Cultural Essentialism- Whose History?

Whose purpose does it serve to reduce individuals to essential cultures? As cultural essentialism plays well into the hands of the economists and political strategists while creating the future of the underdeveloped and developing countries, the question holds promise and helps clarify few doubts.

Any quintessential viewer of Indian Diaspora movies will vouch, the films are 1) an essentialist picture of certain section of Indian population (Gujarati, Punjabi, Marwari, or on the parallel front, the Bengali), 2) an unequivocal depiction of socio-economic homogeneity (rich, business families who are highly “successful” overseas), 3) the major theme revolves around a heterosexual marriage search of arranged nature which culminates pronouncedly into a “love” relationship to prove the “progress”, 4) unrelenting traditional father then gives ways to obedient modern children’s wishes, initially ignoring the mother and afterward letting the mother be a redundant character anyway, 5) the distinction of Indian culture is made from the American/British culture, where Indian culture is always proved to be superior in spirit, despite the proponents swim in the foreign wealth and subjugation, and 6) marrying a foreigner is a sin, and marrying a black Muslim is unforgivable, hence impossible (but remember the marriage, still is the overriding issue).

Unfortunately, such an essentialist depiction is never limited only to Diaspora movies. It has its place in the great Indian modern novels as well as great Indian classics. No wonder more Bollywood Masala movies too turn to the classics by Sarat Chandra, a Bengali writer whose works thrived on essentialism.

The danger which lies is this: the story often told and retold and made believable then are not questioned anymore. In Bend it Like Beckham, that big hit of recent years, the courage of the Indian girl and her family’s eventual support were depicted as an Indian tradition which was changing. Or after watching Bride and Prejudice, my fellow viewers were thrilled to see the ending, a perfect union. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or Pardes were the Masala Hits which also ended happily with the “traditional father” giving in to the wishes after resentments. Go back to Devdas or Parineeta and one finds other shades of historical essentialism that plays the right cards.

Whose cards are these? The question which emerges is, are these cultural characteristics at all generic? If so viewed, is there something more to it (genealogy of the tradition) which needs to be explained in context in order that people don’t get misled into interpreting something as “Indian”/Oriental?

Sati (immolation of wife on the husband’s pyre) has been much debated and only recently it’s essentialist features finding resonance with the “Indians” was challenged by Lata Mani in her “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on SATI in Colonial India” (1987). Mani argued that Sati was not just perpetrated/continued by an elite class of people, but with the help of the British, it was created as a tradition for administrative records. Hence the follow-ups were quite clear, so as to save the brown woman from the brown men by the whites.

The female protagonist of “Bride and Prejudice” who is currently the most acclaimed actress of India and a Time magazine’s most influential people of the world, refreshingly reprimands to a white businessman that Indian women need not be looked at as reduced icons of western gratifications. Towards the end of the film, she realizes she was in the wrong about her perception of this man, because he happened to have saved her from another lusty man. Of course she realizes her prejudices and very proudly weds the businessman atop an elephant and thousands of poor people cheering them and celebrating their wedding. In essence, she reinforces the essentialist part (that Indian marriages, even with such a radical working class woman, takes place in such majestic manner!).

In Bend it like Beckham, one shudders to think what would have happened if the coach would have been a black man, and god forbid, an Allah preacher. Would the ending have been this happy? Or then, why does it have to be a happy ending when Indian young women, in these movies, are always educated by the white men about what is culturally progressive. And even as the condition of getting permission of the elderly for the marriage is invariably fulfilled in these cinemas. A judicious blend of Indian-ness (respect for old tradition) with western-ness (that thing they call Love) and one gets a movie done to satisfy the culture-hungry.

Where does that leave the rest of us? Well, with amazement about a country that its 80% population and more are completely unaware of. The middle class economic crisis, the agricultural production upheavals, the lack of sound healthcare, essential lapse of education as a motivated sector, a dearth of a visionary leader. Problems are many. I would not say that certain Indians from Gujarat don’t have their own Ram Navami Dandia funs. But with abound poverty in a country of over a billion population, the responsibilities of the creative performers who represent entertainment and of the political leaders who represent social well being are falling flat.

I don’t expect much of the scientists who await generous grants to build nuclear arsenals and the businesspersons who await profits for continuance of monopolies to do much. But owing to their most visible and conspicuously powerful state, the entertainment/media sector who export “Indian culture” and the political/bureaucratic sector who create them, are just negatively contributing by reinforcing the hegemonic norms.

“Wow! Is India like that!” is to ask “Wow, is US like this”. The dominant cultural depictions of course tell the tales of the times. And the times are essentially told by the rulers who own the times. Unfortunately it is still the old guard, whose hypocrisies are told by the age old Indian classics, who are still ruling. The only problem is, we the masses, are tired by their shits. We don’t need the story of a one percent elite population to dominate over the conscience of the social majority who are portrayed vis-à-vis them.

For what happens then, is well known. To sound politically correct, to be judged according to the yardsticks of the proclaimers, the rest blindly emulate, out of compulsion, which later seems like a matter of choice exercise. The evil traditions of the Indian society were never manufactured by the large majority of people. They were thrust down upon them by a selected caste/class of people who were hand in gloves for their own interests of ruling the masses using coercive methods of tyrannical rule and subtle methods of religious preaching to justify the subjugation (subjugation to god also implied subjugation to the messengers of god—the king being the manifestation).

It worked to the interest of the classes then to depict an Indian picture of backwardness so that the burden lied on the shoulders of the White man. The trend was so normalized subsequently that so far the truth is not far from this depiction. Hence the genealogy of such normalized state of subjugation, which arises out of essentialist pictures of Indian culture and society (or for that matter any oriental societies) need to be revisited and exposed.

Only with the self-awareness of how peoples have been divided and ruled by certain sections of rulers and preachers with active support of other sections of rulers and preachers to define the lives of the ruled and the damned, will help formulate the radical steps to replace, not change their tradition, not ours.


One Comment

  1. That was an interesting blog post !

    I feel your readers should know the other side of Indian Marriages, especially the misuse of laws by Indian wives these days

    Do you know that 1000s of innocent Indian men are being victimized by the misuse of anti dowry law – a particular Section 498A of Indian Penal code ?.

    Many newly wed wives unable to adjust with their husbands, some who are unable to live in a new environment and even greedy Indian wives are known to file FALSE dowry cases against their husbands and In – Laws. They falsely accuse their husbands’ of treating them with cruelty AND demanding dowry during marriage.

    Since dowry is legally prohibited and severely punishable in India, many of these newly married men stand the gruesome prospect of being arrested and thrown into and Indian prison … for years !!

    The intention of these Indian wives of course is to settle scores or extract money from their in laws.

    Once a dowry case is filed the Indian police are forced to arrest the husband and in some cases, even their un suspecting parents & sisters are arrested and jailed. Unable to bear the insult some have committed suicide.

    As most of the male victims would be innocent and would not have EVEN stepped into a police station, let alone be arrested, they are forced to NEGOTIATE AND PAY these women

    Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code is badly lacking the “..due process of law ..” i.e. Under any normal legal process, an accused is considered innocent unless proven guilty. However under Sec. 498A – I.P.C., the accused is immediately assumed to be guilty and has to loose liberty immediately….

    There are 1000s of victims all over India

    It is reported that “…….In Andhra Pradesh (one of the Indian States), for example, a third of all the pending cases related to “atrocities on women” as on June 30 2005 are those under sections 498 and 498(A). In the first six months this year, 3801 new cases under just these two sections were instituted………..”

    This is a smear on the image of India

    If any reader here is about to get married or if you are facing a difficult relationship with your wife, please be aware. Take necessary precautions !!

    Best regards


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