Mar 14, 2009

Carefree Punjabi, calculating Gujarati, confused Tamilian

As we flip through television channels in India, we stop at the cluster of Punjabi channels. They are so different from anything else. The other languages -- Hindi, Gujarati, Malayali, Bengali, Marathi -- have content that is uniform. It is either the emotion of soap opera, with family trouble or it is talk shows.The Punjabi channels always show people dancing in celebration.Uniquely among Indian states, the culture of Punjab comes from its peasant, the Jat. In most states culture flows from the Brahmin, who is the keeper of tradition. Because of this Punjab does not have a high culture of dance and literature, but only a popular one.The Punjabi has the peasant's attitude, but without the peasant's anxiety. He is an optimist. Perhaps this is because his fields are well-watered. Because of canals, he's not monsoon-dependent, like India's other peasants.His dance, the bhangra, is amazing. It is the only popular dance of India where the body is full-frontal and the arms thrown up and out, exposing the entire torso. India's other dances are all more modest and therefore not as suggestive as the Punjabi's. This capacity for unrestrained expression has made the Punjabi's bhangra our most exported dance, internally and abroad.Punjabi wedding ritual on the Sikh side is quite simple, and held at the Gurdwara with devotional music. The harmonium is played with its top covered and with its bellows only half pulled to make it not particularly sonorous. On the Hindu side, the wedding is riotous and guaranteed to give you a hangover.The Punjabi of all three faiths -- Sikh, Muslim and Hindu -- is the true inheritor of Indo-Persian, along with the Urdu-speaking Muslim of the Gangetic belt. Bollywood comes to us from these two communities.Punjabis are only three per cent of India's population but they dominate popular culture. If Bollywood can be said to have a culture, it is Punjabi and now the 'rasm' of Punjabi weddings, sangeet and mehndi, are a part of weddings across the country, even in the south.Outside of the Punjabis, other Indian communities that adopted Indo- Persian culture no longer do so. The Hindu Kayastha and Brahmin, who served the Mughals, let their knowledge of Persian and Arabic slip in favour of English.The reformist Brahma Samaj's founder Ram Mohan Roy (died 1833) wrote Persian and Arabic. A century later Nehru's father Motilal (died 1931) could also speak both languages. Gandhi taught himself to read the Persian script and instructed all Indians to learn to read Hindustani in both its Devanagari and Nastaliq scripts. After Macaulay's Indian Penal Code took force in 1860, the decline of Persian in favour of English as the language of law ended its utility. Jawaharlal Nehru (died 1964) did not know Persian.This was no prejudice against Persian; its decline was a reflection of the transfer of power to the English, and the accompanying transfer of aspirational high culture to that of Europe.But the Punjabi retained Indo-Persian because it is naturally part of his culture. Some Punjabis even today have names (like Iqbal Singh) that demonstrate this. Manmohan Singh reads Urdu, and he educated India on Iqbal through his budget speeches of 1991-96.The Punjabi is extroverted and has a can-do spirit. Because of this lack of wariness and his easy humour, the Sikh is seen in caricature as eccentric, if not outright stupid, through Sardar ji jokes. But India's economy in its finest period has been run by two Oxbridge Sikhs, Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia.Other than Punjab, non-Brahmin cultures are also to be found in a few other states on India's western side.Martial Rajasthan is the only state to have an honour society, whose culture is the warrior's code, from its Rajputs, Hinduism's second caste. It is true honour, and, like the Pakhtun, and unlike the Punjabi, the Rajput has no bluster. He is quiet, but can be fatally violent. In 1568, the fort of Chittorh fell to Akbar only after a suicide charge by its Rajputs in their wedding clothes, described by Abul Fazl in Ain-e-Akbari. The women committed mass suicide in an act called jauhar. The peaceable Akbar was so disturbed that he butchered all the peasants and traders who cowered in the fort.Gujarat, south of Rajasthan, is a third state not to have a Brahmin-dominated culture. It is unique in that all its castes, including the peasant Patel, bow to the higher trader, third caste of Hinduism. The Gujarati is especially enamoured of the Jain, whose religious texts are not in Sanskrit. Because of this Gujaratis have a poor tradition of literature, since culture (Sanskriti in Hindi) comes to us from Sanskrit.Conservative Gujarati culture, whose poles are religiosity and enterprise, dominates India's television serials. This is also because a lot of the writing talent in Bombay's television industry has migrated from theatre, which is run by Gujaratis.Because they are merchants, some Gujarati families have been wealthy for a century or more. These have tasteful mansions, especially in Ahmedabad, setting the city apart because Indian architecture in general is appalling.But it is the port city of Surat, where Muslims departed for hajj till it was silted over, that has the best culture in Gujarat. The slaughter of Muslims in Ahmedabad and Baroda, where 90 per cent of Gujarat's killings always happen, does not normally touch Surat.This is because of two reasons: one is Muslim and Hindu trading bonds through the two sevener Shia communities and the brilliant Sunni Memons. The other reason is that the Surti's exposure to the world through his port made him open-minded. He is not resentful and closed like the monocultural Ahmedabadi. Surat's merchants are thought to be fun-loving and have a tradition of siesta, called 'Baporiyu', where it is said that the wives are troubled. The food of Surat is Gujarat's best and the saying in Gujarati is: Surat nu jaman anay Kashi nu maran (Life means eating in Surat and dying in Benaras).The culture of Bombay, south of Gujarat, is brutally direct, with very little tolerance for the excuse-making and lying that characterises Indian work ethic. Bombay is the Indian city most touched by the British. The Bombay Gujarati (whether Hindu, Muslim or Parsi) comes mainly from Surat.The small state of Goa, south of Bombay, has a lovely and open culture dominated by its Konkani-speaking Catholics, who received it from the Portuguese for over 400 years before Nehru annexed it in 1961.Goa is India's most liberal state and one may even find Europeans bathing in the nude on its beaches without being troubled too much. Most of the Indian musicians of the Symphony Orchestra of India (which is actually dominated by Kazakhs) are Goan Catholics settled in Bombay, because they understand harmony better than Hindus.As we travel south from north in India, the people become better for those of us who are put off by the uncouth states of the Hindi belt.The dominant state of south India is Tamil Nadu and it has a binary culture. It has a high culture of music and literature that comes from its Brahmins. But it also has a subaltern culture that rebels against Brahminism. This is especially true of its popular cinema.The Brahmin Tamilian is a caricature known for his intellectual rigour, his method and his equipoise: the opposite of the raucous Punjabi.Tamil politics is embarrassing because it is so craven. It is also overly emotional. The charisma of film stars is transferred without effort to politics, a sure sign of intellectual softness.The north is unable to do this because its film stars are all in one city (Bombay) and must necessarily exorcise their regional identity for a larger one.This transfer of charisma also points to the democratic nature of politics in the south. Till the rise of the peasants in 1991, mobilised through reservations, the north's chief ministers were nominated, and most often high caste.Unlike them, the chief ministers of the south – M G Ramachandran, N T Rama Rao, Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi -- were almost always popular figures.The primary identity of Indians is caste, not religion. The second identity is that of geography. The farther away from home one is, the larger that identity.Outside Gujarat, I am a Gujarati. In Gujarat, I am Surti. In Surat, I am a peasant of the Patidar caste from the village of Narh.Caste is so sub-divided and complicated that we don't understand it any more. What unifies India is the Hindu faith, its rituals, all in Sanskrit, its places of pilgrimage, all equally respected. Irrespective of religion, we are also unified by our constitution, and our universal culture of corruption, clannishness and the joint family.Aakar Patel

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