July- September, 1999 , Volume 1  No. 1

Local cultures and Global Market

 Ashok Vajpeyi

As we reach the end of the 20th century, some of the old antinomies are withering away and new perceptions converge to take us into a new millenium. Culture has undergone several changes, indeed transmutations in this tumultous century. From the modern we are said to have moved and arrived at the post-modern. Some say we are in a new fog – a radical confusion; others assert we are finally enlightened and have reached a new clarity about man, his world and his creation. Be that as it may, we are indeed on the threshold of new possibilities, new ideas and new skills to remain human against all the assaults on and erosion of our humanness.

Although the notion of progress has been under severe attack and material welfare has been derided upon, the fact remains that the 20th century has witnessed epical attempts at progress, gigantic efforts towards material welfare for one and many. It is a century which has made the largest leap ever towards equitable distribution of wealth and has tried to bring the fruits of development to everybody’s door. This has been attained all too often at the cost of environment and by eating into already-declining resources. More nations and peoples are independent today than ever before in recorded history. This century has brought freedom and dignity to more people than ever before. But this has also been one of the bloodiest centuries in the history of mankind. The violence, the homicides, the massacres, the wars have all taken a toll which is unparralleled. Ideologies of liberation have been converted into systems of tyranny. Revolutions of brotherhood have turned into bigotry of hatred. Some of the most ennobling attainments in science, technology, the arts etc. have been soiled, as it were, by the baseness of killings and cleansings, by the horrors of mass annihilation and destruction.

The dynamics of civilization perhaps inevitably move towards bringing about uniformity whereas the mystique of culture inheres in plurality. This has over centuries resulted in an epic struggle between civilization and culture; between uniformity and plurality. The patterns and processes of development are essentially instruments of civilization and they sometimes seem to be imposing a global pattern of uniformity, often sidelining the variety of cultural modes and behaviour. On the other hand, one can also notice that there is no intrinsic antinomy between development and culture. United Kingdom, Germany and Japan, to cite only a few, are countries which have attained a high degree of development and yet they remain rooted in their specific culture to the point of being termed culturally conservative. It is in fact getting increasingly recognised and developmental processes yield better and more lasting results if they are in consonance with specific cultural modes and beliefs.

Each society has its own language, as it were, of belief, perception and articulation. Every country has its own cultural genius. No formulae could be prescribed as to how culture and development should be dovetailed to bring about change which is harmonious and culturally stable. There would perhaps be as many ways as there are cultures and societies. What could succeed in India may not be tenable in Gautemala, for instance. One of the truly thrilling possibilities is that there are several equally valid ways of coping with the problem. However, the validity should flow from the recognition that mindless, directionless and value-free development, howsoever described, is repugnant to human survival and that culture could be effectively made a vehicle of change just as it is of continuity. It can also be safely asserted that any development brought about at the cost of culture could only be self-defeating.

We need plurality of cultures not because it contributes towards variety although such variety of living styles, cuisine and customs, ceremony and artefacts does add to the flavour of living. More importantly, we need the plurality because it alone can ensure that we continue to live in a world which is full of alternatives, several possibilities, many paths and multi-fold approaches. The survival of the world could be secured only if the smallest culture or a small number of people are allowed to feel that their approach to nature and man, for instance, has a place of dignity and support. If all existence is essentially co-existence as has been said, if bio-diversity is crucial for nature then human diversity is a critical factor in material growth and spiritual fulfilment. Unity of mankind can be attained only through its diversity. The Indian experience of asserting unity through diversity and discovering diversity in unity is a good example how a complex culture with a long continuous history has worked out the dynamics of growth and stability.

Sustainable development has in recent times emerged as a key concept and has been defined in many different ways. It appears that since man needs culture as much as civilization, so to speak, to live in, make sense of the world, sustainable development would be development which ensures material well-being with spiritual satisfaction, which secures not only man’s natural environment but also his linguistic and metaphysical ecology. We are said to be increasingly becoming residents of a global village. Travel, communication, information are already creating a global neighbourhood. But we must guard against all this globalization from sidelining and trivializing the many cultures, choking channels of wisdom and insights, denying us the many perspectives and view-points. One would believe all cultures have the innate capacity to generate, absorb and cope with change and innovation.

Kapilvastu was a small regional capital. A prince abandoned the royal pleasures and comforts to search for answers to some of the ultimate human issues about destiny, purpose, suffering and mortality. He attained ‘Sambodhi’ under a tree. The wisdom he achieved and later articulated for others was deeply immersed in a certain ambivalence about the existence of God and was aimed at helping attain ‘Nirvana’, a liberation into nothingness. ‘The Awakened One’, as he was since then called, asked simply: "Be a lamp to yourself". He insisted "all truths should be used to cross over: they should not be held on to, once you have arrived".

The locale was regional: the message was transmitted in the local dialect: the recepients were local. How this utterly local phenomenon grew into an almost global one running across several centuries now is one of the major miracles of human history.

About 2000 years ago, that is more than 500 years later than the Buddha, came in another land a carpenter’s son who said "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds: and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." Unlike the origins of the Buddha, the locale was rural and sparse, no royal trappings. And yet the son was acknowledged as the son of God and his gospel has reached every nook and corner of the globe.

It is because local cultures may be local in roots and spread but they think and act globally? Or, that some times in local cultures a moment comes when some one as deeply inspired as a Gautam or a Jesus perceives and apprehends something far beyond the local, something which in essence is truly universal and cannot remain contained in local habitation, territory and time. Or, that local cultures, howsoever small their following be in terms of population and territory, contain a world-view and that this view gets once in a while a powerful, memorable, far-reaching and indestructible articulation which reveals to all the unmistakably global in the utterly local.

One may even assert that ultimately the so-called global is a conglomerate of the local. And further, that to be global does not always mean superceding the local. The local persists in the global. The global cannot but be pluralistic and the plural can only be reached through the local. The global can reach us only being local. The global has to locate itself; has to have a locus.

There could be periods in history when the pace of time seems to be quicker than usual. We are surely in such a period when so much is happening so fast and at so many levels. It is surely a highly quickened time. We seem to be moving in many directions and quite a few of these movements are in contradiction to each other. There was a time, a meditative Upnishadic time, when without knowing much of the other geography and other peoples we felt that ‘the earth is a human family’. Today we know there are more than 200 free nations in the world and there is hardly any part of the world where there are no Indians. Communication, travel, exchange of information, accessibility of data to all and sundry etc. have made the world look like a large family which has started sharing a lot between its members. We are now almost literally living in a global village. This village is a creation of civilization, a point in the relentless process of Westernization of the globe: the terms and conditions for living and participation in the life of this village are laid down by the West. We, who live in India, in our homes and forests, sometimes even on the pavements of Grand Trunk Roads, are being asked and goaded to want to be living in this village. The global village replicates itself in many new habitats we are so assiduously building. It would appear that India no longer matters to the West as ‘the other culture’; it labels, India with its million colours and hues. Politically unstable India is even better. It can then be bought more easily and perhaps cheaply. The orientalist syndrome told us that the contribution of India at the global level ceased around tenth century meaning thereby that for nearly a millenium India inspite of its numerous modern languages emerging and growing, Bhakti literature, Dhrupad and Khayal music, Kathak dance, Mughal architecture etc. was leading a posthomus existence. The global market ideology is now telling us that our rich and vital cultural existence, our vast resources of creative energies, our democratic freedom etc. do not count for anything except for adding to the variety of taste and what matters is our potential consumer-capacity for the market. It is not coincidental that Departments of India Studies abroad are closing down and in USA India is a subject of ethnographic or regional studies. In other words, the global market is yet another attempt to put you down to your size.

Global market is a meta-narrative. But it is quite different from some other meta-narrative we have known. For instance, ‘Mahabharat’ is an Indian meta-narratives which was freely allowed to be changed transmuted, indeed subverted by local traditions and local narratives. The Pandavani in Chhatisgarhi, to cite one example, or Panddon Ke Kade in Rajasthani makes the Mahabharat appear like a local legend freely departing from the narrative of Vyas. But I suspect, the global market is intolerant of change or departures. Macdonald in Beijing tastes the same and must taste the same as it does in Tokyo or Delhi or Los Angeles. In fact, the so-called global is fast usurping local spaces which are spaces of taste, fragrance and sensuousness. Ultimately also of value, significance and belief. The local has a place only to cater to the tyranny of taste. On the escalator mechanism the local would move, may be for a while, eventually to disappear since it has to give way and make room for the other goods. The local can only wait to remaindered. The basket containing the remainder lies next to the dustbin.

The global market is also to a large extent in our context a dumping ground. It would mean, more often than not, replacement of our own goods by the so called and to-us-very-alluring foreign goods. It would invariably also result in undermining, displacement and decline of local traditions of manufacture, of crafts, of local wisdom and belief-systems. We are already being flooded with new objects and brands which are affecting, indeed changing our ‘local’ habits of perception and comprehension. We now need more light to see, more sound to hear etc. Since the global market is a giant market it has to over-ride the specificities and take recourse to generalities. It is a totalizing market. What is ultimately threatened are the local subtleties and complexities. The emergence and dominance of procenium theatre in India could illustrate this point in a telling manner. Once the procenium theatre was adopted by us, many forms of theatrical presentation, expressions, complexities, to be watched from close quarters, were pushed out of the so-called urban theatres out of its theatre-space. Many forms of performing arts would go out of popular appeal since they cannot be brought successfully on the small screen which has emerged as the most powerful instrument of the global market. The global in its tenor and behaviour is largely exclusive; it would land up eventually by creating the most ruthless tyranny we have known since it would have infiltrated in all socio-political systems by what is euphemistically called ‘integration with the market-economy’ and ‘liberalization’. The tyranical nature of the market has perhaps its origin in the fact that the global market started in the field of arms and ammunition which continue to be the biggest items of the global economy. Inspite of its multi-cultural profile and a democratic face the global market is a vast tyranny imposing uniformity of taste, style, values and standards. It would appear after a long period of colonization, we are entering as some one said a period of la cocolonization.

Are we concerned with culture? Does its localness attract our attention? Can our culture resist the globalization! Are there any tangible signs of such a resistance? These are some of the questions we face and frankly I do not know if I could answer them with any degree of certainty or confidence.

One could say that culture is a way of life, a way of believing and coping with nature and universe, a strategy of negotiating meaning and significance. But we largely inherit and partly imbibe it from our family and social environment. Particularly in the middle classes the family itself has become a consuming comradarie. Our social environment has grown very aggressive, almost ‘uncivil’. Faced with these extremeties we wonder if culture could come to our assistance. For too long in this century we have been brought up on the theory that it is economic forces which govern and determine culture rather than the other way around. More importantly, do we wish to see that our local identity is somehow preserved even as we eat and gobble the fruits of globalization? It can be argued that if our culture could withstand the onslaught of colonialism, it should as well be able to cope with the globalising threat adequately. Only one has to remember that the resistance to colonialism was born out of an intellectual and cultural critique and did not escape a lasting impact on culture. Also, this critique was developed as a part of the nationalist project at many levels namely literature, arts, ideas etc. The Gandhian revolution with its emphasis on the Swadeshi, Khaki and village economy etc. substantially nourished it spiritually and provided it a mass base. If we still believe that India’s civilizational enterprise has to survive this new, powerful and global onslaught there are only three ways. Or perhaps three aspects of the only way: to question and to interrogate; to resist and to subvert. If you don’t interrogate you cannot resist; if you don’t resist you cannot subvert. It may almost sound like a guerilla warfare of the local against the global: but if you don’t question, resist and subvert, you don’t survive. You are domesticated and eventually consumed. No longer a member of the global family, only a local colony of the global empire.

Let us conclude by reminding ourselves that our ‘local’ culture, not so many hundred of years ago, had the capacity to peep into an earthen pot and discover truth rippling like water. We must, of course, in keeping with the ethos of our time, be able, as indeed we are able, to reside in websites, fly over and picture the earth from space etc. But we must be able to recall that our tactile relationship with objects whether of nature or created by humans, make us see and feel more than merely consume them. A rejuvenation of this racial sensousness may prove to be the best defence.

Let us recall what Kabir said so memorably:

Inside this clay jar there are meadows and groves and the One who made them.
Inside this jar there are seven oceans and innumerable stars,
Acid to test gold, and a patient appraiser of jewels.
Inside this jar the music of eternity, and a spring flows from
the source of all waters.
Kabir says: Listen, friend! My beloved Master lives inside.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass)

We are once again at the crossroads, holding precariously the earthen jar in our hands. It could fall breaking into pieces like our exciting times have. On the other hand, it could make us peep into the depths of eternity. By luck or accident, we hold the earthen jar in our hands.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati