The Politics of Cultural Practice: Thinking through Theatre in an Age of Globalisation
by Rustom Bharucha
New Delhi: OUP, 2001, pp. xiv+243, hardcover, Rs 545
There are many ideas floating about in the intellectual fashion houses of the West which are picked up, more or less uncritically, and bandied about in the rest of the world, particularly after the explosion of cultural and post-colonial theory in the last decade and a half. Rustom Bharucha’s provocative book, The Politics of Cultural Practice, challenges many of these chic ideas. It is also a book that is difficult to summarise because of the wide range and complexity of issues it deals with.
A book addressing the politics of culture must inevitably contend with the prophets and the processes of globalisation, and this is among the first themes that Bharucha addresses. He points out that many cultural theorists and critics located in the West are reaping the benefits of globalisation; moreover, from within the citadels of capitalism, neo-liberal globalisation seems inevitable and all-encompassing. Bharucha draws attention to the miseries and brutalities perpetuated by globalisation, particularly in the Third World, and emphasises the need to resist it. And, contrary to much of postcolonial Ainkleory, Bharucha does not jettison the nation-state. Instead he argues in favour of the politics that does not let go of “the legitimacy and potentially liberating force of the ‘national’, particularly in relation to those people’s movements against globalisation in Third World countries, which could be the only hope for challenging and redemocratising the state”.
Bharucha writes with passion and an intellectual honesty that does not try to hide its ideological moorings behind a veil of ‘objectivity’. This marks him off from so many other theorists grappling with culture in a global context. What is also engaging is his ability to combine personal anecdote and larger theoretical reflection, to the advantage of both. This last ability is most evident in second and third chapters of the book. “When Eternal India Meets the YPO” (Young Presidents Organisation, a club of corporate CEOs which held one of its annual jamborees in Bombay) is a delightful and scathing indictment of the way in which multinational capital seeks to appropriate, package, and consume ‘Indian culture’. “Gundegowda Meets Peer Gynt” chronicles Bharucha’s engagement with Peer Gynt, Ibsen’s “hybrid monster of an epic”, in its Kannada adaptation.
The subsequent chapters are on the politics of sexuality (on which more below), on the fragile nature of Indian secularism, and on the politics of cultural activism. Much of what he says, particularly about the dangerous political implications of postcolonial theory, is not only true, but also needs to be articulated in an analytically rigorous and politically forceful way.
One of Bharucha’s prominent concerns is the study of intercultural practices in India and other parts of the world that “resist the larger forces of globalisation and communalism”. Interculturalism can be taken to mean quite simply the interaction and exchange between artists from different cultures. This sort of exchange has increased since the 1970s as technology has helped in communication across continents and countries faster and simpler. Interculturalism is distinct from multiculturalism, a phenomenon which relates to countries like the US and the -UK, that have significant immigrant populations which face varying degrees of racism and discrimination. Multiculturalism is the principle that underlies state policies to provide equal opportunity to and protect such immigrant cultural groups. In Bharucha’s trenchant words multiculturalism is “another mode of promoting sectarianism” in the guise of “respecting a plurality of cultural identities and ethnicities”.
In contrast to this is intraculturalism, a term Bharucha coins to refer to the process of interaction and exchange between cultures within national boundaries. The fourth term he focuses on, secularism, is of course quite well known and this last provides the framework for Bharucha’s theoretical and practical explorations, since his larger concern, manifested in all he writes and does, is to evolve a secular cultural practice appropriate to post- Babri Masjid India. But let me also clarify that these definitions are mine, not his, and are meant to only guide the reader unfamiliar with cultural theory. For his part, rather than define the terms too rigidly, Bharucha proceeds with working definitions, whose meanings “mutate and metabolise” in specific contexts.
Since this is a provocative book, let us get provoked. The first question we need to ask is: what is this interculturalism, and why is it being valourised as an effective challenge to globalisation? Can interculturalism really challenge the dominant logic of globalisation? The fact of the matter is that, in practice, interculturalism is a real option only for the privileged few, a very tiny elite, amongst cultural workers/artists. Not that Bharucha is unaware of this: “Interculturalism is not dealing with the dalits of this world, the wretched of the earth. Who then are the appropriate candidates for intercultural exchange? Are we—and I include myself here—part of an exclusive club of frequent flyers, the privileged diaspora, the global intelligentsia, the enlightened exiles?” Unfortunately, the answer is yes. And unfortunately again, the situation is unlikely to change in a hurry. In a context where half the world’s population has never made a phone call (yes, in year 2001), there is just no other conclusion but this: interculturalism is the privilege of the rich, who, globally, tend to be also white. But even that is only half the truth. I would say that the direction of intercultural “exchange” follows the direction of most other cultural and commodity trade in the world.
Since interculturalism is far too enmeshed in the structures and processes of globalisation, there is nothing much that Bharucha offers us by way of practical action, apart from exhorting whites to become “race traitors”. In these circumstances, to argue that interculturalism poses some sort of challenge to globalisation, is a little far-fetched. In fact, to argue that culturalism of one kind or another, or the politics of cultural identity, is what can pose a challenge to globalisation (or ‘deconstruct’ it, if you prefer fancier terminology) seems distinctly odd today. If giant corporations like Nike, Shell and Macdonalds have been forced on the back foot on a range of labour, environment and human rights issues, surely it is not culturalism that has done the trick. Likewise, with the WTO protests at Seattle not so long ago, and the series of protests it has inspired wherever the IMF, the World Bank, and other such agencies and fora have met in the recent past. This is not to say that in most of these protest actions, the role of cultural activism has not been significant. Culture jamming (subverting the messages contained in the advertising blitz of megacorporations), the movement to ‘reclaim the streets’ (RTS), the display of those wonderful giant puppets in Seattle have been valuable not only in mobilising support but also in articulating an alternative vision of a world free of the control of multinational corporations. But this is not culturalism. This is the coming together of cultural activists with trade unions, environmental groups, human rights groups, and others who speak for the oppressed. The politics of cultural identity has little to do with it.
One reason why Bharucha lapses into such errors is that his theoretical framework lacks a stable conception of oppression and its attendant real categories of oppressed people. What we have, instead, is the category “minorities”. Bharucha’s minorities include “Muslims, dalits (low-caste communities), gays, lesbians, and survivors of communal riots”. A little later we encounter “women, dalits, tribal communities and other minorities”. I confess I am thoroughly mystified. To the best of my knowledge, the term “minority” has pretty specific connotations in India’s political lexicon, and is generally understood to mean religious minorities. The category minority, then, is intrinsically linked to the demand for minority rights, and the guarantee of those rights is at the base of India’s claim to be a secular republic. That is to say, religious minorities demand, and are constitutionally granted the right, to remain what they are culturally.
But can the socially oppressed and economically exploited, for instance the dalits, whose objective is to recast their role and status in society, be defined by the term minority. Does it serve any analytical or political purpose to talk of dalits as ‘minorities’? What defines a minority other than the numerical criterion? If numerical strength alone is the criterion, then one could argue that Brahmins are an even smaller percentage of the Indian population. Are Brahmins, then, to be categorised as a ‘minority’? What about Sindhis, or Marwaris? Is L.K. Advani a member of a minority community? Even if one ignores this admittedly facile question, is Bharucha arguing that the struggle of the dalits is simply to ensure that certain rights are guaranteed by the state, and not to change the exploitative and oppressive circumstances that have defined dalit identity and social status for centuries? Conversely, if minority location is defined simply in terms of a person or group’s relation to the structures of exploitation and oppression, what for instance would happen to the minority status of the Jains and the Parsees? Then again, in what conceivable way can one lump together dalits and gays? How are women, who constitute half the population, a minority? And what kind of minority category is “survivors of communal riots”? Aren’t we all survivors of communal riots?
This conceptual muddle results, I suspect, from implicitly accepting, or working with, the basic theoretical framework of multiculturalism even though the author rejects Its overt politics. In essence, multiculturalism denies that there is a fundamental hierarchy of differences, some of which define the basic nature of a society more than others do. To take the example of India, multiculturalism would deny that differences of class, gender and caste constitute the defining divisions in Indian society more than, say, differences in sexual preference does. In this framework, all identities, relations and problems are assigned the same status and priority. In this world of floating categories everybody becomes someone’s Other at some stage, and everybody can lay claim to being a member of some minority group or the other.
Muddled up theory leads to messy politics. Take Bharucha’s discussion of the politics of sexuality. He discusses, among other things, the political controversy around the film Fire, and claims that “the politics of the extremist Hindu communal parties and fundamentalist organisations like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Bajrang Dal [and their] attack on the film has oddly served to enhance its [the film’s] radical potentiality”. It is of course imperative for all secular people to protest such attacks. Secular and feminist organisations in the country, including left organisations, did so unhesitatingly. And many of them did so for the principle of it, not necessarily because they particularly agreed with what the film was saying. As a matter of fact, some, including myself and my colleagues in Jana Natya Manch (a Delhi-based theatre group), had not even seen the film when we defended its right to be shown.
It is one thing to argue that artistic and intellectual freedom has to be defended. But what is one to make of Bharucha’s reading of a “radical potentiality” in the film? What is the substance of this “radicalism”? Bharucha contends that at the heart of the controversy in Fire was the politics of “naming” (both in the sense of naming the two female protagonists, Sita and Radha, and in the sense of dealing overtly with their lesbian relationship). [ te] right. But how does it escape a critic as sensitive as Bharucha that the politics of naming in the film seems pretty selective, and one of the most crucial characters in the film, the family servant, is not even dignified with a real name, but is only known as Mundu, a generic name, much like all Nepali guards in Delhi get called Bahadur, and boys at the roadside dhabas Chhotu? What is this, amnesia? Or is there a class attitude on display here, in the film’s contempt for domestic labour? Let it also be mentioned that the domestic servant’s character is consistently painted in negative shades, and it is he again who precipitates the action towards the end by blowing the lid off the lesbian relationship of the sisters-in-law. The politics of naming, in this instance at least, is clearly a class privilege.
But there is a larger political question also at stake here. It is one thing to argue that “the politics of naming sexual minorities… challenge…the conservative and fundamentalist orthodoxies of tradition and Hindutva”, though even here, one would need to ask how fundamental this challenge is, and whether it really goes to the core of the fascist onslaught on Indian culture, society, and politics. It is quite another to argue, as Bharucha does, that there is an “implicit heterosexuality that underlies secular constructions of political identity”, that “ideologies like Marxism” are marked by “patriarchal constructions of gender”, and there is, as a result, “a puritanism that afflicts the cultural praxis of grass-roots radical organisations, which often censor any kind of engagement with the politics of sexuality”. Bharucha approvingly cites Mary John and Tejaswini Niranjana’s claim that “Heterosexual feminists [and other democratic organisations] in India show few signs of being aware of the costs and risks lesbians bear on a daily basis both in their private Review and professional lives, nor of their complex strategies of survival.”
About Marxism, of course, Bharucha is just plain wrong. And there are far too many injustices that Bharucha does to the left in general, and feminist organisations in particular (both left and non-left), but we can let that rest in the interest of brevity. I would like to question the larger theoretical framework which makes his criticism possible. I would argue that once all differences and discriminations in society are assigned the same status and value, once the notion of a hierarchy of oppressions is discarded, one loses all sense of proportion. After all, isn’t it worth asking why groups (and intellectuals) which cry themselves hoarse about sexual politics never seem to be unduly perturbed when tribal activists are raped in Tripura? And if we are talking about the costs and risks which lesbians bear and their complex strategies of survival, why don’t we also, once in a way, talk about the costs and risks, both sexual and social, that dalit women agricultural workers bear, and their complex strategies of survival? What do we call this silence? Ignorance? Amnesia? Blindness? Class snobbery? Muddled up theory, I am afraid, does lead to very messy politics.