’ or ‘modernity’. People see what comes from the west as modern. But is there anything that we do now in India that we did not do before? Instead, the real shift is from profoundness to profanity. Our culture encouraged living with greater consciousness and that has changed. Many of our traditions today look twisted and crazy because they have not corrected with the times.
What are the corrections needed?
Unfortunately, certain people today seem to think they are the guardians of traditions. They think tradition lies in our clothes, in the food we eat. That is not tradition. Look, let us take the question of clothes. India produces the widest diversity of textiles. Look at our temple architecture. The clothing represented there. The way the sculptures are sexy, voluptuous, erotic, they would put our models to shame. But see they were usually at the periphery, as it is meant to be in our lives. Not at the core. People who are trying to shun this are ashamed of this, ashamed by their own biology. We are a civilisation that has lived life to its fullest, never hesitated. But we also understood that all this was a part of life, not the whole of life. Modern behaviour is a reaction to prudishness. It pushes what was once private to the public as a result of this prudishness.