Following a recent visit to Shanti Bhavan (a residential school in Tamil Nadu for children from poor families) by a group of graduate students from a prestigious American university, an accompanying professor of Indian origin (I prefer to keep his identity anonymous, but let us call him Subramaniam) wrote me an email expressing his unhappiness with the school’s curriculum. His main complaint was that Shanti Bhavan is promoting Western values and culture, and ignoring India’s rich traditions as expressed in its ancient art, classical music, teachings of its religious/spiritual leaders, and traditions. He suggested that we teach our students “tabla, or sitar or sarod…... classical music ….. sing the songs set to music in Gitanjali by Tagore …. folk songs of harvest of love and joy … enjoy the music, the rhythm and the melody of dance that is in their neighborhood, than something that is sung or played thousands of miles away ….. let them know some aspects of the heritage of Indian language that is Sanskrit.”
While Subramaniam makes some valid points, many of his recommendations are based on incorrect assumptions about what we do at Shanti Bhavan. He admits that he did not have a chance to interact with the students or the staff during the two or three hours he spent at the school, and his comments were based on seeing the posters of western musical instruments in the arts room, and a conversation he had with one of our senior staff about our secular orientation. But he concluded his email by letting me know that “I cannot (financially) support your school as currently structured. The de-Indianisation of the entire project is an affront to any one who sees themselves not in isolation of a particular region or religion, but that their very body and mental make up represents everything from the time of the Indus civilization to what is India today.”
After struggling for over ten years to build a quality institution for children from some of the poorest families in India, founded on universally accepted values and secular principles, this lecture from someone who had visited us for a few scant hours and saw very little of our efforts was hard to take. However, I decided that I would reply politely, and clarify for his benefit what we actually do at Shanti Bhavan.
I wrote him back, explaining that “our children learn three Indian languages, sing in both classical and modern styles in those languages, and dance classical, spiritual and modern (Bharatanatyam dance as well as folk dances of Kerala, Punjab and Nagaland, among many others). Further, they constantly do projects on a variety of Indian topics and history. Students are introduced to the great works of Tagore and Vivekananda, and the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. We celebrate every major Indian festival (no organized prayers, however), regardless of religion. As for the music room, many of the pictures/art-work on the wall might be of Western instruments as volunteers are usually from abroad and they bring posters. We do not have any music teacher of our own at this time (musicians living in the city are unwilling to travel to our remote village to teach music or dance for a few hours). However, our own academic teachers who know something of music train our children in Indian music and Indian dances (click on “Tour” on http://www.tgfworld.org/). In fact, our children are better versed in Indian music and dance than Western. Further, our children have a great deal of knowledge about our many national heroes. There is no attempt to downplay Indian achievements, just as there is no attempt to downplay any other nationality.”
I didn’t expect a response. I didn’t get one.
This isn’t the first time I have received such advice from a so-called “intellectual” concerned about preserving India’s culture and traditions. Over these past years since starting Shanti Bhavan, we were told by politicians to change the medium of instruction to the language of the community (Tamil or Telugu), and others in the Bangalore elite class have expressed their concern about our children losing touch with their communities and families. We have tried to explain that proficiency in English gives our children maximum opportunity in the global marketplace. As for their connection to their communities and families, we try to make our children understand (and they do) that there is nothing to be ashamed of in having been born poor (an accident of birth) and that they should respect everyone, rich or poor. In a wonderful way, our children quickly learn to adjust, living in two different worlds simultaneously, and aspire for professional success that would one day carry their families and communities out of poverty and social deprivation.
All this discourse brings up two important questions. First, with rapid economic prosperity in certain sectors of India, its beneficiaries are enjoying many of the comforts that were once available only in developed countries. The burgeoning middle and upper classes are best equipped to carry forward traditional (and better-known) Indian values and its heritage, and yet, they have taken up many Western values and practices and blended India’s ancient traditions and beliefs with modern ways. Is it now up to the rural poor to preserve the “purity” of India’s heritage? Why is the expectation placed on the rural poor to represent popular Indian culture, as if they are a living museum for India’s past?
Secondly, what Indian traditions and culture can we expect the rural poor, especially those from the dalit communities (previously called the “untouchables”) to preserve? The children of Shanti Bhavan come from the poorest and most socially deprived communities in South India. Their families live in tiny huts (most of them do not have running water, kitchen or bathroom) in the secluded section of the village where dalits are expected to remain. I have written extensively about their living conditions in my book, India Untouched: The Forgotten Face of Rural Poverty.
While dalits have been exerting their human rights in recent years, they still face, as they have for over two thousands years, oppression and social subjugation. For centuries (and even now), they were not allowed into temples where the upper castes went for worship. Their prayers are not the “bhajans, mantras and chants” sung by the Brahmins; their art is mostly the simple crafts practiced to earn a few rupees in the market. I do not know what the dalits from these poor rural communities do for their leisure, but I do know that they do not read Tagore, sing Karnatic music, or dance the Bharatanatyam dance. To them, these are the privileges of the upper castes and the elites, and at best, they might have a chance to see them performed by others in movies or television.
Shanti Bhavan children enjoy watching, singing and dancing to the mainstream classical music of India. But they also ask us to tell them about their history, how their forefathers survived oppression by the upper castes, their culture and traditions. They want to know about their own heritage just as African-Americans want to know about slavery. No one expects poor African-Americans in urban slums or American Indians in reservations
to preserve the culture and traditions of mainstream America, i.e., those of their European forbearers, no matter how great they are (symphonies by Beethoven or Mozart, or the Viennese Waltz, for instance); they must seek out their own roots. This knowledge of their past, however painful it may be, is part of understanding their own self and the present.
Let us not add insult to injury. We cannot ask the dalits of India to preserve India’s traditions and culture that are not their own. They want to be part of what is beautiful and good in India, and they must be allowed to do so in their own way.
India is the most heterogeneous nation on Earth; it represents hundreds of different languages, cultures, religions and beliefs; its history is varied and complex, often dependent on class and caste. There is no “one true India” to preserve; India’s greatness comes from its diversity.
I want the children of Shanti Bhavan to grow up with different experiences – both Indian and Western. I want them to appreciate ceremony and tradition if both are just and noble, regardless of where they originate from. It is the universality of their outlook that is important. We offer our children what we can within our limited resources, and let them decide for themselves what they want to embrace and enjoy.
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