What is this thing called “Indian Culture”?

Singer Yesudas  has suddenly made it to every woman’s hate list after his extreme remark about jeans being anti Indian culture and that women should abstain from wearing it.  Before you start formulating your thoughts about commenting on this let me just ask you to pause a bit. This post is not exactly about Yesudas, his comment or women’s attire.  In this not so frequented blog, I want to discuss  something else. 

And “something else” is all about how people are reacting to Yesudas’s comments. Besides, the general outrage there are  comments that have questioned about his right to comment on “Indian culture” . The reason being that he is Christian! And then there are those who have clarified saying that he is not a Christian as he has accepted the Hindu faith and it is therefore natural for him to comment to about Indian culture. And yet again, there are those who feel that Islamist groups and their support for the singer’s comments are misplaced as Islam is not about Indian culture. 

All these thoughts and beliefs that people seem to have about Indian culture is making me very confused . Now someone please educate me, what is this thing called Indian Culture? Is it like what the Hindutva groups say a proxy for Hindu culture- therefore placing Christians, Muslims and other non Hindus out of itself?
If culture can be defined by religion then  why is it that Hindu women in the northern part of the country cover their heads while going to a temple while this practice is followed only by the Christian women in Southern India? If culture is about food then how is it that all religious groups in a geographical region generally follow the same food habits irrespective of religious affiliation?  For e.g  why do Hindus, Muslims and Christians in Southern India have rice as their staple food?  If culture is about language then why is it that churches across the country have services in local language along with English. And yes,  I would also like to know if all Hindus ( even the twice born) can read Sanskrit shlokas in Devanagari and understand it ? Their plight is probably similar to that of the Muslim from Tamilnadu who struggles to recite the quoran-written in a language with words that sit uncomfortably on his tongue! 

If culture is about customs why is it that Hindu marriages in the north of the country take place at night while in the south the marriages are held during the day? Why is it that the later part of December is considered inauspicious for celebration of Hindu marriages in the south while most Hindu marriages in the north take place exclusively during that period. And incidentally,  I must mention here that most Christian marriages in Kerala also take place during that period!

Can we say then that Christians in the south follow some Hindu traditions from the north? Or Hindus in the north might be following some other religious traditions not observed in the rest of the country?
If we say that it is the Muslim or British influence that is causing aberrations in a pan Hindu and therefore pan Indian culture then I suppose there might be Muslims and Christians is parts of the country who might say that it is the Hindu influence that is making them wear saris, veshtis and mundus! So folks, doesn’t it appear that it is getting more and complicated to understand this elusive thing called culture?

But despite all the exclusions and drawing of boundaries for defining identities  the one thing that seems to be synonymous with culture today is the way people invoke it  in order to exert control  over everything about women. How we dress, who we marry, how we should behave, all require some sort of cultural  sanction. While I do not agree with the senile singer’s comments about jeans being anti Indian in terms of culture, I must say he has through his comments about women’s dress, exhibited his true affiliation to Indian culture as we understand it today!


  1. I read your post....You asked the right question..What is Indian culture? I have also registered my protests through various social media. But now I do think that I should stop responding to these gullible opinion. People across the media commented on it primarily by circulating the singer's daughters in law's photographs showing them wearing jeans. Now many laments that it is unfortunate that his daughters in law had to bear the brunt of his comments. But I feel he asked for it.

  2. One misconception about culture is that it is something that is fixed. In fact, culture of a place always undergoes a change as per times....It has nothing to do with religion - a Muslim in Lucknow will have more in common with a Hindu in Lucknow than a Muslim from West Bengal...Similarly, when we talk about Brahmins, those in Kerela and Bengal are vegetarians who eat fish because fish is regarded as the staple food in these regions!!

    Due to Westernization and Sanskritization, there is no such thing as a fixed Indian culture....As two cultures come in contact with one another, there is bound to be a change...

  3. You have raised some excellent points. I myself have wondered about it. The general belief in the “entire” India is Indian Culture means Hindu customs followed in the Northern part of India. The customs followed by other parts/other religions are not part of the Indian Culture. Very sad.

  4. @Shalet Jimmy we Indians like to get personal about everything. Sad that his daughter in law has been dragged into this mess.

    @Divya yes, culture is a constantly evolving thing just as it should be.

    @ SG we Indians are a confused lot and always speak before we think. No wonder we have so many people speaking and thinking nonsense !

  5. I am now totally confused after reading your post and cannot define culture.One person is cultured and another not so.Is culture to do with upbringing?.Clothes are determined by climate though design may vary,food by availability locally and weather.I do not thing tradition and rituals are part of culture for they are different.The more I think about it,I am more unclear.

  6. Indian culture, through the ages, has been nothing but accommodating of various opposing and differing world views. While I don't know if Yesudas' comments are part of Indian culture or not, but the criticisms against it surely are not...

  7. @ KP Traditions and rituals are also part of culture. But yes like you say it is very confusing.

    @ Mahabore you are right. Indian culture is something that has evolved over the years incorporating within it a lot of influences from other cultures. That is what makes it so unique!

  8. The last sentence in itself has the answer for the question you asked.

  9. The answer to the question you asked is in ii self in the last sentence of your essay.

  10. Well said Meera. I too was shocked by Yesudas comments.
    I have been reading a book called "The Ascent of Women" and in it, it says that men use "culture" as an excuse to control women.
    " 'culture' is no longer acceptable as an excuse for the ill treatment of women and girls" (p.82)

  11. We Indians are so proud of our "culture". We unnecessarily vilify the west, which has given us democracy, rational thinking, ideas of liberty and equality, technological advancements, science, concept of human rights. Our culture, without its influences, would be nothing but a cruel caste system, subjucation of women, the weak getting weaker and strong feeding on the weak,life stuck in the dark ages and lack of education. unfortunate that such a comment came from a great personality like yesudas. Indian culture has a long way to go. It should be moulded in the backdrop of ethics and right thoughts and actions.

  12. We Indians are ultra proud of what we think is "culture". A culture that promotes casteism, subjucates women, lets the strong feed on the weak, and that believes more in ritualism than ethics and civic sense. We also love trashing the west, when it is actually the west that has given us democracy, the concepts of equality and liberty, technology, right to education, science, the right to choose and many other things. Without western influence, India would have still been in the dark ages.

    Indian culture is overrated. If we really were cultured, we'd respect people irrespective of what they wore or what they looked like.

    Well written


  13. Great read! I've often wondered about this nebulous thing called 'INDIAN CULTURE OMGGG!!' that's thrust in our face every time anybody does anything that the rigid conservative element does not like - and this often has something to do with suppressing women's rights. As CRD above implies, the usage of the term today is more a case of anti-modernity than anything else. To be fair, many of the evils CRD lists were ubiquitous throughout the world (maybe except for casteism but there're comparable systems elsewhere) even just decades ago, but the real evil is assigning moral purity to those systems in the name of an ill-defined 'Indian culture'.


Post a Comment