Cultural Exchange and Civil Society in Asia: A Perspective From India

It would be a good idea to begin by acknowledging where we are.  From my discipline of theatre, I’ve learned that when we’re on the stage, we’re ‘here’, not ‘there’.  But what is ‘here’?  It would be somewhat illusory to say that we’re in India. This is not an ‘India’ that I readily recognize. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that we’re in a space - a somewhat sterile, technocratic space in the high-security zone of INFOSYS, a corporation which has gained an iconic status in the global economy as one of India’s leading institutions of information technology and outsourcing. I would not disdain the achievement or global recognition of such an institution, but allow me to say that I’m not at home here. For a start, this is not a space where artists and activists are likely to hang around. Surveillance apart, it is a cheerless space which strictly prohibits the consumption of alcohol and drugs, smoking is restricted, and photography prohibited. Instead of rejecting this kill-joy space, I would urge us to locate our unease here against the larger tensions prevailing in India today vis-à-vis the crisis in the global economy and the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai. 

We need to reflect on the exclusionary territoriality of this space and ask why we tend to land in such spaces while attending blockbuster global conferences. It could be argued that the logistics of such events bring us together in convention centres and five-star hotels which offer facilities and competitive rates which make them viable meeting grounds. But even as logistics are related to agendas, they also come with their own mechanisms and regulations. This is where surveillance enters the picture in order to ensure the smooth functioning of civic events. The more global the event, the more sophisticated the surveillance, as it disappears into a simulacrum of normalcy. Against this normalcy in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, we are compelled to ask two contradictory questions:  Can India afford not to develop a more rigorous culture of surveillance?  What is the price of such surveillance?

Bouncing off these questions, let me kick off this debate by presenting a cluster of three issues for our critical consideration: the politics of cultural exchange, the construction of Asia, and civil society.

It is a truism to acknowledge that in the age of globalization, where mobility and split-second transmissions of capital would appear to be an irreversible norm, at least for some privileged sections of the world’s population, the reality is that the gaps, the fissures, the disparities, and the distances would appear to be growing in many other parts of the world which do not share the same global clout. This is the first time that I am interacting with artists and activists from different countries in Central Asia. Even while thanking the organizers for facilitating this meeting, which our own state and civil society agencies in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Central Asia have not considered, we need to ask: Why has it taken us so long to meet? The inter-Asian cultural theorist Kuan-Hsing Chen (2003) offers one valid perspective: ‘The possibilities of coming to know each other in Asia have been intercepted by the structural flow of desire towards North America or Europe, and there is no adequate flow within the third world spaces and among the neighbouring countries in Asia. Intellectual work is lagging behind the structural shift.’ Indeed, it is not keeping abreast with the flows of popular culture and other goods and services.  

The problematic nature of ‘desire’ is well worth probing. At an intercultural level, the exchange of cultures across national borders, it could be argued that the desire for the West is reinforced through the centrality of funding and availability of resources in the North for collaboration with artists, scholars and activists in regions of the South. The Indian state has not matched this cultural investment apart from short-term opportunistic forays in the now moribund area of the ‘festivalization’ of Indian culture abroad. 

Another source of desire is generated by the global media, notably television, in which the seduction of the cultures of the North is invariably privileged, with regions of the South being totally marginalized, if not erased, except in alarmist or exotic contexts of disasters, plagues, and terrorist attacks. It would seem that the cultures of everyday life in all their nuance and texture are missing in our part of the world, except when they are hyped and spectacularized for predominantly commercial purposes - as, for instance, in the ‘Incredible India’ advertising campaign in which the trajectories of desire are reversed from the North to the South, or in the phenomenon of Twenty20 cricket which combines Bollywood and a silly version of cricket to create a new form of ‘cricketainment’.  

At an intracultural level, however, I would have to ask if the desire to engage with neighbouring cultures or communities within the boundaries of the Indian nation-state can be so readily assumed. Instead of constantly blaming the forces of the state and the market, could we turn the critical gaze on ourselves? In my cultural work, which has taken me to many different parts of India, from my base in Calcutta to Manipur, Karnataka, and now Rajasthan, where I have been involved in the process of building a Museum of the Desert, I have consistently encountered a singular absence of curiosity, if not total indifference, to other cultures in India. Regionalism, I would argue, has been one of the deepest deterrents of intracultural exchange in the Indian context. Arguably, its insularity and parochialism have been heightened through the absence of infrastructure which could facilitate cultural exchanges across regional states on an ongoing basis.

Regions in India cannot be separated from the centrality of dominant languages around which states were created at the time of our Independence. Even then Nehru’s was a lone voice when he pointed out the dangers of ‘building walls around a linguistic area and calling it a border’ (quoted in Nag 1993: 1527).  Later, he went on to acknowledge with some bitterness: ‘We live in a closed society - not one closed society, but numerous closed societies. There is a Bengali closed society, a Marathi closed society, a Malayali closed society, and so on’ (ibid.) These societies today could be described more accurately as upper caste and class-bound cultural hegemonies whose affirmation of specific regional identities has resulted in the undermining of other marginal identities from tribal, indigenous and migrant contexts. Chauvinism, if not xenophobia, is on the rise, as, for instance, in the recent outbreak of violence in Mumbai abetted by an extremist Hindu pro-Maharashtrian party, which disrupted a national selection examination of the Indian Railways on the grounds that Maharashtrians should be given preference.  Other Indian candidates, collectively marked ‘North Indian’, were attacked and had to flee for their lives. What is disturbing here is not just the travesty of the concept of reservations (quotas), through which the Indian state has attempted to democratize the social and economic inequities of caste, but the middle-class endorsement of such blatant disruptions of civic life.

Perhaps, this would be the appropriate point to dispel the feel-good sentiments that have circulated around the concept of diversity in India, in which we have been expected as good citizens to believe in an imagined national unity. At a quantitative level, it would be inaccurate to deny the sheer range of Indian diversities at the levels of language, culture, region, religion, food, performance, textiles, and handicrafts, but it would be equally inaccurate to assume that these diversities automatically get translated into a cohesive and dynamic plurality. Indeed, we would have to argue that our diversities have not necessarily resulted in a harmonious and tolerant society, as is commonly assumed. If we wish to work towards plurality, therefore, we cannot just assume the innate goodness and democratic potential of diversities; rather, we are compelled to explore the arbitration and negotiation of differences which are inextricably linked to diversities at multiple levels. Indeed, diversities are often the products of differences, disparities and inequities. 

And yet, the culturalist trap is to wallow in the intrinsic vitality of diversities - for example, the cultures of indigenous peoples - without recognizing that these diversities are inseparable from the most extreme forms of poverty, exploitation, and illiteracy. My skepticism of the euphoria surrounding diversity extends to the recent UNESCO Convention on Diversity, which clearly indicates that Europe has awakened rather late in the day to what we tend to take for granted in countries like India. However, the onus to protect diversity has been unequivocally placed on national governments, which could be the greatest sources of instigating divisive politics in the name of diversity. Whatever policy is created around diversity, the point is that it should not be equated with plurality; rather, both categories need to be juxtaposed in some kind of dialectical tension rather than placed in an unproblematized continuum.

In the context of our non-negotiable differences in India, would we be better off meeting under the sign of Asia? But what is Asia? The organizers of this conference have placed us, the invitees, in two cartographic categories: Southwest Asia and Central Asia, but in the process they have forgotten to mark themselves under the sign of Europe. Historically, it needs to be acknowledged that Asia was invented in Europe, and in this conference as well, that legacy would seem to continue in so far as we would not be meeting in Bangalore without European intervention, funding, and nomenclature.

Another axiom needs to be pointed out: The fact that I live in the continental expanse of Asia does not make me ‘Asian’. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of anyone I know in India who identifies himself or herself as ‘Asian’. This may come as a surprise to the organizers of this conference who have designated us rather blithely as ‘Asian cultural actors’. The fact that I do not see myself as Asian has nothing to do with desire or antipathy for an identitarian marker imposed on us with good intentions. The point is that there is no cultural or public discourse in India of any substance which would enable us to understand what ‘Asia’ means beyond the strategic business partnerships advocated by a few corporations and business houses. 

I first came into contact with Asia in Singapore, where there is money for inter-Asian theatre workshops and cultural interactions. It was in one such workshop that I realized very quickly that I was being framed as ‘Asian’ within the propaganda of state-determined cultural capital, which has been buttressed over the years by any number of discourses relating to ‘Asian values’, the ‘Asian Renaissance’, and ‘New Asia’. Not only did I find this Asiacentricity somewhat oppressive, I realized that it was the other side of the same coin as Eurocentricity, if not more insidious.  At least with the known devil of Eurocentricity we (in the South) know where we stand in relation to its imperialist and universalizing categories against which - and through which - we have derived our own critical categories. However, Asiacentricity assumes a unified and culturally authentic counter to Eurocentricity without acknowledging the considerable hierarchies, border disputes, wars, nuclear threats, and racism that afflict Asia from within.

Historically, as Naoki Sakai and others have theorized, Asian self-consciousness comes into being with the advent of Western colonization. This compels us to ask: How do we view the Asia-that-has-yet-to-be-named, the Asia prior to colonization? How do we position ourselves today vis-à-vis the pre-modern histories of Asia? I ask this question not as a historian, but as a cultural worker in so far as our practices may compel us to be engaged with communities who, arguably, have not entered the narrative of modernity, and who may still be surviving through pre-industrial forms of labour. For instance, in my work as Project Director of the Museum of the Desert in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, I interacted with communities of broom-makers who continue to make brooms entirely by hand with no machinery whatsoever. How do we as cultural workers engage with such labour with all its concomitant problems of poverty and caste stigmatization within - and against - the dominant mechanisms of the global economy?

The second question that needs to be asked is equally embedded in different temporalities: If the current framework of globalization offers a different paradigmatic structure which compels us to define Asia differently, does colonization no longer serve as a valid point of reference? Perhaps, I should qualify that what I would like to put on our agenda is some knowledge of the intersecting histories (and residues) of colonization in Asia, of which we remain so ignorant. Kuan-Hsing Chen (2003) would refer to this impulse of re-interpreting Asia as a method which enables us to understand our present more vividly through shifting sites of identification and multiple frameworks of reference.

And yet, it could be argued: ‘We’ve left colonization behind. After all, we’re postcolonial, we’re decolonized.’ One way of puncturing such illusions would be to call attention to the oppressive present through those forgotten histories and misunderstandings of the past across Asia which have been allowed to pass and fade into oblivion. I am thinking of one moment in 1924 when the great Bengali poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore visited China and had to cut short his lecture tour because he was subjected to verbal abuse by the emergent Communist Youth League. These radicals were incensed that the so-called ‘son of Asia’ apart from denigrating nationalism seemed to align himself to spiritual and conservative liberals at the expense of highlighting the poverty and lack of modernity in China. The poet’s own advocacy of modernism through a subtle critique of modernization was obviously lost in translation. And so, he was abused with these unforgettable words: Go back, slave, from a lost country.

One particular word resonates for me today. While neither China nor India could be regarded as ‘lost countries’ today, the word ‘slave’ calls attention to a vista of references: the neo-slavery of global migrant labour; the caste-bound tyranny of bonded labour which still continues to exist in many parts of India; the dehumanization associated with child labour; and let’s nor forget those slaves working in some middle-class Indian homes who are euphemistically designated as ‘servants’. Slavery is alive and well in India and other parts of Asia, and perhaps it could serve as a catalyst for us to reflect on how the cultures of enslavement in the past continue to be re-invented or simply perpetuated in the present.  

If Asia remains a concept that has yet to be fully imagined, the category of civil society is perhaps even more opaque, and arguably, it is untranslatable in most Indian languages. The fact that a concept does not translate easily does not mean that there is no reality underlying the difficulties of its translation. With some caution, particularly in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks, where it would seem as if there is no civil society in India, as some socialites have declared on television, I would say that we have a profoundly uncivil civil society in India. 

What are we to make of this oxymoron? If we have to assess civil society in terms of public services, ranging from garbage clearance to health clinics to law and order management, then India presents a terrifying picture of chaos; but, if we had to think of civil society at more somatic, interactive, and intimate levels, through modes of survival by which millions of people share the most minimal resources - I’m thinking of how people accommodate each other’s bodies in the overcrowded trains of Mumbai every single day or how slum dwellers can collectively draw on a single municipal water pump for their daily consumption - then, in failing to engage with such immediacies, we undermine our capacities to live together at extraordinary levels of adjustment.  

At a theoretical level, civil society has been somewhat disparaged in India. In one of the most influential theories available on the subject, Partha Chatterjee (2003, 2004) has fossilized the notion of civil society as bourgeois society, which he acknowledges as a predominantly elite formation of civil and social institutions which were introduced by the British in the colonial period through the trajectories of modernity. While acknowledging some social interventionist role for this society, Chatterjee ultimately relegates it to demographically limited coteries of privileged citizens. 

In contrast, as he argues, if we wish to engage with the struggle for democracy, then we have to acknowledge the existence of a ‘political society’, which is an emergent, processual, fragmented series of ‘mediating practices’ between state institutions and civil society. Located in the interstices or wastelands of the metropolis, alongside railway tracks and in squatter colonies, the proponents of this society cannot be described as citizens because their very foundations and modes of survival and resistance are based on illegality. Conscious of the fact that they are violating property laws and civil regulations, these non-citizens nonetheless claim their right to livelihood on a collective basis, to which the agencies of the state, the police, and civil society have no other option but to confront in different ways - either through violence by evicting squatters and demolishing their temporary settlements, or by resorting to instrumentalist welfare strategies. 

While this enunciation of political society is useful, the danger lies in dichotomizing the ‘civil’ and the ‘political’, instead of intersecting the civic appropriations of the political and the political disruptions of the civil, which are at once interruptive and synchronous activities. Many of us live and operate, I would assert, in the cusp of the civil and the political. To regard modernity as somehow inimical to democracy, as Chatterjee does, is almost as unproductive as to restrict the struggle for democracy to political society alone. In contrast to grassroot people’s movements, it is true that the struggles in civil society may appear to operate at micropolitical levels in a predominantly defensive register. However, it would be inaccurate to underestimate the emergent politics of citizens as they attempt to protect their personal and institutional autonomy from fundamentalist and statist attacks which are on the rise.

If an art gallery, for instance, is ransacked for showing the paintings of a Muslim artist ostensibly on charges that they are obscene, or if a university is pressured to teach a particular version of sectarian history, or if the livelihood of bar-girls can be abruptly terminated through moralistic and patriarchal state intervention, in every single instance, the fundamentals of democracy are being affirmed and fought for through the resistance to such attacks in a highly contested arena of a living politics. 

These protests need to be differentiated from the high-profile ‘telecivility’ of celebrities on prime-time television talk shows, which blatantly play into neo-liberal sentiments. However, it would be deeply cynical, if not a serious mistake, to disparage civil society through such elitist performativity without taking into account the actions of a multitude of social groups, mohalla (neighbourhood) committees, unions, and youth centres, which have yet to be effectively mobilized on the lines of civil society movements in Brazil through mass campaigns against hunger and violence. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, there is a growing realization that the much valorized resilience of the city needs to be tempered with rage against a corrupt and inefficient state. But how can this rage be consolidated in the absence of an organized civil society movement? This is the question which cries out for action at grassroot levels beyond the choreographed demonstrations of engaged citizens on prime-time television, whose ‘human chains’ and candlelit vigils amount to mere gestures of symbolic solidarity. 
Against the illusory comforts of the symbolic, how does one actually engage with violence? And what are the possibilities of transforming it through cultural practice? In a deft adaptation of John Lennon’s definition of God, the Indonesian writer Goenawan Mohamad (2003) once defined Asia as ‘a concept by which we measure our pain.’ God and Asia apart, how do we engage with pain? Instead of sequestering pain in our existential bodies at personal, inchoate, and untranslatable levels, the theorist Talal Asad (2003) has suggested that we look upon pain not as a private experience but as a social relationship. Pain need not merely exist in a passive state, inflicted on by another; it can have its own agency in reaching out towards others whereby a new sociality can be built depending on who is expressing the pain to whom, in what circumstances, and for what purpose, if any. The recognition of the pain of the other, I would suggest, could be the most creative way of engaging - and transforming - violence. 

And yet, this could seem like an overly idealistic proposition given the fact that we live in an age where we are almost habituated towards an immunization of pain through the process of secularization, as Talal Asad would argue. Countering this premise, one should also add the triumphalism of inflicting pain in situations of communal carnage where the assailants would seem to derive a perverse pleasure from the most heinous acts - for example, the disgorging of the foetus of a child on the grounds that the mother happens to be a Muslim. In the context of such senseless brutality, how does one engage with the pain of the other?

It would seem to me that in such states of extremity, the languages of art offer, at least potentially, one of the most textured and emotionally effective responses to representing the unrepresentable. Precisely because art does not reproduce reality, but re-shapes it through myriad strategies ranging from melodrama to farce to psychological drama to surrealism to documentary realism, it has the capacity to make you see violence in another light. And yet, if I had to be perfectly candid, what I am speaking about is the potentiality of art. The actual evidence of art practice in India within the larger chaos of our times would suggest that the imagination is in a state of crisis. 

Almost by default - or is it a creative strategy? - we are seeing the emergence of new collaborative ventures, where the onus is no longer on a singular creator/author to come up with an appropriate vision of the oppressive present. Particularly in the field of the visual arts and multi-media cultural interventions, we are seeing a movement outside the civic boundaries of particular disciplines into the turbulence of the political, which directs the difficulties of representation towards the more elusive possibilities of action. Today the distinction between ‘actors’ and ‘activists’ has become blurred in the attempt to work across divides, which inevitably challenges the creation of new infrastructures of creative work. 

In this context, how does one forge alliances between the agencies of culture and development without succumbing to the instrumentalist sterilities of the creative industries discourse which rests on the specious assumption that ‘creativity is everyone’s natural asset to exploit’ and can solve social, economic and political problems that governments are unable to confront? And second, how does one build new dialogic infrastructures in the areas of governance, civil society, art practice, and funding, which need to be interrelated? How, indeed, does one push the ‘narrow domestic walls’, as Tagore would put it, of our prevalent habits and disciplines? How can one re-imagine our possibilities of not only recognizing, but transforming the pain of the other through creative and concrete social action? 

I would like to leave you with these questions, hoping that they will resonate in your own attempts to push the divides of the civil and the political. Hopefully, they will also ignite the desire for us to work together through possible collaborations and exchanges that could result in a new cartography of Asia.

This article is a slightly revised version of a lecture delivered at a conference entitled 'CultureAsia: Connecting Asian Cultural Actors' organized by HIVOS, Open Society Institute, and the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society. The conference was held in Bangalore on the campus of INFOSYS between December 14-16, 2008. The article was first published in the South Asia Journal for Culture, Vol. 2, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A more detailed analysis of the points raised in this lecture relating to Asia can be read in Rustom Bharucha’s book Another Asia: Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006).   For an elaboration on the shifting dynamics of the ‘intercultural’ and the ‘intracultural’, read The Politics of Cultural Practice: Thinking Through Theatre in an Age of Globalization (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000; Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000) and ‘Thinking Through Culture: A Perspective for the Millennium’, India: Another Millennium?, ed. Romila Thapar (Delhi: Viking, Penguin Books, 2000).

Other references in the lecture include the following:
Asad, Talal (2003) Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press). 
Chen, Kuan-Hsing (2003) ‘Civil Society and Min-jian on Political  Society and Popular Democracy’, Cultural Studies, 17(6), pp. 876-896.
Chatterjee, Partha (2004) The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World  (New Delhi: Permanent Black);  (2003) ‘On civil and political society in postcolonial democracies’, Locating Political Society: Modernity, State Violence and Postcolonial  Democracies.  Taipei.
Mohamad, Goenawan (2003) ‘Indonesia’s “Asia”’, Asia in Transition: Representation and Identity (Tokyo: The Japan Foundation Asia Center).
Nag, Sajal (1993) ‘Multiplication of Nations? Political Economy of Sub-Nationalisms in India’,  Economic and Political Weekly, July 17-24, 1993.


Rustom Bharucha is an independent writer, director, and cultural critic based in Kolkata, India. He is the author of several books including Theatre and the World, The Question of Faith, In the Name of the Secular, The Politics of Cultural Practice, Rajasthan: An Oral History, and Another Asia. He is a scholar on interculturalism and has worked with several art institutes, theatre groups, and activist forums in India, the Philippines, South Africa and Brazil. His most recent assignments include direction of ‘The Broom Project’ at Arna-Jharna: The Desert Museum of Rajasthan and an inter-Asian Ramayana Festival based in Pondicherry, India.




Tue, 1 Jun 2010

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Another Asia: Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin
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International Symposium 2002: 'Asia in Transition: Representation and Identity'
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International Symposium 2002: 'Asia in Transition: Representation and Identity'


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