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Madhukar Sabnavis: Is Indian culture under threat?

Madhukar Sabnavis  |  New Delhi 

Culture is stronger than what culture custodians think.
Conspicuous consumption is in. Greed is good. Indians are, in millions, buying the luxuries of life and spending money for hedonistic pleasures like never before. Economic liberalisation has created "desires" and is today making our younger generation more materialistic than ever before.
Sex is coming out in the open. Skin show is no longer a taboo. Music videos are quite blatant about it. New age movies don't resort to showing bees and flowers to show kissing and now go for the real thing. And in the big cities, women are comfortable wearing low rise jeans and short skirts.
Is this invasion of our culture? Are we beginning to lose our identity? The culture custodians seem to think so. No wonder, as raunchy item numbers top the charts, the information & broadcasting ministry is moving in to tighten control over erring broadcasters. As sex is becoming more blatant, schools and colleges are now considering segregating boys and girls. And some are even imposing restrictions on the way girls can dress to study. And to combat this cultural invasion at the grassroots level, the Madhya Pradesh government wants old English nursery rhymes out of its schools and replaces them with Indian ditties instead!
Are these concerns for real or just the cries of culture custodians who don't understand what constitutes Indian culture? Can Indian culture get vitiated and transformed by global brands and international media content? Is culture so fragile?
Gert Hofstede, a famous sociologist who did much seminal work on cultures, would not think so. Culture develops over centuries through folklore and social upbringing and the media and markets are just one influence.
A lot of "foreign" ways of living have become part of Indian middle class life. To think that these are transforming Indian culture and hence to fight them as un-Indian is a myopic view of culture.
Let's take conspicuous consumption and the opening up of sex to begin with. Money has never been a bad word in India. The "female trimurti" has Lakshmi as the embodiment of luxury of sorts""material and otherwise. She represents affluence and prosperity. Hindu philosophy does not say money is bad but propagates that it has to be within control. And wealth should remain second to knowledge""Saraswati. The Indian royalty and merchants of the past lived "good lives" and didn't have reason to feel ashamed of it. So conspicuous consumption is in no way new to Indian culture. It just became dormant during the Gandhian era. Similarly, in the land of the Kamasutra and Khajuraho, it's only social evolution that has made it a public taboo.
So what then defines Indian culture? It's worth pondering about, to get a deeper insight into Indian society and see how it is different from the west. Interestingly, few of these have changed since the western invasion""in fact it has influenced western practices to adapt to our values!
  • Family-oriented, not individual: India is an affiliative society. The family remains and will remain the basic social unit. And responsibility towards it will always be venerated and respected. India has moved from joint family structures to nuclear families. However, this got modified to "extended nuclear families", where couples moved out to stay separately physically but remain close to the family elders. Thus, getting the independence of nuclear living yet discharging their familial responsibilities. Similarly, arranged marriages gave way to love marriages in the 80s and 90s but have now settled to arranged love marriages""giving the individual the benefit of personal choice, yet carrying the family along. Responsibility to family over personal gratification is Indian culture. I wonder whether old-age homes will ever become big in India.
  • Co-operation, not competition: Competitive spirit is fundamentally individualistic and this goes against the family concept, so ingrained in our culture. This gets reflected even in corporate organisations""a western innovation""where the attempt is often to carry the weakest link along and cover for his inadequacies rather than remove him out. The Nike concept of "Just do it" is alien to Indian culture. The means are as important as the end! It is this spirit of collaboration and "co-opetition" that makes Indians and Indian companies great partners in today's world where no one can do everything himself.
  • Education, not wealth: There is and will never be dignity of labour in India. Culturally, the learned are always respected and rated higher in society. This is reflected in the fact that jobs that need high academic performance are always rated higher than those that are just about making money. The business rich still look up to the corporate rich as those who have acquired their standing on the back of their intellectual ability. The wealthiest yearn for intellectual respect!
  • Hierarchical, not equal: Amartya Sen puts it well in his book The Argumentative Indian that except at the time of voting, India is a country of social and economic inequity and people are quite accepting ("sweekrit") of this phenomenon. Any attempt to treat consumers as one mass is bound to have the "special" class dropping out. Class consciousness is for real""and as social classes disappear, new economic classes emerge. The average Indian traveller does feel uncomfortable sharing a table with his tour bus driver in a restaurant abroad.
  • Forgiving, not demanding: Much as we would like to see ourselves as discerning, demanding and quality-conscious consumers, culturally Indians are more adjusting and accommodating than their western counterparts. It's perhaps a bi-product of a religion which is ancient and all-encompassing""even atheists, non-believers are accepted by Hinduism""and people who have been able to co-exist with different races and views peacefully, resulting in a culture which has no clear definition or pursuance of "perfection". At one level, it makes life simpler for brands""but at another, it makes it difficult to determine the optimum product price mix to offer in the market place
  • These are just some of the true, strong, ingrained cores of Indian culture. Will these change? The truth is, maybe. They will evolve and there is no reason to resist it. If man resisted evolution, we would have remained apes to this day!
    Do we need culture custodians? Not really. A strong culture, and Indian culture is a strong one for sure, can take care of itself.
    Something worth thinking about!
    Madhukar Sabnavis is Country Head-Discovery at Ogilvy and Mather, India.

    First Published: Fri, July 07 2006. 00:00 IST