The last 50 years has seen a lot of change in the way we live. Not only have maps been redrawn, ideologies redefined and technology unleashed many familiar things around have us disappeared .Some things have not changed in a long while. In fact many common things we use every day probably are almost identical to their prototypes. Let’s look at the wheel, one of the first inventions of humans. The humble bullock cart or Tonga or for that matter the potter’s wheel ( 5000 BC) are pretty much the same as they were a few millennia ago. Even the rubber tyre on your bike or car has not changed since John Dunlop invented the first rubber tyre in late nineteenth century. Yes minor changes in materials and better reinforcement (radial tyre) may be seen through the years but that’s it.
It was in 1804 that the first locomotive hauled a train over rails in Wales .We have almost similar trains running on almost similar tracks and sleepers running today .Till a few years ago we also had steam locomotives in use in many parts of the world. There has been virtually no change in design and comforts of a train carriage. In India, 150 years after trains were introduced we still use a hole in the floor of a small lavatory to defecate. And people still travel on train roofs!
That reminds me you must have noticed High Transmission Cables strung across tall pylons race past you as you travel on railroads or highways. In spite of rapid advancements in materials and this is the way electricity has been transmitted since its invention 150 years. Nor have the plugs, switches, meters and fuses altered much. Typewriters, Telegraph and telex may have disappeared but good old landline phones are still very much around.

We have all seen the neighbourhood dhobi ironing clothes with a rusty coal iron. Clothes have been pressed in such ways for century’s .Even the steam iron is more than `120 years old. Did you realize that the ubiquitous glass bottle has been around in some form or the other since 1500 BC? Dry cleaning of clothes is done almost done a hundred years ago .Kerosene may have given way to benzene and other newer solvents the process remains the same. The bespoke tailor even today uses the same tools of trade as his forefathers did centuries ago .So do all other artisans: weavers, metal workers, embroiders, masons, carpenters, butchers and bootleggers.

All this talk of AK 47s and other sophisticated fire arms would imply the basic rifle has disappeared. No sir, the modern, bolt-action rifle and chamber-firing revolver are essentially unchanged from their predecessors, and operate exactly the same way they did for great grandfather. In fact, other than the advent of the semi and fully-automatic mechanisms, and vast improvements in sighting (i.e. telescopes), a hunter from 100 years ago would have no trouble using a modern rifle or a police constable. (Beyond bemoaning their poor quality of manufacture).The axe,saw ,nails ,hammer are still the same. A sailor would use a boat 100 years ago just as a modern yachtsman does except the rig is of nylon today. A bicycle has hardly evolved in 100 years.
Let’s look around the kitchen and pantry. Baked beans still come in cans and tomato ketchup in a bottle. The bread is baked the way it was 200 years ago. The Pressure Cooker is the same since 1864. The mixer –grinder has been around for 100 years .The best pizzas are still baked in wood fired oven and the best tandoori chicken is made not on a rotisserie but a clay tandoor. You still use frozen peas and vegetables and sausages , pate and chees made the way they were for generations. Bottle openers, knives, cutlery, rockery, pots and pans all go back centuries. As does most of the furniture.
Newspapers are edited, printed and distributed as they were 300 years ago save for changes in from letterpress to offset and Computer layouts from hand painted pages. So, from scissors and locks, thermometers and fountain pens to knitted pullovers, patchwork quilts and leather coats and cotton swabs ,antiseptics and aspirin ,the past clings on to our present with a reluctant obstinacy.

The last 10 years has seen cataclysmic changes and from wireless telephony to the Internet of Things it’s been one rollercoaster ride. Metamorphosis is a word which sounds alien to digital natives but in a larger cosmic scheme of things nothing much has changed .As Arthur Koestler remarked the human brain has not evolved much from the Neanderthaler.
Amit Khanna
I was at a Conference on culture in Paris recently when a fellow panellist asked me what India’s cultural policy was. I was flummoxed for a while for a while but then quickly gathered my wits and replied ,”Its non-interventionist, pluralistic and state supported“. Really my answer was a bit of mumbo-jumbo but the question did set me thinking. Did we have a cultural policy at all?
The word culture is derived from ’cultivation”. Roman philosopher Cicero first used it in the context of the ‘cultivation of the mind”. Over the years especially since the last 200 years culture has enveloped several connotations-anthropological, historical and political and now even economic. In a globalized world which is paradoxically also becoming parochial and chauvinistic at the same time, the need to assert one’s identity is manifesting itself stronger than ever before. From a homogenization of food, fashion, entertainment etc. there is an increasing tendency for people to rediscover the roots or regroup as communities based on race, religion or region.
For me Culture -both high and popular-represents a sum of beliefs, stories, myths, traditions, arts and crafts, music and dance, literature, heritage, media & entertainment or to put it in simple words ,creative outpourings of an individual or community. It is what gives us –individually and together our identity.
It is surprising for a country of India’s size Culture has always been discussed either in rarefied drawing rooms of wealthy social dilettantes or in the heated debates of left leaning activists. More so when we have been considered for over five millenia
2. The power of culture is often not felt immediately. It slowly permeates into our day-to-day life. Cultural power is glacial.it moves slowly but with great force. Of course in a networked world where travel and communication is easier than earlier some cultural leit motifs become obvious .Thus we use words like “soft power’ or ‘smart power’ as analogous with the power of culture.
A classic example would be Hollywood which has become all pervasive around the world. Or Chinese food. Or Yoga . And a host of transnational iconic people and products. With an estimated turnover of USD 2.4 trillion annually culture (and this excludes tourism and travel) is one of the World’s largest Industry. France for instance draws over 70 million tourists every year mainly because of its heritage and culture. Its distinctive cuisine, fashion and art amongst other things. In fact cultural power> When I go abroad people always ask me about Bollywood .This is the power of culture. It can overprint on other peoples ‘minds images, sounds, taste and smells of another nation and in the process monetize an intangible asset or undermine another
3. The power of culture in everyday life may surprise. A Hollywood film may release simultaneously in over 100 countries and attract millions of viewers. An unknown Korean can dance ’Gangam style’ and is watched by millions online across regions. A French cheese or an Italian Pizza can be found on dining tables across the world. How many books do we read in translation? Or clothes we wear from other parts of the globe .The games we play on the field or online or tweets and status updates we share with virtual friends.
Amit Khanna
Ever since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)came to power last year with a clear majority there have been murmurs of dissent specially in a section of intelligentsia .Though this is not the first time that a Non Congress or a Left-of-centre Government has come to rule in the world’s largest democracy but it is a watershed in our 60 year democratic history to the extent that this time a Congress()or Congress led) has lost an election but for the first time an opposition party has defeated it .Therein lies the crux of the problem
A definite power shift from the Left to Right and to a party whose antecedents are pro Hindu. This has caused not only a lot of heartburn amongst leftist hoi polio but also threatened the state patronage gravy train .For decades a certain set of people specially thinkers, artistes and activists have blossomed in a largely Congress dispensation. One of the legacies of Pax Nehruviana has been the creation of favoured intellectual elite. Many of these are truly talented and scholarly but like all good thinkers they believe in an ideology. What they have to understand is that a person with a different value system and ideology. You may not agree with it but then in a Democracy it’s a winner takes all polity. Ultimately it’s a numbers game. The great Poet Allama Iqbal has said this beautifully ’Jhamooriyat woh tarze-hukumat hai, jisme bandon KO gina karte hain, tola nahin karte’, (Democracy is that form of Government where people are counted, not evaluated).So, if the much agitated chattered has a grouse against BJP they should lament democracy.
Secularism and tolerance is ingrained in our genes that it will require generations of mutation to change India’s social DNA.Yes, this government may favour its own thought and ideology but that’s what the Congress did for decades. Remember Indira Gandhi’s acolytes like Pupil Jackal and Kapil Vatasayan reigned as Cultural Tsarinas for decades. So why grudge if Modi brings in a few of his own now. What a certain section of people who had ideological access to the powers that be suddenly y their political credit card has been barred it was but natural for them to harangue publically about imminent danger to the very fabric of India. Besides a bit of rhetoric and some foolish comments (utterly condemnable) by a few MPs nothing substantive has changed. In the last 18 months.
In fact my complaint is about the déjà vu of status quo... If women are raped with impunity (shame on all of us) or Dalits killed (abhor able) or children abused it’s indeed a National disgrace. Instead of fighting an ideological war in falsetto work constructively with the Government to uproot these age old problems. There are people I admire for their scholarship, Irfan Habib and Romilla Taper for example, or film makers like Saeed Mirza and Anand Patwardhan. But I do not support their worldview. I look at the world through my own prism and see my own chiaroscuro of socio-economic fervent.
The ultra-right like the ultra-left have untenable locus standi in a constitutional Republic but its moderates who constitute the majority of citizenry .As long as their life is not messed around with the nation will progress. What is a fact that except for a hopelessly few original thinkers and intellectuals left in our entire political spectrum and a majority are mere actors in the nightly audio visual calisthenics show on the idiot box which has become de jure entertainment for arm chair democrats..
I am no blind supporter of Modi but neither am I willing to suffer a halfwit like Rahul Gandhi talking inanely about oblique polity. Yeti does believe the economic path being taken by this Government is the only road to progress left for this country. IN fact Modi needs to act with alacrity and push through major reforms like the GST and the land bill. The merits of which are a subject of another article. Will our left thinkers continue to support the most inappropriate filibustering of the Parliament by the Congress. There will be not an inkling of a protest by these left leaners. No matter the Nation wallows in poverty under Amitava Sen.’s benign and dated philosophy of. Economics. As a side I must add that I often feel the absence of Right wing economic philosopher in India (Bhagwati is an exception.).Where are novelists like Ayn Rand and Yuko Mishima or poets like TS Elliot and Marianne Moore or even WB Yeats forget philosophers like Martin Heidegger or George Grant. BJP must realize that people of such stature will not be found in Jhandewallan or Vivekananda Foundation.

One thing I am sure of India’s secularism and tolerance are not at risk .Thousands of years of tradition does not get endangered by a change in political leadership. The naysayers must pause and reflect there is nothing gained by relentlessly crying wolf. And who is bothered besides the media if you return your awards anyway.

Of Couse the Prime Minister too must be dismissive of many garrulous loudmouths in his party. Narendra Modi is great communicator. He must talk to people more and take media into confidence. It’s a matter of time before the owls go to sleep
Amit Khanna
In a nation of 1.3 billion people it may appear strange that if you were to really assess you will not be able to name even 20 all-time greats in any field in the last 10 years. We revel in our mediocrity with schadenfreude. When nothing works then we look back in anger at all possible misfortunes which befell upon us denying us greatness .What is it that taken away sunlight of brilliance from India in the past few years? Forget the distant past and our imagined ingenuity in building aeroplanes and spaceships in an age when humans had not even discovered half the elements. Yet, no one denies that people like Arayabhatta(mathematician), Sushruta(surgeon), Panini(Gramarian), Chanakya(Stateman), Kalidasa(litrateur), Natyamuni(Cultural theorist) Ashoka (Ruler) and you will find another dozen luminaries whose stature has withstood the vagaries of time and whose names still feature amongst the greatest.
India has consistently produced a litany of world’s greatest at regular frequency. Right till the turn of the century we could count pre-eminent personages from Gandhi to Tagore, C.V.Raman to Hargobind Khurana,Dhyan Chand to Sachin Tendulkar,Raja Ravi Varma,Amrita Sher Gill, Lata Mangeshkar,MS Subhalaksmi,Ravi Shankar,Ali Akbar Khan,R.K.Narayan,Salmaan Rushdie,Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt,Tenzing Norkay and you can go on.There was hardly any sphere of human endeavour where our compatriots did not excel. Today, sadly the only standouts are skulduggery and chutzpah.

What has happened to us now? Where has all the virtuosity gone? Let us begin with Public life. Can you name even one person across the political spectrum who has in the past 2 decades .Arguably the last truly inspiring statesman we had was Jai Parkash Narayan some 3 decades ago. One can easily dismiss this shortfall to the falling standards in our polity. Take the 2 major political parties. Congress has had no global leader since Indira Gandhi and BJP none besides Atal Behari Vajpye (it’s too soon to judge Narendra Modi). Regional satraps with narrow parochial outlook have sprouted all over. Exploiting ethnic and local issues with deracination they do well at the hustings but when it comes to statesmanship they are kaput. Only media hype no substance and often ante diluvian world view.
Since Rushdie ,Arundhati Roy, Amitava Ghosh,Alan Sealy,Jhumpa Lahiri,Amit Chaudhari caught the imagination of the English reading universe and Indian English writing started getting noticed we have back again to the perennial Indian preference of quantity over quality. So for every Arvind Adiga and Neel Mukerjee you have 100 pedestrian writers attending the many litfests.Not that the regional literature is any better. No exceptional talent has emerged in the last 2 decades. Similarly no major poet in any Indian language has captured cognoscenti’s imagination.
Cinema too is a largely barren field .Occasional flashes of brilliance from a handful of young Directors the last 20 years have been pretty ordinary marked by savvy marketing rather than creativity. Actors both male and female of any consequence are all who made their debut years ago with a rare exception or two. Glitz and glamour often tacky craves for indulgence and fleeting fame is what most cinematic meteors gather today.

Classical music is more popular but the so called rising stars are all who started performing 2 decades ago. Rahul Sharma,Aman and Ayan Ali Khan,Rakesh Chaurasiya,Ashwini Bhide, Bombay Jaishree. It’s the old masters who still rule the roost. From Hariprasad, Chaurasia,Pandit Jasraj,Kishori Amonkar,Zakir Hussain,Shiv Kumar Sharma,L Shankar,TK M.urthy it a whole generation of performing artistes who still command the pride of place. Same with classical dance. Undoubtedly more young people are striving to learn classical art forms professionally but the rigour is missing. Hopefully the next decade will show some results.
In science and technology India lags behind in fundamental research or the number of patents filed than several countries including China, in business and commerce (if you leave a few Internet children) no significant figure has emerged since nineties. The inheritors by and large have made some incremental progress but no breakthroughs. In media no noteworthy Editor or publication has come before in many a year. Entertainment television is stuck in a groove for 20 years and TV news has now replaced folk theatre complete with its ‘vidhushak’ and convolutes plots of intrigue and greed. Can you recall any newscaster of the last many years who can hold a candle to Prannoy Roy?

So from politics to philosophy, fashion to films, sports to entertainment we are have morphed into a society where mediocrity is celebrated. As Joseph Heller (Catch 22) said, “Some people are born mediocre, some achieve mediocrity and some people have mediocrity thrust upon them”. We can only hope this is too but a passing phase, a part of our tryst with destiny and sooner than later we shall rise and awaken from mediocrity into brilliance and glory.
Amit Khanna