8 August 2009

Old is gold?

So here comes something straight from the heart.

Something worries me. The image of a cool kid in my country is now one of a guy in his late teens or early twenties strumming notes on a guitar. I find this strange. Scary even. Because this image has pasted itself accross films, magazines and social networking sites. Kids aspire to be this image. Disturbing. Deeply disturbing.

When I was in class 11, at a leadership camp in school, during one extempore speech round, a girl who grew up in America had said in broken hindi, "हमें हिन्दी जाननी चाहिये क्योंकि हमारी culture हिन्दी में है" (we should know hindi because our culture is in hindi). Even though this statement is technically not true, it does make an interesting point. Everything about our past before the British came along was recorded in hindi, urdu and other native languages. Anyone who knows more than one language knows that each language has a specific 'feel' (for lack of a better word) to it. A शेर (couplet) will deliver its full impact in urdu, but the corresponding english translation will seem outlandish. Hindi has three words for 'you', तू, तुम and आप, each corresponding to a varying degree of respect. Old people automatically get called आप, which corresponds to the highest degree of respect. A reverence for age and experience is in-built into hindi and other indegenous languages, while english tends to make people treat people of all ages equally. Now, a lot of what we are is due to how we were. And we can only know how we were if we know the languages that we spoke before english. A lot of hip, urban kids cannot speak native languages to save their lives. Deeply disturbing.

A friend recently told me that she wouldn't let me play the tabla or listen to classical music when she was around. She thinks it is boring. She thinks the tues keep repeating themselves and are monotonous. Deeply disturbing.

Whether by design or otherwise, we know less and less about our past. I'm not glorifying the past. Far from it. I'm arguing instead that our past is huge. Maybe, just maybe it contains something that makes sense. There's so much stuff there that it would be extremely strange if nothing in it was of any value. What I'm saying is that we must know our past, and then choose whether to adopt things from it.

My poor classical-music-hating friend does not know anything about how our classical music works. Maybe if she knew what to listen for, she might find it exciting. If she knew that a classical composition is just a few seconds long, and the real work is the various kinds of improvisation that must compliment the basic tune, she would, perhaps, not be so critical. If she knew the rules for those improvisations, she might even appreciate the work. Having spent two years in the UK, I have found that most of the people here know the basics of their classical music. In fact, I have found an open-mindedness and appreciation towards our classical music that is quite refreshing. Most will first try to get to know the art before passing judgement on it. At home, I find a stigma. Classical music is just uncool. Classical singers wail. The music is too slow. Why do we not display the same open-mindedness towards the art? Why is it that the image of a sitar strumming twenty-something can never be cool?

Why is it also that we display an alarming ignorance when it comes literary works in non-english languages? I am ashamed of myself. I have read a decent amount of Shakespeare. I have not read Kalidas. And I know this is true for a lot of people I know. We know about what the ancient greek philosophers said, but we do not know what our own Indian philosophers said. Very few of us have read the Vedas. Let alone the Vedas, not many of us have read one novel of decent quality in anything other than in english. I feel that I'm losing out on so much. Again, here in the UK, I find that the study of classical texts is a big thing. At Oxford, so many people study greek and latin texts for a living. And then I think of sanskrit back home. No one studies it. Most people who study sanskrit in college will go on to use it to gain entry into the civil services. The study of ancient Indian texts for all practical purposes does not exist.

Where does the blame lie? In my opinion, there is no simple answer. Part of the blame must lie with us. We just seem not to care. Those of us that learnt classical music when we were kids know how much it benefitted us. We are prepared to give in to this stigma that has someohow become associated with classical music and are not prepared to know it before we dismiss it. How many of us will walk into a bookstore and pick up a hindi novel? But, surely, another part of the blame must be borne by the cusodians of our heritage. Classical musicians don't help their case by making their music completely inaccessible. You know that your music can only be appreciated by people who know how it works, yet you refuse to help the layman understand it. And then you complain that kids start strumming guitars. All it takes is for you to talk to your audience and explain what you're doing as you do it. Not very difficult. Why don't our schools make it a point to compulsarily teach a basic level of music to us? Indeed, why don't they equip us to a decent level in out native languages? Why aren't we encouraged to speak in hindi as well as in english at home and at school? Why do we not see hindi books in bookstores? Why?

Deeply disturbing.


  1. The world is shrinking and the parents are realising it. English and 'English culture' is the way now for their kids to have a bright future. It began when we were colonized and its remained ever since. Sigh... that sitar playing rock star might be a distant dream.

  2. dont knock a twenty something strumming a guitar.. some of the most beautiful sufi and karnatic compositions off late have been on that self same guitar..

  3. Nice posting. Do you know about these Sanskrit books?


  4. I'd say mainstream defines 'cool' - always has. But that's not to say that there can't be real respect for those who exist on a deeper level - just the number of those who approve will be smaller. And, no harm in being the minority! See a comment in today's HT http://epaper.hindustantimes.com/default.aspx talking of the imminent demise of older languages!

  5. You write well. Should write more. Was nice meeting you on Friday.