This panel comprised two eminent personalities from the performing arts and entertainment field: Padam Bhushan Dr. Sonal Mansingh – the eminent dance artist of two classical Indian traditions, Bharatnatyam and Odissi – and Vivek Agnihotri, the recipient of the National Film Award for the movie screenplay of “Tashkent Files,” and more recently, of “The Kashmir Files” fame. The topic of discussion was: “How does the postcolonial hangover impact the Hindu arts and culture ecosystem? How are the traditions affected by the ambient pressure toward secularization and de-Hinduizaiton?”
Dr. Sonal Mansingh
The renowned artiste began by noting that civilization is often known by its culture. Empires rise and fall, but the ones remembered are those which have added value to society, philosophy, art, or literature. Culture comprises both tangible and non-tangible aspects. It is easy to comprehend tangibles that shape cultures, like clothes, jewelry, behavior, food, and monuments. But it is the intangibles that are the soul of any culture. In the Indian civilization, the most important intangibles are Shruti and Smriti – the word that was “heard” (revealed) and the word that is contained in the memory. Indeed, Smriti is how Vedic knowledge has been transmitted without distortion through the generations before it was written down.
Certain aspects of culture, like performing arts, can be at once tangible and intangible. For instance, whereas a dancer’s body is tangible, what it produces on stage is intangible as it cannot be touched or held. Similarly, one can physically touch a temple wall or a physical monument, but a musician’s voice or the music emanating from an instrument cannot be boxed and bottled. Yet, these are the very things that contain age-old wisdom.
The epics, Vedas, Upanishads, and other scriptures contain intangible thoughts but in tangible form. Mansingh said the performing arts of India are the supreme example of the intangibility of the absolute, a precious Sampradaya handed down from generation to generation. She said the world must be reminded of this – India is the only ancient culture or civilization that is still vibrant, meaningful, and ever-flowing. The same cannot be said about other ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, or Sumerian civilizations.
She said the Indian civilization has been under threat of destruction for the last 1200 years. Our culture has been envied and ridiculed – one of the best ways to finish off something. However, India has taken such threats in stride. The banyan tree continues to stand, putting down more and more roots, she said evocatively.
The enterprise of uprooting our culture continues to this day, Mansingh noted. The example she gave was of firecrackers used in the Deepawali celebration to welcome back Shri Rama and Ma Janaki, a tradition that has been going on since times immemorial. Now it was now being attacked under the guise of being an environmental hazard. What is being ignored is that the crackers kill mosquitoes that emerge at that time of the year. She said our traditions have been built around scientific observations like changes in the season. The decisions to upturn these traditions are being made without understanding the logic behind them.
Mansingh turned her attention to the long history of invasions of India that were accompanied by plunder, loot, rape, enslavement, and mass killings. For centuries, she noted, the people of India were made to live like fourth-class citizens in their own country without the freedom to observe their traditions, rituals, or celebrations. She starkly contrasted indigenous faiths and those that were alien to the land. They came, she said, with the concept of one god, one messenger, and one book. On the other hand, the indigenous faiths – Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism – were fundamentally pluralistic. They accepted, without qualms, the 24 Jain Tirthankaras, 10 Sikh gurus, and Bhagwan Buddha. The Indigenous faiths have inherently accommodated the diversity of perspectives – and why not? Every day, we accommodate many opposites, thoughts, attitudes, actions, and reactions. Only when everyone is asked to conform does violence raise its head.
The Hindu concept of the Divine, the Brahman, is genderless, nameless, and formless. It is not easy to comprehend this abstraction. Therefore, our spiritual leaders made it acceptable to represent the Divine with physical forms with multiple arms, faces, and names to signify the multidimensional aspects of the Divine. This philosophy is captured and brought to the audience in simple terms in the classical performing arts. For instance, a dance performer may depict divinity as a bee hovering over the lotus to represent the Chittavriti drinking nectar from the lotus of knowledge or Krishna demanding Kalia stop spewing poison to depict concern about the spoilage of the water resources. Beautiful ideas, philosophical thoughts, and value systems are thus expressed in various performing arts, said Mansingh.
During the Islamic period, there was a deliberate attempt to remove the Hindu spiritual content from the art. Thus, Mansingh pointed out, the art of dance was reduced to mere entertainment consisting of little more than rhythm and pirouettes. Along with the spiritual uprooting came the degradation of dance itself, being associated with mujrahs, mehfils, and prostitution. The British further exacerbated the situation by instituting the Devdasi Act, which prohibited dancing in the temple. They understood that if they could destroy the culture, the knowledge systems, and the ideas, they would be able to subjugate the minds of the indigenous people.
Mansingh said another unique aspect of Indian culture was that while most of the world has a linear conception of time, Hindus have a circulatory perspective. The seasons come and go, the blood flows, and breathing is a cyclical process – and similarly, the concept of Raas Mandala in performing arts is a symbolic construct. The beautiful thing about Indian culture is the symbolism. In Indian traditions, a spade is not always called a spade, but in its place is deep symbolism and poetry that excites and ignites the imagination giving space and freedom to assign one’s ideas and meaning to a thing.
Another aspect touched upon by Mansingh was the tradition of worshipping the female form. She said the Hindu civilization is one of the rare civilizations that does this. Female shakti (force) is the one that annihilates the dark, and as a mother goddess, is the feminine force that creates everything. Such concepts are practically impossible to comprehend for someone not from the tradition.
India, she lamented, has hung on to the British mannerism, thinking, and education system. But now, finally, attempts were being made to revise the education system to give prominence to Indian thought and values. She exhorted the liberals to refrain from preaching liberality to a culture that is all about being inviting, accommodating, tolerant and gracious.
The celebrated filmmaker of “The Tashkent Files” fame began by addressing his understanding of Hindu culture, exploring problems related to existing cultural wars, and investigating who or what was behind them.
Modern science, he said, had discovered that no more than 50 members of a species could work together in the animal kingdom. Upon crossing this number, they simply wind up fighting each other. Culture, he said, is what moves the needle from this animal existence to a value-based life.
With Vedanta, a fundamental cultural flowering had happened centuries ago, Agnihotri said. Vedanta is based on hardcore science, with rational knowledge about the cosmos, its energy, its power, and how humans can become one with that energy. Indeed, the rishis of yore had talked about matter having energy – an idea that modern science discovered only recently. Such fundamental understanding led to a central concept of Hinduism – Oneness.
Hindu society has always been an incredibly creative one. The shows we see on Netflix today – the entire science of drama, makeup, lighting, and dialog delivery – all were created in India and codified in the Natyashastra, also known as the fifth Veda. The commonly held belief that the Bible is the most translated book in the world is factually incorrect, said Agnihotri, noting that the Panchatantra was the most translated piece of literature in the world.
He also challenged the view that science was a gift of the West and that India lagged in the area. He said that modern medical science had evolved by cutting dead bodies. In contrast, the science of Ayurveda, yoga, and the mind, which neuroscientists still struggle to understand, developed through observation of living bodies.
Agnihotri then spoke of the resilience of Hindu culture. Wherever Christian and Muslim invaders went, they decimated the local cultures and people. On the other hand, India was ruled for 1000 years by Christian and Muslim invaders, yet its civilization survived.
Another laudable aspect was that India had never played an invader. This, he said, was the reason that the culture was so creative. In fact, it had given birth to other peace-based faiths – Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.
He turned his attention to the modern by-words of liberalism, inclusiveness, and tolerance. He said all this is already in the Hindu DNA, as the Hindu culture always believed there are multiple routes to the one Truth. Vedanta refers to Shruti, which is left open to interpretations because the rishis knew that as society evolves, situations change. There should always be scope to expand on the basic tenets. Agnihotri pointed out that Hindu culture has always been open to evolving interpretations of the scriptures.
He said the trouble is that all this greatness has been and is being systematically destroyed. Agnihotri referred to his best-selling book ‘Urban Naxals,’ which posits that Indian culture had been hobbled by weak political leaders who simply handed over education policy to Communists. In choice words, he explained that Communists were more ruthless than the Christians and Muslims, as their tactics were stealthier. The first thing they did was to shift Indian education from the indigenous system to a convent-based one. The colonial mindset seeded doubt about everything that was good about India, whether it be food, clothes, or rituals. Unfortunately, the middle class got completely sold on their propaganda, believing their English-educated child would help improve their living standards.
Their next step in the process has been to actively defame the gods, goddesses, and religious leaders. He recalled when he was talking at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and spoke of Narada Muni, only to be told by students to stop mythologizing and talk instead of living people. While the term ‘cancel culture’ is not widely used in India, everything is being done to destroy Indian culture. This was why we had failed to produce many good Hindu poets, dancers, singers, and filmmakers in the past several decades, he said.
Agnihotri spoke of the difficulties in making and distributing his film ‘The Kashmir Files.’ Because it tells the story of the great culture of Kashmir, people were against it. Kashmir is where the pandits were not just Brahmin pandits but teachers, scholars, and the greatest minds who specialized in various subjects. Shining light on them would showcase the greatness of India, Agnihotri said.
Because he faced so much resistance to ‘The Kashmir Files’ in India, the filmmaker said he had decided to screen its previews in the US and do the film festival circuit so Indian American youth would understand and be proud of belonging to the greatest civilization.
He offered solutions on how Hindu culture can be revived. He asked the elders to help shape the minds of the next generation. He suggested they go on Instagram or wherever kids hang and reach them at their level and get across the message of the glorious Indian culture. Take a pledge, he said, to make sure each night educational postings are made to feed the new monster – the social media. He advised the elders to fill the digital universe with messages of our cultural greatness.