The Cambridge Companion to
Modern Indian Culture
Vasudha Dalmia and Rashmi Sadana
Cambridge University Press: New York, 2012
Page Numbers: including introduction: pp i to xiii
Including Index: pp 1-301
.Introduction to Editors
Vasudha Dalmia is Professor of Hindi and Modern South Asian Studies at the University of California.
Rashmi Sadana is a writer and researcher based in Delhi. She was previously visiting Assistant
Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian
Institute of Technology, Delhi.
Essence of the Book
The book opens with two major parts viz Cultural Contexts and Cultural Forms being poised to explore the changing cultural scenarios both in village and urban spaces. Modernity in the village and village in the modernity pervades the entire book. India is agricultural country where one would see the changing life style of the Indian peasantry and common people as well. Agricultural practices and socio-economic conditions determine the life of the village people. Technological and scientific development plays a tremendous role in changing life styles of the people. Soap was considered an emblem of change before the advent of electronic gadgets. Perception of change is felt partly through blanket comments of the villagers on the modes of existence. But the real change appears as a mirage.
The book foregrounds how human labour which has been acclaimed as a paramount means of agricultural produce is replaced by machine operative methods heralding modern life which can be manifested in multiple forms. The book also delineates tribal identity through language and religion in the face of its encounter with modernity. Tribes are scattered through different parts of India. North-east states, Jharkhand, Madya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh are highly tribal populated regions. The book also examines how tribes in India are still marginalized in all human spheres and are stigmatized by the language they speak despite the advent of the so called modernity. It is an interesting dimension in Indian culture. Food is an essential site for constructing cultural identities and a visible marker of social relations and agriculture is considered a source of it.
The book also focuses on the religious practices and thoroughly examines how religious beliefs of the people are manifested through various temples and shrines constructed in the urban spaces and the role of spiritual teachers in yogic practices. The politics of caste identity is another dimension apart from religion. Indian society is mired in religious identities and caste formations attracting politics as constitutional rights. The book unfolds the vertical structure of varna scheme that produced a complex of superiority and inferiority among the Hindus and arrested human equality and country’s progress for centuries. In the backdrop of the social formulations, caste associations became pressure groups that aimed at improving their varna ranks. One would see the historic contribution of social reformers like Jyotirao Phule who championed the cause of the down trodden and tried to bring unity among the lower castes. One of the chapters builds up arguments over this issue.
Another part of the book titled ‘Cultural Formations’ focuses exclusively on the Bengali novel that originated in the nineteenth century as a literary product of colonial encounter. It records not just self-imposed compulsions of the process, but its fissures and uncertainties that opened up a space for moral, emotional and intellectual debate. At that time, printing culture increasingly came into existence and in the last quarter of the century, women novelists began to emerge. At the turn of the century, one would see how Rabindranath Tagore’s initiatives on a number of experiments with the form of the novel made it into a responsive vehicle for the representation of the individual subjects. During the colonial rule, Indian writing in English emerged and started recording the social realities and destinies in the face of British political dominance and purported cultural superiority. The book sheds light on the role of English which greatly expanded in the middle of the nineteenth century providing greater access to the urban upper class Indians for learning the language. The book provides a space for dalit discussion on the genre of life-writing associated with social prejudices. Marathi dalit autobiographical writing came as a significant dalit literary contribution to the body of Indian literature.
The book unfolds the fact that a modern art claimed to be ‘Indian’ by rejecting western models and as a powerful critique of colonial art, education in India emerged among a group of artists and intellectuals with anti-colonial nationalist sympathies. We would understand the impact of visual mass production in the country as a second important destination from the European context. A very interesting term we come across in one of the chapters is bazaar that refers to a colonial formation indicating the imperial regime’s reconfiguration of Indian mercantile trade, banking and credit networks. It can be understood in the colonial context.
One of the chapters gives a detailed account of urban theatre. Calcutta as an urban space became commercially viable for theatre production catering to the needs of the day. Tremendous response from the playwrights and theatre goers as well testifies to the growing theatre-culture through nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Reinvention of local aesthetics and narrative tradition appears to be an antidote to homogenizing impulses of Hollywood in its domination over markets. The book also focuses on how classical music and film music came to be opposed to each other in post-colonial south India and film music was treated as a genre. The last chapter of the book which focuses on television as a new genre expresses a serious concern of the women groups over the content in entertainment and news coverage on private TV channels.
The volume being shaped by varieties of moving essays contributed by the erudite scholars from different disciplines is worth reading for updated knowledge. It examines a wide range of cultural components under modern Indian culture as a whole with reference to different regions of the country. What we understand is a diversity of cultures unifying into modern Indian nation. The volume will enable the reader to deeply understand, apart from literary and theatrical development, the continuities and fissures as well within Indian culture.
Centre for Comparative Literature
University of Hyderabad
Gachibowli, Hyderabad, A.P.