Monday, April 19, 2010

Old is Gold. Or is it?

- By Deepa Krishnan

On April 15 (Poila Baisakh, the Bengali New Year), a Bangladeshi writer I know wrote an article bemoaning the loss of traditional Bangla culture.

Children in Bangladesh are eating pizza and burgers, he agonised. They're losing interest in traditional Bengali food! They're listening to Westernised remixes of traditional Bangla songs! They're losing touch with rural Bangladesh, and even losing simple local knowledge (for example, how to walk through slippery soil or negotiate rickety wooden bridges).

As I read his article, it naturally struck me that we have pretty much the same thing happening in India.

I know only half the traditional Tamil pickle recipes that my mother knows. I do not know how to drape the beautiful traditional kanjeevaram, the 9-yard saree (although I've been promising myself that I will learn it!). I do not know the names of the months in the Hindu calendar, and I cannot read the traditional almanac to check for "auspicious" hours. I don't know how to draw water smoothly from a village well, or how to frugally channel the watering of a coconut grove. I have none of my father's intimate knowledge of astrology, or his deep understanding and appreciation of Kathakali. I am blind to the sowing and harvesting patterns of the paddy fields, and I can barely tell one spice from another in a plantation.

It seems to me that in just one generation, a whole world has been lost.

Watching the paddy harvest at Hampi. We had no clue it was harvest season when we went there.

When I consider my daughter's generation, the loss is even deeper. My daughter and niece are even less familiar than I am with festivals and rituals. They are city kids, who know nothing at all of village life. They will, in all probability, never wear a 9-yards kanjeevaram...and in time, the looms that produce these beautiful sarees will stop making them.

My first instinct, therefore, was to empathise with the Bangladeshi writer's sense of loss.

But then, I stopped to think.

Is this really loss? Or is it just a natural movement forward?

Do I really want us to be a stagnant people, staying the same always? So what if music and food preferences change over time? So what if our kids love rock music, and remix it into their own versions, part Indian, past Western? So what if we love Chinese cuisine, turning fried-rice into a uniquely Chindian offering?

In India we have had a glorious tradition of adopting and literally transforming all sorts of foodstuff. We did not have tomatoes, potatoes and green chillies until 500 years ago when the Portuguese brought it. But look at us now; these are an integral part of our cuisine!

How do I say thank you in Portuguese? :) :)

In my home, yes, we do not cook some of the traditional Tamil and Kerala dishes because I don't know how to. But we are experimenting with all sorts of other stuff - Gujarati achars, Punjabi masalas, Greek feta, Italian pastas, Mexican sauces, Chinese stir-frys - this is no loss!! More and more interesting spices are entering my kitchen, and soon these will be part of a glorious new cuisine. Far from being a loss, this is a fresh breeze wafting through my kitchen bringing flavours from all over the world into my life.

I believe people who have a problem with cultural changes are blinkered. Cultures that do not learn and adapt - they just wither and die. Those who observe, adopt, adapt and innovate are richer for it.

But then (sigh), what of the old ways and their undoubted beauty? Do I really want to forget our history and culture? It is a dilemma, isn't it?

At a dinner discussion some months ago, my daughter asked, "Amma, do you think it's important to study history? It's just a bunch of old stuff, right?"

And I answered her by saying, "I think it is important to document and preserve information about the old days and the old ways, otherwise we won't know who we are or where we came from."

The real reason why people fear cultural change is because they think it leads to identity loss. But what if we teach our children who they are, what their roots are? If we are able to connect children to their roots, then they can listen to any kind of music, eat any kind of food, wear any kind of clothes... but I believe they will still remain anchored to their real identity. They will, even while embracing change, not morph into rootless, culture-less, confused strangers.

Speaking for myself, my heart is here, anchored in Mumbai, amidst my family. Whether or not I learn to cook a 10-course feast, I know that this sophisticated subtle Brahmin vegetarian cuisine is part of my rich legacy. Whether or not I eventually learn to wear the 9-yard kanjeevaram, I know it is my people who created this thing of beauty many hundreds of years ago. So even as I fly around the world and experiment with other clothes, I feel the silken threads of the kanjeevaram anchoring me, calling to me, reminding me of my roots.

So yes, Old is Gold, because it tells who you really are. Armed with the old, it's easier to tackle the new!

My mother in a 9-yard South Indian kanjeevaram, me in a more "modern" 6-yards version, and my daughter in a "borrowed-from-North India" salwar-kameez. Our clothes reflect three generations of change already!


indian yarn said...

natural movement - yes - survival of the fittest ?

Bellybytes said...

While it is natural to go forward it is a darn shame that our old ways are dying out.

Super Babe said...

I really enjoyed this post, especially after reading a section in Wikipedia about how India really has had world influences from early times and how all that has contributed to its diversity.

GS said...

Good post, Deepa. This dilemma is magnified when one lives in another country and the parents (my husband and I) speak different languages and come from different religious beliefs. It is a big melting pot - which is great for the many reasons who have described but that yearing, that tugging never goes away. Where will my daugther get her sense of identity from, I wonder. It makes me nervous someties to think that I am responsible for helping her achieve that balance while I am in a dilemma myself. All three of you look so beautiful.


Anu Karthik said...

Beautiful Picture of you 3. I think being able to keep what is yours as well as not necessarily question what is new is what is vital to co-exisiting. We do it quite well too most times.

Tamanna Mishra said...

I so agree with you - it's easier to tackle the new when you know the old. That's why I make sure I cook pure Bihari meals once in a while, and I taught my MIL how to make pasta, which she loved btw. Somewhere the twain have to meet, sooner the better :)

Anonymous said...

"How do I say thank you in Portuguese".
Well you can say OBRIGADA if you are a woman and OBRIGADO if you are a man.
Girls I love your blog.
Veronica(from Brazil).

Urooj said...

Love this blog :). Being a teenager, I mourn the loss of things I couldn't witness because I was born too late. I look at old photographs of Mumbai(black and white, but regal in a sense) and wish I could have been there when pollution was an unheard of word and girls knew how to climb trees (not that there are any trees we could climb now :))

Salman said...

Unfortunately those cloths don't just reflect three generations of change but also the three different sections of India. It never is India when talk about is north India south India etc etc..weirdly true!

Deepa Krishnan said...

Why "unfortunately", Salman? I am delighted that North South East West of India are borrowing freely, adapting and creating new forms of beauty. In the saree shops of Chennai, the kanjeevaram has been transformed into something entirely new by adding Lucknowi zardosi and Jaipur gota-work!!

expateek said...

You should put links to your other websites on here, as you have done on Delhi Magic! Also, you might consider making this a networked blog on Facebook. Just a thought..

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Nikita Sheth said...

really love your posts on food..i've got something interesting to tell you. vada pav is an interresting cuisine(if u can cal it) that developed in was a mixture of 2 cultures-i think d maharastrians and the sindhis.not sure about which 2 cultures.but it has an interesting history even i want to findout.try searching on it.