Gujarat boasts of a unique style of weaving, popularly known as the double ikat patola. It is an ancient and intricate technique of tie or knot dyeing on the warp and weft separately, before weaving. Traditional patterns emerge in jewel colours, mostly from the memory of the weavers, in a spectacular mosaic reflected on both sides of the woven fabric. This serves as a perfect metaphor for the wide canvas of languages and dialects that reflect India’s cultural and linguistic diversity.
India’s rich linguistic heritage is similar to streams that flow separately but often mingle. In that interaction, one regional culture deepens and enriches the other. Languages are specific to the cultural environment and these manifestations of the need to communicate are dynamic. The creation of states in India on the basis of language erected artificial political boundaries between regions. These served to curb flowing dynamic cultures across areas with shared affinities apart from differences in language or dialect.
The history of this ancient civilisation is characterised by an incredible cultural continuity. In each community, the evolution of different languages reflects an imaginative response to geographical resources and spaces. Crossing time and space, communities bonded with each other. There is an inherent societal-behavioural idea of continuity, of constant adaptation and assimilation. When the soul that characterises the country remains unchanged, why disturb the equilibrium?
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When cultural identities are structured, there is always tension within the social fabric, and the price communities pay for this politicisation is socio-cultural chaos. For any meaningful cultural policy directive in the context of India, it is essential to constantly keep in view the complex, intricate and multi-layered, multi-dimensional cultural fabric of the country, both in time and space.
There has been much debate over a directive prescribing the use of Hindi in the government’s social media communication, and encouraging the use of Hindi for governmental official communication. Such directives, like many others, ignore India’s intrinsic linguistic diversity and inherent plurality, and appear to be a politicisation of cultural heritage. Although they claim that it is the only way to promote a sense of national pride and nationalism, they defy the essence of what this civilisation is about.
Our sense of nationalism in the 19th century emerged when the British introduced several tools that created networks across the physical landscape, such as the postal and transport systems, and various documentation institutions, for example, the Anthropological and Archaeological Surveys of India. English was a major ingredient in the creation of the sense of being a nation.
As Kapila Vatsyayan says, there are 50,000 unread estampages of inscriptions from our monuments and coins lying in the epigraphical sections of the Archaeological Survey of India in Mysore and Nagpur. Inscriptions in innumerable monuments remain undeciphered even today. This is because many of our major languages have more than one script. For example, Marathi has four, and similarly there are different scripts for Pali, Prakrit, Kharoshti, Arabic, Persian and the Dravidian languages. However, today we have no more than 35 inscription readers, all more than 70 years old. There is an urgent need to invest in a mentorship programme in order to develop a larger pool of skilled people to conserve languages. Otherwise, the stories our monuments can tell will remain unheard.
While it is imperative for the government to prepare policy/ vision statements, the principle of less government in the field of culture needs to be followed immediately. There are as many as 10 ministries dealing with matters relating to different aspects of culture. This results in a fragmented approach and piecemeal attention to problems and issues. The first step could be to bring all these matters under one umbrella ministry or department, alongside the setting up of an advisory body of balanced and progressive cultural professionals, for example Indologists, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, linguists and art specialists. Only then can we move towards preventing the politicisation of culture.
The writer is a cultural activist, an academic and a performing artist.