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3. Theorizing Culture

Who Theorises Culture? Who studies culture in India? When did culture become an object of theoretical investigation? What does ‘studying culture’ mean?

Most importantly, perhaps:

Why study culture at all?

In this section, we will be looking at ways in which Indian culture has been studied over the years. We will try and see what such a ‘study’ meant to its executors. We will see who was ‘qualified’ to study culture, and we will also see what qualified culture as an appropriate field for study.

In one way, studying culture in India is not a new thing. Many people have theorized Indian culture from ancient times. Bharata’s Natyashastra, for example, written sometime between the 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD, tried to define Indian theatre as a cultural practice, in a way that may be compared to Aristotle’s Poetics. The Natyashastra took into account numerous cultural aspects of theatrical relevance, including theatre architecture, costumes, make-up, properties, dance, music, play construction, poetic compositions, grammar, formation of theatre companies, the audience, dramatic competitions, actor communities and ritual observances.

(For more on those who studied early Indian culture, see Wikipedia (HERE)

To take an example, one of the oldest surviving forms of traditional Indian theatre is the Kathakali.

See the legendary Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair demonstrate the nine ‘rasas’, supposedly covering the gamut of all human emotion, to get a sense of how ‘culture’ may have been discussed and represented.

These two examples are of the practice of culture— the first is an act of defining and the other one of enacting or performing it. It is obvious here that culture is practiced by people ‘within’ it, so to speak. This is different from culture as an object of study by a supposedly impartial observer located ‘outside’ it. Nevertheless, before we move on to that aspect of the equation, it is necessary to stop here and interrogate this space a little. It would be easy enough to run away with the idea that the practice of culture by the people within it is ‘natural’ and innocent of power play. Is this, however, really so?

In the introductory paragraph of the entry on Sanskrit literature you have just read, Sanskrit in India is compared to Latin in Europe. The comparison is revealing. Sanskrit and Latin were languages of privilege and learning. Knowledge and mastery of these languages in their own contexts always implied a certain status and authority, certain perquisites and prerogatives. You will be familiar with the position of Sanskrit in India, and what section of society ‘owned’ it.

The case of Latin was very similar in many ways. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, and continued to be the language of power in the West for a thousand years, being used for scientific, theological and political affairs. Latin continues to be used by the Vatican City and in the scientific classification of living things.

(If you want to know more on Latin, look up the entry on Latin in the Wikipedia). Both Sanskrit and Latin were privileged over the ‘vernacular’ of the common people; both are, in some senses, generally regarded as being ‘more cultural’ than languages like Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati or English—‘high culture’ vs. ‘low culture’. So this then is the point we are trying to make here: Culture is a contested site, especially insofar as the issue of what comprises culture is at stake. Issues of privilege and power operate here. Remember what you read in the previous module on the shift away from elitist readings and writings of history in the work of the Subaltern school. Similarly, the ‘high culture’/‘low culture’ divide is now the subject of critical investigation. Relations of power are continually interrogated in cultural studies. The practice of culture is fraught with these issues.

There is however something radically different that happens, when professional theorists of culture come, usually from elsewhere, and try to study India’s culture. These people had different agendas.

Here are some images of an early example of the European in India. It gives you some idea of what Europeans ‘needed to know’ about Indian culture, its customs and its habits, along with of course, its history and geography.

These are images from a book published in 1813 titled The European in India: From a Collection of Drawings by Charles Doyley. See some of these images HERE.

Why do you think Europeans needed to study India?

There are varied answers.

An early instance of a European who came to study Indian culture was a man named Sir William Jones.

He was, like many early students of Indian culture, an Orientalist archaeologist and anthropologist: according to some, the father of modern linguistics, for proposing the ‘family resemblances’ between Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. He founded the famous Royal Asiatic Society, Calcutta.

For more information on the Asiatic Society see:

Why did Jones want to study Indian culture at all? Here is one reason that he gave, in 1786:

From ‘The Sanscrit Language’ 1786

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have spring from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit, and the old Persian might be added to this family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia.

What was, do you think, the reason for such a pedagogic invocation of a common Indo-European culture? Jones himself does not always know, and on many occasions his effort to understand ‘Hindu’ systems of knowledge leads him to face absurd situations. Here is one:

On the Chronology of the Hindus

The received chronology of the hindus begins with an absurdity so monstrous, as to overthrow the whole system; for having established their period of seventy-one divine ages as the reign of each Manu, yet thinking it incongruous to place a holy personage in times of impurity, they insist that Manu reigns only in every golden age, and disappears in the three human ages that follow it, continuing to dive and emerge like a water-fowl, till the close of his Manwantara…. From this Manu the whole race of men is believed to have descended; for the seven Rishis who were preserved with him in the arks, are not mentioned as fathers of human families…(1799).

It is not easy to recognize in the early, and very important, studies, of Indian culture a colonial ambition. But try and make a connection between what Jones sought and what Thomas Babington Macaulay said, on his famous ‘Minute on Education’, a scant fifty years after Jones’ work: Thomas Babington Macaulay: MINUTE ON INDIAN EDUCATION (2ND OF FEBRUARY, 1835)

We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the west. It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us; with models of every species of eloquence; with historical compositions, which, considered merely as narratives, have seldom been surpassed, and which, considered as vehicles of ethical and political instruction, have never been equalled; with just and lively representations of human life and human nature; with the most profound speculations on metaphysics, morals, government, jurisprudence, and trade; with full and correct information respecting every experimental science which tends to preserve the health, to increase the comfort, or to expand the intellect of man. Whoever knows that language has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations. It may safely be said, that the literature now extant in that language is of far greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world together. Nor is this all. In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. It is the language of two great European communities which are rising, the one in the south of Africa, the other in Australasia; communities which are every year becoming more important, and more closely connected with our Indian empire.

Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects. The question now before us is simply whether, when it is in our power to teach this language, we shall teach languages in which, by universal confession, there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own; whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, whenever they differ from those of Europe, differ for the worse; and whether, when we can patronise sound Philosophy and true History, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines, which would disgrace an English farrier,--Astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school,--History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long,--and Geography, made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.

In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them, that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

(For a complete record of this famous Minute, see

What function is culture being called on to perform in this speech?

We have already seen that power is at work in issues of definition by practitioners of a culture. There are, however, other issues at stake when India’s culture becomes an object of study by an outsider. In studying India, the Western researcher is conducting a ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ examination or exploration of India. Europe, more specifically England, claimed for itself the labels of ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’, a claim proved by labelling India ‘mystical’ and ‘irrational’.

This formulation posited India as the location of culture and Europe as the location of science, creating a pair of opposites, where the clear advantage lay with science and Europe. When something is being studied, where does the advantage, the authority and the privilege lie—with the thing being studied or with the qualified examiner who will look at it closely, analyse and pronounce judgement from his objective distance?

This way of thinking goes hand in hand with the notion that culture can be practiced by anyone within it—it requires no (acknowledged) special skill, knowledge or training. The researcher of culture, on the other hand, has to be qualified for the job, in the sense that he has to ‘have science’ rather than culture, which is seen as being more difficult.

This notion has proved to be an enduring one and is firmly entrenched even in our lives today. You will understand the argument better if you think of the arts vs. science debates that go on even today.

Also, think of which area of knowledge is privileged if there is a contradiction in what they tell us—science or culture? If for instance, oral histories say one thing and science another, which is believed and which ridiculed? It is only of late that the validity and accuracy of oral histories is being given serious consideration.

When you read more you will realise that many colonial constructions of India’s past and present followed similar formulations. What, politically, is the point of these arguments on culture? They serve to underline European superiority and they provide the moral justification for colonialism. When India is posited as the decadent ruin of a once-great civilization, as irrational, chaotic and unscientific, by comparison Europe becomes a great civilization through scientific ‘progress’.

While India stagnates, Europe has achieved new heights, new knowledge and thereby, superiority, and must therefore, do the right, Christian thing by civilizing and guiding this poor, irrational people. This justification for colonialism was called ‘the civilizing mission’. You will read much more about the intersections between colonialism and culture in the next module, Orientalism, Representation and Culture.

Bandopadyay, part 1 Link found here

Bandopadyay, part 2 Link found here

Bankim Chatterjee, part 1 Link found here

Bankim Chatterjee, part 2 Link found here




• Mathew Arnold



One of the most influential theorists of culture as an object of inquiry was Mathew Arnold, who wrote a famous essay called Culture and Anarchy (1882). This was a hugely influential text in colonial India, as we will see. In it, Arnold describes a concept that he sees as a ‘sphere of amity, and a meeting ground’ where social consensus could emerge.

According to the theorist Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, in Arnold’s scheme of things, culture was included in the very art of statecraft: culture was that which people could be taught, so that they could become capable of ‘standing on a common platform’, define and argue their differences and ‘join hands to hold the system together’. (See Bandyopadhyay, pgs 14-18, by clicking HERE).

For Arnold, these great ‘men of culture’ were:

‘the true apostles of equality. The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have laboured to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanise it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light...’ ("Culture and Anarchy". To see the full text of this amazingly influential essay, do visit

Such an argument comes at a particular time in British history, Bandyopadhyay shows (see his argument HERE). The old regime of the aristocracy is over, and a new kind of enlightened individual is now rising to take the leadership of the world. This new idea of ‘the great man of culture’ is opening another zone of power, an aestheticised power structure of governance.

You will see the similarities between what Arnold expects of men (and please note the use of the word men) of culture and the argument for the civilising mission. In both cases the right to leadership is seen as being inherent in or natural to a certain kind of people belonging to a certain kind of culture. Not only does this argument say that the greatest practitioners/critics/teachers of the ‘best’ knowledge and ideas deserve leadership, but also that they do because this knowledge and these ideas are inherently superior and should therefore be passed on. What goes unquestioned in this scenario is the category of the greatest and the best. Who decides? Is there a natural quality of ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ in literature, for example? Or is the truth that people in positions of power set up certain norms and standards so as to maintain the status quo? These arguments serve to naturalise and justify operating forms of dominance.

Interestingly, when Indians first started studying culture, they internalized this enlightenment zeal in its entirety.




Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay





The first modern theorist of Indian culture, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, says that we have internalized all of Western knowledge through a particular kind of training, and that such training is special. This training is to be found in various places. Bankim’s famous Dharmatattva (originally written in 1888), is written as a kind of lesson in ‘what is Culture’, or ‘Dharma’. A Master holds forth to a Disciple on various issues.

At one time, the Master is asked, is culture simply a ‘habit’, something you simply ‘do’ without asking?

Not really, says the Master.

Whereas Culture is conducive to the development of our senses, habit is detrimental. Culture develops our faculties, habit perverts them. It has something to do with happiness, and with religion even, and while all that the West has to say about Culture is incorporated into the Master’s definition, he has something else to offer, an extra.

Disciple: It is through Culture that a child’s tiny arms acquire the growth, strength and vitality of an adult. But what of it? Doesn’t this happen easily to everybody? What more does one want? Master: Compare your arms with those of a gardener. You have subjected your fingers to such a regimen of Culture that for you to fill up a couple of sheets of paper with writing is a matter of minutes. the gardener, far from being able to perform this feat, will not even be able to write such well-formed characters as you, no matter how he tries, and for how long. He can only wonder at the facility with which you write.

The Master holds forth on the complex thought processes that are involved in understanding culture:

To write the word ‘culture’, for instance, we have to pronounce it in our mind to hear how it sounds; next, break the whole sound into successive syllables; third, select – one at a time – the words which, if placed in order, produce that other. It is culture that makes all this possible.

So is the gardener who can’t do this then uncultured? Of course not.

In about the same time as it takes you to fill two sheets of paper with your writing, our gardener can dig up a patch of ground nearly a thousand square feet in area. For all your mastery over writing, this is a task I dare say you will take several hours to perform. Or compare your voice with that of a trained singer. There was probably little to choose between your voice and his when you were both infants; but by a process of culture, he has accomplished the all-round development of his voice that you have not.

Bankim is working a particular kind of manoeuvre here. He does not reject the West, he wants to assimilate it, but he will assimilate the West from a particularly privileged position, the privilege of being Indian/Hindu. What the West wants to teach us we already have. But the ‘extra’ something that we have, only we have.

See Bandyopadhyay (HERE) on Bankim’s definition of the word ‘anushilan’, and on how Bankim deals with Arnold (Bandyopadhyay, pg 30-33). Also see Bankim’s own discourse on ‘Dharma’ HERE.


The ideology of the new nation




Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s notion of culture was to be a very, very influential one after India became independent. In fact, the Bankimite concept of culture, as permeating into every sphere of life, and as becoming the true resource of independent India, becomes part of the ideology of the new national economy.

So for example, the Third Five Year Plan says, in its opening chapter, that:

Each major culture and civilisation has certain distinctive features, rooted in the past, which bear the impress of that culture, India, with thousands of years of history, bears even now the powerful impress of her own distinctive features. They are today covered up by widespread and appalling poverty, the result of a traditional society and a static economy in the past, petrified to some extent by colonial rule. But these essential features, though apparently associated with the traditional structure of society are in no sense an integral part of it. They are in fact a set of moral and ethical values which have governed Indian life for ages past, even though people may not have lived upto them. These values are a part of India's thinking, even as, more and more, that thinking is directed to the impact of the scientific and technological civilisation of the modern world. To some extent, the problem of India is how to bring about a synthesis between these two. Probably, no other country in the modern world would have produced a Gandhi; even Tagore, who was typically modern in his approach to life's problems, was, at the same time, steeped in India's old culture and thinking. His message is thus one of synthesis between these two. (‘Objectives of Planned Development’, Chapter 1, Third Five Year Plan, 1961)

As recently as 1992, the Draft Approach Paper trying to define a National Policy on Culture reproduced the Bankimite argument once again:

‘Approach Paper On The National Policy On Culture’ (1992)

  1. 1 Culture permeates every sphere of human activity, determines and governs life and pattern of Indian society in diverse regions and equally diverse fields. It is a crucial part of development deserving careful attention and substantial investment. Although the Government of India have spent in the last 35 years six hundred thousand crores on development, the amounts spent on culture have usually been around 0.11 per cent of its annual expenditure. It is evident that investment in improving that aspect of the quality of life namely the cultural dimension has not been commensurate with the broad social needs and its intrinsic value. 1.6 Culture is a central instrument of discovering, integrating and asserting the national identity of India which is truly and inevitably pluralistic. Our culture, while being Indocentric, has always been open to global influences and interaction. While resisting any colonization of mind, the policy believes, our culture should remain in constant dialogue with the world at large in the realm of ideas, perceptions, media and expressions.
  2. 4 The old notion patronage should be replaced by that of public support and there should be effective coordination between the activities of various agencies in the states and the Centre with a clear recognition that more than anywhere else decentralisation is a key factor in cultural promotion and that an important role is and should continue to be played by individuals and voluntary agencies.

For the complete text of the Draft Policy, see: HERE

Do you recognise shades of the colonial rhetoric on culture in these excerpts? The Indian nationalists inherited many of the tools developed by British Indologists, and as you can see they show up in Indian policy to this day. Culture continues as a site for the assertion of superiority and as justification of inherent superiority.

Notice also in the first example the quick skating over injustice in the enthusiasm over culture, as also the swift disassociation of culture from India’s socio-economic problems. Culture is elevated above the mundane and the sordid, is freed from the constraints of social structure and the provisional nature of its existence, and made into an absolute good with universal application to all Indians, whether they have lived this culture or not. In other words, culture is no longer tied to context and social realities—it is ‘essential’, i.e. it is an unchanging core or essence, rather than a dynamic manifestation of the permutations and combinations of various provisional factors like time and space. Look at the last point of the second example—does it remind you of Matthew Arnold’s appeal for ‘men of culture’ to bring about social change? You will read more about the ways in which colonial formulations are replicated and used for different ends in India today in later modules. In the module The Uses of History in Contemporary India you will see again how a colonial argument is appropriated by rightwing politics for its own ends.


The word ‘culture’ has been used in a number of contexts in independent India. Agree or disagree with the following statements, giving reasons.

  1. In 1948, during the famous Constituent Assembly Debates, Prof. T.K. Shah said:

Speaking of culture, I think it is not a single item, either of area, language or script. It is a vast ocean, including all the entirety of the heritage of the past of any community in the material as well as spiritual domain. Whether we think of arts, the learning, the sciences, the religion, or philosophy, culture includes them all, and much else besides.

  1. On the other hand, writing in 1984, the famous Supreme Court Judge Hidayatullah said this in his book on the Constitution of India:

‘Differences on grounds of language or religion are understandable but it is difficult to define the word culture. A valuable study cited 164 definitions of culture taken from writings of anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers. A number of the definitions stress the idea that culture is a collective name for the material, social religious and artistic achievements of human groups, including traditions, customs and behaviour patterns, all of which are unified by common belief and values. Values provide the essential part of a culture and give it its distinctive quality and tone. Since culture means so many things and there is so much cultural variety in India, it is difficult to determine culturally who is in minority and who is in majority. Language and religion or a combination of both, therefore appear to provide a more stable basis for determination of the question.’

  • Justice Hidayatullah (Constitutional Law of India, 1984, pg 560-61)
  1. The legendary theatre director Habib Tanvir has this to say:

All our policies today are urban-oriented. Even for culture we have such a policy, but implicitly. In the performing arts, it leads to many styles which ape the West and appear to be rootless. While the occasional dark areas in our rural cultural traditions can be overcome easily, to my mind the influence of the ultra-modern obscurantism of the urban elite is far more pernicious. To fight it we have to nurture our rural art forms. These would gain from exposure to the urban cultural milieu but, more important, the latter needs the revitalizing influence of rural art forms.

  1. Here is Article 29 of the Constitution of India. Would you like, supposing you were the Supreme Court of India, to add something to these, or do you think they are completely adequate in addressing all our constitutional needs of culture?

Cultural and Educational Rights

Article 29. Protection of interests of minorities. (1) Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same. (2) No citizen shall be denied admission into any educational institution maintained by the State or receiving aid out of State funds on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them.

And here is a set of key Fundamental Duties of the Constitution of India. Do you agree with them? Would you like to add things to them if you could?

51A. Fundamental Duties.- It shall be the duty of every citizen of India- (a) to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Flag and the National Anthem; (b) to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom; (c) to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India; (d) to defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so; (e) to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women; (f) to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture; (g) to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures; (h) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform; (i) to safeguard public property and to abjure violence; (j) to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement.

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