Social Scientist. v 18, no. 202 (March 1990) p. 49.

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Contemporary Cultural Practice:

Some Polemical Categories


The persistence of the terms tradition and contemporaniety 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 an hyphenated form and mark the double (or multiple) register of a persuasive nationalist discourse. Sufficiently historicized, either tradition or contemporaniety can notate a 'radical* purpose in the cultural politics of the third world.


Certainly the term as we use it in the present equation is not what is given or received as a disinterested civilizational 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 19th century nationalists. The manifestos of swadeshi (political and cultural self-reliance) in the first decades of this century produced in conjunction with the ideal tradition, a kind of aesthetic at once didactic and contemplate. This is best exemplified by the great scholar A.K. Coomaraswamy and followed by Bengali artists and intelligentsia with arguable success.

Since tradition even in its conservative allegiences emerged in the decolonizing process as an oppositional category, it has the power of

* Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi

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