Saturday, June 15, 2013

National and Regional Identity in Design: Part II

The Question Of Identity



Needless to say, the question of a contemporary Indian identity in design is a difficult one, since the context of Indian identity itself is a deeply debated one today. Identity in any case, is complex and often in flux – and regional and national affiliations may come at the cost of each other.

Today, most people and governments in the world wish to become more like the industrialised countries of Europe and America. National identities all over the world are getting standardised to fit the image of a ‘global consumer’ with only minor variations. India is no exception. It is commerce, not individual skill, which is now the creator of objects as well as of identities, and financial value is the most coveted attribute. The omnipresent market, in the form of corporations and large entities, shapes both our choices as consumers and designers. It also shapes identities in more overt ways. It re-makes national boundaries – witness the cleaving of the U.S.S.R. and much of Europe through the force of capital and capitalism in the recent past.
Colonialism, the most aggressive form of industrialism, has done the same thing in the distant and not-so-distant past. There is, as we know, a Punjab east and west of the Pakistan-India border; and people on both sides of the Bangladesh-India boundary speak Bangla, wear similar sorts of saris, and draw equal inspiration from the songs and compositions of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. There are also vast numbers of expatriate communities all over the world, who rarely renounce their original affiliations, even if they reside in a different nation.

Regional identities, too, are not static. A geographical part of Madhya Pradesh is now a separate state of Jharkhand. Many families in Dharwar in Karnataka speak Marathi, the official language of Maharashtra. With the rising number of inter-caste and inter-community marriages, parents in one family may not only be from different regions of India but also often have different languages as their mother-tongues. Such changes may allow us new and dynamic ways of seeing ourselves and our contexts. But more worryingly, in many areas, agendas set by national leaders seem to ignore or clash with regional aspirations, leading to often violent confrontations with the idea of the nation and the ideas of a people.[1]

In any case, the concept of the nation-state, as conventionally understood, is something we have adopted – rather than adapted – from the western world. The very word ‘nation’, is derived from Latin. It is defined in the 1959 edition of the Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, as ‘a body of people marked off by common descent, language, culture, or historical tradition’.[2] ‘National’ is defined as: ‘belonging or peculiar to, characteristic of, or controlled by a nation.’[3] An edition of the 2003 Oxford Dictionary omits the mention of descent in its definition of ‘nation’. It simplifies the meaning to ‘a large group of people sharing the same culture, language or history, and inhabiting a particular state or area’. Its definition of ‘national’, as ‘having to do with a nation; owned, controlled or financially supported by the state, a citizen of a particular country’,[4] incorporates new meanings. Control, is now thus, specifically financial control, and the idea of something ‘characteristic or peculiar to a nation’ is no longer stated.

When the same western culture incorporates varying overtones in its definitions of ‘nation’ over the span of merely half a century, it is reasonable to assume that different cultures over different times must have seen the idea of nation differently from the conventional modern notion. The conventional definition of ‘Indian’ in English as: ‘belonging to India (with various boundaries); a member of one of the races of India’, is obviously limited. Did we, as a nation then only come into being when the British decreed us one? What do the words ‘India’ and ‘Indian’ signify beyond the current geographical and political meanings? What is our pre-modern idea of a nation. How did we see ourselves, and how do we see ourselves? Who, after all, are ‘we’? What are the lakshanas of being Indian?[5]

One of these lakshanas, certainly for a great part of our history, appears to be a spiritual, ritual and practical link with both immediate and larger backgrounds. It was very strong and real affiliations that Indians, certainly till at least a generation ago, had with their context – family, land, community, village, town and region. These affiliations can be clearly witnessed in people who still have a strong relationship with the land – adivasis, rural communities, shepherds, small farmers. Land, signified and loved as earth and mother, is synonymous with Desh or country. This emotional attachment to the land, whether or not you are a land owner, comes with a deep sense of responsibility towards it. My maid and cook, for instance, speak of going to their desh, not their village or town. Even today, the Beghas, an adivasi community in Chattisgarh, firmly believe that the earth is their mother. They practice a system of sowing which does not use the plough, which they say rents the breast of the earth. The Begha system of sowing nourishes them as well as their land; it is a practice that helps in consolidating the dry slopes of Central India, while conventional agriculture ways weaken and dislodge this landscape.[6] But this emotional attachment, though it may in its extreme forms result in parochial attitudes, does not imply a conflict with other lands. This is different from the conventional western notion of asserting supremacy of the nation on the basis of religion, State, or region, as demonstrated most tellingly in the case of Nazi Germany or in the colonial experiments of Europe and America. 

This was because land, though an indissoluble part of an individual’s identity and security, was, till the British colonial policy disrupted it, a community asset in India. An extensive survey and study of British records from the time that they moved into India, has been done by the Gandhian historian, Dharampal. These records clearly show the presence of decentralised yet firmly rooted and connected practices that enabled a cohesive functioning of individuals with communities, habitats and regions in India. As Dharampal explains, ‘the community (geographical, or based on occupation, or kinship) seemed to have been from very ancient times the primary unit of organisation in India…in most areas the village community as a whole had the final say not only in matters which concerned the village as a whole but also with regard to any transfers, or alienation of village land or other sources from one party to another. In samudayam villages of course and perhaps similarly in the bhai-chara villages, the total land and other resources completely vested in the community while simultaneously the individual family had a hereditary claim on its own share of such resource.’[7]

This was a practical application of the conception of space and time in most systems of Indian philosophy. The idea of the vastness of space and time, and how the lifetimes of human beings count but little in this vastness; yet the belief that they, like everything else in this universe, are an important part of a larger fathomless whole, informed each aspect of Indian thought and creativity. Habib Tanvir found this idea of space and time informing not just the ancient Sanskrit works of drama but also in living traditions of regional-theatre. He explains it as: ‘[w]hat the villagers do by way of simplicity of staging, the imaginative use of space with regard to make-believe, and the manner in which they deal with time…’. He drew on this realization of time and space in his own productions and ‘…came right back to ‘Indianness’…to our Sanskrit tradition and folk traditions. Blending folk with the classical, realising there are no barriers.’[8]

Both the arts and sciences in the Indian tradition affirm a view of there being ‘no barriers’ in the cosmos, conceived with the aid of a vocabulary and an organisation of numbers and entities which moves effortlessly between the infinitesimal and the infinite. The Sanskrit shloka that forms the opening invocation in the Isa Upanishad is routinely chanted in many Hindu households even today. It sums up this world view,[9] which is very different from the current dominant conceptions in most parts of the world of humans dominating nature, or being mere instruments subject to an overwhelming God.
Purnamadah purnamidam Purnartha
Purnamudhachyate
Purnasya Purnamadya
Purnameva Vashishyathe

Secondly, unlike much of dominant Western thought which sees humankind marching forwards on a linear road of progress, Indian philosophies explain existence as a cyclical journey, which in each cycle is actually a process of regression. So, many Indians even today, despite being brought up on a formal education which promotes the Darwinian notion of evolution, fall back on the phrase ‘Yeh Kalyuga hai’ to explain away the ills of today’s age. The characteristics of Kalyuga, the last in a cycle of four yugas, each falling further from the ideal of truth and equality, and the idea of space and time that it is part of, continue to be part of the Indian imagination – seen and heard in our films, songs, or proverbs.

Within the nation, the idea of being part of the same nationality is implicit, with a few exceptions. It is when interacting with an international audience, that the explicit signs of a nation are deliberately brought forward. The most grandiose notions of homeland and nation come to mind when one is banished or is away from the homeland, or when one is presenting it to other homes, other lands. The Island of Sheep, was first published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1936. Written by John Buchan, who went on to become the 35th Governor-General of Canada, and is feted as ‘one of Britain’s finest writers of suspense stories,’ it is a tale of breathless adventure. It, also, as a sidelight, offers views of glorified ‘national’ attributes. Its heroes, indubitably British, but much travelled all over the world in an era when Britain was a colonial power, seek to cast the world in a version of values that seem special to their home and nation. Thus, one of them, back in England, ‘as he sniffed the scents coming up from the woods and the ploughlands, seemed to feel the magic of the place. “Pretty good’, he said. “England is the only real comfortable spot on earth – the only place where man can be utterly at home”.[10] Note the sweeping generalisation about the idea of home, and how this idea of home must be true for everyone; for ‘man’, not just for an Englishman.

In the western world, as we know, the idea of the supremacy of man over nature especially after Renaissance, later went on to denote the supremacy of a certain race and religion of man over not just nature but the entire world. The role of spirituality also changed and diminished. Travels in The Mogul Empire 1656-1668 was written by the Frenchman and traveller, Francois Bernier, several centuries before the fictional characters of The Island of Sheep. This was a time when religion was a great driving force. Bernier was held to be more objective than many other European travellers to India, and his book was lauded by its 19th century British translator for its ‘very remarkable accuracy’. 

A conversation recorded in the book, reveals the differences in the lakshanas of the Indian and the western idea of the world and the self, even as late as the 17th century. Some learned Pandits gave this answer in response to Bernier’s question about their religion. “We pretend not,” they replied, “that our law is of universal application. God intended it only for us, and this is the reason we cannot receive a foreigner into our religion. We do not even say that yours is a false religion: it may be adapted to your wants and circumstances, God having, no doubt, appointed many different ways of going to heaven.” And this is Bernier’s comment on this answer: “I found it impossible to convince them that the Christian faith was designed for the whole earth, and theirs was mere fable and gross fabrication.”[11]

In the Indian philosophy of Vasudeva kutumbhaya, there existed a system of interdependence between people, objects and their contexts. This system drew from an intellectual and a spiritual framework, propelled by a philosophy that recognised dominant as well as fringe beliefs. In practical terms, this system of interdependence was created and continued through regional, professional or community-based identities. These identities were not static, as evident in the internal reorganisations that occurred through the efforts of individuals or groups who questioned and evolved or changed these systems repeatedly. Objective disagreements and debates were a key component of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sufi practical and theoretical philosophy. These debates proceeded, not by rejecting different religious systems – as evidenced in the Brahmins’ tempered rejoinder to Bernier’s question – but by acquiring a systematic knowledge and exposition of their features, before refuting or accepting them. So, for instance, Hinduism in its later years draws from Buddhism, Jainism, and even Islam and Christianity; Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism arise out of an attempt to distil, adapt, or evolve a reformed idea of Hinduism and other religions and beliefs.

As the great poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore explained, ‘unlike in Europe, the State has never been in India a central thing in the life of the nation. While European civilization assigned a central position to the State, Indian civilization from ancient times put in that place society guided by dharma as it was conceived by the people.’[12] Further, all these people, objects and contexts practising different variations of different religions in different regions, were tied into a larger whole through a vision of sacred geography, which spanned great parts of the sub-continent. So, not only are streams, springs, mountains, rocks and trees sacred to a region and inviolate, but also pilgrims from other parts journey to see and worship these. Even today, people from the deepest south, east and west travel to the Himalayas in the north, to visit the places extolled in hymns and history[13]; place-names and even forms all over the sub-continent are made in memory of the regions that people have moved from;[14] temples in the mountains of North India transport you to those in East India.

Clear instances of the intermingling of regions are evident in most of the Brahmin families from the Central Himalayas, who align themselves with the Pahars, the mountains, and often introduce themselves simply as Paharis. This is their first identity today, reflected in both language and customs. Though they settled here at least three to four hundred years ago, they retain the memory of their original region as well. My grandfather, Pandit Daya Krishna Joshi, told his sons that they came to the Kumaon mountains from Dharwad on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border. A sister-in-law’s family who moved from Karnataka, has chosen to remember their original region more directly. They speak Kumaoni amongst themselves, but their family title is Karnatak. Her grandfather was named Badri, after one of the foremost deities of the mountains. His name, Badri Dutt Karnatak, thus carries his present as well as original regional identity. So, the first allegiance seems to be that of the region, not caste, not profession.

And the final allegiance was not just to the region or the nation, but the world and your soul. The Mahabharata says: ‘Give up the individual for the family, the family for the habitat, the habitat for the land. But for the Aatman, give up the whole land’.[15] Such responsibilities towards region and land, and to a lesser extent to the ‘Aatman’ are still there, but in a far more diluted fashion. One of the reasons is that language, which is one of the most visible variants of regional identity as well as the most potent medium for the expression of individual identity, is now far more standardised.

Part of this is an imposed standardisation. So, one version of Hindi is promoted as the ‘correct national language’. Regional variants such as Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, and so on, are not considered as important. In my own family, none of my cousins can speak in Kumaoni and Garhwali; we converse entirely in either English or Hindi. The second reason is that many of us now grow up in urban situations divested of regional contexts. Even for those who do grow up in small towns or cities, the aspiration (which quickly translates into reality) is to move out – to bigger cities in the country or to work-places outside the country. The rich and the middle-class, who become the standard model for many, including the poor and the oppressed, mimic a stereotypical image of the Western world. In a recently published interview in a national newspaper, Chandra Bhan Prasad, introduced as ‘a traveller, an analyst, a writer, a scholar,’ had this to say in response to a question about whether he saw changes in the lives of Dalits and tribals.
Yes, the biggest change that has occurred and which I thought would never happen in this country—that food sources have become common for Dalits and upper castes. Earlier, Dalits mainly ate millets...what is called coarse grain. That was a low social marker—this is Dalit food or cattle feed. Now Dalits and upper castes and OBCs have common sources of food—wheat and rice. And jeans and T-shirts have become new weapons of emancipation. I see in villages Dalit youth sporting jeans and T-shirts. Something is happening in the countryside. Dressing well, eating well. They are also migrating from the countryside to cities like Mumbai and Aurangabad and Ahmedabad and elsewhere.’ [16] 

It is interesting to read this, especially in the light of increasing recognition of the rich food value of millets, which are now being embraced by the health-conscious in India and the rest of the world, and which have now become as, if not more expensive than, wheat and rice. It is also worthwhile to recollect that ‘khichri’, a food item reserved today for illness or banter, was a favourite of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, arguably the richest ruler of the medieval world, as of his father, Jahangir. In fact, records show that three hundred years ago, the food that the rich and the poor ate was not substantially different, and included such healthy items as millets of various kinds.

Nationhood today, like the food we eat or the language we speak or the architecture and attire that we promote, is paradoxically an exclusivist choice that allows dominant versions to standardise regional richness. Yet both philosophical texts as well as childrens’ tales still transmit our historical culture of amicable differences. Duniya sabki is a book of poems written for children, by the activist, writer and stage-actor, Safdar Hashmi (April 12, 1954 – January 2, 1989). Its title poem, Duniya sabki, in the Indian tradition of a dialogue between Emperor Akbar and his wise courtier, Raja Birbal, demonstrates to the reader as to the Emperor, who has grown arrogant with power and believes everything belongs to him, ‘that either the world is everybody’s or nobody’s at all’.[17] 


This view of the world, allowed divergent and diverse expression of ideas, but is no longer offcially encouraged – witness our national school curriculum. Political lingo and objectives set out the attributes of an ideal homogenized Indian. Generally, region and nation in actual terms today is seen to be an either/or situation. To be a true national, you must not display too many regional affiliations or associations. Harmony, it is assumed, can only be achieved through similarity. We don’t really buy the idea of unity in diversity; we simply tout it as a convenient line.

In such a time, most of us, designers or otherwise, are not clear of what our regional and national identify comprises of, or what role design or designers can have in formulating or even an expressing ‘Indian’ identity. Can we be uniquely Indian with distinguishing regional attributes, in a time when global influences are so frenetic? If yes, would not this identity of Indian-ness in design be something that designers today can positively capitalize onto project the image of being Indian, to continue certain characteristics which can be an asset for India and for design? If not, then is it not time that we look within to seek out such qualities that help Indian Design to stand out in an increasingly standardized and homogenized world?


[1] The increasing Maoist and people’s movements against the Indian State in many rural and tribal areas, are a manifestation of this conflict between regional and national aspirations.
[2] Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, Edited by William Geddie,  first published 1901, revised new edition 1959, W. and R. Chambers, Edinburgh and London
[3] Ibid. p. 712; Further we find the definitions of Descent: ‘transmission by succession, derivation from an ancestor’, p. 283; and Culture: ‘a type of civilisation’, p. 257
[4] Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, Indian edition 2003, OUP, Delhi, Catherine Soanes, Alan Spooner, Sara Hawker. Note also definitions of ‘Culture’: ‘the arts, customs, and institutions of a nation, people or group’; and ‘descent’: ‘a person’s origin or nationality’.
[5] A thought-provoking exploration of ‘Is there an Indian Way of Thinking’, can be found in The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan, edited by Vinay Dharwadker, OUP, 2012
[6] Earth Witness, Reflections on the Times and the Timeless, directed by Akanksha Joshi, PSBT 2011
[7] Dharampal, p.35, Chapter 3: ‘Erosion of Norms and Dignity in Modern India’, Rediscovering India, SIDH Mussoorie 2003. See also pp. 12-13; and p. 79-84, Annexure C, (‘Gentoo Internal Government on the coast of Chormomandel’, Alexander Dalrymple, London, 1783); and Annexure D: (‘Land Rights and Village Organisation’, S. Lushington, Collector Of Tinnevelly and Ramnad Pollams, 1800)
[8] p. 23, ‘My Milestones in Theatre, Habib Tanvir in Conversation’, Charandas Chor, Seagull Books 2004, Kolkata.
[9] "From the whole the whole, from the complete arises the complete. Deducting the whole from the whole, the whole alone remains.", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isha_Upanishad;
[10] The Island of Sheep, p. 36
[11] Francois Bernier, Travels in the Mogul Empire, p. 328.
[12] The Mahatma and The Poet, Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941, Compiled and Edited by Sabysachi Bhattacharya, National Book Trust India, First Edition 1997, Fourth Reprint 2008, Saka 1929, p. 25, Introduction.
[13] In the 1960s, when Dharampal was travelling in a 3rd Class coach of a day-train from Gwalior to Delhi, he met a group of about twelve villagers carrying their cooking vessels and their provisions. These people, about four of whom were women, were from two different villages near Luckhnow, and were on a pilgrimage. They had journeyed over a period of three months, among other places, to Rameshwaram, in the very south of India and were now on their way to Hardwar, where the Ganga descends from the mountains, before returning home. Dharampal, in a conversation that lasted the 6-7 hours of the train travel, learnt from them that though they had passed through Madras, Bombay, and other important destinations of ‘modern’ India, they had not stopped to see anything there. He also learnt that they were from different jatis, but on a pilgrimage there are no jati or caste differences. Claude Alvares, Preface: ‘Making History’, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, pp. v–vi, in Dharampal, SIDH Mussoorie and OIP Goa, 2007
[14] Madura in South India for instance is named after Mathura in the north;
[15] Bharat Gupt, India:  A Cultural Decline or Revival, Preface, p. xiv, D. K. Printworld (P) Ltd, New Delhi, 2008
[16] Walk the Talk, The Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta in conversation with Milind Kamble, founder of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), and Chandra Bhan Prasad, his mentor, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/capitalism-is-changing-caste-much-faster-than-any-human-being.-dalits-should-look-at-capitalism-as-a-crusader-against-caste/1127570/7 
[17] Safdar Hashmi, ‘Duniya Sabki’, ‘…Samajh mein uske aiee, Yaa to dunia sabki hai, yaa nahin kisi ki bhai’, 2006 Edition, SAHMAT, New Delhi

Images © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji; Text © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji


3 comments:

  1. The biggest problem today is created by the manipulation of high end technology by Euro Americans (excluding eastern Europeans and the native Americans) or in other words by Christian nations that call colonial and Biblical ideas as universal humanism. This techonology is raking so many profits by exploiting India and Africa (not governing them directly but through brown and black agents controling local populations)that every craft that belonged to the people is now wiped out. Productivity is controlled by international corporations. Nothing regional not even national is going to survive if these multinationals are not controlled. The solution is to use technology for promoting local crafts, for local employment and not just or mostly for producing things for international markets.Produce first for the region, then for the nation and last of all for the global demand.
    But Indians think poorly of India, particularly of its past. 60 years of Nehruvian Fabianism and Marxism has taught us to think of pre-Muslim Inida as an era of orthodoxy and feudal ignorance. The period when India was wealthiest and created wonders in arts, philosophies, maths and sciences has been discarded from university studies and is taught through English by professors who know NO Sanskrit, Magadhi or any other Prakrit. We should learn to love our heritage and work to reinvent it. Revive traditional serais by modern technology not make 5 star hotels, fill up local lakes and water bodies and not make dams, make houses from local material, judges should give up collars and black coats and make people friendly laws, reduce income tax and encourage people to make local philanthropy, decentralise education and stop worshiping English (Chandra Bhan Prasad has a temple for English Devi!!!. He is mistaken in thinking that capitalism removes castes. Some Dalit businessmen and IAS officers will all declare themselves as neo Brahmins and dump their fellow Dalits in a couple of generations. Caste or JAti has been reinforced in Indian politics by Western anthroplogists who do want change in India. Manu was more modern than Gandhi because Manu sanctioned Gandharva vivah or love marriage. Hindu Acharyas have to revive it and make it more liberal. Modern Indian politicins want ot keep JAt lands and Khap Pradesh or a Buddhism not based on Maitri but on caste. Present day political ideals have become oppresive and divisive. The ancients were far more liberal. LEt us learn from them.

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