Whose culture is it anyway? (Suresh Menon)
Deccan Herald - July 25, 2004 | Articulations
Whose culture is it anyway?
by Suresh Menon
It took courage for Girish Karnad to proclaim publicly that Tipu Sultan is the greatest son of Karnataka. Given the level of intolerance and the artificially cultured thin skins all around, he was inviting trouble both from the Kannada chauvinists and the right wing fanatics. When someone asked him at a function – I think it was the writer Sashi Deshpande – if he wasn’t worried about how the those who view history through a saffron haze would react to this, Karnad was both forthright enough to admit that it was a chance that creative writers had to take, and practical enough to see the effect it would have on the sale of his book containing the play based on Tipu’s dreams.
Five years ago, when The Dreams of Tipu Sultan was being staged on the bicentenary of Tipu’s death, Karnad had to deal with the Bajrang Dal whose notion of history he had upset. Gandhi called Tipu the embodiment of Hindu-Muslim unity, and G S Sardesai, in his New History of the Marathas, wrote: “Tipu expended large amounts of money to set up new idols in Hindu shrines. Forty thousand Brahmins received alms and rations. Thus he announced to the world how, though a Muslim, he served the interests of the Hindus...” But the forced conversions negated everything.
It is true that Tipu forced conversions, but he also donated generously to the Hindu shrines at Sringeri, Melkote, Nanjangud, and Srirangapatna. But opposition to acknowledging one of the earliest Indians to fight colonialism, is seldom based on facts. Tipu is one of the most fascinating characters in our history, a soldier (“he spent half his life on horseback”), and administrator of rare ability. Extremists are boringly similar, and it doesn’t matter what their religious, ethnic or political leanings are. They settle on a ‘cause’ – it could be a movie about lesbianism, a historical work that doesn’t give enough lines to their hero, an art show that is perceived as an insult or a newspaper editorial they don’t like – and then go about hacking at it with energy and assumed hurt. There is something almost existential in their choice. It is as if they are saying, like the existentialists in another context, that since all paths are meaningless anyway, it only remains to choose one and then throw all your weight behind it. For the existentialist, it could be sex, mysticism, or physical hardship.
It is not necessary that foot soldiers should understand what they are fighting for. When a local newspaper welcomed the millennium with a piece quoting Dante, it irked some of these elements who stormed into the office asking for the writer. When told he was not available, they asked, “Then let us meet Dante.” What they would have told the 13th century Italian poet has not been recorded.
While the fanatics have been pulling in one direction or the other, Indianness has been left undefined. I remember when the artist M F Husain’s work was vandalized at a Mumbai gallery because he was “besmirching the culture of our country.” The artist said then, “But this is my culture too.” Yes, regardless of religious, ethnic, political, sexual preferences, the culture of our country is the common heritage of all Indians. Karnad is reminding us of this, both through his play and his pronouncements.
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