Whose culture is it anyway…?

Heritage.  Tradition.  Culture.

Most people can probably differentiate between these expressions.  However, I am confounded by the fluid use of the expression “culture” for instance, when watching a dance performance, eating a special dish, listening to a genre of music, uttering a colloquial expression, relating a joke, behaving in a certain manner, wearing a particular attire or draping it in a singular style.

So, I consulted the dictionary and discovered quite simply that:

  • Culture represents a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a particular society, place, organization or time
  • Tradition is a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, or the stories, beliefs, etc., that have been part of the culture of a group of people for a long time
  • Heritage is something that is handed down from the past, as traditions, achievements, beliefs, etc., that are part of the history of a group or nation.

In other words, culture consists of the features that describe a society at any given time. Culture changes continuously, even within the same society.  Tradition often remains the same over time, but is the transmission of customs and beliefs from one generation to another.

It has been a tradition in our extended families for the younger male members to touch the feet of their elders when greeting them, as a sign of respect and to seek blessings.  While females are usually not bound by this tradition, mothers-in-law do expect brides to maintain this decorum!  However, today a young man is very self conscious and does not wish to be seen following this tradition, especially in public.  So, culturally he now feels more at ease to merely make a show of bending slightly from the waist and extending his hands as if reaching out to touch the feet, without any intention of actually doing so.  Likewise, the elder recipient of this intended honor being equally bashful, accepts this halfhearted gesture.  I experienced this recently when meeting with the son of my friend at the Aga Khan Museum; both of us were outside our comfort zone in surroundings that were culturally alien.

Susan Scafidi postulates in her book Who Owns Culture that “one of the most significant differences between recognizable and invisible cultural groups … is the degree to which a particular group has been commodified.”  This also leads to what she terms “cultural appropriation.”

Bollywood and the exponential growth in TV soap opera audience numbers have influenced cultural changes over a relatively short period.  Traditionally, married women from the Punjab observe the “Karva chauth” fast for the longevity of their spouse’s life.  Glamorized by movies and TV serials, now theme parties are arranged to celebrate this annual event.  Tradition is slowly being replaced by a cultural activity that now extends beyond the Punjabi families to a wider cosmopolitan milieu.

Similarly, the vast repertoire and beauty of classical and folk dance forms that traditionally relied on intricate “mudras” accompanied by equally evocative music to convey moods and express emotions, have now been transformed to a set of gyrations set to electronically generated music.  This is the nouveau culture and with the coming of age of each generation another tradition fades into oblivion.

Again, Bollywood has produced a resurgence of so called “Sufi music.”  It is ironic that people who claim to love this genre, rush to denounce people of other faiths because they have never understood Sufi thought.  Just trilling “Bulleya, murshad, ishq, tajalli or rabb” does not a Sufi make.  This is an ethos steeped in the tradition of supreme devotion and love for the Beloved and leaves little room for duality.  Kabir sahib, a major contributor to the richness of the Bhakti movement and by any definition, also a traditional Sufi had strongly declared, “Sahib mera ek hai” (I have but one master).

Our syncretic culture makes no distinction between Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan singing Hari Om Tat Sat in Pahadi and Pandit Jasraj ushering in a new dawn with his rendition of Mero Allah Meherban in rag Bhairav.  These traditions are being eroded by a newfound culture that is disingenuously using traditions, heritage, languages, and even foods to divide peoples.  Whose culture is it anyway?  Can we take back its rightful ownership?


3 Replies to “Whose culture is it anyway…?”

  1. A dear friend of mine says for her daughter – born and raised in the US – “Indian culture” and dandia are interchangeable. They are Kannadigas, but live in the thick of the Gujarati community, and so that’s what her daughter associates with culture.

    You are right about Karva Chauth being appropriated by all communities and being turned into a production, but I think it started before the soaps on television, with the movie Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. I remember someone telling me that though hiding the groom’s shoes wasn’t something they did, now it’s an intrinsic part of the ceremonies associated with a wedding.

    The dictionary definitions are a good reminder of the difference between culture, tradition and heritage because most of us tend to confuse culture with our comfort zone – the familiar food, clothing, song and dance. And thus, with Hindi films ruling the roost, culture is defined by the most popular song. Who needs poetry or good music? The tragedy is that we use this superficial definition of culture to create boundaries between “us” and “them” separating us from “the other”.


  2. I was reminded of a community event many years ago at which little girls gyrated to Bollywood songs with offensive lyrics – we could only pray they were oblivious to the meaning – while adults whistled and whooped in encouragement. And the chief guest intoned about the evening being a “fine example of Indian culchur and heritaze”.


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