Love of All Wisdom

Coming to like modern India

by on Feb.03, 2013, under Aesthetics, Family, Modern Hinduism, Pleasure, Rites

This post will be a little less philosophical, strictly speaking at least, than is usual here. Readers have found my autobiographical explorations interesting in the past, and I hope this will be similarly so.

I recently returned from India, to have a traditional Indian wedding ceremony. (I’ve been married for two and a half years, but my Indian friends and relatives could not attend that ceremony, nor did it have Indian gods presiding over it.) It’s an unfortunate irony that I have been able to get to India much less frequently ever since I started studying it. My previous trip was at the beginning of 2005; it had been eight years between that trip and the one I just returned from, whereas in my childhood the years between trips were no more than three. And I’m very glad to have had this trip, for it made quite a different impression on me from the previous ones.

I may as well admit: for most of my life, I just didn’t like modern India very much. My interest in exploring Indian traditions was not triggered by any desire to reconnect with my ancestors or heritage. I discovered Buddhism not in India but in Thailand – a land which I love, but which is as exotic to me as it would be to a purebred Scandinavian-American.

India, by contrast, has always been a part of life for me – and, frankly, one I was not all that fond of. As a child, I never wanted to go; I went because my parents were going and I had no choice. I was fond of many of my family members there, but that wasn’t enough to make me want to be in the place. I wanted to be back home in Canada, not only with my friends but with access to the computers and Transformers and role-playing games and North American pop music and fast food that delighted my young mind. Had I been born thirty years later, I might have found India far more congenial, now that its import-substitution economic policy has ended and there’s a ubiquitous presence of Angry Birds merchandise and Pizza Huts. But such things were not there at the time.

Some of this attitude softened in my last visit, in 2005. The week before I left, my first wife and I had just decided to get divorced. It was under the best possible circumstances – there was no anger or fighting, we simply no longer felt for each other the way we once did, and without any children or property involved, there was little reason to remain together. Even so, it was a wrenching event – the future I had long imagined for myself was no longer to be. Amid that uncertainty, it was wonderful to see my family again – not just the continuity of seeing again the people I loved, but seeing a new generation of their children and grandchildren grow up into mature human beings. Life – as they showed me without having to say a word – went on.

Still, what blossomed on that trip was not yet a love for modern India as a place, but for my family within it – enough to make me want to go back in spite of the place itself. Modern India as a place remained hard to love – with daily three-hour power cuts as I tried to get my scholarship, and a trip to the holy city of Varanasi which failed to impress me. (Between the conniving touts of Varanasi’s tourist industry and the ubiquitous byproducts of the cows that walked its streets, I couldn’t help giving Varanasi the unkind nickname “City of Bullshit”.)

Market shop selling kumkum powder in Mysore, from tamiltrek.wordpress.comSomething different happened this time. A key highlight of this year’s trip for me was seeing modern India through my wife’s eyes, which meant seeing it anew. She saw India for the first time, as my jaded eyes did not. And together we got excited by the modern Indian aesthetic.

One of the features that strikes most Western visitors to India is the ubiquitous presence of bright colours, from the pots of kunku powder to the orange freight trucks. The English-speaking world has what appears to me as an unfortunate aesthetic of drabness, where dull, bland colours are revered in the name of “restraint” and “subtlety” and “good taste”. Aesthetics has not been a major field of mine to date, and perhaps there are good reasons why one might advocate such a neutral look. But I sure don’t like it.

I’m perhaps most annoyed in the West by the drabness of men’s clothing. Bright colours are associated with gay men, if they are even worn at all; and even when it comes to shapes and styles, there is little variation from the standard shirt-pants-jacket-tie model. Now to be sure, most Indian men wear Western wear themselves (at least in the city), and traditional Indian wear is often dully coloured as well. But not always – and especially not at a wedding! It was a delight for both my wife and me to get me into the kind of glitzy outfit that is considered quite appropriate for an Indian groom.

I had seen the bright Indian colours all my life, but when I was younger they never managed to make an impression on me. I recall in graduate school attending one Intro to Hinduism class as a potential TA. The professor began the opening session by asking “What comes to mind when you think of India?” The students began to answer negative things like noise, dirt, crowds, pollution, with one positive reference to “ancient culture”. Then one student chimed in “bright colours”, and the professor nodded knowingly: “ah, she’s been there!” I felt annoyed with this response – for I had of course been there many times myself, but India brought to my mind the things it did for the other students: an ancient culture that was magnificent, and a modern reality that was… not. The bright colours were just something I had taken for granted. But now, with the wedding and my wife’s fresh eyes, I saw them again for the first time – now they could be new to me, as the Buddhist temples of Thailand had been.

There are, as ever, plenty of nuances and subtleties here. In architecture, one of the forms of art that interests me most, I was struck much more this time than before by the sheer awfulness of the sooty and grimy concrete blocks that make up Erandawana – the part of Pune where my parents live. I understand the necessity of this kind of building in a place still characterized by vast poverty: every family living in a concrete cinder-block is a family not living in a tin shack with open sewers. But that doesn’t make it enjoyable to be there, for those of us who have other choices.

But then even my parents are not so fond of Erandawana anymore; they go there so they can visit friends and family in Pune. Even though most of those friends and family have themselves moved out of Erandawana, my parents know that because Pune is growing so fast, if they were to move to a nicer neighbourhood, it would shortly go the way Erandawana has too. Erandawana and places like it are not places that Indians themselves take as aesthetic examples; there are plenty of others that are far more beautiful. After our wedding we drove through the countryside in Goa, where the buildings remain gorgeous, with their mix of Portuguese and Indian styles in lively pastels.

It’s not just the colours that appeal to me in modern Indian aesthetics, either. One of the first things that strikes a visitor is how much strongly India smells than the West. Certainly there is a far greater number of unpleasant smells around, but so also pleasant ones: not just the delicious food, but the incense and perfumes. And then there is the aesthetic of ritual itself, so visible at the wedding ceremony. As with our own rituals in North America – say, the Christmas tree or the jack o’lantern – it’s often unclear what the rituals “mean”. But that really doesn’t matter: they’re beautiful activities in and of themselves.

This is not a philosophical post because I’m really not writing here about philosophical aesthetics, about what constitutes good art or the like. I’m merely writing about what I happen to like – which is more or less to say what gives me pleasure. There’s surely a lot that could be be written about the proper role of pleasure in aesthetics, but this post will not say any of it. It is merely to celebrate the pleasure that I have newly come to take in modern India. I hope that I can make it back soon.

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8 Comments for this entry

  • Justin Whitaker

    I found myself nodding along many times in reading this, Amod. I have mixed feelings from my brief 4 months in India; memories of so much dirt, sickness, sweat, and foul odors. But there was also a simplicity and joy for life that many of us in the West seem to have forgotten.

    The difficulty went beyond aesthetics though, to ethics. Are these people, the ones deeply stuck in poverty, happy because they’ve given up on wanting more and accepted their lot? Certainly the elderly beggars in Varanasi seemed likely to have taken this approach – just happy to be able to die in so holy a place. What then do we say about the enormous corruption in politics at every level there? And our place, as outsiders with means: should we pay our rick-shaw driver a decent wage for the journey, or forcefully talk him down to the local rate? I was also told that the poorest, often sickest and oldest people from near Bodh Gaya were often trucked in and left near the temple – away from their family, but closer to potential alms; a practice which further upset the local population…

    Just a few thoughts – great post :)

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks, Justin. Funny you should mention simplicity. A little while ago I read my mother’s memoir from her travels to India around the time I was born, and it struck me how what she most appreciated there was the simplicity of people’s lives. But there isn’t much of that simplicity anymore – at least, not around Pune and Maharashtra, where our family and friends have become wealthy. She doesn’t like going to India these days as much as she used to, and I suggested to her that that was the biggest reason: it’s become clear that the simplicity she admired was a matter of necessity and not choice. (I’m not sure where you went – I noticed on my previous trip that life is still pretty simple in UP and Bihar, which are about as poor as they were thirty years ago.)

      The interesting thing in reading her memoir for me, though, was how I saw a parallel to my own experience. I had been struck similarly by people who led a simple life – but for me it was not ordinary people in India, it was the monks in Thailand. There, the simplicity seemed like a real choice… though of course one could argue that too is just a matter of social pressure.

  • lokatakki

    I quite understand your experience in Benares. Maybe it’s my guru-ketu conjunction, but it is very difficult for me to get around to feeling all cleansed and pious in Hindu temples *in India*. I’ve been to Thailand and Singapore and I loved the temples there, but not the ones in India, no matter what their hidden sattva quotient is.

    Which brings me to the idea that I’ve been increasingly been convinced of in recent years: were the outward/public India as pretty, clean and ‘modernised’ as, say, Japan, we would be in a very different position geopolitically. First-world visitors would not consider India dreadful or rant on about the endless superstition and cultural depravity. Were India a rich and confident nation, it would have suddenly been forgiven of caste discrimination and other ‘problems’ — nay, caste would have come to be called “India’s unique system of social organisation that has survived and also likely helped India itself survive these past 3000 years”.

    As an aside, I discovered almost for the first time how awkward a place Erandawana actually is! Not that I have a very keenly discerning mind in examining architectural styles, but the moment I fused your description with a recall of seeing buildings around, I suddenly felt different — not exactly /inferior/ — just different.

    • Amod Lele

      You are definitely on to something. When they tried to explain why East Asia hadn’t done economically as well as the West, Weber and other early 20th-century scholars blamed it on Confucianism: because Confucianism values élite learning rather than manual labour, East Asians looked down on the hard work necessary for economic development. Then in the 1970s once Japan and the “dragons” became an economic powerhouse, scholars said that they were able to compete in a high-tech workforce because Confucian traditions of respect for the scholar had led them to become educated.

      I was wondering how you’d react to my description of Erandawana. I do often notice architecture, but I hadn’t taken particular note of it there until this trip, despite having been there many times. I knew that concrete blocks are very standard in large Asian cities these days, but I was struck by how other areas of Pune, especially Deccan, retained a lot of older buildings and a lot more greenery.

  • Nika

    Very interesting post! In particular, for those of us who have no roots in India, and yet travel there, and are shocked by some parts of it, and fall in love with other parts of it, and end up focusing our graduate studies on it, on top of it all (coincidentally, my dissertation topic will focus somewhere around Indian aesthetics, dance/ rasa, etc, and that is the aspect that had left the greatest impact on me from my own encounter with India, as well). :) However, I often ask myself why – why did I choose to study India, and not, say, Russia, which is the source of much of my cultural and “tribal” heritage (not to mention, a language I am already fluent in)? At the same time, though I was born there (or, rather, in the Eastern bloc) and grew up speaking and reading Russian, I have never been back since my family left on the eve of Perestroika. The place itself is as foreign and exotic to me as India is, in comparison with Canada, where I have spent most of my adult life. And reading your post I realized that it was easier to choose India as a subject of study because it was all new and fascinating and unknown to me, and at the same time, I didn’t have preconceived complicated feelings of anger and resentment and awe and melancholy associated with it… And the cultural distance made me more respectful, too, towards ‘foreign’ customs and social practices, because for a long time I felt I didn’t know enough to make a judgement; though sometimes I wonder – did it make me too respectful, bordering on complacent? (That is a balance I think most scholars need to struggle with, i.e. what moral/ political stance one takes vis a vis subject of study, especially if it involved ethnographic components…)

    The two times I have visited India I was not travelling by myself, but rather I was there on a study-course with other university students, once as a course participant and the other time at the TA for that course (it was actually a course on Jainism, with lectures and temple visits and too much travelling for the four weeks we spent there, but of course we saw much of India apart from the Jain context as well). India shocked me in both positive and negative ways, a reaction I saw mirrored and multiplied on the faces of others around me. I think for many Westerners India, even more so than other South Asian countries, poses, simultaneously, a serious emotional challenge and a strong magnetic pull. Something about it unsettles and unseats one on many levels, starting with the most physical (smells, sights, sounds, crowds, etc) and proceeding to the socio-ethical, political, and even spiritual. Some people react to the “culture shock” by trying to get the local price for everything, and watching out for being “duped” and so on; others constantly seek out Western food to eat… People can react somewhat unpredictably in fact, out of character, and so on. Some can become avid consumers of touristy “exotica”, others, on the other hand, can become re-entrenched in a set of “their own” values, and so on. It’s probably all too much to discuss in a short reply to your post, but all this is to say, that this piece made me think again about the relationship between travelling and philosophy, and the potentially creative (potentially destructive?) encounter with that which takes one out of one’s comfort zone as a “rupture”, a potential break in intelligibility and continuity… Curious. How my reaction to India had been different if I had been Indian by heritage/ birth? What does that “stance”, or its lack, mean for the potential encounter with something new?

    (And who said autobiographical sketches can’t lead to philosophical discussions? Very thought-provoking piece, thank you!)

    • Amod Lele

      Thank you, Nika, and welcome. Your own feelings toward India remind me of mine toward Thailand – a place that was genuinely foreign to me in a way that India was not, and in a way that, at least at the time, I liked better. I think philosophy is definitely stimulated by travelling – a great deal of my own thought now had its germ in my travels around Thailand in 1997. Though we shouldn’t forget dear old Kant, who never in his life left provincial Königsberg!

      I certainly think autobiographical reflections can lead to philosophical discussions – that’s why I have so many of them. But it’s easy to get sidetracked and I want to make sure that the blog retains its focus – which can be difficult, given that that focus is itself so broad.

  • JimWilton

    Very interesting post (and great pictures).

    I understand that Egyptian and Greek temples were all brightly colored. And, therefore, what we think of as a classical aesthetic in the West is more a function of weathering than history.

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks, Jim. I can’t take any credit for the kunku picture; I just grabbed that off the Web. But we had a great photographer to take the second one.

      I believe your understanding of ancient temples is correct. It reminds me that I’m often a little nonplussed by visiting ruins, and I think this is part of the reason. I tend to like it best if it’s either restored to something like its former glory, or genuinely left as it was found – which is to say like Beng Mealea or Ta Prohm in Cambodia, with the forest growing out of it. Who decided that old structures should be left stripped to bare stone?

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