The ‘Culture’d Conflict

Posted on May 25, 2010 in Culture-Vulture

Maria Thomas:

Culture remains to this day one of those words that are so fraught with meaning that it is often misunderstood. For some, culture simply refers to the traditions and norms of an area, whether musical, artistic or otherwise; to others it acts as a benchmark for artistic knowledge. Many tend to use the term ‘cultured’ to describe a person’s artistic intellect and level of appreciation and it is in this using that the meaning of the term culture has been contorted. The word culture has gone through a metamorphosis of sorts through the years as each era has attributed a different meaning upon it. Even within subjects there is a discrepancy of meaning and it is this tantalizing conflict that makes culture a fascinating element of everyday life.

In everyday usage culture refers to the music, art and traditions of a particular community. Hence Carnatic music and Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings all fall in line with the concept of Indian culture. However, with globalization and increasing specialization there is a great confusion over what exactly culture includes. Does reality television, for example, come under the umbrella of culture or is it too common?

This question is a direct result of another interpretation of culture, that of it being something to do with class and social standing. The use of the term ‘cultured’ as an endearment related to one’s ability to appreciate fine art and music has molded culture into something that is highly elitist, at least in the minds of the elite. Essentially, the elite would not class an appreciation of reality television as a ‘cultured appreciation’ as it is much too familiar. In fact this is fast becoming the regular notion in India where parents push their children into learning fine arts and look with contempt upon ‘popular culture’, the umbrella term that includes reality television, heavy metal music and so on.

However in an amusing turn of events this elitist notion of culture is slowly being overshadowed by popular culture, its apparent nemesis. More and more people have warmed to the concept of reality TV and heavy metal is probably the most popular genre with the youth. In this way culture is undergoing another heavy metamorphosis. Skeptics may choose to worry about the effect of this change on age-old customs of India. They fear that our regional traditions are sure to be gobbled up by the obsession with all things western. This suggests that they believe in the other notion of culture, that of it being entirely related to a country or area. But perhaps the change in meaning of Indian culture is warranted considering the fact that we are in such a high stage of globalization. Wouldn’t we be held back if we stuck to our roots and rigidly turned away anything potentially western?

In our battle to establish ourselves as a worthy power in the world hierarchy they are sure to be issues that are difficult to resolve, the change in our culture is one such example. The best way to deal with change is to monitor it carefully and so there is no doubt that we should allow our culture to take the path it is fated to take. That said, old traditions and art forms certainly shouldn’t be forgotten; rather, efforts must be made to allow them to thrive. However, they shouldn’t be allowed to restrict the development of our culture. This is certainly no easy task but with dedication and diligence we are sure to be able to create a culture that is worldly yet unique in all possible ways. The key is in the understanding of the term: once we appreciate all the different facets of culture we are sure to be able to foster it better.