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Contemporary Cultural Practice: Some Polemical Categories

Page view from Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989 (Afterall Books 2011) showing 'La tradición del humor' ('The Tradition of Humour'), an exhibition of young Cuban artists

The Argument

The persistence of the terms ‘tradition’ and ‘contemporaneity’ as they figure in Third World debates are best appreciated if we see them as notations within the cultural polemic of decolonisation. They may be used in all earnestness as essential categories and real options but in fact they are largely pragmatic features of nation-building. Indeed, the terms function in a hyphenated form and mark the double (or multiple) register of a persuasive nationalist discourse. Sufficiently historicised, either tradition or contemporaneity can notate a ‘radical’ purpose in the cultural politics of the Third World.

Transacting Tradition

Certainly the term ‘tradition’ as we use it in the present equation is not what is given or received as a disinterested civilisational legacy, if ever there should be such a thing. This tradition is what is invented by a society’s cultural vanguard in the course of a struggle. It marks off territories/identities of a named people, as, for example, Indians. In that sense it is a loaded signifier drawing energy from an imaginary resource (the ideal tradition), but always remaining by virtue of its strongly ideological import an ambivalent, often culpable, sign in need of constant historical interpretation so that we know which way it is pointing.

What in India we call tradition today was put in the fray by nineteenth-century nationalists. The manifestos of Swadeshi (political and cultural self-reliance) in the first decades of the twentieth century produced, in conjunction with the ideal tradition, a kind of aesthetic at once didactic and contemplative. This is best exemplified by the great scholar A.K. Coomaraswamy and followed in Bengal by artists with arguable success.

Since tradition even in its conservative allegiances emerged in the decolonising process as an oppositional category, it has the power of resistance, as we know very well from Gandhi; the power to transform routinely transmitted materials from the past into discursive forms that merit in consequence to be called contemporary, even radical. If the savants of the twentieth century, among them Coomaraswamy, have excavated the past to provide the present (in their opinion an errant and impoverished century) with perennial life- symbols, the exercise has a rather special significance when this is contextualised within an anti-imperialist struggle. Coomaraswamy (in the context provided by Gandhi), even when he addresses national cultural issues from a conservative position, produces an interventionist discourse opening up new and numerous other issues besides ‘Indianness’ – issues about the function of art in society and about the advanced role of artists in the formation of a more universal world culture. These are the issues Rabindranath Tagore takes up in virtual opposition to the more severe injunctions of Swadeshi.

Let us look at this a little further. With Coomaraswamy, tradition, besides its metaphysical status, is the code derived from and applied to actual/ideal iconographic forms. Being also a set of working canons, it can include, in an intricately worked hierarchy, high art with everyday objects. For canonical rigour, despite the transcendent meanings to which it refers, is based on the form and function of idols and objects. But it is precisely Coomaraswamy’s contemporary, Rabindranath Tagore, who handles tradition in a way that dismantles the code. Tradition with him is a notional category allowing an infinite extension of its own nurturing body through poetic allusion and metaphor. The Tagorean way is as we know the romantic way and it deals with immanent energies that are inexhaustible in the mythical fashion and encourage continual transfigurement of material resources within and beyond a given culture. This includes the anthropological evidence and spiritual experience of extant forms. It includes the emotional resonance of the rasa theory, for example; or an encounter with the numen which irradiates from the heart of iconic forms. It includes the linguistic particularities of folk objects that are seen to provide the infrastructure of the civilisational process.

Rather than the canonical, it is the romantic designation of culture that gains ground in India. It is in a sense the more projective, utopian dimension. It is in line with the modern – the romantic tradition is a direct antecedent of the modern in Europe. And it allows non-systematic or intuitive interpretation of traditions with two quite opposite options: the option of finding elective affinities at the level of feeling; but also of triggering more anarchic disjunctions, of loosening and then upturning the forms of tradition. The two film-makers Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, both heirs of Tagore, reflect the one and the other option within the broadly romantic view of tradition.

But even the very act of handling the tradition is in a sense political: it involves personification/mediation/representation of material that is seen to have been hitherto buried. Received like a patrimony, tradition has a heroic and authoritarian aspect. Is the Code for Coomaraswamy like the Name of the Father (or like the Canon of the Master-Craftsman)? On the other hand, are the affiliations to tradition understood as a nurturing body or as the matrix embedded in the unconscious, more difficult to wean off, leading to softer options in aesthetics and art practice? These personifications themselves are tricky and it becomes necessary to demystify the sustaining figures of Father (law) and Mother (womb) through less tenacious symbols that stress the engendering function, at once masculine and feminine. We can, for example, take tradition as an androgynous figure and empower it all the more; but also, by this hypothetical entity, subvert the very knowledge of it. Part of the politics in the handling of tradition is to play both with its fantastic figures and its actual functions. There is a kind of plunder involved, and continual replenishment of the desacralised resources.

When I use the word function I mean the study of genres, conventions, rhetorical devices, symbologies and other linguistic features. If tradition is functional it will also contribute to cultural praxis.

This has further implications: that we work less with seamless systems like myths and more with constructed forms like epic and allegory. Remember Brecht. Or we subject myths to allegorical readings, turning them inside out and placing them as open secrets within larger epic structures that give the myths an existentially sanctioned exit into new meanings. Ritwik Ghatak achieves precisely this in his six films. It also means that we work less with spiritual consensus on life-symbols and more with morphologies of art objects; more with formal analyses of given imageries where the signs float up, so to speak, each with its memory cell intact but impelled nevertheless to manoeuvre itself into new formal configurations. Into elaborate montage. I am thinking of the films of Mani Kaul. Is such functionality a reductive process, giving us only the mechanics of traditional forms? There is a function beyond functionalism that can point to the sensuous efficacy of images acted out in iconographic elaboration, that can push towards more reflexive structures, towards further narratives. I am referring to the cinema of Kumar Shahani. But this functionality is nothing without wit, or what I called play, which displaces the relationship between canon and craft, between metaphor and structure. A wit that uses dissembling devices that are both naïve and irreverent. The work of two artists, K.G. Subramanyan and Bhupen Khakhar, shows this to marvellous effect.

There are other, broadly sociological, ways of looking at the Indian tradition as it has come to us since the nineteenth century. The social matrix yields at least two distinct aspects, the aristocratic and middle class, each with its own way of interpreting cultural nationalism. The princely attribute of ‘Raja’ Ravi Varma of the house of Travancore makes up one part of the lineage, a quasi-classical art aspiring to restore a civilisational poise to its people. On the other hand, the ambience of the landed gentry of nineteenth-century Bengal inclines them, as, for example, the Tagore family, towards a pastoral nostalgia for a people of the land. Against the courtly (and sometimes kitsch) pictures of Ravi Varma, the Tagore legacy includes poetic references to the Upanishadic hymns as well as to peasant songs. We know that the courtly position may on the whole be conservative. But we must also acknowledge that even the quasi- (or neo-) classical mode can attempt an allegorical/ heroic model that provides valour and rationality to a contemporary society and plays, in that sense, a progressive role. As for the romantic view, the Tagore family, for instance, combines the noble learning with dilettante experimentalism within the framework of the new national enlightenment called the Indian renaissance, and brings into this frame of reference the art of the folk. There is a strongly pedagogical aspect to this project, particularly as it is carried out in Tagore’s university at Santiniketan. It also points to a larger sociological context, the aristocrats’ alliance with the folk in matters of culture, a principle on which romanticism in Europe and realism in Russia developed. In this lineage as well, there is then a definite democratic urge.

Indeed, it is this aspect which combines in the first half of the twentieth century with the artisanal basis of Gandhian ideology and the craftsman’s canonical aesthetic of Coomaraswamy to give us the threefold composition of nationalist culture in the area of arts and crafts. In the actual practice of artists such as K.G. Subramanyan and his pupils, heirs of this nationalist culture, the aristocratic mentality vanishes completely to arrive, after a series of modernist mediations, at a strategic notion of the contemporary.

The other aspect of this invented tradition is less indigenist (less connected with ancient India or the Indian soil), more bourgeois/metropolitan. It is most clearly attributable to the Indo-Hungarian artist Amrita Sher-Gil, who trained in Paris in the 1930s, and it develops in the late 1940s in Bombay, as well as in Calcutta and Madras during the 1940s and 1950s. One need hardly reiterate the progressive elements in the bourgeois consciousness as such or its initial engendering and later appropriation of a further, more revolutionary, consciousness.

In India the progressive element in the programme of the metropolitan (or simply urban) artists is once again mediated via nationalist aspirations, or the promise in existential and political terms for self-determination. Taken in the direction of modernisation, this leads the cultural aspirations of what now comes to be called, in liberationist terminology, a Third World polity towards a more comprehensive, more radical, more sympathetic international formation. Calling themselves Progressives, several generations of Indian artists, including writers, seek to represent the people’s voice – even if this be a rhetorical (or perhaps more correctly, emblematic) stand. At any rate, the progressives among the painters, as, for example, F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza and Ara in Bombay, and Ram Kumar and Satish Gujral in Delhi, can be seen as fellow-travellers in what is still believed through the 1950s to be a transitive society – a newly independent people transiting towards socialism.

The paradigm I have proposed for this invented Indian tradition is of course extremely schematic. It sees the folk as appropriated by the aristocratic elite, and progressive (socialist) ideologies as appropriated by the metropolitan intelligentsia. Even if such a schema works, its truth is of the most general kind. But there are several cross references involved. First, the appropriation of the folk by the elite could be a way, for example, of correcting a too easy coincidence between the norms of progressivism with those of imperialism; it is a way of deferring the question of modernism until it can be handled by a more independent intelligentsia with a more questioning mentality. Second, it is precisely folk traditions (rather than the indeterminate proletarian culture) that are taken up by the Indian communists. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) experiment in the 1940s and 50s mediates folk traditions, especially in the area of performance, to progressive, clearly socialist, ends.

Third, there is another kind of mediation towards an indigenous variant of socialism – the Gandhian framework – where peasant communities are seen as the self-complete prototypes for a new and utopian social structure.

The artists and intelligentsia assigned to the bourgeois/metropolitan category in this simple paradigm also show strong nationalistic sentiments, and their modernism can be seen as not only mediated but in fact fashioned to serve the cultural self-image of a nation declaring its resistance towards imperialist nations of the First World. In India, one might say, the inhibiting, the camouflaging, as well as the liberating, aspects of modernism are held at bay by a fairly independent bourgeoisie, and a fairly self-conscious intelligentsia, who are able to pose the issues of their own identity even when they cannot so easily resolve the cultural problematic that fetters the process of their own liberation.

Contemporaneity and Its Double Mantle

Though obviously a temporal category, the term contemporary assumes a kind of neutrality and stands in an asymmetrical relationship to the value- loaded term tradition. We can, if we want, ‘correct’ the situation by giving contemporaneity the ideological mantle of the term modernity. Immediately, of course, complications arise, but that is perhaps the point: to induce the turmoil and give a definitional ambiguity to the present so that the future is predicated at a higher level of consciousness.

But modernity, a word commonly used in India, stands in a relatively undefined relationship to its two other companion terms, modernisation and modernism. Modernisation is a social and economic process now applicable mostly to the underdeveloped/developing societies (of the Third World). It is a term full of ideological import, even overdetermined, one might say, by sociological theory and usage. Modernism, on the other hand, is a cultural term now seen to be squarely situated at a particular point of Western history – the nineteenth century. It can take on an imperialist character, but it has also the potential to evolve into a revolutionary culture. In envisaging socialist internationalism, modernism plays a mediating role.

Non-Western nations, though struggling with the processes of modernisation, are excluded from claiming modernism. Or they are seen as incidental to it. They stay, therefore, quavering a little, with a neutral term like contemporaneity. Yet so far as they undertake to modernise, the thorny face of the modern must be examined even as the aura that surrounds it must be seen to be what it is, a signalling device for the future. On the one hand, then, there is the specifically bourgeois ideology of modernism that makes it assume for itself a noble universality while obviously imposing a Eurocentric (imperialist) set of cultural criteria on the rest of the world. On the other hand, a unitary logic of advancement, as this was conceived of in nineteenth-century Europe, continues to be imposed so that someone or the other among the peoples of the world are always seen to be out of step. Further, the same linear model assumes, in the metropolitan concentration of culture, other geometrical figures like the centre and the periphery. This camouflages the crude progressivism of the linear model. Backwardness is not spelled out as such but questions of marginality (minor groups/minorities) emerge in its stead.

In view of the critique mounted from all parts of the world on the euphemistic projection of bourgeois culture as the ‘universal modern’, there is an attempt by Western ideologists to change tactics. A good deal is now said about the abandonment of the linear model and of the model of the centre and the periphery as well. The new system for perceiving difference, the key word, is to project cultural phenomena into an infinite series. A problematic universe is mapped out into a differential system that is, as system, considered neutral. There is, in consequence, the reduction of the world into sameness. The Third World can hardly gain from one or the other model.

The Third World

The problematic term Third World comes in handy for primarily ideological reasons. In a sense, it supersedes or even denies historical specificity in order to be polemically effective. The Third World is a new world emerging to chastise the First and the Second Worlds. By definition volatile, it is possible that the Third World wedges itself in the global bind established between the First and the Second Worlds. But issues are confounded when the term is used not as a simple lever but substantively, as a concept: when it attempts to condense past struggles and present crises of a medley of postcolonial societies. Telescoped in history, the Third World becomes the symbolic option, and the polemic enters the realm of possibilities.

The political truth of colonial experience and of the anti-imperialist struggle is self-evident but its logic excludes several other political truths. Even fundamental categories like production systems and class relations are bracketed. Nor do Third World countries yield comparative cultural formations. Historically invented in the process of decolonisation, tradition, governed in each case by a national ideology which emphasises difference, becomes a sufficiently variegated sign to merit close and special attention.

Matters are altogether far from simple in societies designated as postcolonial. Here, if anywhere, capitalism and socialism are contested. Here is the world arena for ideological battle. This generates deeply vexed identities in terms of class and language, race and gender. Individual destinies are at stake as much as new collectivities. Indeed, the profoundly paradoxical nature of existence in the societies newly inducted into world history offers fewer rather than more possibilities of generalisation. If we must, in any case, undertake to bring the anarchy of differential practices (including custom, knowledge, art) into some kind of recognisable order, one frame for which is the Third World, it also means that the theorising must need be so much more complex. Once independence has been gained, nationalism itself poses ontological questions – what is at stake in being Indian? And though the question may easily devolve into rhetoric, there is a burden of it that rests on a particularly fraught class of individuals: namely, the urban middle- class intelligentsia, including artists.

This cultural elite rests uneasily on its privileges even after a century of self- identification within the nationalist paradigm. The left-wing intelligentsia finds that the status of fellow-traveller is ambiguous since the goal of socialism remains unfinished. Moreover, when nationalism and unrealised socialism no longer suffice, the middle-class intelligentsia must cope with further states of social entropy – in a way that other sections of society do not – predicated, as it is, on a consciousness of self and identity within the nation-state. This is the sort of burden, perhaps unreal and pretentious, that Rabindranath Tagore envisaged for the individual intellectual and artist in India. The responsibility to evolve his or her own subjectivity into an exemplary selfhood that indirectly but surely fulfils the demands of an exemplary nationhood. This burden assumes by proxy the ideal of a collective identity that may, moreover, come to resemble a form of socialism, as Nehru hoped. Certainly the left constituency of the intelligentsia can envisage totalities of another, more egalitarian, order. The imagination turns these expectations to allegorical account: all Third World narratives are national allegories, says Fredric Jameson. 01

What is to be remembered in the Indian and presumably the Third World context is that contradictions are rife and you have to put up all the fights at once. If the primary fight is against the imperialism of the First World, you have equally to fight the anti-democratic forces of local dynasties and dictators. The fight is also against reactionary forces, especially aggressive in traditional societies like ours; indeed, against the anti-modern forces that use tradition, which served a useful function in the national struggle, as a ruse to regress into communal and religious fundamentalisms.

In view of this, definitions of tradition and modernity are constantly being repositioned in the discourses of the Third World. What is more, the relationship between the two at a substantive level has to be thought through at every point so as to avoid replicating the exploitative relationship the West has established towards traditional societies in the non-Western world. From the overdetermined nationalist bind in which tradition and modernity have hitherto coexisted, we have to bring them into a larger, more universal, discourse.

The point is to tackle the very problems Western cultural hegemony suppresses or neglects. This requires above all that the two concepts, tradition and modernity, be disengaged from the abstracting ideology of capitalism – restoring to the one a self-reflexive mechanism, and to the other the utopian dimension. We have to bring to the term tradition, for example, the concreteness of extant practice, and to make the genuine extension of small particularities into new and contemporary configurations. Also, at the same time, we have to bring to the term modern a less monolithic, a less formalistic, indeed a less institutional, status so as at least to make it what it was once, a vanguard notion leading to a variety of experimental moves. Only with such initiatives can Third World cultures begin to justify their worth as alternative cultures.

Nor is this an entirely hypothetical proposition. Already in the nationalist phase the colonial intelligentsia contextualises the terms tradition and modernity via patriotic norms. Tradition is not simply an anthropological phenomenon as it was conceived of by Western modernists when they discovered primitive cultures. Even though nationalism as ideology introduces its own measure of abstraction into the concept of tradition, it also, in the very moment of inventing it, poses the problematic in contemporary terms and thereby sees it as process. A tradition-in-use, shall we say. Rather than producing, as in the case of the West, a discourse about the Oriental (including primitive) cultures, rather than distancing alternative civilisations into objects to be processed by Western subjectivity, the nationalists at least make some genuinely anxious, and possibly responsible, appropriations within their own societies. If all Third World texts are national allegories, all national allegories are attempts to restore conceptual wholeness to lost communities.

Appropriated tradition in the nationalist phase may in fact resemble that endemic form of eclecticism the modern imagination encourages, but without the extremity of otherness which produces forms alienated from function and meaning. At the same time, this eclecticism can yield, as with the moderns, acts of transgression which lead to cultural radicalism. Thus, positing a tradition-in-use in Third World societies encourages an effective method of politicising culture. It must, in addition, find a way to resist the business of reification to which the artefacts of ‘other’ civilisations succumb in the wake of Western modernism. It is true, of course, that capitalism anywhere produces reifications, and that correctives are not easily at hand. In societies like India, modernisation after the capitalist mode has produced a commodification of traditions as such, and of traditional forms and artefacts, to serve both the State and the market.

One might also add that today the political mode of aesthetic transgression followed by the moderns is considered ineffectual in the context of multinational capitalism and its appropriating (devouring) techniques. The postmodern vanguard proposes other means of politicising cultural practice – by a more strategic form of ‘minority’ (class/race/gender) resistance. And the question arises whether postmodernist strategies are especially useful to us as well? 02 Postmodernism, while it seems to accommodate otherness as never before in the history of capitalist culture, does so, as I said before, through a process of such infinite differentiation that all questions of identity are shredded, along with the normative function of culture and even the necessity of choice. This makes us more captive within the capitalist art market. We, who still must speak in favour of subjective identity at the individual level and living collectivities at the social level, have to learn to question the tendency towards formalism within the modern. But we must equally question the careless and aggressive laissez-faire of the postmodern which throws entire cultures to the gambler’s wheel, treating cultural artefacts like so many fetishist pawns in the game.

Although the Indian intelligentsia must engage in transnational discourse on the question of Third World and alternative identities, Indian artists must derive the norms of their actual practice from the very specific aesthetic and ideological issues that they find pressing in their own (geographic/ national) environment. That is to say, we have to beware a little of a Third Worldist mentality. There is now a Third World rhetoric surpassing Third World solidarity and overdetermining the representations of radical issues for us. The First World (if not the Second) continues to use the principle of primacy quite literally to subsume the polemic into a larger appropriative project – sometimes through theory, sometimes through cultural consumerism. And sometimes through radicalism by proxy that preempts and forecloses praxis on site, where it may matter most.

It may also help to resist letting the postmodern categories of discourse coincide entirely with the political entities that arise in consequence of decolonisation. Third World people must not simply lend body to the stripped phantoms of the deconstructionists’ art. By not allowing too neat a fit between the dilemmas of decolonised cultures and postmodern theorising, one may safeguard the material and political struggle, save it from appearing subordinate to categories within Western academic discourse. It is, however, in our interest to recognise one thing. The sea change created by the emergence of other cultures, that is our cultures, in the role of historical protagonists, has required Western intellectuals to fashion different perceptual modes (and theoretical models). The postmodern phenomenon may be the consequence, not a description, of a universe realigned by social praxis within hitherto displaced societies, necessitating in its turn a theory of displacement.

Even in relation to the discourse set up by the expatriates, this tends for our purposes to become too much the privileged voice of the diaspora, whose members are themselves positioned in the Western academic world. They are inclined to establish canons for radical discourse for the rest of the world. It is true that there is a certain urgency in their task, but there is also this tendency to establish a hierarchical superiority for a culture-in-exile which declares itself more militant. It should be recognised for what it is, a mode of operation suitable precisely to the mentality of the diaspora in the heart of the white world. Theirs is not the only call for militancy, though we should listen to it all the same.

We have, in other words, to look at the peculiarly structured interreferentiality of Indian national culture as a continuous formation; to look at ourselves aspiring to enrich the neutral ground of our contemporaneity with a transplanted tradition; as also with the universal marker of the age: modernity. And then to look at ourselves, again, in the form of a postcolonial nation-state coalesced into the Third World to gain political solidarity. And, finally, rather than allowing ourselves to be theorised into political homogeneity, we must engage in a dialectic that takes into account the material factors within our own traditions but in terms of our projected history that can no longer be less than a universal project.

Meanwhile, the artists are in any case engaged in the less ideological, more concrete, task of making a tradition-in-use that nurtures contemporary existence. If the Third World is a political entity, an oppositional discourse and a compendium of cultural practices, then it is the last that will engage the artists’ sustained attention.

If the Third World intelligentsia, among them artists, perform a task, it is to bring existential urgency to questions of contemporaneity. And, as with all existential expressions, it is split into two aspects. Tradition is turned into a critique and culture into a matter of practice, and both together into a civilisational discourse that goes beyond nation-state and Third Worldist dogmas, beyond also the dividing bigotries of the present world. In this respect, the artist and intellectual of India and the Third World are no different from their counterparts in the First and Second Worlds. It is important to remember this, too, so that we are not simply overtaken by ideologies and left with polemical rather than life-sustaining forms of cultural practice.

Editors’ Note: This essay was first presented at the conference organised as part of the third Bienal de La Habana. It is reprinted here from Rasheed Araeen, Sean Cubitt and Ziauddin Sardar (ed.), The ‘Third Text’ Reader on Art, Culture and Theory, London and New York: Continuum, 2002, pp.15–24, by kind permission of the author, Third Text, Continuum International Publishing Group and Tulika Books. A later version of the essay, titled ‘Detours from the Contemporary’, appears in Geeta Kapur, When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India, Delhi: Tulika Books, 2000, pp.267–82.


  • Fredric Jameson, ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’, Social Text, no.15, Fall 1986. The reply by Eijaz Ahmad, ‘Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the “National Allegory”’, Social Text, no.17, Fall 1987, provides for a substantial part of the argument in this essay.
  • See Nelly Richard, ‘Postmodernism and Periphery’, Third Text, vol.1, no.2, Winter 1987–88, pp.5–12, for an excellent discussion on the subject.