Mnemocultural affirmations


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THE problem of ‘crisis’ in many situations can point to two non-exclusive possibilities. Quite often it leads to a paralyzing stasis: a melancholic ‘nothing can be done’ asserts itself. Crisis erupts when habituated ways of functioning are disrupted or they are denied efficacy. But crisis can also be seen as an opportunity, a chance to do things differently; it can signal the emergence of an affirmative impulse to search for a way out. Today our postcolonial melancholy is so pervasive that it spawns the worst [who] are full of passionate intensity. In this destitute postcolonial scenario how to affirm one’s relation to one’s past and breach paths of inquiry which will reconnect temporal generations remains the most challenging and interminable task of teaching and research. What follows in the rest of this piece is an attempt to share an experiment (experience) affirming such a task. One begins to learn in this process that the way ‘home’ is roundabout (that is, if there is a ‘home’ or if one feels the need for it).

If culture is what we do and what we or others say about what we do, our practices and accounts of them, Indian cultural formations have for over two centuries been represented by what others have said about them. The entire conceptual, analytic and classificatory framework for the study of India has been established and continues to be controlled and commanded by the intellectual infrastructure of Europe and America. Indology and folkloristics are quintessentially Euro-American disciplines of thought.

Our social sciences and humanities are yet to find their moorings outside the fatal embrace of such frames of thought. Consequently, the enduring life of what Indians do and what they say about what they do, their cultural practices and reflections about their cultural forms, do not seem to find any breathing space beyond or outside the domineering intellectual apparatuses of the West. Therefore, there is an urgent need to reconceptualize and reorient approaches to the study of Indian cultural formations and their creative reflections. Such an inquiry must move beyond the fatal embrace of ‘left’/’right’ pedestrianism.

One strategic point of departure for undertaking this challenging task is to focus on the domain of cultural memory in Indian formations. Although memory is universal and exceeds far beyond the anthropocene to the planetary realm – cultures differ in different ways in putting to work their inherited memories. In other words, the notion of memory can be explored to configure cultural difference. When tracked across the planetary and anthropocene realms, the question of memory can be infinite and immeasurable; its origin and destination cannot be determined decisively. But at the same time memory per se, memory as such, can mean nothing. For memory as such remains intangible. Therefore our exploration, sketched within the measure of the impossible, strategically concentrates on the articulations of memory. That is, any inquiry into memory can only access it by means of the modes in which memory articulates or manifests itself. In other words, technics of communication is fundamental to any access to or articulation of memory.


For the purpose of managing this inexhaustible inquiry we can provisionally specify two distinct technics of memory: lithic and alithic. Both these modes and technics are effective in materializing memory. But they open up very different cultural and civilizational trajectories. The lithic technics prefers inscribing articulated memories in external retentional systems; lithic memories require the inscriptional paraphernalia such as the substrates of stone (petroglyph, petrogram), clay tablet, metal surface, bone, parchment, papyrus, palm-leaf, birch bark, wax, paper, silicon chip, etc., and tools such as bifaces, stylus, quill, chalk, pencil, pen, keyboard etc. It also requires retentional apparatuses such as scriptoria, archive, library, museum, database, and datalake etc. In a word, lithic memory is forever feverishly in search of surrogate retentional bodies; forever, it seeks to transcend and dispense with the body.

In contrast to the lithic memory, the alithic memories perennially nurture and retain memory in the complex apparatus of the body in which they emerge. Although the alithic mode too externalizes memory through certain technics – speech and gesture/performance – it prefers to kindle, succour, enhance and disseminate its articulations only through the organic body. Alithic modes embody and enact memories through acoustic and gestural performative technics. In a word, they have no use for surrogate bodies of memory and their inscriptional paraphernalia.

It must however be noted that the lithic and alithic technics of memory cannot be rigorously and absolutely categorized as incommensurable domains. Both the modes permeate and pervade planetary cultural formations – differentially. Cultural difference can be configured by focusing on the emphasis, preference that either of the technics receives in any cultural formation.


In exploring the domain of cultural memory, this inquiry hypothesizes that Indian cultural/civilizational formations over millennia preferred alithic mnemocultural modes and created and disseminated their enduring cultural memory through heterogeneous cultural forms. Whereas European civilization remained deeply invested in lithic mnemotechnologies and expanded the lithic paraphernalia and prosthetic retentional systems. In a word, if India nurtured lively archives, Europe multiplied command-control retentional systems. What to think and how to think about memory, object and meta-level inquiries into memory are all determined today by the domineering lithic modes of articulation. Consequently, the embodied and enacted modes of alithic memory, their deeper engagement with the enigma of the body, their cultivated indifference toward prosthetic storage systems of memory barely receive any attention.

Is it an accident that from Plato to Stiegler (via the Abrahamic heritages including Derrida) European intellectual history should prefer to focus only on inscriptional communication systems from the scribal to digital modes? How come the alithic mnemocultural forms which continue to sustain themselves across the planet from immemorial times have no significant place in the cherished worlds of this (hegemonic) heritage? This fundamental question of cultural memory remains yet to be explored in contemporary intellectual history.


It is possible to track the prevalence of mnemocultural pasts of pagan antiquity (Dionysian cults, reverence for ancestral practices, and the abundance of performative song cultures) and their denigration and liquidation with the ascendancy of Abrahamic mono-theisms. The emergence of the concept of history from early Church fathers (Origen to Augustine) appears to have underwritten the discarding of mnemo-cultures (as orgiastic practices connected with false gods) and privileging of history as the search for truth. It is perhaps this cultural disjuncture between pagan and Christian cultural formations that gets reinforced in plotting the relationship between orality and literacy as hierarchical opposites where the latter gets postulated as the absolute ground for the emergence of science, philosophy, democracy, law, ethics and of course true religion.

Indian (among many others’) cultural memories can contribute fundamentally to challenge this sedimented and hegemonic conception of the relationship between alithic mnemo-cultures and the lithic technologies. As is well known, the sciences of ritual, mathematics/astronomy/astrology and the sciences of language flourished in India long before literacy was anywhere near the Indian horizon. Panini had no use for writing in the embodied generation, retention and transmission of his mnemocultural composition on the formations of language. Not a single work came forth from the two centuries Indological enterprise which demonstrates any radical antagonism between orality and literacy in the Indic cultural formations. Any such attempt first of all will have to confront the existence of the scribal output of extraordinary magnitude (which exceeds the entire ancient and medieval European scribal output by the ratio of 10³) that was brought forth in Indian cultural formations in the Common Era. Above all, there is not a single work in the world that demonstrates the impact of literacy on the mnemo-cultural reflections in the Indian context. On the contrary one can easily demonstrate the accents of the profoundly enduing acoustic mnemo-cultural technics on the scribal output of the Indian cultural forms over millennia.


In other words, Indian mnemocultural formations acknowledge the belated literacy turn and iconic turn in their millennial existence. But the emergence of these prosthetic monumental artefacts – millions of scribal compositions, spectacular proliferation of plastic arts (temples, sculptures, icons) and extraordinary spread of pigmented visual cultures – in no way can be said to delimit or marginalize the embodied cultures of memory of Indian formations. The prosthetic cultural creations were embraced and entwined into performative mnemo-cultures and millennial ritual forms.

The stunning precision of iconometry, the minutiae of carved jewels, the softer and subtler rhythms of curved and carved bodies, the magnitude of sculpted provinces – none of these in the last two millennia sublimated any prosthetic retentional system – such as a museum. Even these prosthetic visual sculptural heritages are kept warm in the performative embrace of everyday ritual lives of millions (Pahadi patachitras were used for supplementing performative traditions as the Dakkalis do in Telangana even to this day.) Similarly, the extensively proliferated purana vangmaya (Mahapuranas, upapuranas, jatipuranas) spreads across millions in robust mnemocultural enactments even to this day. Only the Indologist reduces the purana into a closet artefact to be deciphered in philological, hermeneutical commands. Whereas the pravachana traditions contemporaneize puranas through immemorial lively archives of embodied performance.


It must be reasonably clear why cultural memory is a strategically significant domain for theorizing cultural difference on the one hand and the urgency to reconceptualize and reorient approaches to teaching and research in the Indian traditions on the other. This inquiry aims at exploring this double take – cultural memory and cultural difference – in theoretico-practical modes. While theoretically configuring the cultural difference, this inquiry commits itself to two practical outcomes: First, enhance and institutionally support innovative ways of advancing the mnemocultural lively archives. Given that the generative sources of mnemocultures are the extraordinarily spread out jati and jan-jati cultural formations, this inquiry emphasizes the need to affirm the heterogeneous guardians of memory. This needs to be urgently recognized because the (distanced) inheritors of these cultural memories constitute the classrooms of every university and college today (and they run into over 20 million in higher education in India). Second, given the magnitude and significance of the heritages and inheritors of the cultural memories and their absolute presence in the teaching and research scenario, there is an imperative need to conceive innovative teaching programmes, research problems, courses and modules, and teaching materials. It is only through an interanimative relationship between theoretical and practical aims that this inquiry envisages a ground-level reorientation of approaches to Indian cultural formations and the teaching and research from the context of India.

Although the cultural memories are inexhaustible, this teaching and research initiative advances a manageable inquiry by provisionally demarcating certain interrelated nodes of memory for study. Some of these nodes can be identified as passageways.


Collective Memories: Given the heterogeneity of cultural formations of India from Gandhara to Brahmaputra, from Harappa to Sangam, can we assume that Indian cultural memory is a homogeneous entity? If jatis as bio-cultural formations played the role of the guardians of memory, can one assume that Indian memory is a chaos of incoherent diversity? Or, is there a possibility of discovering any shared aspects of cultural memory across divergent jatis proliferated across extended periods of time and space? Given the fact that the cultural forms such as itihasas, puranas, kavyas and stories have spread across the entire subcontinent and beyond in Sanskrit and Bhasha literary cultures on the one hand and visual cultures over millennia on the other it should be possible to track and grapple with the enduring and transformative aspects of shared articulations of memory.

It must be pointed out that the Indian mnemo-bio-cultural impulse has deeply inflected and accented the Semitic shoots of Islam and Christianity in India and transmuted them (Karbala song cultures and Arabbi Ramayana) in the Indian context. The node of Collective Memories will explore the responsive receptions of cultural formations to traversing cultural forms (in image, music, text and performative modes).


Futures of the Past: As is well known Indology’s incessant critiques of Indian culture centres on the question of history. Indian cultural formations are categorically denied any sense of history and any discourse of history. Mnemocultures, lacking literacy, are by definition said to lack any sense of history. No contemporary scholar advanced any serious inquiry into the alleged cultural universality of the discourse of history. Certain cultures may evince indifference toward a historical-referential discourse and may not cultivate such modes of recounting the events of the past; they may not produce tracts about the social. But can they also be said to lack a sense of the past? Should the sense of the past be articulated only in such an objectivizing documentary discourse? But can any sense of the past be rigorously and categorically set apart from the temporal instance of sensing the past as the discourse of history often claims (or hopes) to achieve? How do cultures of memory grapple with the sense of the past in an instantial existence?

One well known gloss, for instance, on the genre defying genre called purana is pura api navam – ancient (old) but yet novel. Purana and itihasa genres appear to make timeless events temporal and contemporaneous and temporal/contemporary timeless; in this relentless temporal/instantial and durational/timeless process they forewarn the repetitious future and the possibility of freedom or enlightenment. The institutionalized discourse of history derived from the theological ideal of providing the true account can in no way enable us to approach the deeper sense of the immemorial past in the instance of existence for enabling access to the delighting emancipation. The Futures of the Past node can explore the intimations of the sense of the past as composed in the itihasa/purana vangmaya of Sanskrit and Bhasha cultural formations.


Monumental Memories: The iconic turn or the emergence of the plastic arts occurred only a millennium after the Sanskrit/Prakrit mnemocultural traditions formed the creative reflective cultural formations in India. Yet the Sanskrit verbal compositions (for example, the delineation of Hiranya-garbha) are profoundly visual and lucid in detail. These ekphrastic visualizations were without any prior models. On the contrary, this visual imagination inspired image making in the Common Era. Why have the Indic mnemocultures (Sanskrit and certain jatis and janjatis) remained indifferent to image making for millennia – especially when there was no injunction against idol making? How to understand such cultural indifference to prosthetic bodies? Yet how does one account for the extraordinary outburst of monumental creations in the mnemocultural milieu from the second half of the first millennium?

These questions remain unaddressed, let alone find any adequate responses in the modern period. For, this period has only succeeded in institutionalizing a derivative art historical pursuit. Original theoretical inquiries are necessary to address these questions and modern India has produced none – either in the field of history, or in the field of ‘art’. Indeed there is no independent inquiry into the concept of art; the concept or art is routinely adopted from theological traditions of the West (Aananda Coomaraswamy). One is yet to come across any theoretically sensitive account which inquires into why/how/when the Sanskrit term kala (meaning aspect/phase, say, of the moon) turns into an aesthetic category, if, indeed, it takes such a turn at all (as has been claimed in the modern accounts of alamkara and visual traditions in the last three or four generations.)

There is no original inquiry into whether the millennial cultural forms called vidyas (verbal) and kalas (visual/performative) can/should be translated into aesthetic categories at all; whether Indian (Sanskrit) reflective/creative traditions ever required an aesthetic theory at all. In the absence of such inquiry one routinely translates kala as art without any sense of the abyssal gap between these two categories. What one notices in all these matters is that a theologico-metaphysical frame derived from European cultural experience has been imposed on Indian traditions of mnemopraxial creations and reflections.

While exploring the theoretical issues indicated here, the node of Monumental Memories must undertake the pragmatic task of sustaining and enhancing the cultural impulse of visualization in tangible material. Apart from grappling with preservational, curatorial matters within the mnemocultural ritual-performative milieu, this node must pursue the necessary task of nurturing innovative modes of generating and disseminating lively memories of the jatis (stapati and chitrakar) that bring forth the monumental spectacles in space.


Individuated Memories: Manas is the abode of transgenerational memory in Indian reflective traditions. The Sanskrit term ‘manas’ appears to have homologous relations to the Greek word mnemo (from Mnemosyne – wife of Zeus and the mother of all Muses). But manas is also the shelter of desire (vasana). Hosting intractable guests of desire and memory, manas cannot but operate as an individuated faculty in its negotiations with the external (bahya) and internal (antah) faculties (karanas) of an individual. Although memory and desire traverse trans-generationally the operations of memory seem to be constitutively related to the demands of desire in the going about of the individual being.


It looks as if the individuated being with the vicissitudinal manas in an instance of existence has a chance to tend manas and its guests and as a result demarcate his/her mode of being in the world. Whether an individuated being can have such an agentive command and determining power over intractable and trans-individual forces of desire and memory is open to doubt; such an endeavour cannot be said to guarantee a determined or calculated outcome. Yet the chance of tending the an-originary forces can at least provide the possibility of traversing how an individuated being or individuated cultural formations (such as a jati) negotiates with the collective memory. In other words, the operation of such a chance can be discerned in the individuated (being or jati) response to and reception of immemorial cultural inheritances.

In more concrete terms through the clusters of individuated memories it is possible to account for the heterogeneous disseminations of itihasa and puranas across the immeasurable individuated jatis and their guardians of memory. As can be noticed this node of individuated memories is deeply interlaced with the nodes of Collective Memories and the Futures of the Past; and it affirms the interwoven theoretical fabric of the inquiry.


Lively Archives: As indicated earlier the double take of this inquiry is to configure cultural difference by focusing on cultural memory. For millennia Indian cultural formations created and passed on differential cultural memories without taking recourse to prosthetic retentional apparatuses that are external to the organic body. Mnemo-cultures put the materiality of the body complex to work in engendering and disseminating the heritages of memory. Mnemocultures are forged in the plasmas of the individuated lively archives. Here the host (archive), the custodian (archon) and the hosted (articulated memory) are all generated and nurtured in the textures of the individuated bodies. While being indifferent for centuries to the alphabetic and iconic events, the lively archives receive and respond to these turns in their enduring modes.

From the Vedic heritages to the janjati inheritances, the lively archives enhanced the mnemocultural currents. The ithiasas and puranas and their performative forms proliferate exponentially through the lively archives of countless jatis and janjatis even today. Yet nowhere in the country can one find any institutional or intellectual resources to provide access to sense these colossal quanta of living memories. This node of the inquiry recognizes the role of ethnographic/folkloric disciplines in freezing and museumizing the lively archives and reducing them to externalized preservative systems. The Lively Archives node emphasizes the need to reinvigorate and provide the conditions for improvising the living currents of embodied memory.

In other words, as in the case of the other nodes discussed earlier, this node too replays the mnemocultural response to mnemotechnical apparatuses and aims at moving beyond them. This can happen only when lively archives bring forth improvised forms of lively archives either in bypassing or by working through surrogate prosthetic apparatuses of memory.


This inexhaustible inquiry into cultural memory can be managed by provisionally reconfiguring the cultural map of India into about seven constellations. This mega cultural portal contains within it extensive sets of cultural clusters; each cultural cluster in turn is constituted by varying numbers of cultural formations, and each of the cultural formations itself is composed of non-cohering, unstructured, internally self-dividing biocultural entities of individuated jatis and jan-jatis. Such demarcated formations, clusters and constellations with their relays beyond India can be studied for configuring Indian cultural difference.

As the cultural flows and geo-political territorial formations cannot be isomorphic in relation, the seven constellations (such as Gandhara, Brahmaputra, Harappa, Kham, Madhyadesha, Dakshinapatha, and Sangam) centripetally incorporate and centrifugally spread across and beyond Indian territorial boundaries. Within these constellational contours, the (approximately) 10000 jati and janjati clusters and the 20 million students who enter the portals of 720 universities and 36000 colleges of higher education become the passageways to explore cultural memories of Indian formations.

As pointed out earlier, today cultural difference can be configured by drawing on not only what we do or what we say about what we do but what others have said about what we do. Since what the Euro-Americans have said about Indian cultural formations privileged the inscriptional technologies, this inquiry pays attention to the communication technologies from scribal to digital. However, since the digital (unlike the others) can bring together the image, music, text, per-formative media together in one format, this inquiry strategically draws on the organizational, presentational, retentional and retrieval potential of digital technologies. However, the mnemocultural impulse that enabled the Indian cultures of memory to receive and respond to inscriptional technologies from within their creative embrace will guide the inquiry here as well in drawing on the digital technologies and initiate new questions for the computing imagination and design.

As can be noticed, this inquiry is inherently aimed at developing a comparative science of cultures. For centuries cultures have been studied and compared only on the basis of the dominant cultural framework of the West. Neither the discourses nor the institution of the university in the Indian context unravelled this hegemony on the basis of Indian cultural experience. The Indian cultural experience has been put on the table for the lab experiments of European discourses for generations. The non-Abrahamic cultures of the world have barely drawn on their cultural resources to generate a theoretical alternative to the hegemonic western theological-cultural framework.

This inquiry envisages today the possibility of forging a theoretical practice that effectively faces the domineering cultural framework of Euro-America and advances a genuine model for epistemic comparisons of cultures. Such a transformative model can have far-reaching consequences for cultures that faced colonialism. Today, it can be reasonably affirmed that the enduring cultural experience of India can be gathered to develop a comparative study of cultures in the context our planetary existence.