Saturday, January 30, 2016

City Lights 6: Culture and the City

Religion precedes the cities while culture succeeds them. A city does not bring culture as a predetermined or established entity; culture grows as the city grows and interestingly it never stops growing. Mechanical views on culture always posit it as something that has started at some point of time and consolidated over a period and remains static for the succeeding generations to pick up, emulate, choose, discard or use it as a touchstone for furthering their activities. Culture, as we understand today as a pack of finer sensibilities developed by the people in country, city or province, is not really a system of finer sensibilities deliberately articulated for the future use. In the final analysis culture is the common characteristics developed and distilled in and by a society, that continue in different forms till the present. Though sectarian thoughts of today have made us to think about culture as created differently by different groups of people in a society exclusive of each other, in reality a culture cannot exist in exclusivity unless it is militantly guarded by exclusionary practices.

Eating, drinking, dressing and anything related to the public and private practices of human beings in a society carry the traits of the cultural peculiarities of a particular place. The idea of culture or the manifestations of it that we see in a given place is the continuity as well as re-adaptations of the cultural practices existing elsewhere. In the process, most of these practices are improvised, refined, added and re-positioned in the social sphere, which become the part and parcel of the awareness and social consciousness of the people who live in that particular place. Therefore a country’s culture is not really different from the culture of the neighboring country though apparently they look different in their manifestations. The overlapping that is palpable in the cultures of the two countries stand as a proof for the intermingling, transition and transference of cultural practices in the geographically connected areas. Even if the countries are separated by a mountain or by sea, or even if they are racially and linguistically different, one could see certain identical threads that connect the birth and death rituals, which confirm the erstwhile connectivity of those different cultures.

Even if countries are disjointed by mountains and seas, commerce that had started ever since the settlement of human beings in certain regions on earth (and even before that the explosion of human race from the mythological and biological places of origin to other parts of the earth through nomadic activities), cultures have been in communication with the other cultures though in a surface they all look different and separated by disparate practices. Considering that the primary conditions that differentiate one social practice from the other therefore forcing the cultures look different are weather, geography, food habits and source of economy, we have to understand that the apparent differences in cultures are consolidated by the above mentioned conditions. As the distance between two places increases the customary practices and the resultant cultural outlook also change accordingly. However, fundamentally they remain the same.

If countries are different in cultural practices, provinces within the country also could look different with the change of climatic and geographical zones. Commerce and colonialism since the origin of history have made considerable contributions to the composite cultures within the same region. Mythology has played a very crucial role in making the culture of a country through the common thread of mythological stories. As I have argued in one of the early chapters, religions help the cities form around them therefore culture also gets focus in cities mainly because the mythologies that help the culture grow and connect with the provincial cultures originate from the religions. All the finer sensibilities interestingly are developed around the religions. Mythologies are created and performed through grammatical articulations of the same in different forms of expressions mainly in the city centers where the patronage for such expressions are often found. The same grammatically oriented cultures move from the cities to the rural areas losing the grip of grammar slowly and take the form of very daring cultural experiments. It does not mean that the rural areas are passive recipients of the urban cultural practices. They in turn also imbibe the beauty and rawness of the rural expressions in order to embellish the grammatically structured cultural expressions.

Those who understand the fact that culture is not an exclusionary practice but an inclusionary one that develops over a period of time and is practiced by various kinds of people in the same place, making their own views on it also understand the cultures of different places and of people should be respected and if need be taken into their own lives. A city becomes interesting to live in when all cultures are celebrated as a part of living continuity and other cultures are not disparaged or resisted. The culture of a city is not just about having a lot of avenues to express the finer sensibilities of the people who live there, on the contrary it is the same people’s ability to live harmoniously with various cultures and celebrate all of them with some kind of participatory zeal. Unfortunately, our cities have forgotten this basic lesson of having divergent and vibrant cultures. In an attempt to make the city life unified in a monotonous fashion, the state and the people who hold power in various strata of social life make one culture dominant over the other thereby creating schism between people who uphold cultures different from the dominant one.

A city is a conglomeration of different provinces and the provincial cultures also migrate with the people from the rural areas and fringes. One could say that it is the arrival of nature into the platform of culture or in other words we could say that it is the entry of grammar-less structures into the grammatical structures. These juxtapositions further result into a new culture where everyone finds a bit of their culture within the dominant one or in other terms, each culture looks dominant therefore adorable like the pages in an interesting novel. Each time we read one page we find it so important to be neglected; while it remains as an independent narrative in itself, it constitutes the larger cultural outlook of the city.

With religion becoming the defining factor in the cities culture becomes subservient to the domination of the religions and pertaining narratives. People mistake culture as refinement in social manners. While one could be very much refined in social manners he or she could harbor extremely retrogressive ideas about the culture. It could range from holding one culture over the other to the refusal to acknowledge rest of the cultures. A city is a cosmopolitan space where culture is being produced and reproduced. There are so many factors that influence the growth of the culture. It is not a static entity that remains unchanged with the time. The changes that influence the general culture of city and society make it a part of the universe and not too different from the people living elsewhere. One we understand that the cultures are not mutually exclusive, then we would learn to respect all what is foreign to us. The respect does not mean that subservience. The moment culture renders us to be a part of the universe we automatically become universal citizens devoid of nations and religions, and at the same time carrying the traits of the nations and religions that we happen to belong to. Being cultured does not mean that being refined in taste. Being culture however does mean that accepting the other cultures with reverence and love. Somewhere we lack in this understanding that’s why on the same platforms we respect the art forms from different places but just hate the people and their religion and nationalities. That’s why we make war with the same people who sing for us. The day we recognize that culture is not personal refinement but making our personal existence a part of the universal existence and realize it in our personal lives, we could call ourselves really cultured or having a culture of our own. Till then we will remain barbarians who could hold a champagne glass, talk elegantly and listen to Chopin while we dine well. 

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