A Seed Is Not Shy of Germination

Rajeev Sethi
Principal
Rajeev Sethi Scenographers Pvt. Ltd.
New Delhi, India

The idea of culture made Field Marshal Goering reach for his gun. Chairman Mao conceived of his great revolution as cultural. Gandhiji preferred to use the word subhayata, which is “civilization.” And a Sufi poet is said to have described culture as the fragrance that is left behind after the incense stick of life has burnt.

There are no barriers to fragrance. Boundaries created fifty years ago by colonial history in South Asia fractured my subcontinent. But they cannot change the essence of shared experiences, history, and geography which permeate South Asia, as much a part of its wilderness as of its villages or cities.

And this leads to my first recommendation. On culture and political boundaries: Although UNESCO is limited to representing countries, I think we now need a different platform for our cultural paradigm, one that will lead to more holistic understandings and policies. Because culture has permeated the political boundaries of countries, it requires a new zonal game plan to document, to administer, and to disseminate. In culture, we are not just looking at representative nations. We are looking at something quite different from what the UN can handle. As I was listening to many of my South Pacific colleagues and to people from Arab and European nations, it struck me that their concerns did not stop at the borders of the countries whose names appear on their conference ID tags. They had to do with a larger zone. So that is one recommendation.

Unfortunately, since culture defies definition, it has no single face for the common man, and therefore has no ballot value. It has no official program or policy, no appropriate budgets. And no one knows this better than UNESCO. On the one hand, the practical son-of-the-soil types dismiss culture as merely leisure-time activities, a song-and-dance routine. And on the other hand, culture is confined to hothouses under the guise of documentation, preservation, and silk-lined museum shelves. Yet others view it as life itself.

Now, many Philistines talk of poverty and expect culture to take a back seat. To say that a country is poor and that culture must be treated as a luxury is like requesting someone to stop breathing because the air is polluted. Conventional economic indices may rate most of us as poor, but our wealth of heritage could make us forerunners in an alternative developmental paradigm. I believe sustainable economic growth is itself a cultural process, and this has already been recognized by UNESCO. I see red whenever I hear dilettantes whisper, “Let culture be. The people will decide.”  Sure, but look which people. Look around at the greed and the chaos around you, and see who’s winning and at what cost.

The mandarins in the finance planning departments may have to first understand what promotes productivity and what leads to intolerance and contempt, breeding new insecurities and uncontrolled pollution. What my country spends on the entire Department of Culture is a tiny fraction of what it spends on VIP security -- could there be a connection here?

In this age of liberalization, I’m all for the middle path: liberalization with defined measures of control and a social contract with the money tigers that can check the abuse of culture in the name of so-called development. What we now require is parliamentary intervention and appropriate legislation that will give more teeth to the Department of Culture. I feel UNESCO must alter time-honored perceptions of culture and set up inter-ministerial task forces to make culture less cosmetic. I’m asking them to give themselves much more teeth. I think it’s about time they asked UNIDO, WTO, and WHO how their practices affect culture.

In my own country, of course, there are so many issues. In agriculture there is the shift to greater automation of production. This also involves the whole system of terminator seeds, which further marginalizes people and drastically alters their lifestyles. The Ministry of Health needs to know that our indigenous medicines are receiving more attention outside the country at the same time that thousands of untranslated manuscripts gather dust in forgotten libraries all over India. And some are rotting under the various state Departments of Culture.

When a steel factory is built in a tribal belt, does someone in the Tribal Welfare Department have a greater say in the matter? Does the industrialist give thought to its impact on tribal aspirations and culture, on their traditions, and ultimately on the quality of their lives? Hundreds of thousands of tribals have been displaced involuntarily from their ancestral occupation through arbitrary deforestation, false promises, and intimidation. Has this provoked the Department of Culture to sponsor even one study to examine these charges or the altered social conditions?

Who protests when pesticides poison our foods? Or preservatives debase our cooking and eating styles? And who has studied how fertilizers and hybrids have changed our perception of season and the ecological and agricultural cycles? When a river is poisoned, all the culture that it supports also dies. Shouldn’t the Department of Culture think about all this as being a cultural as well as an environmental concern?

There is urban development done without building codes, allowing cities and towns to disregard local climate, aesthetics, materials, and skills -- what we call tangible culture. Does cultural identity not suffer when the built environment envelops us in a homogenized, spiritless landscape? and when the education system teaches us to abandon what is our own? Rampant consumption breeds its own insecurities. It thrives on them.

In this age, consumer is king and culture is its handmaiden. Indian television sought heavy public investment on the ground that it would serve rural needs. A lot of public investment was sought on this basis. In fact, in all your countries in the developing part of the world, we argue for television in front of the people by saying it is going to serve rural development. Today instead it is mostly subservient to gross urban demands manipulated through advertising by a growing, articulate, and very resourceful breed of white-collar communicators. Using public resources, they profoundly convert culture into an entertainment activity with programs that take away even the little leisure time in which we entertain ourselves. Television today caters to a plethora of urban neuroses. More than other media, it intimidates people in rural areas and affects the way they have begun to perceive and express themselves through gross imitation and identification. But my answer to television is not to shy away from it. We must take it by the horns, by an alternative channel. This is why we want culture to have more teeth and its finger in every pie.

Now I want to speak directly to some of my colleagues who have been expressing their concern for some form of culture that they have had for hundreds of years and are afraid to see change. Perhaps they feel, “When you slip, you don’t know where you fall.” Here tradition is one form of stability.

But the loss of a particular custom or ritual from memory or practice has not been an enduring concern of mine. The potter has stopped making, for instance, some very beautiful votive offerings? Well, too bad, but so what? It may be that there is no longer a felt need to propitiate certain deities linked to fatal diseases now extinct. These potters may have to learn to make rural refrigerators and architectural elements, as they have done in our part of the world. A man driving a tractor does not need the same footwear and plow as his forebears. The village shoemaker and carpenter therefore cannot expect the customary exchange of grains for their work.

Let me give one final, evocative example. For millennia in India, women have gone to the well, and they have invented many songs to lessen the drudgery of carrying a water pot. In singing the songs, women share many secrets with their daughters and with their colleagues. It’s a very good time for them. But basically these songs are used to lessen drudgery. Now, there’s a tap in the back yard. Good. I think that is definitely a civilizing process. So the songs will die. And the pot will change because it doesn’t have to be carried on the head or on the hip. Well, these things have always been dying. They’ve always been changing. What should concern us is how the expressive need and energy so delicately enshrined in the women’s songs can now find a new vehicle for communication. What kind of environment can we build that will enable creativity to flower? What is replacing that which must go? What do we want to preserve, and how and for whom would we preserve it?

Our concern must be to ask constantly and persistently: From here to where? Can people participate and relate their actions creatively -- that’s the key word – to the pace of the development, and can they absorb its consequences with any sense of quality?

There is, of course, a critical lack of comprehensive schemes for the welfare of artists and artisans. I don’t know if it is featured in the Recommendation, but the artistic tradition will live only as long as the artists will. There are many artists who have nowhere to go when they become old. There is nobody looking into these issues. And obviously, when the young see their own parents have not gotten anywhere in their profession, then they are not interested. The issue of the artist as a person must be addressed in our planning, and why are we asking for special considerations for this person must be carefully specified.

No one can have a final say in these questions of culture. As breathing is to life, they will always be a crucial part of our existence. Culture is the fragrance of any civilization. Today the air we breathe is polluted because we have not invented new systems to check the decay: How to restore to a society its self-purifying mechanism? How to prevent our senses from shrinking further? How to celebrate innovation and decry the mediocrity of imitation? There are many questions. And answers will come from those who don’t take freedom for granted.

You know, yesterday I heard so many papers I felt surely my soul would find no more words. Today I’ve used a lot. It’s like being in a labyrinth with no outlets. I can therefore only use pain as a metaphor for what I feel every time I come to such a meeting, pain that I have not found an appropriate medium to represent our different experiences.

All of us I feel are politicians here in a good measure. We, like all our constituents, are the basket makers of the world. But even as we weave our baskets here, most of our children out there are really more interested in basketball. And only a few of us really know how to play. And so we get hit again and again with careening balls that go through or bounce off. Our bottomless baskets can contain little. My culture has taught me not to be impatient or to hold onto or crave accumulative results. It has taught me that my raison d’être is to do my allotted task when action is vastly superior to inaction. And that who wins or loses, no matter what happens, is not the concern of mortals.

I see here a lot of foot soldiers, most of us winning a battle here or losing one there -- yet painfully conscious that we are actually losing the war. What concerns me is that even as we win or lose our little battles, we are nowhere near evolving a game plan for the war. Is there a general in our army? An SOS number to call?

We cannot just rely upon UNESCO. I don’t mean that it is a “white elephant.” But it is not an unencumbered fire-fighting force that can reinforce our separate struggles. UNESCO is a representative body. It is a tool of governments, and the governments will listen to some of you and will not listen to some of you -- nothing like the World Wildlife Fund or even Amnesty International, which, if they were to call, the governments might listen to. At least they have begun to listen now.

I think the formation of an unencumbered body for cultural policy cannot happen without UNESCO taking a study on it: What would be the agenda for such a body? What would be its composition? So just as I recommended a conference between UNESCO and WTO and other international agencies to work out the contradictions and complementarities of their respective approaches, I think UNESCO should also convene a conference to conceive of an NGO that is not encumbered by governments, one that can spearhead the movement we are all very connected with. Thank you.