Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dr.Thiru Kandiah

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 (All day)
Encounter of the Week

So Pera era was an accident?

His teaching and research work have been mainly in the field of English Studies, both language and literature. His work in language/linguistics extends across several specialized areas in the field, ranging from the theoretical and the structural to the “applied” (including sociolinguistics and language education). The so-called new Englishes (especially Lankan English) and English in language planning (both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere) have been among his key areas of interest.
“During the past 10 or 20 years in Sri Lanka I have seen the whole notion ‘intellectual’ being devalued in two ways. Anybody who has a couple of letters after his or her name is called an intellectual provided they support the powers that be. Leaving aside such matters of local political expediency, there is the impact of the return during the past three decades or so of the global capitalist enterprise and market forces as deciding factors in the way the nation acts,” Former Professor of English at Peradeniya University, Dr.Thiru Kandiah recalled a relevant incident.
At a discussion attended by business people and higher educationists some ten years ago, a businessman complained that the problem with our universities was that they were concerned with producing intellectuals.
“Incredible, but true. I can think of no country other than Sri Lanka in which anyone could have got away with such a statement. What he was arguing was that the function of universities was simply to service the global market, whereas it had earlier been assumed all along that a major function of education had been to help people to learn to think, so that they could function effectively in any capacity anywhere, including any kind of market. And the worst thing is that though various university staff members, including vice chancellors, were present at the discussion, no one at all protested against the comment.”
Dr. Kandiah’s concerns had always been very different, which motivated him, particularly after he came to occupy the Chair of English at Peradeniya to work towards a major reconceptualization of English Studies that might meet the actual needs of his students and his country, a kind of reconceptualisation of these studies that our post-colonial realities seemed to make imperative. One aspect of that reconceptalization was to try to work towards a more or less equal balance between literature study and language study in a field that was dominated considerably by literary study as such, maintaining the highest intellectual standards in both, without losing sight of the practical ends that these studies might be expected to serve in society – for instance, in teaching English.
He has also engaged, if limitedly, with the Tamil and Sinhala languages and, also, with drama in those languages. He played a key role in establishing the Translation Programme of Peradeniya University around 2002.
Former Professor of English at Peradeniya University, Dr Thiru Kandiah. Picture by Saman Sri Wedage
Q : Peradeniya flourished with its rich literary traditions during the past era. Why do you think it demised?
A: That is a very dangerous question to ask a member of the so-called “Peradeniya generation”. It was a spectacular period and the danger is that one might be tempted to indulge in the glories of the past.
Actually, that period was the result of a kind of lucky accident. A whole conjunction of different factors at that historical moment in time put Peradeniya in a position to deliver a great output. After 450 years of colonial rule Sri Lanka was awakening to itself, searching itself out in all kind of fields.
And just at that moment, Peradeniya University was opened, and a large number of the most creative and best minds in the country who happened to be in leadership positions in a whole wide range of disciplines of study were sent there.
This concentration of extraordinary talent all in one place at just the time when the country as a whole was emerging into its own and searching out its own voice and meanings, could not but have issued in the glorious way it did. All the more so because that place was conceived of by its first Vice-Chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings, as a very special place dedicated whole-heartedly to learning.
You talk of a demise but I see it simply as a change. Even as all of this was going on, the country was in the process of other major changes. For instance, society was democratizing, as more and more people were being brought into mainstream processes; knowledge, activities and so on were spreading amazingly and involving more and more people - a process in which, incidentally, members of the Peradeniya generation played an important role. The forces of what was known as globalization were increasingly coming into operation.
The well-attested negative, fascistic dimension of nationalism, which had expressed itself positively in the whole awakening process, began to surface virulently, to issue eventually in the destructive ethnic war. All of these changes had to impact in some way or other on the situation, among other things dissolving that “concentration” of talent I spoke about, the concentration that allowed the outburst of activity to take place in the first place.
If you want to see this change as a “demise”, then it is something that occurred right across the whole country.
Q: Who were the greats in the English department that you have worked with and are there people whom you still admire working at the universities at present?
A: The greats of the English department for me are those associated with the establishment of the discipline of the English studies in Sri Lanka. They are Lyn Ludowyk, Hector Passe and Doric d’Souza. The sad thing is that even the names of these people are not known to a lot of especially the younger people in the world of English studies today.
When you lose a sense of your antecedents, you lose a sense of who you are.
So that I can talk about what I want to, let me artificially in a sense divide the people involved in the development of English studies in Sri Lanka into four hypothetical generations. The first generation comprises Ludowyk, Passe and d’Souza. The second generation is made up of the products of the first generation, all three of them including Ludowyk.
This includes a host of names, in various significant positions in various fields – people like A J Canakaratne, Mervyn de Silva, Chitra Fernando, Yasmine Gooneratne, Godfrey Gunatilleke, Ashley Halpe, Gamini Haththotuwegama, C R and Pauline Hensman, Gananath and Ranjini Obeysekara, Regi Siriwardena, Batty Weerakoon, among numerous others, including people like myself.
The third generation is made up of those who were not taught by Ludowyk but were taught by other members of both the first and second generation. Some of them are senior enough to have already retired.
The second and third generations were all along being joined by those who had pursued their English Studies outside of Peradeniya, sometimes even outside of Sri Lanka, but who are very definitely members of the world of English Studies. All of the young people who are now part of the field, many of them students of the second and third generations, may be considered to make up the fourth generation.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, a sense of the presence of the first generation (in terms of their ideas, their inspiration and their revolutionary spirit) has been lost.
The first generation, the pioneers, had in a sense to work under the most difficult conditions, because they were doing their work when the British empire was still very much around.
Modern knowledge had begun to filter from across the world to Sri Lanka (which of course had it own traditions of study in various fields), and, like those who had to transfer the modern knowledge that constituted physics, mathematics, economics, archaeology, sociology, whatever, these pioneers had to take the established tradition of in their field of study and give it to our students.
The danger with all of these traditions of study is that, emanating from centres outtside of Sri Lanka, they would quite naturally embody the forms of thinking, perrspectives, understanding, even ideologies and values that were not those of our own context but of the centres, the imperial centres, from which they came.
In a real sense, given that there were no traditions of study in these particular modern fields in our context, there was no alternative but to open ourselves to that danger. And in fact the pioneers in Englsh Studies have indeed been criticized (mainly by those from the second and third generations who were aspiring to take over the leadership in the field) for transferring knowledge paradigms of the West, and, more, for doing this in ways that favoured the so-called anglophile elite class.
But this is to miss a great deal of how really the first generation carried out a task that was in fact in any case being carried out in every sphere everywhere across the modernising world, not just in Sri Lanka for that matter.
For one thing, they carried out their task of transmitting the knowledge involved without in any way diluting standards - the students were given the best that was available.
But that was not all – the spirit in which they did it was, considering the times in which they did it, quite revolutionary. In his Ludowyk lecture, G K Hatthotuwegama, while conceding that the syllbuses Ludowyk introduced were in fact close to the traditions they came out of, points out how he helped direct significant attention to radical writing and thinking that lay outside those syllabuses and the English canon.
A lot of this happened through his work in the theatre, where, for instance, he brought Shudraka’s ‘Little Clay Cart’ from India and presented it to us as he helped create a modern theatre tradition for the country. His history of Ceylon places Sri Lanka at the centre, his book on Shakespeare acknowledges his debt to his Sri Lankan students, and he worked in certain areas in collaboration with people like Sarachchandra and the Ven.Walpola Rahula. And a lot of this during the period of empire, His perspectives were very much, then, those that emerged innovatively from out of his own specific context.
Passe’s work in Sri Lankan English is very radical, ahead of its times. Starting his research in the early 1940’s, he too worked at the height of the empire, during which there was only one way of talking English and one way of using it. His 1948 PhD dissertation, while using the now superceded linguistic models of his times, remains one of the most rigorous and thorough studies of the phonology of a new English.
He demonstrated that there exists a version of English that he termed ‘Ceylon English’, an alternative systematic form of English which we had developed. He paved the way for the current claims that there is a valid linguistic entity called Lankan English which is linguistically the equal of any variety.
He also wrote ‘The Use and Abuse of English’, which has been used by critics to say that he actually, snobbishly in fact, rejects the English usage of Sri Lankans, calling them “errors”. What the critics ignore is that when you are making a case for a new variety of English you also have to remain a responsible academic, scholar and educationist. You cannot say anything goes linguistically - there are such things as errors. To deny that in the study of any language is to be irresponsible. Of course some of what he called errors are not longer considered as errors today, but that is how languages have always tended to change.
Some things that are regarded as errors on the basis of the rules that prevail at the time become acceptable usage over time, others are rejected and remain errors. Prepositions went haywire when American English was developing. Some of them were considered errors and pushed out while others others began to get established as acceptable, reflecting regular rule-governed usage.
D’Souza was in charge of a historic event, the introduction of English language teaching classes in universities. The first cohort of Sinhala and Tamil medium students entered university in 1960. In 1951 the UNP Government had made a decision to change the medium of instruction in secondary schools from English to Sinhala and Tamil.
This began to implemented in 1953 by a stepped process that saw the first cohort of Swabasha students entering university in 1960. This was a momentous challenge for the authorities.
Peradeniya University anticipated this and sent d’Souza to America to check out the resources to start off the project.
On his return he took over the task of carrying out this historic change of bringing English proficiency classes into the university, though the initial course was run by the American expert that he had handpicked for helping in the task.
D’Souza’s thinking was completely innovative. He struggled to devise ways of teaching English that were suited to our conditions and our times. He formulated some five or six years ahead of the rest of the global world of English language teaching, what is today called English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for Specific Purposes (ESP), though as a man singularly free of jargon he had no use for such terms.
He also contributed to theorising something that was very unfashionable at the time, as it once again has begun to be in the global ELT world, namely a bilingual methodology. He created new materials for teaching the English language using Sinhala and Tamil in a rigorously controlled way.
His series of articles for the Observer still remain a classic in the field of ELT pedagogy in Sri Lanka, and contains some of the best and most perceptive accounts available of aspects of English teaching in the country. It was also he who, much earlier, had introduced a course on the nature and develoment of the English language into the syallabus for the Special English degree, thus breaking the monopoly that literature had in the syllabus.
I once described d’Souza in a paper I wrote as “that brilliant mind who did not write too much but who in his teaching and his discussions and the writing he did do was moving towards solutions well before scholars in other parts of the world, working under far more advantageous conditions, had even begun to see the problems.” I believe that captures what d’Souza represented and reminds us why we cannot afford to forget him – as indeed we cannot afford to forget any of the greats for what they have given us.
As for the second part of your question, I have a lot of admiration for all of those involved at any level in the task of developing and maintaining English studies in the country, even those with whom I might profoundly disagree. In the circumstances prevailing at present, this is a very forbidding task and they are doing a heroic job. I hope you will pardon me if I decline to name names, since I want to avoid the possible danger of my personal opinions influencing how people, including my former colleagues, are seen.
Q:English departments in universities seem to be concerned more about personal issues than improving their teaching methodologies for the benefit of students. Comment.
A: This is a “landmine” question. If I walk into it as formulated, I shall blow myself up or at the least maim myself permanently. So let me shift the focus in answering it to what I think we actually need to pay attention to.
In any case, if it is true that, as you claim, the English departments are full of personal politicking, that surely must be because any institution would reflect the general morality of the country. The country as a whole has for quite some time now been losing its ethical sense, its capacity to distinguish between what is true and what is false, right and wrong. If that is so why do you want any particular institution to be different?
Let me call attention to another problem I see with your question as formulated. Your question focuses on methodologies and I think that that reflects a dangerous concession to the kind of thinking that is being promoted across the global world of education under the name of globalization. Universities have been drawn into the stranglehold of multinational corporations and other agents of our hegemonic and unequal global order, particularly after the second World War. That world order is a result of the historical changes that had occurred in the world during the preceding five or six centuries, which saw the spread of empire and capitalism riding on each other. One of the results of this was that the whole world got reconstituted as a unity outside of which no country could set itself. However it was an unequal unity, with post-colonial countries such as our occupying the lower rungs.
A very important part of the way in which the (now transnationalized) dominant forces of that contradictory unity control the world is epistemological. One of the basic ploys that they have used is making sure that the focus shifts from thinking to methods.
T S Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” We might add to that, “Where is even the information we have lost in ‘skills, techniques, procedures, methods’ and so on? Thinking has moved out of the window. But, thinking is a kind of responsibility we cannot evade.
Antonio Gramsci talks of the ordinary intellectual, who at best transmits available knowledge, and of the organic intellectual, the intellectual who transforms and creates new models of thought.
A major aim of any university department anywhere in the world should be to create conditions for the emergence of organic intellectual thinking.
In our post-colonial contexts, this means striving to create new models and paradigms of thought meaningful to our own context, local and global, which involves transformatively bringing together the resources of knowledge that we already have got from our own indigenous knowledge bases and our own environment with the best thinking from across the world, even if it happens to come from the dominant centres.
That will help us reverse the one way directionality of the flow of ideas that empire had established, making us dependent on its dominant forces for our thinking. The classic imperial pattern - we had the raw material, they gave us the methodology and did the thinking, we applied it all here, they took it back and created sophisticated new goods and then sent them back to us to buy and uncritically consume. This borrowing and the associated dependency syndrome still continue in the intellectual fields, with fashioable post modernism and post structuralism, for instance, contributing to the process by not allowing us to find our own meanings and modes of thought, a firm basis on which we might stand as we resist attempts to take over our minds and work out our own positions – that is supposed to be “essentialism”.
Once we have begun to work out our own understanding of the basic challenges of knowledge in our context then the methods begin to define themselves.
When I held the Chair at Peradeniya these things defined my vision. The English department had been quite content with courses dominated by literature, though in Peradeniya, as in several other universities, an attempt had begun to be made to prevent the British literary canon from presiding over it all.
The problem with language study, all across the Lankan world of English studies in fact, was that it was conceived of largely in terms of elementary problems of language proficiency, not in terms of fundamental university-level thinking about the object of study, namely language, so that there was an intellectual and epistemological imbalance between the study of literature and the study of language.
The attempt to develop this kind of university level thinking would bring large benefits, involving among other things, the creation of our own multiply-sourced traditions of linguistic thinking.
But equally, it would allow us to work our way purposively towards effective practical action on this nationally very important problem of English language proficiency.
And this practical action would then be based on an intelligent, informed and sophisticated understanding of all of the complexities of the problems of proficiency within the historically determined realities of our context, the realities that have made it such a challenging practical task.
- See more at:

Neelavanan: One of the Great Tamil Poet of Sri Lanka

Tuesday, October 22, 2013



In continuing their tradition of truly grassroots community empowerment, a group of activists, artists and intellectuals will this weekend host Madai: a festival dedicated to bringing together traditional artists from across the country to discuss and perform their arts in Trincomalee from 25-27 October 2013.

The aims of this festival are simple:

1. To act as a space for traditional performers to not only share their skill and expertise but also engage with each other: something which generally does not happen, even within a district, nevermind across the country;

2. To celebrate these traditional art forms and the artists who, despite very limited resources and support, find ways to sustain them;

3. To encourage the artists to reflect on and discuss their arts:
·         How are these arts impacted by societal developments, such as globalisation?
·         How do they (or can they) address issues of discrimination such as that based on caste and/or gender?
·         How and why do these artists continue to practice their arts? What value do they see in these practices – to themselves and society?
·         What are the challenges they face?

The aims may be simple but the philosophy of the festival organisers is radical.

While traditional performers have long been treated as ‘objects of study’, this programme is designed to make them active participants. Rather than the ‘experts’ being those who study, analyse, critique and write about these arts, this programme aims to shift the power back to those who are responsible for maintaining these practices: To treat them as people who also have knowledge.

In doing so, the organisers hope to gain a far richer understanding of why these artists do what they do and to discuss with them what they see to be the important sites for both continuation and change. After all, this is the value of - and conditions of survival for - any art: the meaning it gives to the lives of the people who perform, participate and observe it.

It is also only by discussing with those who operate within a culture or community that progressive change can be achieved. As we have increasingly learnt within the human rights world, the external imposition of norms will never achieve genuine social change, equality and justice if the community itself does not see the value in these principles. And at the same time, often the very sources for positive change already exist within the group: something that is overlooked when outside ‘experts’ see their role as simply one of ‘educating’ rather than engaging with the marginalised, discriminated or oppressed.

Thus, not only does this festival promise to offer a never-before-seen insight into a range of traditional art forms, it also presents a model for truly egalitarian political and social activism and research.

The performances will be captivating: it is a rare opportunity to see so many different – often quite marginal - art forms represented in the one place.

The discussions will no doubt be lengthy, complex and maybe even controversial. But they cannot fail to be interesting.

And best of all, this can provide the beginning of a long-term process of true empowerment. By bringing the community of artists together with intellectuals, activists and the general public, the organisers hope that it will provide a space for those who are so often rendered invisible by state and global forces to have their voices heard.

Dr Kiran Grewal
School of Social and Political Sciences
University of Sydney

Thursday, October 17, 2013

‘Madai’: Festival of Traditional Arts and Celebration of Traditional Artists
Celebration of the Arts of the Heart and the Roots!
Performances! Displays!! Interactions!!!
25, 26 and27nth October 2013
09.00am to 10.30pm
Sivanandha Thabovanam
Uppuveli Road,
A program of Dept. of Hindu Cultural Affairs

Performances, Displays & interactions of the peripherals will parallels with the conventional traditional art forms!
mahidi kooththu, kooththu, kaman kooththu, thappu, udukku, parai,karaham/kumbham, polladi, kafringea, vaasaappu,  performances of veddhas, folk songs and dances, burgher music, kaaththavarayan kooththu, ponnar sankar, silambam and more and more of its kind!
‘kalari’-Traditional Theatre Construction, ‘Madaalayam’-traditional ritual architectural construction and Thoranam - traditional decorative construction!!
Two hundred traditional artists from all over Sri Lanka will illuminate this festival with their energy of mastery in their arts!!!

‘Madai’ is an offering of the communities for the communities!!!

Madai’: Festival of Traditional Arts and Celebration of Traditional Artists

It’s a space of interaction for artists from different places, generations, socio-cultural backgrounds and art forms!
It’s a space for sharing and performing the expertise and experiences of traditional artists!
It’s a space for engaging in dialogue on the importance and challenges of Traditional Arts in the Globalized era!
It’s a space for questioning and raising critical issues such as gender and caste in Traditional Arts!
It’s a space with performances and exhibits in order to excite and enlighten!

*Madai : A creative conception of Dr.S.Jeyasankar

Madai is a word of Dravidian etymology (DED 4657) from the verb root Madu, (Maduththal), meaning to take food, drink or to feed. (Also Ma'ndu > Madu)

Madai, Madaiyan (cook), Madaip-pa'l'li are derivatives.

Madai in the sense of food and food offering to God, has been used in the Changkam literature itself:

"Pal vea'ru uruvin chil avizh madai" (Ku'runthokai, 362:3)

Madaik-ka'l (toddy to drink): Natti'nai 59:5

Food offer after animal sacrifice: "Vidai veezhththu choodu kizhippa madai" (Pu'ra:naanoo'ru 366:17)

Milk rice as offering to a folk deity: "Paal madai koduththu" (Chilappathikaaram 15:117)

Food offering to Kottavai along with blood sacrifice: " Ni'ram padu kuruthi pu'rampadin allathu madai ethir ko'l'laa ...kadavu'l ayirai (Pathittuppaththu 79:16-18)

There were also references to Madai-nool (text on the art of cooking, Ma'nimeakalai 2:22)


K N Panikkar

Kappen Memorial Lecture, 2004

Cultural Pasts and National Identity

I am beholden to Visthar for inviting me to deliver the Kappen memorial lecture for this year. It is an occasion to recall to memory the contribution of a sensitive mind to our cultural and intellectual struggles at a time when much of our cultural legacy is being distorted and undermined. As such, efforts like this assume greater salience than a tribute; they are in fact part of our collective endeavour to come to terms with the present, in which the past has an influential presence.
The choice of the theme of this lecture is guided by the importance of this connection between the past and the present, particularly because what constitutes the cultural past is now being subjected to selective appropriation. The relationship between the cultural past and national identity has therefore become a contemporary political issue, not remaining strictly within the domain of academic discourse. That the making of national identity is a complex process is generally acknowledged, but the relative significance of different constitutive elements- political, social, economic and cultural- is a matter of fierce disagreement. Privileging any one of these elements can only lead to a partial view; in fact all of them are implicated, not in isolation, but as a part of an inter-related totality. In characterizing the national identity, however, culture is often foregrounded as the most significant factor, for nations may share common political institutions and economic organizations, but their cultural characteristics are generally distinct.
In articulating the relationship between culture and national identity culture of either the dominant or of the religious majority is often universalized as that of the nation. The nationalist icons are culled out from the pantheon of the ‘cultured’ or from the tradition of the majority. The popular motiffs of the Indian nation, for instance, are invariably invoked from the classical art or the texts of upper caste religion. Such an identity excludes the cultural practices of the marginalized. An exclusivist view of cultural identity is thus fore grounded, which given the immense variety in cultural practices in India, leads to a disjunction between the national and the popular. Moreover, whichever form the exclusion takes- class, caste or religious- tends to violate the culture of other sections of society, leading to cultural oppression and denial. This is particularly true of the ongoing attempt to construct a national identity based on Hindu religious cultural past.
With the emergence of communalism as an ideology of political mobilisation, the concepts of nation and nationalism have become matters of contention. Their meaning is being reordered and their character is redefined, thereby raising the question about the relationship between the cultural past and national identity. The era of enlightenment, the coming of modernity and the early phase of the national liberation struggle had witnessed a critical introspection about this relationship. Both individuals and society were then engaged in identifying their cultural location, which was largely recognised within the context of the plural and composite cultural legacy. The quest then was to create a nation out of the diverse groups owing allegiance to different racial, linguistic and religious affiliations.
These culturally distinct groups are the 4635 communities identified by the Anthropological Survey of India, diverse in biological traits, dress, language, forms of worship, occupation, food habits and kinship patterns. They belong to a variety of races, drawing from almost every stock in the world. The followers of several religions and their sects co-exist in India, pursuing their distinct worship patterns and belief systems. The number of dialects and languages in use also reflect the social and cultural plurality. Apart from thousands of dialects there are as many as 325 languages and 25 scripts derived from various linguistic families .The identity of India as a nation is a consequence of the coming together of people with such diverse social and cultural traits.
The coming together, however, is a long historical process in which the evolution of political institutions, social relations, economic production, cultural practices and intellectual engagements are implicated. Without these objective conditions, which enable the people to relate with each other the nation can neither be ‘imagined’ nor its character constructed. Among these objective conditions the cultural past or more accurately, cultural pasts, are often overlooked, as in the case of the politics centered analysis of anti-colonial struggle, or privileged as in the culture centered interpretation of nationalism. The latter has a particularly powerful avatar in the currently popular notion of cultural nationalism. It is undeniable that the identity of the nation can not be divorced from its cultural past, but given the internal cultural differentiation and the convergence of various cultural streams in Indian society the cultural past is not monochromatic in its make up. Attributing to it a monochromatic character, drawing upon religious, caste or class practices, is likely to negate the assimilative tendencies present in the cultural life of the past which in turn would lead to an identity that is not national but sectarian.
Nation in Search of Itself
The formation of national identity is not an event, but a process, a process which Fernand Braudel described as follows:
A nation can have its being only at the price of being for ever in search of itself, for ever transforming itself in the direction of its logical development, always measuring itself against others and identifying itself with the best, the most essential part of its being; a nation will consequently recognise itself in certain stock images, in certain passwords known to the initiated (whether the latter are the elite or a mass of people, which is not always the case); it will recognise itself in a thousand touchstones, beliefs, ways of speech, excuses, in an unbounded subconscious, in the following together of many obscure currents, in a shared ideology, shared myths, shared fantasies. And any national identity necessarily implies a degree of national unity, of which it is in some sense the reflection, the transposition and the condition .
The ‘nation ever in search of itself’, Braudel suggests, is bound up with a variety of factors, which contribute to the making of its identity. It is a complex process in which the conception of the people about themselves and their environment, the organization of their social life and the constitution of their ideological world are important ingredients. In other words, how people perceive themselves as belonging to an identifiable entity, in relation to others, possessing certain essential qualities and recognizable through widely shared images. Such a perception of the nation is intrinsically linked with historical experience, changing over a period of time according to the realities of social existence. The formation of national identity is therefore a process by which the people come to share, imagine and believe in certain common interests and traits. The nation is not born, it evolves. In this process, culture conceived as a dynamic, ever changing entity, is a crucial element.
The Setting: Geographical and Historical
Even if a nation can exist and survive without territory, a nation can come to its own only in the context of its territory. The territory of a nation, however, is not given; it is both culturally conceived and politically constituted . The former is intrinsically interlinked with geographical knowledge and cultural experience whereas the latter is related to the control of the territory and the organization of administration. The knowledge of territory depends upon social experience; ever changing according to man’s engagement with nature and his access to new technologies. During ancient periods of history, his social horizon was confined to his immediate surroundings and therefore he could hardly conceive of a large landmass as a unit to which he belonged. Only when such local knowledge coalesces due to social and political experience a geographically earmarked territory is conceived as a single unit. In the same territory that forms the limits of a nation, historically speaking, highly fragmented knowledge of geography exists.
The knowledge of the territory constituting India as a nation has also evolved over a period of time. This evolution can be understood in two ways. First, the different stages through which the subcontinent was identified as a territorial unit as spelt out in different texts, produced by elite groups or individuals. Second, is a more difficult and demanding effort: mapping the understanding of the variety of people who inhabited different parts of India.
The earliest expression of the knowledge of the territory of the subcontinent can be traced to the Vedic period. At that time the territorial conception, as evident from the river hymn, did not embrace the whole subcontinent. The Rig Veda contains references to twenty-five streams, most of which belong to the Indus river system. On the basis of the geographical information available in the Rig Veda it is reasonable to assume that the Aryans did not know the country beyond the Vindhya Range and the Narmada. The concept of Aryavarta was confined to the territory between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas. The unfamiliarity with the southern part of India continued till the early Buddhist period. Therefore, it is doubtful, as Radha Kumud Mukherji holds, that the river hymn of the Rig Veda ‘ presents the first national conception of Indian unity’. The Prithvi Sutra in Atharva Veda, as evident from the homage to the rivers, does not take any further.
The southern part of the subcontinent came into reckoning only during the later Vedic period. Aitreya Brahmana refers to different people of the South as living on the borders of the Aryan settlements. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata further extends the territorial limits. The Kishkhinda Kandha in Ramayana contains a fairly broad conception of India as a whole, setting it off from the surrounding countries. A more intimate and elaborate knowledge of the territory is in Mahabharata. The Bhishmaparva lists 200 rivers, among which are mentioned the rivers in south India such as Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Narmada, Krishnaveni, Vena and Tunga-vena. It also mentions 157 peoples belonging to northern India and 50 peoples to the south. This detailed information is significant enough, but more important is the conception of the subcontinent as a geographical unit, by envisioning it as an equilateral triangle, divided into four smaller equal triangles, the apex of which is Kanya Kumari and the base formed by the line of the Himalaya Mountains.
By the time of the Maurayan rulers the notion of the subcontinent as a territorial unit was well marked. The Arthasastra, which contains considerable information about the economic products of the various parts of India, is a good index of this development. So are the edicts and inscriptions of Ashoka, which has information about the states in the south, the west, the northwest, and the Deccan . A view has therefore prevailed that by the end of the first millennium BC the ‘knowledge of all parts of India was a common possession, a content of the popular geographical consciousness’.
Such a view about ‘popular geographical consciousness’ raises several questions. Firstly, being arrived at from an Indo- Gangetic centered perspective whether it reflects the knowledge of the territory among the people inhabiting other parts of the subcontinent. The conception of the territory developed by the people of South India, for instance, was neither simultaneous with that of the people of the North nor did they receive and internalize the knowledge generated elsewhere. The early notices in the Sangam literature, just like the Rig Veda, point to a geographical knowledge limited to the immediate surroundings. However, the knowledge of the subcontinent as a territorial unit does not seem to be part of the Tamil consciousness before the seventh century. If that is so, the territory of the subcontinent entered the historical consciousness of the people at different points of time and therefore not a part of uniform national memory.
However, without subscribing to a theory of geographical determinism, it is possible to suggest that the conception of the subcontinent as a territorial unit had an abiding influence on political vision and practice. ‘There is no country’, observes historian Beniprasad, ‘marked out by the sea and the mountains so clearly to be a single whole as India. This geographical wholeness explains one of the central features of Indian history, the urge to political unification in defiance of vast distances and immense difficulties of transport and communication’. This does not imply that political organization always coincided with the territorial limits of the subcontinent. On the contrary, it hardly happened till the colonial subjugation when the entire subcontinent was brought under one political authority, either through direct or indirect rule. Nevertheless, the political tendencies have been to integrate the entire subcontinent under a single authority. The political history of India is characterized by a continuous cyclical process, centrifugal on the one hand and centripetal, on the other.
The sixteen janapadas in the north and several nadus in the south can be reckoned as the early political formation of significance. The empire established by Ashoka incorporated the janapadas and extended its limits to the south, bringing into being for the first time a political formation that sought to reach out to major parts of the subcontinent. The Mauryan Empire was so vast that it could hardly sustain its control for long and was soon replaced by smaller states. Under the Guptas the limit of the empire was again stretched to approximate the territory of the subcontinent, through the conquest of Chandra Gupta and Samudra Gupta . The empire of the Guptas suffered the same fate of disintegration that had earlier beset the Mauryan. Such a process of integration and disintegration continued to mark the political history thereafter, as evident from the way in which the map of India was drawn and redrawn during the Sultanate, the Mughal and the British rule.
The cultural make up of the nation is enmeshed with this political process. For, the integrative-disintegrative tendencies of Indian polity, cyclically manifested for two thousand years, brought about ‘regional’ cultural formations as well as inter-regional cultural transactions. The empires, however, tended to be strong centripetal forces, culturally and socially, enabling diverse elements to come together and interact with each other. Such a tendency was not reflected in the convergence of artistic talent in the courts of powerful emperors alone, but more so in the assimilative cultural ambience that developed in capital cities where patronage was available.
The disintegration of empires and the consequent formation of ‘regional’ states opened up channels of inter-regional social and cultural penetration. The decentralization of patronage facilitated the process, as represented by miniature painting and architecture during the decline of the Mughal Empire. As a result, social and cultural life in India incorporated within it a multi-regional and multi-religious form and content. This interpenetration of cultural influences was neither uniform nor equally intense in all regions. Yet their presence is marked all over. As a result, although historically cultural transactions and social negotiations embraced the entire sub-continent, they led to variety and plurality rather than to uniformity and homogeneity. In almost all realms of cultural production-music, drama, painting, architecture, literature and so on- as well as religion, different influences made their mark, imparting to them a composite character. As a result, historically India developed as a colourful cultural mosaic and not as the manifestation of cultural practices inspired by a single source. The dynamism of Indian culture is derived from this diversity, which moulded the cultural practices of the people. It is in this sense that culture was embedded in national identity.
The cultural implication of this historical process is not limited to diversity and plurality at the national level, but within each region itself. The followers of the same religion observe vastly different rituals and worship patterns in the same region. There is hardly anything common in the rituals at the time of marriage and death among different communities belonging to the same religion. Their modes of worship also differ. That is also true of the creative realm. In fact, each community has different cultural practices, even if they belong to the same religious denomination. Culture and religion after all is not synonymous in any society, even if they draw upon each other. This is particularly so in India where the differentiation within Hinduism has given rise to very sharp social distinctions.
The coming together of people of diverse cultural moorings and traditions had several cultural consequences. They have been variously conceived as synthesis, assimilation, acculturation and eclecticism. It is argued that any one of them can hardly be privileged, as all of them have contributed in varying degrees to the cultural identity of the nation. A contrary view, currently gaining currency, posits a sharp contradiction between different cultural streams, which has nothing in common except mutual antagonism. The indigenous culture, it is held, has been engaged in resisting the adverse effects of external intrusion and preserving its identity without any change. Whether India developed as a melting pot of cultures, creating a new cultural personality or has it remained a salad bowl is no more the issue. The crucial question is whether Indian culture is conceived as a static phenomenon, tracing its identity to a single unchanging source or a dynamic phenomenon, critically and creatively interrogating with all that is new.
What is new, however, was very many in Indian cultural experience. From the time of the invasion of Alexander in 327BC till the British colonial rule various cultures of the world marked their presence. The Greeks, the Huns, the Khusans, the Arabs, the Turks, the Mongols and the Europeans reached India in pursuit of power and pelf, but carrying with them their cultural baggage. The interaction that followed embraced almost all aspects of life, be it religious practices, food habits, dress codes, architecture, painting, music or scientific knowledge. The nature and result of this interaction has been a very decisive factor in the making of the cultural identity of the nation. The indigenous culture did not remain isolated; it internalized various streams from outside, enriching and transforming its own cultural practices.
The nationalist interpretation of history, reflecting the aspirations and interest of the national liberation struggle, underlined synthesis as the main character of this interaction. The most representative of this view is that of Tarachand who was selected by Jawaharlal Nehru to project the Indian version of history, opposed to the colonial view in British universities and who later wrote the multi-volume history of the Indian national movement. Tracing the impact of the interaction in art and religion Tarachand comes to the following conclusion:
The Muslims who came to India made it their home. They lived surrounded by the Hindu people and a state of perennial hostility was not possible. Mutual intercourse led to mutual understanding. Many who had changed their faith differed little from those whom they had left. Thus after the first shock of conquest was over, the Hindus and Muslims prepared to find a via media whereby to live as neighbours. The effort to seek a new life led to the development of a new culture, which was neither exclusively Hindu nor purely Muslim. It was indeed a Muslim-Hindu culture. Not only did Hindu religion, Hindu art, Hindu literature and Hindu science absorb Muslim elements, but the very spirit of Hindu culture and the very stuff of Hindu mind were also altered, and the Muslim reciprocated by responding to the change in every department of life.
Such a view was generally shared by the nationalist intelligentsia, engaged at that time in search of a common denominator in a multi religious society, which they identified in a composite culture historically evolved through continuous interaction and mutual influence. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, described Indian culture as a palimpsest, on which the imprint of succeeding generations have unrecognizably merged. Such a view of ideal synthesis have many skeptics, yet it is true that the cultural life of the people did comprehend different tendencies from a variety of sources. As Humayun kabir has observed, ‘anybody who prides today in the unadulterated purity of his Hindu culture or his Muslim heritage shows a lamentable lack of historical knowledge and insight’. No other area reflects the significance of mutual influence than the religious movements during the medieval times.
Religious Ideas and Movements
Much of the ideas advanced by the religious movements in the medieval times are derived from a multi-religious context. They reflect the intellectual response in the wake of the coming of Islam to India and the social, cultural and intellectual interaction it occasioned. In almost all spheres of social existence the impact of this coming together has been experienced. The result has been conceptulised as synthesis by many..
The case for cultural synthesis is often overstated as a part of nationalist romanticisation necessary for a people to close their ranks at the face of colonial subjection. Nevertheless, the multi- religious presence gave rise to a serious engagement with the universal, which in some form or the other already existed in all religions. The Upanishad provides an early articulation of this: ‘As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O lord, the different paths men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to thee.’ Quran says it in different words: ‘O mankind! We have created you from a single pair of male and female, constituted into diverse peoples and nations that you may know and cooperate with one another.’ Both Bhakti and Sufi movements were anchored in such a universalist perspective, and sought to incorporate common elements from different religions. As a result they attempted to erase the distinctions that separate religions as irreconcilable systems with incompatible structures of belief.
The Sufi orders in India made substantial contribution in this direction by reaching out and incorporating the religious ideas from the Hindu philosophical system. The translation of Hindu religious texts were undertaken from the time of Al-Beruni in the eleventh century and pursued extensively under royal patronage during the Mughal rule. Among the many who helped the dissemination of Hindu religious ideas among the Muslims the contribution of Dara Shikoh who translated the Ramayana, the Gita, the Upanishads and Yogavasihta is the most well known. But there were several others who pursued the universalist path by trying to understand the essence of Hinduism. For instance, Mirza Jan-I- Janan Mazhar who received the robe of permission from three different orders commended the religious ideas in Hindu scriptures to his disciples:
You should know that it appears from the ancient book of the Indians that the divine Mercy, in the beginning of the creation of human species, sent a book, named the Beda (Veda) which is in four parts, in order to regulate the duties of this as well as the next world, containing the news of the past and the future, through an angel and divine spirit by the name of Brahma who is omnipotent and outside the creation of the universe.
If Sufism brought Islamic thought to become sensitive to Hinduism Bhakti movement explored the universal spirit in religious philosophy and practice. In doing so it transgressed all forms of particularism to explore the truth inherent in all religions. The concept of impersonal God which the nirguna Bhaktas shared with the vedantins enabled them to underline the unity rather than differences. However, unlike the vedantins the nirguna Bhaktas like Kabir opposed the worship of personal deities and disapproved of idol worship and all rituals connected with it. They sought religious truth not through religious practices, but through submission to an impersonal god. Therefore they looked beyond the existing religious practices to achieve communion with god who is omnipresent and not confined within the places of worship .
Raising devotion to a high level of spirituality and recognizing the significance of submission, devoid of rituals and superstitions, the Bhakti movement tried to redeem the relation of the true seeker with God. In doing so the Bakhtas tried to overcome all religious differences and invoked a true universal belief. Therein lies the significance of the Bakhti movement as an important marker in the construction of national identity. The universalist ideas inherent in the Bhakti movement found rearticulation thereafter, though not as a linear development. Akbar, even if unsuccessfully, tried to bring together the essence of all religions and to initiate a new faith in Din-I-Ilahi. The nineteenth century reformers with a deep interest in comparative religion believed in the unity of godhead and advocated that all religions are true as an expression of one universal truth. Brahma Samaj founded by Rammohan Roy was intended to be a universal theistic church that his successor, Keshab Chandra Sen institutionalized as Nabha Bidhan with the symbols of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity on its masthead. In our own times Gandhi articulated it most emphatically: ‘I believe with my whole soul that the God of Koran is also the God of Gita, and that we are all, no matter by what name designated, children of the same God.’ A sense of religious universalism was not only a part of Indian intellectual tradition, but was also integral to the religious practices of the common folk, as testified by the worship of deities and saints by people belonging to different faiths. As a consequence syncretic practices have flourished all over the country, bringing the Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs and practices closer. Such a perspective contributed to religious reconciliation and respect, which form the basis of Indian secularism and of national identity.
Whether the national is popular, to borrow a terminology from Antonio Gramci, would depend the nature of identity of a nation. Generally the nation is the preserve of the dominant and therefore identified with the culture of the dominant. Thus the culture of the dominant caste or religion becomes the marker of national identity. A change can occur only with the democratisation of society, which can effect the emancipation of social institutions and cultural practices from domination. The Bakhti movement represented such a process in as much as it contributed to the cultural empowerment of the non-elite sections of society by vernacularisation on the one hand and championing the emancipation from the caste restrictions on the other. The language they employed was accessible to the common man compared to the earlier sanskritised diction, both in literature and philosophical discourses. Such a tendency was prevalent in the Bhakti compositions all over India – in Basava in Karnataka, Namdev in Maharashtra, Kabir in Uttarpradesh and Poonthanam in Kerala. The legend that Lord Krishna preferred the devotion of Poonthanam who wrote in the vernacular to the scholarship of Meppathur Bhattatiripad, a Sanskrit scholar, was an expression of the emergent literary culture. Vernacularisation, however, was not purely a shift in the mode of communication, but the representation of social assertion. It brought into being a new idiom through which protest, dissent and resistance could be effectively articulated. For the language of the dominant can hardly be an effective weapon to challenge the dominance itself.
The internal differentiation within the society represented by caste division was a concern, in both concept and practice, of the Bhakti movement, engaged as it was in the creation of an egalitarian order. Rejecting caste as a principle of social organization, the Bhaktas questioned its social relevance and sought to undermine it in practice. Let no one ask a man’s caste was a slogan shared by many. In practice they transcended all barriers and practices and renounced all rituals and superstitions. Rejecting caste distinctions they emphasised equality and commonness .
The creation of casteless communities, either temporary or permanent, in which the followers of Bhakti saints congregated, was the practical manifestation of the attitude towards caste. The Kabir Panthis, for instance, had a casteless existence in their chaurahas; so did the followers of Dadu, Raidas and Nank. The heterodox sects like the Satnami, Appapanthi and Shivnarayan sects in Uttarpradesh, the Karthabhajas and Balramis in Bengal, the Charandasis in Rajasthan and Virabhramas in Andhra Pradesh were strongly opposed to all caste distinctions. The Karthabajas met in congregations twice a year in which no caste distinctions were observed: they ate together as equals and addressed one another as brother and sister. The nineteenth century reform movements carried the tradition forward. The anti- casteism was an important agenda of almost all reformers, even if compromises were not unusual in actual practice. As A.R. Desai has argued the movement against caste distinctions was the earliest expression of democratisation in Indian society .
The medieval religious movements had two significant legacies: religious universalism and social egalitarianism, developed in the context of a multi religious society. Both found further articulation and elaboration in the religious and social thought during the colonial period. However, the movements generated by these ideas developed within them mutually contradictory tendencies. Initially all of them were reformist in nature, seeking to change the cultural practices, which were not in conformity with reason and humanism. As a result worship patterns, marriage procedures and death rituals of religious and caste communities were substantially altered. The reform agenda of Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Nair Service society and a host of other movements incorporated these changes. Over a period of time, however, these movements became increasingly inward looking leading to internal solidarity and cohesion and the consciousness they generated remained within the boundaries of caste and religion. This transformation within social movements facilitated the construction of homogenous communities, attempting in the process to erase the internal cultural differences within the community.
The community has proved to be a useful tool for a variety of political and ideological interests. Colonialism invoked it to deny the national identity of the colonized. If the society is made up of well-defined communities, mutually antagonistic and in a state of perpetual conflict, national identity is hardly possible. The constant refrain of the colonial writings, from James Mill to Valentine Chirol, invariably harped on this theme. To Chirol, for instance, India was an antithesis to what the word national implies, for the population of India consisted of ‘ the variegated jumble of races and peoples, castes and creeds’ .’ The nationalist view of communal ideologues is remarkably similar to that of the colonial in their conception of the composition of Indian society. They make a distinction between those who were ‘ born from the womb and those who were adopted’, suggesting two categories of citizens on the basis of birth. The notion of Hindutva which V.D. Savarkar invented and currently pursued by the Hindu communalists is an elaboration of this distinction . A communitarian view also informs the post –modern paradigm, without sharing the assumption of the communal and the colonial. They tend to valorize the pre-modern and indigenous communities, regarding them as ‘given, fixed, definitely structured and bounded groups’ and attribute to them certain autonomy, which deserves to be nourished and given latitude for making decisions in matters internal . The notion of homogenous communities straddles the colonial, the communal and the post-modern. It is used by the colonial to deny national identity, the communal to construct religious nationalism and the post- modern to discount the relevance of the nation state.
The history of communities, either of caste or religious, does not testify to a unilinear and uninterrupted progress from the time of their formation to the present day. The communities were constantly in a state of flex, constituting and reconstituting themselves, with changes in their social composition and cultural practices. Moreover, the solidarity of communities were fractured by internal movements as in the case of the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj among the Hindus and the Wahabis and the Farazis among the Muslims or the innumerable heterodox sects which made their appearance in different parts of the country. More importantly, even within a community differences of language, dress, food and social customs tended to create fragmented consciousness within overarching ideological belonging. Such cultural consciousnesses might remain muted or suppressed for a long time, but do find articulation at different historical moments. Such moments appear in the history of every nation, particularly of those constructed on the basis of a single identity, leading to the undoing of the nation itself. It is rather difficult to erase the memory of cultural identities by solidarities created by religious or racial loyalties.
The internal fissures, both economic and cultural, however, did not prevent the process of integration and consolidation of the communities. Among the Hindus it can be traced to a search for shared intellectual and cultural sources through philosophical ‘conquests’ as in the case of Adi Sankara’s digvijaya. The significance of Sankara’s ‘conquest’ was not limited to the sectarian triumph or the establishment of monism as a superior system, but of providing a common point of reference and intellectual rationale for forging a Hindu identity. ‘He had put into general circulation’, as stated by Radhakrishnan, a vast body of important knowledge and formative ideas which, though contained in the Upanishads, were forgotten by the people, and thus recreated for us the distant past’ . The latter lawgivers and religious commentators furthered the process by elaborating and disseminating the religious ideas. Such efforts were given emotional support by religious institutions and pilgrimage centres and social support was derived from the patronage of the rulers and social elite. The neo-Hinduism of the nineteenth century which attempted religious revival and consolidation by privilieging the hegemonic texts of the Hindus and thus constructing a common cultural and intellectual heritage was a continuation of this tradition. The contemporary religious resurgence not only draws upon this past, but also seeks to resurrect institutions and cultural practices from that past. In the process a highly differentiated ‘community’ is being turned into a homogenous entity. The Hinduisation of the adivasis and dalits by incorporating them into upper caste worship patterns and religious rituals is a part of this project. The increasing influence of Hindutva among the Adivasis and Dalits indicates that they have not become sufficiently sensitive to the possible loss of their cultural identity.
Similar tendencies are manifest among the Muslims as well. A highly differentiated community, particularly because of its formation through conversions, has been put through a process of Islamisation. As a result a common identity based on religion is gaining precedence. It is reflected in all cultural practices, ranging from dress to architecture. The skullcap and burqa have appeared in regions were they were not earlier prevalent. The style of mosque architecture has undergone fundamental changes during the last few years: the influence of the local has been renounced in favour of the pan Islamic. Such a shift is a reflection of a general move towards conservatism and fundamentalism from the early modernizing reform movements. As a result internal cultural differences have been considerably erased and an identity between culture and religion constructed in popular mind.
No society, least of all a society as diverse as that of India, is amenable to a single cultural denominator, either of caste or of religion. Superimposing an identity drawn from a single source by a ‘nation in search of itself’is pregnant with peril, as any exclusion would lead to cultural denial and oppression and consequent resistance and protest, endangering thereby the well being of the nation itself. Such a prospects looms large on the Indian horizon, as the communal forces are currently engaged in recasting the identity of the nation in religious terms. This militates against the historical experience of India, which has paved the way for the assimilation of different religious faiths and cultural practices. A reverse process is currently on the anvil : to flush out all external accretions in order to resurrect an authentic and ideal cultural past. Hence the romanticisation of Vedic culture and knowledge. No nation can face the future, as Tagore said, with the notion that a ‘social system has been perfected for all times to come by our ancestors who had the super human vision of all eternity, and supernatural power for making infinite provision for future ages’ . The fear expressed by Tagore is a contemporary reality, as the social and ideological project of the Hindutva is anchored on such a view of the past which is likely to lead the society to obscurantism, despite the promises of modernity that globalisation holds out at least to a section of the society.
The evolution of national identity in India is a result of a long process of inclusion of cultural practices, either internally generated or originating from outside. The cultural past of India is therefore a celebration of the consequent variety and plurality, although there were tendencies, which tried to negate them. The Renaissance and the national movement recognised the positive significance of cultural plurality for national identity and sought to further the syncretic tendencies already prevalent in the social and religious life. Hence the nationalist notion of unity in diversity. In contrast, the religious revivalism promoted by the advocates of neo Hinduism in the nineteenth century and the cultural nationalism of the Hindutva attributes an exclusively Hindu religious affiliation to Indian culture The national identity and nationalism, in this conception, are therefore rooted in an essentially religious in character of culture. It is indeed true that national identity neither evolves nor exists without a cultural basis. Yet, it is not an exclusively cultural phenomenon either, nor is culture identical with religion. Therefore a rearticulation of the meaning of the relationship between culture and national identity, at the face of the serious threat paused by cultural nationalism to the identity of the nation is called for. This is perhaps one among the many constructive tasks ahead of secularism, if the Indian Republic is to preserve its democratic character.