Hindustani Music

Culture and Specificity

Nice response to the piece below in Livemint website. I wish The Skeptarian, whoever she or he is had said some more. I don’t agree with her or his notions about culture as talking to sweeper. That’s my milklady version.

The Skeptarian • 7 hours ago −
This article just re-articulates a certain sameness in our thinking, a tired view of culture that equates it with the arts. Culture is not that at all. In its truest sense, culture is about a certain catholicity in one’s sensibility. It is the ability to let go of one’s identity; in fact, it is the disposition to rise above one’s human identity. It gets reflected in such things as the ability to notice an ant struggling to hoist its grain across a small crevice in the floor. It is not surely about nursing a single malt, it is more about being able to muse about the origins of our universe when drinking a glass of water. Walter Susman wrote that the decline of American culture began in the early 20th century with the shift of emphasis from Character to Charisma. Culture is the ability to reject charisma, it is that of appearing less erudite than one actually is….where, it is the reverse that is mostly true today. Culture is about rejecting the notion of power in its entirety. It is about being able to live life on the razor’s edge always….therefore, it is surely not about reclining in a cane chair listening to Mozart’s clarinet concerto, it is more about going out into the street and watching the municipal worker sweeping the road and conversing with him or her. Culture is what you will not find most of India’s middle class and rich.

Why you may not be as cultured as you think
Being cultured denotes more than just having the expertise. It’s who you are
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Sep 21 2013. 12 31 AM IST

Vocalist Girija Devi performing at the ITC ‘sangeet sammelan’ in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Bhatia/Hindustan Times
It’s something that most of us grew up with; part of the Indian zeitgeist, seen in Satyajit Ray movies and stories passed down the generations. It involves characters such as the proverbial Uncle (Moti chachu or Goli mamu, call him what you will). He is in his 50s or early 60s; clad in a soft white dhoti and a loose white baniyan; lounging in the early evening as he usually does on one of those cane “easy chairs” with two sticks that swing out like wings. There are dark pillars and a cool mosaic floor. Light streams in through the window, producing a shimmering golden glow—like a butterfly’s wing—often seen in old havelis or Chettinad homes.
There is music. Have your pick, depending on the region. If it was Kolkata, it could be Rabindrasangeet or opera. If it was Mumbai, it could be Vishnu Digambar Paluskar singing Raga Durga or Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. If it was Delhi, it could be Allauddin Khan playing Raga Jaijaiwanti on his sarod, or Urdu couplets. If it was Goa, it could be Gonzaga Coutinho singing Tambde Rosa, or C. Alvares and Rita Lobo singing Molbavello Dhou, or jazz. If it was Chennai, the uncle would be listening to Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar singing Bantureeti in Hamsanadham ragam, or Rudram chants, both of which he would know by heart.
These are stereotypes of course, and they aren’t the real point of this story. The point of painting these scenes is this. As this uncle sits reading his newspaper, his two nieces are arguing over the particular raga that is playing. They can’t decide whether it is Bhairav or Bhoopali. “It is neither,” says the uncle, still behind the newspaper. “It is Maand”.
I don’t know about you, but I grew up surrounded by such uncles and aunties. They knew stuff about Indian history and culture; they were soaked in music, art, literature and dance. They could spot mistakes in the mudras (hand gestures) at a performance. They could compare the khayal singing styles of Girija Devi and Kumar Gandharva and deliver detailed expositions about why one was superior to the other. They could nurse their single malt and hum Vivaldi’s Four Seasons under their breath and break into an Omar Khayyám couplet in the next instance. They could make comparisons between Kalidasa and Shakespeare. They were—and I don’t know a better way to describe it—cultured. They were also simple and fairly specific with respect to attire, food and lifestyle. They wore the same clothes that their neighbours did and ate their regional food, whether it was Goan fish curry or meen moilee or mutton biryani. They were unpretentious. There is a great line in one of my favourite movies, The Birdcage. In it, Robin Williams, who is gay, confronts his son who wishes him to pretend to be straight for the sake of his visiting girlfriend. Williams refuses with the line that goes something like this, “But I know who I am, Al. It has taken me 20 years to come to it.”
These cultured uncles and aunties knew who they were. Their knowledge of the arts was both exquisitely local and profoundly global. Travel writers do this for a living. They plumb the local for granular details to illustrate the global. My point is a version of Gandhi’s motto of simple living and high thinking. In times past, it was specific and regional living that led to a depth of culture and heritage. Today, it is global living and what writer and journalist Aatish Taseer calls, “deracinated” culture.
In an interview with The New York Times magazine, conductor James Levine once described the difference between opera recordings from the past and current performers in this way: “At whatever level of expertise or inexperience, the performance (in the past) demonstrates a digestion, a confidence, an attitude, an absorption that is lacking today”.
Notice that he doesn’t use the word expertise. Rather, he calls it “digestion”, and “absorption”, which are words describing a milieu.
Are you cultured? What does that word mean to you? The word connotes expertise, but it is much more than that. What it really means is immersion: In what you read, wear, sing, listen to, talk about, offer advice about, and dream about. Culture is who you are.
Hindustani and Carnatic music today are replete with superb singers. They have melodious voices; they take their riyaz seriously and spend hours everyday practising. Their voice exhibits perfect sur (note) or shruti (tone). They have laya or rhythm. Their voice can transcend the three saptak or octaves easily. They research the compositions that they sing; learn Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit or Telugu to understand the meaning of the words; they learn music history and occasionally create books, articles or nowadays, podcasts about past masters. Technically, it is hard if not impossible to fault them. Yet, today’s musicians lack that “digestion” and “absorption” that Levine is referring to. This is not about accomplishment or artistry because today’s musicians have that in spades. What they lack is the ethos and all-consuming identity that came naturally to musicians in the past. This is because, today’s musicians, dancers and artistes try to be all things to all people; changing their identity and art according to audience or collector. The art suffers as a result. Paluskar or Chembai weren’t musicians by professions; they were musicians by identity. It infused everything they did. It was who they were.
Are you cultured? If you think you are, you may want to dig deep—and specific. Conjure up an aesthetic and identity that is close to your heritage and who you are.

Shoba Narayan is listening to Ghana Shyama Sundara and Avicii’s Wake me up. How to get specific with this bandwidth? Write to Shoba at thegoodlife@livemint.com


  1. Dictionary wise “culture” is defined as the “beliefs, customs, arts and manners of a certain society” and “catholicism” is defined as a liberality of sentiments. So “cultured” would describe a person with an interest in [a] culture, and “catholicity” in this sense would, by extension, would describe a “multi-cultured” person.

    Shoba your narrative about the uncle and the raga describes “Indian culture” and a lot of what the commenter is saying (ants and grains and sweepers and such) reflects Indian culture.

    I guess one can interpret culture to be “X” where X can pretty much be any philosophical or existential thing … but that doesn’t really change its definition.

    The Skeptarian appears to be an Indian living in India. I don’t see how quoting a foreigner about [the decline of] a foreign culture etc etc gives a basis for other observations and the conclusion is that culture is not found in *most* of India’s middle class or rich. (The group, btw, includes you, Shoba, too.)

    Indian people, poor or middle class or rich, are colorful and expressive and cultured. It may be that they can express only their own culture (Gujarati or Tamil or Punjabi or something else) and each culture has its own tchotchkes – drops of soul. The uni-cultured Gujarati may not be able to express it eloquently in English (or Gujarati) but it is there if you look for it, and so you can’t just say “uni-cultured” is “not cultured”. (I had written about a Bihari cowherd once before… similar theme)


    1. RG you are being too nice. This Skeptarian smacks of someone we’ve perhaps seen before, the unmistakable Caulfield-esque angst and Seymour (of Salinger’s Bananafish) and unwarranted bellyache.
      Shoba’s original article is good. I get that being cultured also means being authentic. (Nice Robin Williams quote.) But the uncles and aunties .. were authentic and knowledgeable about Indian culture … but not sure if they were global. In my humble (or maybe not so humble opinion) it takes more than just reading and sampling to acquire culture. I think these days, with Twitter and Facebook, there are too many people who think “one hit” – one hour of geisha or tea ceremony, or one hour of MS Subbalakshmi music, or an afternoon of Degas – makes them cultured. IMHO like music or art or anything else it probably takes many hours of study and real experience and talent to acquire a view.
      I’ll share one experience. Some years ago I went to Malaysia for work. I immediately fell in love with the people and the food and their ways of life and thought myself “cultured”. But my initial proposals went nowhere. It took about 2 months of being and working with them, learning their ways and understanding the whole “community before a person” deal, and only then did we see some results. I have a deep appreciation for kaya toast and teh tarik not merely because of its taste/aesthetic but also because of its role in community building and decision making. Even so I’d consider myself at best one-quarter cultured in this sense.


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