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INTERFACE OF CULTURAL IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT

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Foreword

Kapila Vatsyayan

One of the major programmes of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts is the lifestyle studies which aim at exploring all fields of cultural knowledge with a view to understanding the functioning of various communities in their totality. In 1989, an international Workshop on "Cross-cultural Lifestyle Studies with Multimedia Computerizable Documentation", was organized under the aegis of Unesco. The proceedings of the Workshop have been published in two volumes. The deliberations on general concepts, theories, and methods, were followed by a series of pilot studies of various cohesive communities in different parts of rural India. Each of these studies pointed out not only the processes of inevitable change but the pace and speed of change. All societies undergo change, adopt, assimilate and reject influence. However, trauma on the individuals and societal psyche occurs when pace is artificially accelerated or there is only an external impetus. Identity crisis is sense of loss of what is most precious in a human being. It is a matter of gratification that Unesco responded again to this concern of the IGNCA and facilitated a Meeting of Experts in April 1993, to examine the question of cultural identity, and to think about issues revolving around that other crucial word ‘development’.

The broad area of cultural identity is, indeed, complex since it requires one to ask, initially, questions about the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. It means covering a whole range of variables and definitions; the notions about the self — individual and collective — and the cultural ‘other’ in terms of whether one is referring to economic, social or cultural dimensions. These debates are very active in the West, and elsewhere, wherever the idea of ‘development’ and ‘progress’ has taken roots.

Closely linked with the crisis of cultural identity, are developmental issues which seem to take for granted the primacy of socio-economic man, and that, too, within the context of nation-state notions. But in doing so, it, in its very logic, tends to sow the seed of fragmentation, conflict, and crisis. This is so because it implies a confrontation between several interests, especially, between the individual self and society — the ‘other’ — at many levels.

The area of cultural identity in this seminar, brought to the fore, the basic distinctions that exist between two world-views; one, the anthropocentric approach, and the other, the cosmocentric viewpoint. It seemed that cultures could be defined in these terms, as seen in their lifestyle within the content of the ecological environment. For example, cultures of the cohesive traditional communities, and those of the modern world, are clearly distinguishable. The attributes of the former, often referred to as preliterate, preindustrial societies, are characterised by the whole gamut of variables attributable to oral traditions; viz., a lifestyle discernible in their dress and food habits, music and dance, habitat, rites-de-passage and above all, in these cultures, the distinction between the individual and society is not only blurred but it is not one of confrontation as is the case in modern society. It does not mean that uniqueness and diversity are absent; it means that there is great deal of interdependence within the cohesive community. On the other hand, in modern societies while great emphasis is given to the individual personality, yet, at the same time, he/she has to conform to the other — society — in terms of some impersonally imposed standardization and homogenization that arises out of a monolithic world-view. Briefly, then, these are some of the problems which as well confront the developing world today.

Clearly, one sees that today there cannot be just one universal model of development that can be applied to all cultures everywhere. The diverse nature of humanity, and the ecological environment which is essentially linked to this world-view, has to be taken into account by the ‘developing’ world. We are all well aware of the disastrous consequences of a homogenized global village, and, consequently, the increasing violent demand for cultural autonomy in many parts of the world. Not only are alternate paradigms needed to be evolved, but a reconsideration of the instrumentalities — ranging from policies and programmes, industry and technology — has to be urgently taken up. Of course, focus on the convergence of mystical ancient insights and modern science has to be noted in seeking alternatives for the crisis of cultural identity and development.

Bearing the above preamble in mind, the Experts in their meeting discussed and reflected on what constituted culture and development not per se, but as an integral holistic notion of, say, culture and lifestyle, culture and development and, culture as identity, specifically in its attributes of language which plays a very important role in the emergence of regional identities; that there is an equation between culture, language and ecological regions. This is why various linguistic groups demand national or sub-national autonomy — as is the case in India, and elsewhere.

The seminar also highlighted the close linkages that exist between religion and culture. It was, naturally, hotly debated. It was pointed out that religion has to be given due cognizance at a cultural level and not politicised by viewing it only from the institutional level. This meant that the entire issue has to be contextualised within a cosmology — the nature of the universe, the fundamental debate on the role of man within the interplay of the macro-micro levels. In short, due recognition of the vertical or spiritual dimension of human existence, seemed to be the consensus.

The questions of diverse regional socio-economic and social structures, along with the disparities, were also discussed. There was a great concern for those smaller communities who are on the verge of being swallowed by the dominant world-view and nation-state complexes. The application of a universal yardstick of ‘national’ development to all communities was questioned, especially from the viewpoint of human rights, as well.

The crucial dimension of what constituted technology was a controversial issue; it covered the entire range — from the beginnings of technology in prehistoric times to modern times, and also the technology of the human brain-mind, thought, and so on. Associated with this, was the idea of culture and industry and industrialisation. What does one understand by it? Is one ushering a monopolistic market for the entire globe without distinction between developed nations and developing nations? The aspects of "small is beautiful", the question of self-reliance, of self-dependence, of interdependence, were also raised.

Finally, the whole debate boiled down to a very interesting discussion on what constitutes modelling of societies, how a society is to be modelled. In short, are we looking at adopting derived global models based on linearity, or in terms of looking at models which arise from specific culture-historical situations? Therefore, distinctions about civilizational approaches to building culturally endogenous models within the context of development, becomes significant if the results are to be in terms of qualitative optimum growth of the total being of man, rather than just for maximising consumeristic quantifiable results. I am indebted to Unesco, the delegates for support and participation.

I thank my colleagues Prof. B.N. Saraswati and his team for organising the conference and deeply appreciate Prof. B.N. Saraswati and Prof. S.C. Malik’s assistance and help during the conference.

 

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