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Current State: Published
3. Theorizing Culture


Who Theorises Culture? Who studies culture in India? When did culture become an object of theoretical investigation? What does ‘studying culture’ mean?

Most importantly, perhaps:

Why study culture at all?

In this section, we will be looking at ways in which Indian culture has been studied over the years. We will try and see what such a ‘study’ meant to its executors. We will see who was ‘qualified’ to study culture, and we will also see what qualified culture as an appropriate field for study.

In one way, studying culture in India is not a new thing. Many people have theorized Indian culture from ancient times. Bharata’s Natyashastra, for example, written sometime between the 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD, tried to define Indian theatre as a cultural practice, in a way that may be compared to Aristotle’s Poetics. The Natyashastra took into account numerous cultural aspects of theatrical relevance, including theatre architecture, costumes, make-up, properties, dance, music, play construction, poetic compositions, grammar, formation of theatre companies, the audience, dramatic competitions, actor communities and ritual observances.

(For more on those who studied early Indian culture, see Wikipedia (HERE)

To take an example, one of the oldest surviving forms of traditional Indian theatre is the Kathakali.

See the legendary Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair demonstrate the nine ‘rasas’, supposedly covering the gamut of all human emotion, to get a sense of how ‘culture’ may have been discussed and represented.


These two examples are of the practice of culture— the first is an act of defining and the other one of enacting or performing it. It is obvious here that culture is practiced by people ‘within’ it, so to speak. This is different from culture as an object of study by a supposedly impartial observer located ‘outside’ it. Nevertheless, before we move on to that aspect of the equation, it is necessary to stop here and interrogate this space a little. It would be easy enough to run away with the idea that the practice of culture by the people within it is ‘natural’ and innocent of power play. Is this, however, really so?

In the introductory paragraph of the entry on Sanskrit literature you have just read, Sanskrit in India is compared to Latin in Europe. The comparison is revealing. Sanskrit and Latin were languages of privilege and learning. Knowledge and mastery of these languages in their own contexts always implied a certain status and authority, certain perquisites and prerogatives. You will be familiar with the position of Sanskrit in India, and what section of society ‘owned’ it.

The case of Latin was very similar in many ways. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, and continued to be the language of power in the West for a thousand years, being used for scientific, theological and political affairs. Latin continues to be used by the Vatican City and in the scientific classification of living things.

(If you want to know more on Latin, look up the entry on Latin in the Wikipedia). Both Sanskrit and Latin were privileged over the ‘vernacular’ of the common people; both are, in some senses, generally regarded as being ‘more cultural’ than languages like Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati or English—‘high culture’ vs. ‘low culture’. So this then is the point we are trying to make here: Culture is a contested site, especially insofar as the issue of what comprises culture is at stake. Issues of privilege and power operate here. Remember what you read in the previous module on the shift away from elitist readings and writings of history in the work of the Subaltern school. Similarly, the ‘high culture’/‘low culture’ divide is now the subject of critical investigation. Relations of power are continually interrogated in cultural studies. The practice of culture is fraught with these issues.

There is however something radically different that happens, when professional theorists of culture come, usually from elsewhere, and try to study India’s culture. These people had different agendas.

Here are some images of an early example of the European in India. It gives you some idea of what Europeans ‘needed to know’ about Indian culture, its customs and its habits, along with of course, its history and geography.

These are images from a book published in 1813 titled The European in India: From a Collection of Drawings by Charles Doyley. See some of these images HERE.

Why do you think Europeans needed to study India?

There are varied answers.

An early instance of a European who came to study Indian culture was a man named Sir William Jones.

He was, like many early students of Indian culture, an Orientalist archaeologist and anthropologist: according to some, the father of modern linguistics, for proposing the ‘family resemblances’ between Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. He founded the famous Royal Asiatic Society, Calcutta.

For more information on the Asiatic Society see: http://www.asiaticsocietycal.com/history/index.htm

Why did Jones want to study Indian culture at all? Here is one reason that he gave, in 1786:

From ‘The Sanscrit Language’ 1786

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have spring from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit, and the old Persian might be added to this family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia.

What was, do you think, the reason for such a pedagogic invocation of a common Indo-European culture? Jones himself does not always know, and on many occasions his effort to understand ‘Hindu’ systems of knowledge leads him to face absurd situations. Here is one:

On the Chronology of the Hindus

The received chronology of the hindus begins with an absurdity so monstrous, as to overthrow the whole system; for having established their period of seventy-one divine ages as the reign of each Manu, yet thinking it incongruous to place a holy personage in times of impurity, they insist that Manu reigns only in every golden age, and disappears in the three human ages that follow it, continuing to dive and emerge like a water-fowl, till the close of his Manwantara…. From this Manu the whole race of men is believed to have descended; for the seven Rishis who were preserved with him in the arks, are not mentioned as fathers of human families…(1799).

It is not easy to recognize in the early, and very important, studies, of Indian culture a colonial ambition. But try and make a connection between what Jones sought and what Thomas Babington Macaulay said, on his famous ‘Minute on Education’, a scant fifty years after Jones’ work: Thomas Babington Macaulay: MINUTE ON INDIAN EDUCATION (2ND OF FEBRUARY, 1835)

We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the west. It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us; with models of every species of eloquence; with historical compositions, which, considered merely as narratives, have seldom been surpassed, and which, considered as vehicles of ethical and political instruction, have never been equalled; with just and lively representations of human life and human nature; with the most profound speculations on metaphysics, morals, government, jurisprudence, and trade; with full and correct information respecting every experimental science which tends to preserve the health, to increase the comfort, or to expand the intellect of man. Whoever knows that language has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations. It may safely be said, that the literature now extant in that language is of far greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world together. Nor is this all. In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. It is the language of two great European communities which are rising, the one in the south of Africa, the other in Australasia; communities which are every year becoming more important, and more closely connected with our Indian empire.

Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects. The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach this language, we shall teach languages in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own; whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, whenever they differ from those of Europe, differ for the worse; and whether, when we can patronise sound Philosophy and true History, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines, which would disgrace an English farrier,--Astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school,--History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long,--and Geography, made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.

In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them, that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

(For a complete record of this famous Minute, see http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/wyrick/debclass/minute.htm)

What function is culture being called on to perform in this speech?

We have already seen that power is at work in issues of definition by practitioners of a culture. There are, however, other issues at stake when India’s culture becomes an object of study by an outsider. In studying India, the Western researcher is conducting a ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ examination or exploration of India. Europe, more specifically England, claimed for itself the labels of ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’, a claim proved by labelling India ‘mystical’ and ‘irrational’.

This formulation posited India as the location of culture and Europe as the location of science, creating a pair of opposites, where the clear advantage lay with science and Europe. When something is being studied, where does the advantage, the authority and the privilege lie—with the thing being studied or with the qualified examiner who will look at it closely, analyse and pronounce judgement from his objective distance?

This way of thinking goes hand in hand with the notion that culture can be practiced by anyone within it—it requires no (acknowledged) special skill, knowledge or training. The researcher of culture, on the other hand, has to be qualified for the job, in the sense that he has to ‘have science’ rather than culture, which is seen as being more difficult.

This notion has proved to be an enduring one and is firmly entrenched even in our lives today. You will understand the argument better if you think of the arts vs. science debates that go on even today.

Also, think of which area of knowledge is privileged if there is a contradiction in what they tell us—science or culture? If for instance, oral histories say one thing and science another, which is believed and which ridiculed? It is only of late that the validity and accuracy of oral histories is being given serious consideration.

When you read more you will realise that many colonial constructions of India’s past and present followed similar formulations. What, politically, is the point of these arguments on culture? They serve to underline European superiority and they provide the moral justification for colonialism. When India is posited as the decadent ruin of a once-great civilization, as irrational, chaotic and unscientific, by comparison Europe becomes a great civilization through scientific ‘progress’.

While India stagnates, Europe has achieved new heights, new knowledge and thereby, superiority, and must therefore, do the right, Christian thing by civilizing and guiding this poor, irrational people. This justification for colonialism was called ‘the civilizing mission’. You will read much more about the intersections between colonialism and culture in the next module, Orientalism, Representation and Culture.

Bandopadyay, part 1 Link found here

Bandopadyay, part 2 Link found here

Bankim Chatterjee, part 1 Link found here

Bankim Chatterjee, part 2 Link found here

Mathew Arnold

Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay

The ideology of the new nation

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