If there is a time on campus for togetherness, celebrating one’s cultural being and sharing in unique traditions, it is the vibrant Fest. We delight in the colourful exuberance of the Awadh Magadh and Rajasthani fests, gorge on the scrumptious food at Southie fest, spiritedly shake a leg during Lohri fest and marvel at the warm extravagance of Telugu fest. This year, after a long decade, we will also celebrate the distinctive cultures of Odisha, West Bengal and Bangladesh during the East fest.
Our variegated cultural fests are important. They help us remember our language, food and arts. They connect us into communities that transcend state borders on account of some past history or shared traditions. They offer a small opportunity to understand each other. Lastly, and perhaps most important for the NALSAR student body, fests allow for a pleasant break from the everyday routine of classes, project submissions, moot prep and NALSAR specific extra-curricular activities.
The Replication of Cultural Hegemonies
Over my past four years at law school, I have witnessed warm hospitality and the wholehearted zeal of all fests to represent their respective cultures. However, despite the sincerity to represent culture, it appears that there is little collective self-reflection on the ‘culture’ that is being sought to be represented. A large proportion of the student body in NALSAR belongs to the privileged urban, cosmopolitan, upper-caste and middle class strata of Indian Hindu society. Resultantly, the cultures that regional fests seek to represent also encompass only the monolithic and homogenous worldviews of this strata’s understanding of a region’s ‘culture’. There is little to no representation of the region’s communities that belong to a different ethnicity, religion, class, geographical space or caste in the culture that is showcased. From the choice of music and decor to the dishes on the menu, the erasure of the vast diversities in arts, architecture, music, traditions, food and festivals in a regional fest is apparent. In failing to reflect on the cultural hegemonies we replicate in our fests, we marginalise the voices and unique cultural heritage of our fellow members in the student body who do not belong to this dominant strata, and miss out on an opportunity to learn about the traditions of communities we cohabit with, and depend on.
Paying Lip-Service to Diversity
In the past, I have made attempts to bring light to this issue in fests that I have participated in, or in conversations with batchmates participating in their respective fests. The overwhelming response (apart from one notable exception) is a lip-service acknowledgment of the importance of diversity, which places the entire burden of suggesting (and organising) the representation of otherwise marginalised cultures of the region on my shoulders, whereas the issue of diversity is (and ought to be) a concern of the fest’s entire community. This response, however, is at least preferable to outrightly being told that a suggested rural folk song for the dance segment ‘did not have the beats for which we could possibly choreograph dance steps’!
An Apathy to Learn (and therefore Respect)
The second common response I have encountered is that one simply does not know any culture other than their urban, middle class, upper caste culture to be able to represent diversity. What is worrisome about this response is an abject apathy to seek to understand and provide platforms for cultures other than one’s own. Even within NALSAR, there are members in the student body who do not belong to the dominant strata. What prevents us from creating spaces where they feel welcome to help us learn about their cultures? Here it is also important to caution against cultural appropriation, and bear in mind that the possibilities of respectfully showcasing a minority culture (with the consent of the concerned student body members) can be explored without objectification or claiming ownership.
The ‘Logistics’ Argument
The third and last response I have received is the argument of ‘logistical problems’. Ironically, this response is usually reflexively argued without much thought to the logistics needed to showcase a minority culture. Furthermore, this response fails to adequately consider workable solutions to the ubiquitous and cryptic ‘logistical problems’ that inevitably arise even in the representation of the dominant culture.
Owning our Mistakes and Moving Foward
Despite being a student body that often professes the value of diversity and invokes the issue of cultural hegemony, our own record in pursuing the ideals we enunciate is patchy at best. It is my earnest hope that henceforth all cultural fests in NALSAR will meaningfully self-reflect on the ‘culture’ they seek to represent and make genuine attempts at showcasing the diverse cultures of their regions.
– Srujana Bej (Batch of 2019)