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Cultural Heritage, Cultural Empowerment and Development

Ram Bapat

All over the world a sentiment and a concern for sustainable development is growing. Increasing numbers of individuals and organisations are becoming aware of the growing ecological and environmental crisis produced by the culture of hedonism and self-gratification built into present-day industrial, scientific and technological civilisation wedded to the pursuit of profit as an end in itself. Thinking people are getting perturbed by the manner in which a sense of history, tradition and purposive long-term action are being given up as of no use by those who occupy the citadels of global power and material riches. A longing for self-reliant, communitarian and spontaneous cultural development is being expressed by diverse sections of the world population. In the words of Saul Bellow,

the old forms of existence have worn out, so to speak, and the new ones have not yet appeared and people are prospecting, as it were, in the desert for new forms (Bourne et al., 1987:15).

And yet it would be worthwhile to acknowledge at the outset how difficult and complex a task it is to work out cohesive and practical policies and models to achieve holistic creative development. In the arena of culture and creativity in particular, the reasons do no lie so deep as to seem unfathomable.


In spite of very high GNPs, individuals in post-modern societies have come to realise that in everyday life, the bonds that build fellowship and reciprocity in family, work-place and community are getting attenuated. People do not feel confident that they can live in tune either with time or with place. This feeling has been caught well by a contemporary observer of the Western scene. Invoking the perceptions of modernity entertained by Marx, Nietzsche and Baudelaire, he says:

They can illuminate the contradictory forces and needs that inspire and torment us. Our desire to be rooted in a stable and coherent personal and social past, and our unstable desire for growth — not merely for economic growth but for growth in experience, in pleasure, in knowledge in sensibility — growth that destroys both the physical and social landscapes of our past, and our emotional links with those lost worlds; our desperate allegiances to ethnic, national, class and sexual groups which we hope will give us a firm ‘identity’, and the internationalization of everyday life — of our clothes and household goods, our books and music, our ideas and fantasies — that spreads all our identities all over the map; our desire for clear and solid values to live by, and our desire to embrace the limitless possibilities of modern life and experience that obliterate all values . . . . Experiences like these unite us with the nineteenth century modern world: a world where, as Marx said, ‘every thing is pregnant with its contrary’ and ‘all that is solid melts into air’; a world where as Nietzsche said, ‘there is danger, the mother of morality — a great danger . . . displaced onto the individual, onto the nearest and dearest, onto the street, onto one’s own child, one’s own heart, one’s own innermost secret recesses of wish and will’ (quoted by O’Neill 1988:502-3).


But we begin to experience a sense of resignation and remoteness when we consult the metropolitan thinkers for solutions. In relating culture to whatever is named as modernisation or late capitalism or post-industrial society, or in relating culture to the social relations of production, power, and class, these thinkers get themselves polarised, although not for accidental reasons, into two warring camps. Contemporary German social theory, for example, represents the first camp. The erosion of the distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture in today’s consumer society disturbs it. It therefore produces massive critiques of the culture of industry and consumerism in the age of late capitalism and culminates in the theory of communicative action. And yet these massive works fail to provide any practical and political guide for action. As Rick Roderick puts it:

The lessons the critical theorists drew from the history of marxism was that an inattention to philosophical and methodological questions had disastrous theoretical and practical effects. In this context, they argued for the relative autonomy of theory . . . . With the exception of Marcuse at certain points in his career and the early Horkheimer, the critical theorists rejected any direct links between the elaboration of theory and participation in political struggles (Roderick 1986:150).

Working in the hoary tradition set by Aristotle and refashioned by Kant, which associates melancholy and sympathy with moral freedom and sensitivity, critical theory in effect defends nostalgia (Stauth and Turner 1988:510-13). It is no wonder, then, that in spite of their stout defence of the philosophical discourses of modernity celebrating emancipatory reason, order, coherence, unity, and universality, both Marcuse and Habermas exclude Third World concerns from the ambit of their analyses and disown any responsibility towards it.

The new French social theory represents the other camp. In terms of its critical theory antagonists, it represents

an emotional current of our time which has penetrated spheres of intellectual life. It has put on the agenda theories of postenlightenment, postmodernity, and even of posthistory (Habermas 1984:3-14).

Emphasising the new forms of technology and information, the computerisation of society, the increasing role of simulations and models, the superabundance of cultural goods, the effacement of the boundary between art and everyday life and so on, current French theory talks about the post-industrial age, the erasure of the distinction between the real and the appearance, and even the end of the social. To face this novel world, it wants to shape a matching radical stance which would go beyond the philosophers of modernity and Marx in particular (for example, see Derrida 1994:54-56). Most of these French thinkers want to radicalise the Hegel-Marx tradition by incorporating insights from Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud and Saussure. Unlike their German counterparts excepting Marcuse, they want to adopt interventionist radical politics (see Derrida 1986:168). More notably, they do not mind making some gestures towards the Third World (for example, Derrida 1985:290-99).

And yet the new French social theory culminates in the politics and aesthetics of desire, sensation and immediacy. In its practical effects it appears to be primarily negative. Catherine Zuckert has provided a good demonstration of this point while discussing the politics of Derridean deconstruction. She states:

In arguing that there is no stable system of meaning or order — natural, logical, or historical — Derrida may free his readers from the spectre of ‘totalization’, but by virtue of the same argument, he deprives them of the capacity to think, much less to act on their own behalf. If all opposites are fundamentally and inseparably linked, as Derrida maintains, there are no alternatives, no ‘either-or’s between which to choose. We may be freed from complete domination, but we are not free to do much. Difference continues to operate whether we will it or no . . . .

As Derrida himself observes, ‘it is not certain that such thinking can bring together a community or found an institution in the traditional sense of these words’. According to Derrida, we do not completely and simply share anything with anyone — ourselves, much less our nation or species. There may be a good deal of historical overlap in language and customs, but there is no common room or ground. There are only and always differences and hence, opposition, division and strife (Zuckert 1991:354-55).

Thus the new French social theory’s endeavours to keep alive ‘historicity’ in the face of a teleological history end in varieties of messianic messages which on examination are found unfortunately to be full of passivity. Its political and cultural implications are ‘parochial, if not provincial’.

The current spectrum of theoretical dissent in the United States is also quite big. It spreads, say, from Frederic Jameson on the one hand to Richard Rorty on the other. But in reality these dissenting voices get totally smothered by the voices raising the cries of the end of history and so on, the triple-angled domination in the spheres of polity, economy and culture is so complete and so elemental.


Our voyage of discovery in the realm of current cultural discourses in the post-modern societies in search of guidelines for practical, transformative models for facing the desert-like cultural reality within our own country has thus been proved practically futile. Yet such journeys will be both unavoidable and desirable for the present and also for a long time to come for the following reasons.

Let us first note the compulsive element or elements. In the first instance, globalisation as it operates today is bound to threaten the plurality and diversity of all cultures. In the words of Panikkar:

Today culture is an important component of domination, both of and within developing societies. The ideological apparatuses of state and of multinational agencies brought into being by [the] technological revolution have ushered in this possibility. During the last couple of decades, [the] culture industry in the capitalist west has undergone transformation beyond recognition. A very large volume of capital has gone into this industry . . . and that cultural capitalism has displaced manufacturing as a source of wealth and influence.

Panikkar also reminds us that

what is happening, however, is not such an innocent process of acculturation, permitting the acceptance or rejection of cultural elements based on freedom of choice. On the contrary, the power differential inherent in economic relations determines cultural interaction . . . . The exogenous cultural presence is not only unsettling the indigenous but also trying to hegemonise it for legitimising a concept of social development modelled on the advanced capitalist societies (Panikkar 1955:374-77).

In the second instance, as M.P. Rege puts it so well:

The concept of science as the only rational form of knowledge and that of civil society as the only rational form of society came to us as gifts of a colonial rule which disrupted the traditional forms of life in India. This certainly complicates our situation. But even if they had been presented to us in an altogether peaceful manner they would have posed a serious challenge, indeed a threat . . . (Rege 1994:271-73).

For diverse, and more often competing and even contradictory reasons, diverse sections of our society from the top to the bottom want to realise these two concepts in accordance with their requirements. We therefore are bound to follow the post-modern societies in the future as well.

In the third instance, we may have very cogent and legitimate reasons to question the extrapolation of these Western culture-bound rationalizations to encompass Third World situations (Daya Krishna 1995:93-96). And yet we find ourselves in a situation in which the question is not ‘how to maintain and express their autonomy in the sphere of cognition but how to reclaim it’ (Rege, 1994:272).

But there do exist superior and more dignified reasons for watching the advanced societies to better know how to link our own cognitive and cultural heritages for strategies for sustainable development.

Paulo Freire and Edward Said have identified one such factor well in understanding the relationship between home and homelessness, exile and critic, or another self and one’s own identity. Border-crossing not only helps to break taken-for-granted barriers of thought and experience, but more importantly, saves intellectuals from the risk of

being too remote in their work as intellectuals from the most real, most concrete experiences, and of being sometimes lost, and even somewhat contended, because they are lost in a game of words . . . ‘specializing in the ballet of concepts’ (Giroux 1994:146-48).

Paul Ricoeur has put this relationship still better. According to him, recognition of the error in identifying science and technology with ‘the relationship of truth which we can have with all things’ induces us ‘to discover what, in the cultures of the past, is more than merely pre-scientific’. For the same reasons, receptiveness to other cultures prepares us ‘to apply to ourselves the distinctive significance of a particular tradition’ (Ricoeur 1976:13-33).

Mahatma Gandhi had taught these insights with a far sharper sense of reality and a clearer vision moulded by the various traditions within our country. Making a distinction between imitation and assimilation, he wanted us ‘to build a new culture based on the traditions of the past, enriched with the experience of later times’. This was for the simple reason that his religion, ‘whatever it may be called’, demanded the fulfilment of all cultures (Gandhi 1930, 1940, 1944).


The detour taken in the third section was necessary for a simple reason. Culture-wise, India nowadays is as much part of the kingdom of darkness as of the so-called post-modern world. Now if any flicker of hope and enlightenment is available, our refusal to accept it would offer another demonstration of the sunken state of our civilisation and culture by laying open our misplaced pride and smugness. But the problem is that as we have seen, even the most advanced consciousness and thought in the advanced capitalist world have nothing to offer in terms of a fresh utopia and praxis to their own and to the rest of the world. In the given situation, we are led to listen to the voices of our own tradition, and they are not that inaccessible if we care to follow them. Moreover, some of these voices possess a rare virtue — a practical ability to link stark realities with utopian norms and vision.

Listen to Ananda K. Coomarswamy, for instance. His following statements reveal a courage to grasp reality as it is:

We have gone so far as to divorce work from culture and to think of culture as something to be acquired in hours of leisure; but there can be only a hothouse and unreal culture where work itself is not its means; if culture does not show itself in all we make we are not cultured.

Culture originates in work and not in play.

The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man who is not an artist in some field, every man without a vocation is an idler . . . . . No man has a right to any social status who is not an artist.

To ‘enjoy’ what does not correspond to any vital needs of our own and what we have not verified in our life can only be described as an indulgence.

The ideal of voluntary poverty, which rejects utilities, can be readily understood. It is easy to see that an indefinite multiplication of utilities, the means of life, may end in an identification of culture with comfort, and the substitution of means for ends (Coomarswamy 1956:15-16, 23-24, 25, 48-49).

It was not indeed ‘taste’ that brought us to the use of homespun, nor, on the other hand, was this merely an outwardly imposed privation; . . . for the present we are assured that to be arrayed in glorious garments is not merely bad economy, but also bad taste (Coomarswamy 1977:98-99).

Mahatma Gandhi urged us to think about the following issues:

Self-expression and self-government are not things which may be either taken from us by anybody or which can be given us by anybody. It is quite true that if those who happen to hold our destinies, or seem to hold our destinies in their hands, are favourably disposed, are sympathetic, understand our aspirations, no doubt it is easier for us to expand. But after all self-government depends entirely on our own internal strength, upon our ability to fight against [the] heaviest odds. Indeed, self-government which does not require that continuous striving to attain it and to sustain it is not worth the name (Gandhi 1927).

The duty of renunciation differentiates mankind from the beast.

Some object that life thus understood becomes dull and devoid of art, and leaves no room for the householder. But renunciation here does not mean abandoning the world and retiring into the forest . . . . Joy has no independent existence. It depends upon our attitude to life . . . . Joy, therefore, is a matter of individual and national education (Gandhi 1980:38-39).

Our (basic) system of education . . . leads to the development of the mind, body and soul. The ordinary system cared only for the mind . . . . The function of Nai Talim is not merely to teach an occupation, but through it to develop the whole man (Gandhi 1962:117, 122).

Sankho Chaudhuri offered the following insights to us. While discussing a cultural policy for folk and tribal art he stated:

It would be wrong to label their art with a capital ‘A’ in the contemporary sense of conscious self-expression. What they do is only an extension of their daily existence.

We tend to associate the word ‘encouragement’ with the development of any form of art. This presupposes a lack of utility for the object, but if the latter is essential in a people’s life it does not need this encouragement. In fact, if by encouragement we mean creating a large market, it is doubtful whether the creation of a market disproportionate to production capacity is at all beneficial. We have seen how this exaggerated demand at times completely debases taste and demoralises the artisans (Chaudhuri 1975:151, 154).

I think that the above insights provide practical guidelines for linking cultural heritage with strategies for sustainable development. In fact, there can be no better framework for policy in particular in a country where the majority of the people still suffer from poverty, want, malnutrition, dreariness and illiteracy. A set of such policies alone would nourish the self-confidence and creativity of the citizens, autonomy and experimentation of the community and a utopian and not creative memory of tradition).


The price which we have paid for deviating from the creative and critical tradition within our country is too well-known to demand repetition. The Government of India announcement of 7 May 1990 captures the depth of our failure so well. It says,

Despite efforts at social and economic development since [the] attainment of independence, a majority of our people continue to remain deprived of education. It is also a matter of grave concern that our people comprise 50 per cent of the world’s illiterate, and large sections of children have to go without [an] acceptable level of primary education (Ramamurthi Committee:iv).

Given this kind of performance of our elites, and, more pertinently, the poverty of ideas from which I suffer, I am offering the following proposals for your consideration. Though they may appear very mundane and perhaps somewhat removed from the thrust of my argument so far, I believe that somehow they do have a subterranean relation with what I have said earlier.

1. An action plan for developing the public library service

Until we develop an effective public library service for the first-generation literates who constitute the majority of our educated citizens, we will not be able to meet the real hunger of these citizens for more and better information and knowledge. Our formal educational system manufactures at the most practically semi-literate persons. We find time and again that they suffer from a lack of easy and cheap access to library facilities.

I endorse the observations made by Subhag C. Biswas in this connection:

Had the public library service developed properly, alongside our educational programme, our socio-economic condition would have been more encouraging that what it is. The public library network requires heavy capital investment and the returns are only indirect. State Governments are reluctant to invest large amounts from their limited resources as they feel other priority areas can provide better results for economic growth. Lack of political will prevents us from a developing a nation-wide public library service on modern concepts [emphases mine] (Biswas 1992:273-75).

Please note that this is not a demand for a national library facility with huge libraries necessary for the higher echelons of the intelligentsia or policy-makers but a plea for a national library network based on community-centred, community-managed medium-sized, good but non-elitist and yet modern library centres.

2. A museum system for cultural empowerment

If we give up traditional concepts of a museum, we will be able to dismantle the cultural barriers that prevent the participation of communities and the people as a whole in museum activity. In their new role museums can play ‘an important part in shaping cultural perceptions within their communities, as people everywhere become more aware of themselves and their surroundings’ (Pearce 1991:vii).

The premise of the new museum theory coming up in the post-modern world tells us that

the past is something that belongs to all, irrespective of the circumstances of their birth and upbringing. Consequently everyone should have the right to gain access to their own history, even if they choose not to avail themselves of this opportunity. Museums and similar organisations are one of the principal means by which people can gain access to the past, and everyone should thus have the opportunity to visit them and feel at home in them (Merriman 1991:1).

The irony is that Coomarswamy would have accepted this position, although for very different reasons. In a well-known argument concerning the exhibition of works of art he had opposed their display on grounds of ‘our fashion’ or ‘aesthetic motives’. Treating the museum as ‘the sworn enemy of the methods of instruction currently in our Schools of Art’, he wanted the museum exhibition to return to the ‘savage levels of culture’ where objects were custom made and made for use and not for profits or novelty (Coomarswamy 1956:7-22). The idea was to use the museum to oppose the present world based upon greed, commercialisation, and elitism. We can therefore understand the lament of Sankho Chaudhuri about the transfer of the Museum of Tribal Art from Chhindwara to Bhopal at an earlier seminar on cultural policy held by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. He had made a call ‘to make small museums, not for the urbanite’s amusement but to be used for reference and inspiration by young tribesmen’ (Chaudhuri 1975:157).

The well-known artist K.G. Subramanyam offers us a similar insight in his very recent and contemporary comment. Acknowledging Ananda Coomarswamy’s still compelling impact on thinking ‘made more than 50 years ago’ he feels disturbed by the implications of the country’s new economic objectives on ‘a variety of art practice, both professional and non-professional’ within our country. Subramanyam is still a sober realist. He knows that we cannot keep tradition ‘forcibly alive’, that ‘we cannot stem social change’, and that ‘no society exists today in isolation’. And yet knowing that ‘what concerns them (the government and the trading community) most are export earnings, not human refinement’, he states:

In these circumstances the least we can do is to visually record the whole heritage, collect object specimens of the best kind, document methods of fabrication and use and house these objects and data in museums and archives region to region, speciality to speciality. These can recreate for the interested a picture of various art forms and educate them to value them. And provide, if an art form disappears, the wherewithal with which to recall it. This may motivate some to cultivate them in the new circumstances and use them for the new purposes. Even sow the seeds of tradition in a non-traditional world. And teach the future planners to be more sensitive and circumspect (Subramanyam 1995:14).

Sustainable development demands an urgent building up of such museums and archives for the future-oriented persistence of our culture and heritage in the world of post-modern technologies and capitalism.

3. Handing back people’s own ancient sites and monuments to local communities

Given the current state of our polity and the mood of the country, I am not sure whether it would be prudent to offer the third proposal. Its rationale and scope as well as the manner and the timing of its application demand serious consideration. The proposal is about community participation in the preservation of ancient sites and monuments.

The Unesco document entitled Cultural Policy: A Preliminary Study (second revised edition of 1969) states:

The aim in all countries is no longer merely to preserve ancient monuments and sites but, above all, to present them to the best advantage and give them place once more in the economic and social life of the community. They are no longer merely places to be studied by archaeologists and art historians, but means of cultural action which can be used to awaken people and make them appreciative of the culture and of the cultural heritage of mankind as a whole. The great archaeological treasures of some countries have led to the development of excavation sites as open-air museums, tourist attractions as well as relics of the past with much to teach . . . . Sites and monuments are also becoming a link in the cultural action chain [emphasis mine] (Unesco 1969:33).

The same document points out that preservation is now looked upon ‘as a means of defence against an anonymous technological civilisation and of safeguarding folk values. It has, therefore, become a part of social and cultural development’ (p.38). We know how due to lack of funds, trained manpower, and the lack of a truly post-colonial, people-oriented national policy on such matters, most of our pre-colonial sites and monuments, barring of course some well-known exceptions, are suffering from neglect, lack of immediate, living and creative contact with the surrounding community, and excessively narrow legalistic jealousies entertained by the government departments concerned. They appear so forlorn, so lifeless and so subject to the vagaries of nature and vandals.

Handing over these sites and monuments would no doubt demand some initial guidance and control for the sake of achieving authentic, form-faithful preservation and also the protection of the law of the land. But it is high time that we return this heritage of the people to their own custody. Let us free ourselves from the clutches of colonial and commercial concerns in such matters.

4. Need for a national policy for securing beautiful and useful public buildings

This final proposal does not involve a need for additional funds, manpower or big bureaucracy but only imagination and determination. We have spent crores of rupees on public buildings since Independence. Barring some rather rare exceptions, they do not serve the expectations of beauty and use in a fused manner or even separately or partially. They do not show a stamp or a style of any kind including even the bastard styles. They are as soulless, graceless and inelegant as most of our post-Independence development. Spending public funds for raising structures in tune with nature and the cultural heritage is as much a part of alternative development philosophy as anything else. Anything which falls short of these norms must be deemed from now onwards as a serious failure of public responsibilities and duties.


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