15 December 2009

Indians & the Humanities

Sometime between trying to connect the circuit for Schmitt trigger on a bread board and staring at the wayward waves on an ancient oscilloscope in the 3rd semester of my engineering, I realized that I never wanted to be an engineer.

Recently, I came across this wonderful article in The Hindu. And it set me thinking.

As most of us acknowledge with a tinge of sadness, that humanities is almost dead in this country. The reasons are manifold starting with our flawed education system - the over dependence on a couple of streams of studies to lack of opportunities in alternate careers. As with many problems, this is also a vicious circle feeding and aggravating on itself.
And we all know that this is highly detrimental for nurturing the true talents because talents are simply snuffed out on the altar of practicality and pragmatism.
We all have people around us who would have led a more wholesome life and made substantial contribution to the society and our country, if they would have pursed their interests in not-so-lucrative fields like dramatics, music, sociology etc.

Humanities are not important just for the sake of it. Their study and understanding is a pre-requisite for a nation and race of people to grow, mature and prosper not just materialistically but spiritually and emotionally as well. It often serves as a moral compass, gives perspectives in the realm of abstract and establishes the fact that many things have states beyond binary. History knows that materialistic prosperity without a solid spiritual and emotional core is hollow and unsustainable.

Appreciation of art and literature, music and theatre, respect of artists and playwrights, well run museums and art galleries are hallmarks of all the developed societies of the world. And yes, these institutions like philharmonic orchestras, museums and art galleries are run in pure capitalist fashion. The idea of not pursuing art for the sake of profits is a typical Indian characteristic. And I believe this is one of the reasons for the pitiable state of humanities in our country where most of the institutions related to humanities serve under the mandatory but insufficient patronage provided to them by the Ministry of Culture and bodies like ICHR, where there’s hardly any incentive for carrying out good work. Bureaucracy and red-tape often put the proverbial last nail in the coffin.

The condition of humanities in our country is worse than that of pure sciences. It is not just that age old issue of all the good students flocking towards the application sciences and what the media calls, professional courses. Even the last bastions of humanities like St. Stephens, JNU and Presidency are not contributing in the growth of humanities in the country by, say, churning out quality research or establishing Centers of Excellence.

Neither do we have stalwarts like Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan anymore nor do we have any institutions left to produce such giants. In fact, all the luminaries of humanities in post-independent India have mostly left for Oxfords and SOASes of the world. I don’t know whether this will qualify under the conventional definition of ‘brain drain’.

One reason may be lack of employment opportunities outside academia, UN Agencies and some not-for-profit Foundations. And this is true up to a large extent even in the countries where humanities is still a preferred choice of the best and brightest.

Media has also played its own part in deploring humanities by glorifying all the new age careers right from software engineering to biotechnology as if our hordes of unemployable engineers are not a sufficiently painful tribute to Nehru’s vision of a technologically self-sufficient and superior India.

Apart from the above, there are other not-so-visible reasons like our sheer diversity (which I am starting to feel to be a bane rather than the ‘Unity in Diversity’ jingoistic pride I used to wear up my sleeve a few years back), our lack of pride in our cultures, languages, and of course, the fact that an entire generation of urban educated Indians keep on gaping at the West.

If one looks at most of the institutions devoted to humanities in this country, right from The Asiatic Society to The Archaeological Survey of India, they have been established by the British – not to awaken the subjugated people’s consciousness but purely to satisfy their own curiosity about the East. And they did so to the point where Indology became a subject in itself. (The regular readers of this blog – few and far between – may feel that I am turning into an Anglophile. However, that is not the case. Wait till my next post:))

Being a Bengali, trying to appreciate good cinema, good music, and good literature was a natural part of my upbringing. I have been taught to appreciate both Satyajit Ray and David Lean, Premchand and Boris Pasternak but I am sure that if I would have pursued medieval Slavic history, it would not have amused my parents.

The process for reviving the glorious days of humanities will have to start with overhaul of the higher education system (much more than what Mr. Sibal intends to). In a country where textbooks are rewritten after every election and every government teaches its own version of history, the issue is very complex and there’s no straightforward solution. But there’s hope. Hope in those brilliant freaks who chuck out assured prosperity for their passions.

And yes, history still gives me kicks. Whether it is the museums of Western Europe or those long articles on Wikipedia on Gupta dynasty or the history section of a decent bookshop, I find myself immersed. Probably, that was always the true calling of my life.
I proudly say this, but with a tinge of sadness. If I didn’t have the typical Indian middle class insecurities of a secured and predictable future, I would have surely pursued humanities. And I know I would have done reasonably well.


shalini said...

Raj I agree with your thoughts.
Thanks to Hasan who showed me the link to your blogs :)

Rajarshi said...


Thanks for dropping by. It's been such a long time. Btw how's life treating you.

sunshine said...

Thanks for posting this link on my blog. I like your perspectives :)