During a recent visit to Mysuru (formerly Mysore), I took an afternoon off to see the magnificent Mysore Palace. Once the residence of the Wodeyars, it is one of the largest palaces of its kind in India. It has been turned into a museum with souvenirs, paintings, jewellery, royal costumes and many other items. I am not from Mysuru or even Karnataka, nor someone besotted with royalty. Still, as I walked around the palace barefoot, I couldn’t but feel a surge of pride. This magnificent monument is part of my heritage, part of who I am, my identity, even though I was born and live thousands of kilometres away. One of the things that attracted me most about the palace was the “Indo-Saracenic Revival style” of its architecture. This is a hybrid style mixing the Hindu with the Muslim and Gothic, with domes, turrets, arches and colonnades.
The current Mysore Palace, completed in 1912, is part of the rich legacy of Mysuru’s royal family, the Wodeyars. Henry Irwin, British consultant architect of the erstwhile Madras state, designed it. The design reinforced a message I have grown up with, but whose assumptions are now under threat. Heritage can divide or unite. It depends on what you want to see. In India, you can choose to look at Muslim rulers and the Islamic influence through the lens of “invasion”, as many among the Hindu Right do. You can also choose to look at the syncretic styles of art, architecture and what it has yielded. Both are historical truths. But seen in isolation, each gives you a partial glimpse of history, just like the blind men and the elephant.
But seen as a whole, a Hindu king commissioning a British architect to build a palace that combined the best of Hindu and Islamic styles is heritage that brings to life the phrase we all learnt in school: unity in diversity. Going by the number of tourists roaming the palace in this off-season, many others seem to get the message too. It’s a message that should be repeated today, in the face of many recent attempts to pit communities against each other to serve a narrow sectarian agenda. At a time when polarising rhetoric threatens to split us, should we be looking for differentials? There are plenty. But there are also so many signs and symbols that bring us together — reminds us that many elements have gone into the pot that is India.
Hinduism, the majority religion, offers us choices. My Mysuru taxi driver told me worship of Chamundeshwari, the city’s presiding deity, was celebrated with feasts that included mutton delicacies. As a Bengali, I could relate completely. Durga Puja, our big festival, is hardly complete without the food fiestas that accompany it, the mutton cutlets, fish fry, etc., devoured during the Puja days. Should this be seen as a differential with vegetarian Hindus, or another form of worship within the same religion? If we’re looking for differentials, we can pick language. Last year news reports talked of an editorial in RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya which suggested that English should be “chased away” because it has “enslaved” India. Indeed, our erstwhile colonial masters gave us English. But has this linguistic heritage really been that bad for India? How does the framing of the English language solely as a tool of enslavement square with India showcasing itself as an economic power with the advantage of a low-cost, English-speaking workforce? And if English is so bad, why are so many small towns and villages chock a block with conversational English coaching classes? And why do we feel so proud when an Indian writing in English wins global acclaim?
These works are part of our heritage as well, along with that of hundreds of other brilliant litterateurs who write in various Indian languages. On his 136th birth anniversary, last Sunday’s Google doodle showed Munshi Premchand. It should help us remember that Hori, the farmer hero in Godaan, represents the poignant love for a cow far better than today’s self-styled cow-protectors who attack Muslims and dalits. Talking of dalits, it’s time to include more examples of dalit literature in school and college texts instead of continuing to keep that genre in a ghetto.
Pride in our multi-cultural pluralistic heritage can foster social cohesion and mutual respect. But heritage seen through a narrow sectarian prism has immense potential to fracture Indian society further. It’s possible to appreciate the contributions of ancient Indic civilisations — from the Vedic age to the Buddha and Mahavira and the age of Vedanta — along with acknowledging the contributions to this heritage during Islamic and British periods. “If they don’t read Shivaji they end up reading Genghis Khan,” former HRD minister of state Ram Shankar Katheria had said at Lucknow University some time ago. This is a false binary. There is no contradiction in knowing about both. Because we have read about Genghis Khan, we also know he was equally a destroyer of various Muslim powers and Islamic institutions in the early 13th century.
Some time back, I read about the RSS Goa unit threatening to protest against the Fontainhas Heritage Festival, an annual event in Panaji. Why? Goa attracts so many people from so many places within and outside the country precisely as it is such a delightful blend of cultures. Goa’s Portuguese legacy and heritage can’t be wished away. And why would anyone even want to wish it away? This is 2016. We are an independent nation. Surely there’s no need to act so insecure and defensive. Fontainhas is a part of old Panaji. The festival celebrates the fusion of Goan and Portuguese food, music, culture and architecture. Interestingly, the festival was started in 2000 when the BJP was in power. It was then packaged as an advert for Goa’s unique diverse culture.
History tells us many stories, some of which contradict others. Taking pride in our composite heritage doesn’t mean seeking to erase one set of stories from our collective. It means listening to all the narratives, in their textured, nuanced form and accepting there was good and bad in each epoch. And that who we are today is the sum of everything that happened before — the good, the bad and the ugly. We may like some bits of our past, our heritage, more than others, but we can’t wish away what has happened. Accepting ourselves, our past, with all its glory and its contradictions will bring us together — something that we need desperately today.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org...