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Is India really a melting pot of cultures?

There’s a scene in the Hindi movie Namastey London in which the protagonist Arjun Singh sets a British man straight when he attempts to shame India. “We come from a nation where we allow a lady of Catholic origin to step aside for a Sikh to be sworn in as prime minister, by a Muslim president, to govern a nation of over 80 percent Hindus,” he tells the man. This scene paints India as a harmonious nation with diverse cultures.

Our country has long been described as ‘a melting pot for cultural diversity’. But I wonder how a country like India, with innumerable cultures sharing a land, is one country. It’s practically a hotspot for all kinds of differences! Some believe we aren’t a melting pot. Sociologist Dr Malathi Venugopal says, “In India, we have several diverse cultural groups, each standing next to one another, acknowledging, tolerating, and perhaps, even appreciating one another’s differences. But we are not a melting pot; we are a salad bowl.”

The ‘melting pot’ and ‘salad bowl’ are not as similar as we might think. Dr Slawomir Magala is a Professor of Cross-Cultural Management at the Rotterdam School of Management at the Erasmus University in the Netherlands. In one of the ‘One minute education’ videos by the college, he talks about how a melting pot shouldn’t be confused for multiculturalism, which is more of a salad bowl. In a melting pot, people–no matter how diverse the cultures they come from are–are expected to become standardised members of the society. In a salad bowl, people retain their diverse identities and behave more like vegetables in a salad, wherein their diversity and creativity are preserved, he says.

We live in a multicultural society, but perhaps it’s time we turn to what sociologists call ‘radical multiculturalism’. It’s neither extreme nor negative as it might sound, though.


Going by that, I’d say India might be more of a salad bowl than a melting pot. Only trouble is, as Dr Magala explains, some of the vegetables might stand out more in the salad bowl than in the melting pot, giving rise to discrimination. The ingredients of the salad bowl might not always gel well. Where there’s a fusion of several cultures, there’s bound to be a sense of ‘the other’, as political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson writes in Imagined Communities, a treatise on the nature of nationalism. Perhaps, in the face of lack of cultural uniformity, it’s easy to ‘other’ people from different backgrounds, simple to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’.

We live in a multicultural society, but perhaps it’s time we turn to what sociologists call ‘radical multiculturalism’. It’s neither extreme nor negative as it might sound, though. As researchers of cultural studies Jyotirmaya Tripathy and Sudarsan Padmanabhan write in their book The Democratic Predicament: Cultural Diversity in Europe and India: “The core principle of radical multiculturalism is the idea of respect for cultural, racial, and ethnic differences. The principle is far more extensive than mere toleration of the ‘other’.”

Maybe we are a melting pot–in a metaphorical sense, if not a sociological one. We have an uncanny knack for assimilating parts of different cultures into our own. 


What Tripathy and Padmanabhan discuss in their book is the idea of going a few steps beyond toleration and respecting the differences between cultures. This doesn’t really need us to look at our country with rose-tinted glasses. There are people who’re not only tolerant of and open to diverse cultures, but also adopt certain aspects of the other cultures into their own, in small ways. I have a friend who makes biryani for Eid, plum cake for Christmas, and mithai for Diwali. She celebrates any and every festival she is aware of, irrespective of which culture or religion it’s part of. It’s not just certain individuals like my friend; there’s a Rajasthani tribe called Manganiyar, which is largely a Muslim folk musician’s community that sings in praise of Hindu gods. South Indian weddings these days feature a sangeet and mehendi ritual which were–until the 20th century–part of only north Indian weddings.

These might seem like small instances of inclusivity and open-mindedness, but I believe it is such acts of integration that can actually make a big difference. Maybe we are a melting pot–in a metaphorical sense, if not a sociological one. We have an uncanny knack for assimilating parts of different cultures into our own. Maybe that’s how we’ve created a unique multicultural vibe worthy of national pride.   

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