Introducing Our Culture Series
Culture is generally defined through a people’s common art, language, religion, cuisine, music and social habits. But Indian culture is one of constant contradictions with constant friction between the traditional and the orthodox, and the modern and uninhibited. So when we talk about exposing children to culture – what, exactly, do we mean?
For too many of us, we mean Western culture. For a long time, studies have documented the benefits of exposing children to the arts, even while in the womb. It has become accepted household knowledge that listening to Mozart during pregnancy can aid a baby’s cognitive development and relax the expectant mother. And so a lot of moms-to-be play symphonies and read fairy tales to their bellies. It’s understandable: There are a lot more articles that will demonstrate the benefits of streaming Beethoven into your womb than Alla Rakha, of narrating tales by Beatrix Potter than reading the developing baby the Ramayana. But somewhere, along the way, the concept of sensory stimulation – what really helps babies develop – became synonymous with Western culture.
It’s indicative of a broader mindset that uplifts Western culture to the gold standard. The British colonial rule succeeded in some things (creating an industrial environment, stabilizing law and order) but there’s no doubt it made a shambles of the economy and gifted India with “respectability politics” that endure to this day. Getting good jobs – in finance, law, medicine, technology – became not only the ticket to a comfortable life, but to a secure standing in society. Who had time or money to write a song or sculpt in marble? In a developing economy, not many. Cultural exposure depends on many things, including the enthusiasm of both parents, their own level of interest in the arts, the time in their hectic schedules for cultural lessons, and their amount of disposable income. A cultural education, for too many of us, became a luxury.
For those who could afford it, we continue to prioritize Western culture, rather than mine the rich depths of India’s languages, cuisines, art, music and beliefs. Our differences became the subject of jokes (Two States, anyone?) instead of the celebration of our diversity. Outside of the classroom, schools began to offer Shakespeare workshops and calligraphy classes – while Premchand and Madhubani were conspicuous in their absence – even if pursuit of the stage or a gallery were still not considered viable careers.
This is, of course, not true of everyone. And where it is representative, it is changing. Parents are starting to apply studies – like this one in the New York Times, which says exposure to the arts helps build brain function and critical problem solving abilities; or this one, which found that students who visited a museum thought more critically about art and displayed greater sense empathy and tolerance – closer to home.
But parents are now facing a new challenge as Indian metros become increasingly homogenous; travel from Bombay to Calcutta and you’ll find the enlightened child in the same Continental or Pan-Asian eateries; sol kadis and aloo poshtos, rich with flavour and heritage, might be good for a potluck lunch, we think, but they aren’t fine dining. And they certainly aren’t the stuff of a Harvard application essay. So while it is a good thing that kids today fall somewhere on the spectrum of passive Bach listeners to cello virtuosos, of Shakespeare quoters to French lispers, it’s a little sad that for many of them, Renaissance paintings and Mozart are on the cultural checklist, rather than Madhubani and Yesudas. The same kids who can speak a few phrases of Spanish and have acquired a taste for tiramisu, are often unlikely to know a regional language from outside their home state or delve into the exciting world of mishti doi.
This is exactly what our next series at The Swaddle is all about. We’re putting our heads together and reaching out to folks around the country to bring you the top picks across music, food, the arts, and language, from every corner of our beautiful country. Admittedly, in a country as vast and diverse as India, we won’t be able to cover everything; some things will be left out by accident, some due to limited space. But after you’ve explored other parts of the world map, as far as culture is concerned, let this be an arrow homeward. After all, there’s always room for some more des in our little desis.