Chapter 9. Colonial Heterogeneity and Cultural Change – Composite Culture in a Multicultural Society


Colonial Heterogeneity and Cultural Change

K.N. Panikkar

Colonial subjection and the cultural practices it valourized introduced a new element into the already existing cultural heterogeneity in India. Different from the existing plurality rooted in social differentiation, the new heterogeneity arose out of the influence of western cultural practices filtered through colonialism. The social reach of the new cultural elements was mainly confined to the emergent middle class, who being linked to the colonial conditions, tried to incorporate them in their life. The overwhelming majority of the population, particularly in the rural areas, remained relatively unaffected, despite the active intervention of the colonial state and its agencies to promote western cultural practices. The heterogeneity that colonialism brought into being, therefore, led to further cultural differentiation, the western element being a new one. Since the impact of colonial cultural intrusion was not uniformly felt, the indigenous response was also quite varied, even within the middle class. It ranged from incorporation and internalization to resistance and rejection. From within this response, however, emerged attempts to create an alternative culture based on critical interrogation of both the traditional and the colonial cultural practices.

The new cultural heterogeneity was largely contingent upon the ability of the colonial state and its agencies to intervene effectively in the indigenous cultural universe. Regardless of the different possible roles of the colonial state—coercive, semi-hegemonic and hegemonic—ensuring ideological subjection was important in the cultural domain. Initiatives for such subjection included appropriation, marginalization and displacement of the indigenous, in the larger cultural context of privileging the colonial. Through such a strategy which the ideological apparatuses of the state pursued during the course of the nineteenth century, colonial rulers hoped to reshape existing practices to their advantage. A variety of indigenous responses ensued, including assimilation and reform, on the one hand, and revitalization and resistance, on the other. The result of this rather complex process engendered by the new heterogeneity was the emergence of qualitatively different cultural practices. The latter tried to reach out to an alternative modernity, selectively incorporating the traditional and the western, which formed one of the defining features of the cultural transactions during the colonial period. In other words, it was neither acculturation nor cultural synthesis which characterized cultural life under colonialism, but a series of negotiations and contestations arising out of the new heterogeneity. This is because the power structure within which colonialism operated undermined its ability to be an effective agency or catalyst for acculturation or synthesis.

The concern of this essay is primarily to understand the consequences of colonial heterogeneity, to explore the cultural sensitivity they generated and to examine whether they contributed to a cultural alternative. It is argued that the making of this alternative was not the result of a struggle between the traditional and the colonial, but was a critical engagement both with the traditional and the colonial which opened up the possibility of an alternative cultural modernity.


The transformation of the indigenous cultural world through the intervention of colonial institutions was a slow process achieved through a variety of strategies, the intentions of which are not always explicit. In this context, I would like to draw attention to an illustration in a textbook in Hindi prescribed for schools in the United Provinces in the nineteenth century. The illustration is of a popular story of a shepherd boy out in the field to graze sheep. What makes it distinctive and striking is the cultural disjunction between the representation and the reality. The boy is presented as attired in western dress: a coat and trousers with a top hat. Western dress, at best, was a curiosity then in the countryside and was not likely to be a part of the sartorial habits of even well-to-do rural gentry, let alone of a shepherd boy. Yet, the depiction in the illustration can hardly be dismissed as either a casual replication from an English textbook or a product of ignorance of the illustrator. In this cultural disjunction lies what James C. Scott calls the ‘hidden transcript’ of the dominant.1 In the context of the colonial state’s avowed interest in reshaping the cultural practices, it can be read as a suggestion made with the intention of indicating a cultural preference. The question of authenticity did not matter. What it purported to do was to project a cultural ideal for the young generation, who could be nursed as the supporters of the empire through cultural identity.

The western cultural attributes ascribed to the shepherd boy, however, had already become attractive to the members of the middle class, linked to the British administration in the Presidency towns of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. These administrative centres opened up a cultural space in which western practices had privileged existence. Drawn into this cultural space through both official and social engagements, the intelligentsia was exposed to the culture of the colonizer. Western dress was one of the chief markers of this culture which the intelligentsia adopted, at least during official time, even if they continued with traditional forms of attire in private. Given that popular cultural practices were totally different from the one acquired by the intelligentsia, there was a contradiction between the tatter’s private and public lives. However much they tried to rationalize this contradiction, the intelligentsia appeared to struggle with a sense of guilt and unease.

In the case of Rajnarayan Bose, an early nationalist leader who was working as a schoolteacher in 1857 at Midnapur, the discomfort arising out of the new—and enforced, so to speak—identity appears to be quite acute. Like other teachers in the school, possibly required by the rules, Rajnarayan also wore western dress. He recounts in his autobiography that when rumour about the imminent arrival of the rebels of 1857 in Calcutta started filtering in, he made a modification in his dress. He wore a dhoti concealed inside his pants, so that he could discard the pants when the rebels arrived and appear as an authentic Bengali!2

Rajnarayan’s cultural dilemma was shared by many, although in different ways. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, social reformer and Principal of Sanskrit College, too faced a difficult situation in negotiating his relationship with the colonial administration. He used to be invited to the parties of the governor-general in which western dress was mandatory. The pandit did don western clothes on a couple of occasions but, brought up in a traditional Bengali household, could not feel at home in the new attire. As William Hazlitt described in his brilliant essay on the pyjama suit, he possibly felt that cloth did affect his personality. He, therefore, requested to be excused unless he was permitted to wear chatti chadar (Indian clothes).


The multifaceted efforts of the colonial state to attribute precedence to western cultural practices led to cultural apprehension and consequent critical introspection among a section of the intelligentsia. The result of this introspection was not the rejection of the West or the indigenous, but an attempt to critically interrogate the indigenous in the light of the advances achieved in the West. The selective appropriation and assimilation that followed was central to the process of realizing an alternate cultural modernity, which found articulation in many areas, among which the revitalization of indigenous medicine embodied some crucial elements.

The revitalization of indigenous medicine in the nineteenth century was one area in which attempts were made to bring together the indigenous and the western. When colonial rule was established, the most popular among the indigenous medicines, ayurveda, catered to the medical needs of the overwhelming majority of the population. Colonial policy tended to undermine this popularity and supplant western medicine in its place. Thus, the colonial state not only promoted western medicine, but also sought to assert and establish its superiority over all other systems. Western medicine became the officially preferred system; it was accorded the status of official medicine and the attitude of the state towards all other systems became discriminatory and even hostile. Both the governor of Madras and the governor-general dismissed the indigenous system as unscientific, antiquated and incompetent. As such, they asserted that it could not expect to receive any patronage from the government.3 In the circumstances, the indigenous system faced a crisis and a sense of insecurity was felt by its practitioners, as they envisioned an unequal confrontation with western medicine. Bereft of official patronage, over the years ayurveda lost much of its vitality and became stagnant, while the western system continuously conquered new frontiers of knowledge and skills. Ayurveda declined and, as in the case of the dispensary in Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s novel, Arogya Niketan, faced imminent collapse.4

Although colonial preference and partiality were identified by many as the reason for this decline, a critical introspection about the state of the art also emerged. The widely shared conclusion arising out of this assessment was a complex amalgam of pride in the past, dissatisfaction with the present and apprehension about the future. It was realized that unless immediate steps were taken to retrieve its strength, the indigenous system would come to grief:

The antiquity of ayurveda is a matter of pride for all of us, but nobody can deny that its present state is quite deplorable. Due to reasons both internal and external, our medical system has steadily declined, while in contrast, other systems have progressed in an equal degree. The people of the West examine the laws of nature and invent new dimensions of science, thereby repeatedly revising the earlier scientific knowledge. We, on the other hand, believe that the old sciences are perfect. As a result, we have not only failed to progress but also have been pushed down the ladder by others. If this state of affairs continues for some more time, there is no doubt that ayurveda will become totally extinct.5

Out of this perspective emerged the efforts to revitalize the indigenous system, which took root in several regions, particularly in Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The movement for revitalization not only tried to retrieve the lost knowledge but also to reach out to western knowledge. There were two ways in which it occurred. Some of the indigenous practitioners acquired knowledge of western medicine and tried to combine them in their methods of diagnosis and treatment. As an extension of this, western medical knowledge was made a part of the curriculum in institutions imparting training in ayurveda. The second area in which the western example was emulated was the preparation and marketing of medicine. The large-scale production and marketing which initially began in Bengal and later in other regions was influenced by the western example. Despite being a practice anchored in traditional texts, the practitioners of ayurveda were not unwilling to incorporate the advances made by the western system. The revitalization of the indigenous system reflects the complex character of the cultural renaissance—its critical attitude towards traditional and western practices and the ability or otherwise to reconcile them.

It is perhaps in literature that this tendency is most effectively encoded. The Malayalam novel, Indulekha, written by Oyyarath Chandu Menon, a member of the British judicial service, and published in 1889 is a record of the complex transformation occurring within the cultural world of the intelligentsia. The narrative strategy of the novel is fashioned to foreground the renaissance and enlightenment ideas and the characters are conceived to comprehend the creative blending of the western and the indigenous. In a sense, it is a renaissance novel exploring the travails of the passage of a traditional society to modernity in the conditions provided by colonialism. The hero and heroine of the novel, Madhavan and Indulekha, combine in them traditional and western cultural values. Madhavan is English educated, socially progressive, politically alive and at home with European customs, manners and knowledge. He is adept at lawn tennis, cricket and other English sports. At the same time, he is not an Anglophile who is contemptuous of Indian tradition; rather he is well grounded in it. He has ‘profound critical knowledge’ of Sanskrit literature; he can recite Malayalam poems from memory with ease. Although he opted for Indian Civil Service, his vision of the future is influenced by nationalism.

A combination of the indigenous and western cultures is more sharply and elaborately etched in the character of Indulekha. She is thoroughly grounded in English; her Sanskrit studies include the works of the dramatists; and in music she has not only learnt the theory of harmony, but has also became an efficient performer on the piano, violin and the Indian lute. At the same time, she has been well instructed in needlework, drawing and other arts in which European girls are trained. She possesses all the cultural acquirements of an English lady.6 The author states in the preface that there are ‘hundreds of young ladies in respectable Nair tharavads (a system of joint family) who would come up to the standard’ of Indulekha ‘in beauty, personal charm, refined manners, simplicity of taste, conversational powers, wit and humour’. What distinguished Indulekha from them were her knowledge of English and other cultural attributes of an English lady. The author was conscious that such a character did not exist in real life in Malabar in the nineteenth century. He was, however, of the opinion that knowledge of English would enable her conduct herself with dignity and poise in all crucial moments of life.7 Chandu Menon was holding out a mirror for the future.


The incidents involving Rajnarayan and Vidyasagar referred to earlier denote initial acceptance and later rejection of the western mode of dress. But soon the intelligentsia appears to have considered the possibility of creating a sartorial style combining the traditional and the western. An analysis of the photographs of the delegates to the early sessions of the Indian National Congress is quite instructive in this respect. The mode of dress they had adopted resonates with the nature of their political beliefs, which was deeply influenced by the British liberal tradition. In their cultural life too, the West had a strong presence, which was tempered by the nationalist spirit. As a result, they chose to combine the western dress with the traditional one, adopting the shirt, coat and tie, but retaining the traditional dhoti and topi (cap). Who created this combination is difficult to ascertain, but most possibly it had its origin in the early days when the trading intermediaries were trying to establish working relations with the Europeans. This combination, however, continued to be popular and is still in vogue in some sections of the Indian population.

The eclectic combination that the early nationalists had adopted did not satisfy the urge for a distinctive form of dress which would provide a national identity. The intelligentsia, it appears, was exploring the possibility of going beyond this combination and blending together elements from different streams. Some such effort at synthesis was made by Jyotirindranath Tagore, the elder brother of Rabindranath. He designed a dress combining the European and the Indian: the trousers were decorated at the front and the back with the folds of a dhoti and a topi was superimposed on a turban. Although he sported it in public, Rabindranath tells us that it was so awesome that no person of ordinary courage dared to use it.8

Jyotiridranath’s efforts, quixotic as they might appear, reflected a genuine urge of the intelligentsia to fashion a national dress, incorporating the different practices inherited historically. Rabindranath adopted a more realistic synthesis by adopting the chapkan (a long-sleeved, full-length robe) as a possible common dress. In justification he observed:

The chapkan is the dress of Hindus and Muslims combined. Hindus and Muslims have both contributed to make up its present form. And still in western India, in various princely states, one can see a lot of variety in the chapkan. And in this variety one does not only see Muslim inventiveness, but also the creativity and freedom of the Hindus … . If a race is forming that can be called an Indian race, then by no means can the Muslim aspect of that race be omitted … . So the dress that will be our national dress will be a Hindu-Muslim dress.9

Rabindranath’s attempt to invoke the composite cultural practices of the pre-colonial period can be read as an expression of resistance to colonial cultural interventions and innovations. Such resistance was different from the conservative reaction to social engineering which the colonial state had undertaken, and which were more in the nature of defence of quotidian cultural practices affected by colonial administrative innovations. The response to the government’s decision to deny the right to use shoes in public places is a good example.


One of the consequences of the cultural preference that colonialism tried to implement was the denial of cultural rights of the subjected. Often it so happened because the colonial rulers were not adequately sensitive to the ‘prohibitions and commands’ internal to the indigenous culture. The negotiation and reconciliation between the ‘internal view’ of Indians and the ‘external view’ of the British of these prohibitions and commandments were difficult to accomplish.10 The British in India tended to look for customs which were homologous to European practices. They also sought to implement a uniform practice, regardless of regional or religious variations, which attracted spontaneous resistance. Given the political power that colonialism wielded, the response was often muted, implicit or indirect, mostly carried out within the colonial institutional structure. Nevertheless, cultural contest did take place, even if as a challenge to the departures from the principles of administration the government itself had laid down. That is what happened when Manokjee Cowasjee Entee, who was summoned to the court at Surat as an assessor, was not permitted to enter the court without removing his shoes. Manockjee refused to comply as it impinged upon his political rights—since there was no law to support the demand, and upon his cultural rights—as his religious prescription did not permit him to do so.11

The incident at Surat was a sequel to the decision taken by the government in 1854 to the effect that ‘all native gentlemen who may attend the durbar either in the Government House or in court, will conform with the native custom and will be required to leave their shoes at the door’.12 An exception was made for entertainment parties, if the Indians adopted European customs and wore European shoes and stockings! This regulation, although it was initially intended to apply only to the durbar of the governor-general, was soon adopted by the bureaucracy as what came to be known as ‘shoe respect’ at all institutions in British territory. Influenced by their own experience in the Indian courts where they were required to unshod their feet, the colonial bureaucracy took the position that they were only adopting a traditional practice. Since Indians challenged the legality of the extension of this practice, as Manockjee did at Surat, the scope of the regulation was made applicable to all official and semi-official occasions on which Indians appeared before the servants of the British government.

The question of shoe respect raised fairly widespread cultural defence and resistance. The assumption that unshodding the foot either in public or in private was a traditional gesture of respect was vehemently contested. The practice, it was held, had its origin in social and religious reasons, due either to the ‘peculiar style of living and furnishing’, or the rules of pollution and purity prescribed by religious codes. The Hindu Intelligencer, a Calcutta-based journal, asserted that ‘we have no such formality as uncovering the head or feet or any other part of the corporeal frame as a mark of respect due to another’.13 As a result, the insistence on ‘shoe respect’ by the government ‘seriously agitated the native mind’ and aroused no ‘inconsiderable expression of indignation’. In protest, an influential section of the intelligentsia in Calcutta boycotted the durbar of the governor-general. The uneasiness of the elite of Calcutta, who were part of the cultural world created by the British, was quite widely shared.14

The issue of shoe respect and the resistance expressed against it had multiple meanings. The colonial rulers claimed that it was a traditional practice and not an innovation they had introduced. Such a claim was based on the fact that they were required to observe it in the past in Indian courts. What they were doing was to continue a tradition in order to assert their power and authority. The appropriation of tradition hardly had cultural authenticity, as the change in context imbued the practice with a different meaning. The attempt to establish identity with tradition, however, was part of a larger political project of seeking legitimacy to colonial rule. That it became a forced practice during the colonial period bears testimony to it. The opposition to shoe respect took the form of resistance against the denial of cultural rights and to impart new meaning to traditional practices. There was a realization that the colonial intervention amounted to cultural oppression.


The forces which unleashed the making of modern Indian culture, at least part of them, emerged out of the new cultural heterogeneity brought about by colonial subjection. The character of cultural transactions during this period was qualitatively different from those in the pre-colonial period, primarily because of the greater ability of the ideological apparatuses of the state to intervene in society. For, the vertical expansion of the colonial administrative structure ensured their intimate and uninterrupted presence in the cultural life of the people. This not only enabled the state to have more effective control over cultural practices, but also elicited more intense response. Even if it is true that colonialism did not mean a complete break in all realms of existence, given its limitations to penetrate the entire cultural space of the subjected, the transition from the pre-colonial to the colonial was not an uninterrupted passage. This was because the response to colonial cultural expansion was neither uniform nor uncontested.

The new heterogeneity was possible because the intelligentsia was open to the western cultural practices and consequently was critical of its own cultural life. The initial response of the intelligentsia was an uncritical internalization of the colonial which initiated a process of alienation from the indigenous. A critical introspection slowly but steadily emerged, out of which three broad cultural streams developed. The first was an eclectic combination of the indigenous and the western; the second, a general disapproval and consequent resistance to colonial culture, influenced partly by religious sentiments; and the third, the construction of an alternative culture based on critical interrogation of both the western and the indigenous. The cultural nationalism in India, in both religious and secular dimensions, was rooted in the response to colonial heterogeneity. The revivalist tendencies in the former, initially finding expression as a response to the colonial cultural intervention, adversely affected the internal cohesion of composite culture. The communitarian view of the society which the colonial state upheld and the emergence of the two-nation theory were blows to the historically inherited tendencies of composite culture. Yet, the indigenous response to evolve an alternative cultural modernity strengthened the forces of multiculturalism, which even if did not lead to synthesis, promoted pluralism based on equality.