TODAY -

Culture Gives And Takes

Lenboi Haokip *



They say it takes all sorts to make a world. The description may as well fit in with us for it takes a touch of East and West to make the Kut. Quite rightly, Kut is where Thinglhangpa culture and West-inspired entertainment compatibly go lee-lee-lee-ho-ho-ho with the Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zomi people. So, who says never the twain shall meet?

Speaking of culture, we were once drawn into a debate when we were asked to throw in opinions on "International communication as a tool for equality and exploitation", during my final year in university. Spontaneously, the debate turned into a furious battle of wits for and against media globalisation. If it were not for want of time, the argument would have stretched into a second day with neither winners nor losers.

Terming international media an instrument of cultural homogenisation and westernisation, fellow classmates against media globalisation contended that dominant international media (MTV, Hollywood, CNN, BBC, etc) induce ethnic minorities to adopt foreign culture, implying jeans phenomenon or growing westernised lifestyle among Manipuri youths. Their fear is—unequal flow of media content undermines cultural autonomy or promotes Western values that have no connection with real experience for us.

Giving our side of opinions, we countered fellow opponents by stating that media globalisation provides space for the give-and-take of culture and it, therefore, creates room for promotion of culture between cultures. We also reassured them that even if there is a threat of cultural imperialism, we have the press freedom to check and counterbalance any one-sided views, depiction or otherwise.

Further, we adduced an instance of how we selectively accept parts of other culture which are compatible with ours. Then, we exemplified—we wear jeans but we do have dress norms which act as specific social guidelines for what to wear during social gatherings like Meitei Thabalchongba, marriage party, sorat, or tribal women wearing colourful Ponve (traditional wrap-around) at social meetings or churches.

Stubbornly enough, our arguments furiously continued with endless examples, justifications and rationalisation. After tired hours, we finally called it quits. Reluctantly without convincing conclusions though.

Culture in sociological sense is something shared. And if we may dwell at length on how pure, unique or distinct one's culture is, the findings of social scientists can best illuminate our thinking. B. Malinowski defines culture as "the cumulative creation of man". George Murdock has estimated that about 90% of the contents of every culture have been acquired from other societies.

To put it simply, culture, say jeans culture, is the cumulative effect of man's innovation that attracted mass appeal, became a culture of dress where it was invented and latter erupted into a worldwide phenomenon. Going by Murdock's estimation, we receive culture as part of social heritage and, in turn, reshape it through borrowing from others which then becomes part of the succeeding generations.

In other words, the borrowing of cultural elements from another society has been a social phenomenon of successive generations, which social scientists and anthropologists have considered it the main source of cultural and social change.

Let me cite here Anthropologist Ralph Linton's classic illustration to make it clear to what extent cultural borrowings takes place in every society. He writes : "our solid American citizen awakens in a bed built on a pattern which originated in the New East but which was modified in North Europe before it was transmitted to America...the hypothetical American citizen puts on shoes made from skins tanned by a process invented in Egypt. He takes umbrella invented in Southeast Asia. Steel knife he uses for cutting his bread, is an alloy that was first made in South India.

In his another hand he holds a fork which was a medieval Italian product. The spoon that he uses was originally a Roman invention. The coffee that he sips with pleasure everyday is a product of coffee plant which was in the beginning an Abyssinian monopoly. He smokes cigars or cigarettes. This smoking habit he has borrowed from the American Indians. Similarly, the American uses or is benefited by many more such things, practices and habits which he has borrowed from other peoples and cultures long back".

Linton's illustration gives us explicit insights into the flexibility of culture. That said, we selectively accept elements from other cultures which prove useful and can coexist with our culture without problems. For this reason, white Americans accepted the Red American Indians' tobacco but not their religion.

The British gave us a universal communication through the English language and brought to us modern bureaucracy, institutions, etiquette et al. Likewise, Asian cuisines have not only gained currency but have even tempted the most jaded palate around the Western world. Now, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Indian foods are selling like hot Pizza and Hamburger, to say nothing of Indian Yoga being accepted the world over for its physical benefits.

Also, here in Manipur, Meiteis' inseparable Iromba has broken the culinary barriers and has diffused onto the dining tables of meat-loving Hill people. And ditto growing acceptance of Ningol Chakkouba among Hill tribes.

Then again we can't imagine our daily meals without fresh Chinggi yensang napi (vegetables from the hills), Sagop (dried meat) or assorted tribal meat curries (selling like hot cake at a market stall around New Checkon), Mao potatoes, Meitei morok regardless of their ethnic prefixes or where they come from.

That aside, Meiteis' heated rice ball Kabok is being stereotyped as Haokip Kanpoh, or rather, Kenpoh in accented Haokip, to cite an injoke. Perhaps it might have been in reference to the clan's liking for the 'Kenpoh'.

Down through centuries, culture has moved on its adaptability. Moreover, culture in globalising world has taken a cumulative turn accommodating new ideas and diffusing rationale norms in it. So, culture, as it was and is, will survive on its adjustability just as Charles Darwin puts it, "it is not the strongest of species that survives nor the most intelligent one, but the one most responsive to changes".


* Lenboi Haokip wrote this article for The Sangai Express This article was webcasted on November 23, 2010.


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