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Kanika Datta: 'Indian culture is best'?

It is natural that someone's cultural choices will be shaped primarily by local and national influences. But much also depends on exposure

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Kanika Datta

I have never been a fan of Bollywood films and music. For expressing this aversion, friends and acquaintances in north India have labelled me a snob.

I have never been a fan of the opera either. On this, they have nothing to say.

Ironically, I dislike both types of genres for the same reason. The shrill falsetto/soprano, shouty tenor and soaring violin accompaniment common to both kinds of music make me flinch and the mannered histrionics bore me (so, of course, there are some Hindi songs and some opera I do like).

Rabindra Sangeet does not get my mojo working. For admitting this I am, unsurprisingly, eviscerated by fellow Bengalis of a certain generation for being apa sanskriti, which broadly translates as "uncultured".

Contemporary Western pop and rap don't do much for me either. No one has anything much to say about this.

Again, the reason for my disinterest in both kinds of music is similar. I do not think the first particularly versatile or creative (okay, the lyrics are great, but the poet laureate could as well have avoided putting them to music and, even better, singing them himself).

Likewise for the latter: worse, I find it mechanised pap without even the benefit of decent lyrics.

These judgements are based on personal aesthetics; Nina Simone or Elvis Presley, for example, delights me in a way Lata Mangeshkar, Suchitra Mitra, Pavarotti or Taylor Swift cannot. Yet it is only a lack of appreciation for aspects of Indian culture that attract comment and, often, opprobrium. Since opera and contemporary pop are Western in origin, no one cares whether I like it or not.

Among friends, these differences are harmless. But it's the instinctive defensiveness that is interesting; the notion that preferring some aspect of Western culture over Indian culture is somehow politically incorrect.

It is even more worrying when this shared sub-conscious notion gets translated into broader societal prejudice that unequivocally adjudges Western culture inferior to Indian culture. Ironically, these attitudes gathered traction as the Indian economy started opening up. Today, they are coagulating into overt chauvinism.

Valentine's Day? Women drinking in pubs and restaurants? Halloween? Western practices corrupting our boys and girls. Indian culture that keeps its daughters indoors is best, to paraphrase the doughty lawyer defending a rapist.

Strangely, the same crusaders of so-called Indian cultural superiority express no on explicit item numbers in our indigenous cinema, which are vulgar and demeaning to women any which way you view them.

It is natural that someone's cultural choices will be shaped primarily by local and national influences. But much also depends on exposure. In formerly cosmopolitan cities like Bombay and Calcutta, before they became Mumbai and Kolkata, many people who did not necessarily come from "Westernised" families - that is, English-educated and -speaking households - had little problem attending the many Western classical music or rock and jazz concerts. In Bengal, some young women and men from small towns attending university in the big cities developed similar tastes - just as much as some did not.

Satyajit Ray was influenced by the Hollywood film maker John Huston, as he wrote in Our Films, Their Films. Great musicians from Ravi Shankar, Hari Prasad Chaurasia and L Subramaniam to percussionists like Zakir Hussain and "Vikku" Vinayakram (a Grammy winner, no less) have had no problem admitting a debt to Western classical, rock and jazz. Everyone knows Bollywood has thrived for decades on outright piracy of Hollywood classics (songs and movies), and that includes the all-time super-hit Sholay.

Indian youth living in an interconnected world have shown themselves capable of making their own judgements despite the rise of the fundamentalists. They instinctively choose those aspects of Western culture that they like or that suits them. Equally, survey after survey shows that they retain many so-called Indian values, such as preferring their parents to find them a spouse and indeed obeying authority.

Global acculturation is a dynamic and unpredictable process, its acceptance a sign of a healthy, self-confident society. No one in the West flayed the Beatles or the 1960s rock bands for incorporating Indian classical music influences into their numbers. There was no debate on the superiority of one discipline over the other. As far as fans are concerned, the fusion enriched the listening experience (or not). Likewise Indians should be free to like, say, Lady Gaga more than Sonu Nigam without feeling guilty about it. Rest assured, it doesn't make them Western stooges.

First Published: Fri, March 27 2015. 22:40 IST