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Satyajit Ray and the art of Universalism:
Our Culture, Their Culture

By Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen is the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge University, United Kingdom.

This article appeared on p. 32 of The New Republic, April 1, 1996. Reprinted with permission of the author.

The work of Satyajit Ray presents a remarkably insightful understanding of the relations between cultures, and his ideas remain pertinent to the great cultural debates in the contemporary world, not least in India. I would like to pursue these ideas. In Ray's films and in his writings, we find explorations of at least three general themes on cultures and their interrelations: the importance of distinctions between different local cultures and their respective individualities; the necessity of understanding the heterogeneous character of each local culture (even the culture of a common, not to mention a region or a country); and the great need for intercultural communication, attended by a recognition of the barriers that make intercultural communication a hard task. A deep respect for distinctiveness is combined, in Ray's vision, with a recognition of internal diversity and an appreciation of the need for genuine communication. Impetuous cosmopolitans have something to learn from his focus on distinctiveness, but it is the growing army of communitarian and cultural "separatists" — increasingly more fashionable in India and elsewhere, that most needs to take note of the persistence of heterogeneity at the local level and the creative role of intercultural and intercommunal communication and learning.

In emphasizing the need to honor the individuality of each culture, Ray saw no reason for closing the doors to the outside world. Indeed, opening doors was an important priority of Ray's work. In this respect, Ray's attitude contrasts sharply with the increasing tendency to see Indian culture (or cultures) in highly conservative terms, to preserve it (or them) from the "pollution" of Western ideas and thought. He was always willing to enjoy and to learn from ideas, art forms, and styles of life from anywhere, in India or abroad. Ray appreciated the importance of heterogeneity within local communities. This perception contrasts sharply with the tendency of many communitarians, religious and secular, who are willing to break up the nation into communities and then stop dead there: "thus far and no further." The great filmmaker's eagerness to seek the larger unit — to talk to the whole world — went well with his enthusiasm for understanding the smallest of the small — the individuality, ultimately, of each person.

From such a vision, I believe, we have much to learn right now. There can be little doubt about the importance that Ray attached to the distinctiveness of cultures. He also discussed the problems that these divisions create in the possibility of communication across cultural boundaries. In Our Films, Their Films, he noted the important fact that films acquire "colour from all manner of indigenous factors such as habits of speech and behaviour, deep- seated social practices, past traditions, present influences and so on." He went on to ask: "How much of this can a foreigner — with no more than a cursory knowledge of the factors involved — feel and respond to?" He observed also that "there are certain basic similarities in human behaviour all over the world" (such as "expressions of joy and sorrow, love and hate, anger, surprise and fear"), but "even they can exhibit minute local variations which can only puzzle and perturb — and consequently warp the judgment of — the uninitiated foreigner." The presence of such cultural differences raises many interesting problems. The possibility of communication is only one of them. There is also the more basic issue of the individuality of each culture. How might this individuality be respected and valued, even as the world grows steadily smaller and more uniform? We live in a time in which many things are increasingly common, and the possibility that something important is being lost in this process of integration has aroused understandable concern.

The individuality of cultures is a big subject now, and the tendency towards the homogenization of cultures, particularly in some uniformly Western mode, or in the deceptive form of "modernity," has been sharply challenged. Anxieties of this kind have been expressed in different forms in recent cultural studies, which flourish today in Western literary and intellectual circles. There is an irony, perhaps, in the fact that so much of the critique of "Western modernity" has come straight from the West to the Third World; but these questions are being plentifully asked in contemporary India as well. Engaging arguments in this direction have been presented by, among others, Partha Chatterjee, in The Nation and Its Fragments (1993) and elsewhere, and in the literary, sociological and anthropological writings of such diverse and forceful authors as Ashis Nandy, Homi K. Bhaba and Veena Das, to name a few. These approaches share, to varying extents, a well-articulated "antimodernism," rejecting, in particular, "Western" forms of modernization, which Chatterjee contrasts with the preferred form of what he calls "our modernism." Sometimes the defiance of Western cultural modes is expressed in India through enunciations of the unique importance of Indian culture and the traditions of its communities.

At the broader level of "Asia" rather than India, the separateness of "Asian values," and their distinction from Western norms, has often been asserted, particularly in east Asia, from Singapore and Malaysia to China and Japan. The invoking of Asian values has sometimes occurred in rather dubious political circumstances. It has been used to justify authoritarianism (and harsh penalties for alleged transgressions) in some east Asian countries. In 1993, at the Vienna conference on human rights, the foreign minister of Singapore, along with the Chinese Foreign Minister, cited the differences between Asian and European traditions and argued that "universal recognition of the ideal of human rights can be harmful if universalism is used to deny or mask the reality of diversity." The championing of "Asian values" has typically come from governmental spokesmen and not from individuals opposed to the established regimes. Still, the general issue is important enough to deserve our attention; and so, in examining the implications of cultural diversity, I must also take up this question.

Even though he emphasized the difficulties of intercultural communication, Ray did not take cross-cultural comprehension to be impossible. He saw the difficulties as challenges to be surmounted rather than as strict boundaries that could not be breached. He did not propound a thesis of "incommunicability" across cultural boundaries; he argued instead that we need to recognize the difficulties that may arise. And on the larger subject of preserving traditions against foreign influence, Ray was not a cultural conservative. He did not give systematic priority to inherited practices.

I find no evidence in Ray's films or in his writings that the fear of being too influenced by outsiders disturbed his equilibrium as an "Indian" artist. He wanted to take full note of the importance of a particular cultural background without denying what there is to learn from elsewhere. There is much wisdom, I think, in this "critical openness," including the prizing of a dynamic, adaptable world over a world that is constantly "policing" external influences and fearing "invasion" of ideas from elsewhere.

The difficulties of understanding each other across the boundaries of culture are undoubtedly great. This applies to the cinema, but also to other art forms, especially literature. The inability of most foreigners, even of other Indians, to grasp the beauty of Rabindranath Tagore's poetry (a failure that we Bengalis find so exasperating) is a good illustration of this problem. Indeed, the thought that these non-appreciating others are being willfully contrary and obdurate (rather than being thwarted by the barriers of languages and translations) is a frequently aired suspicion.

The problem is perhaps less extreme in films, so far as film is less dependent on language. People can be informed by gestures and actions. Still, our day-to-day experiences generate certain patterns of reaction and non-reaction that can be mystifying for foreign viewers who have not had those experiences. The gestures — and the non-gestures — that are quite standard, and are "perfectly ordinary," in India may appear altogether remarkable when they are seen by others. Also words have a function that goes well beyond the information that they directly convey. Much is communicated by the sound of the language, and a special choice of words conveys a particular meaning or creates a particular effect. As Ray observed, "in a sound film, words are expected to perform not only a narrative but a plastic function," and "much will be missed unless one knows the language, and knows it well." Even the narrative may be inescapably transformed by language barriers, owing to nuances that are missed in translations. I was reminded of Ray's remark the other day when I saw Tin Kanya again, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a recent festival of Ray's films (in their wonderful reissues by Merchant-Ivory). When the obdurate Paglee at last decides to write a letter to her spurned husband, she conveys her new sense of intimacy by addressing him with the familiar form tumi rather than the formal apni. This could not be caught in the English subtitle. The translation had to show her sign the letter as "your wife," to convey this new sense of intimacy; but the Bengali original form in which she signs as "Paglee" but addresses him as tumi, is infinitely more subtle. Such difficulties cannot be altogether escaped. Ray did not design his movies for a foreign audience, and the Ray fans abroad who rush to see his films know that they are, in a sense, eavesdropping. This relationship between the artist and the eavesdropper is by now very well established among the millions of Ray's admirers around the world. There is no expectation that his films are anything other than those of an Indian director — and a Bengali director — made for a local audience, and the attempt to see what is going on in these films is a decision to engage in a self-consciously "receptive" activity.

In this sense, Ray has triumphed and on his own terms. This vindication of his belief that he will be understood, barriers notwithstanding, tells us about the possibility of understanding across cultural boundaries. It may be hard, but it can be done; and the eagerness with which viewers with rich experience of Western cinema flock to see Ray's films (despite the occasional obscurities of a presentation tailored to an entirely different audience) indicates what may be accomplished when there is a willingness to go beyond the bounds of one's own culture.

Satyajit Ray makes an important distinction between what is or is not sensible when one tries to speak across a cultural divide, especially across the divide between the West and India. In 1958, two years after Pather Panchali won the Special Award in Cannes, and one year after he won the Grand Prix at Venice for Aparajito, Ray wrote the following, in an essay called Problems of a Bengali Film Maker: "There is no reason why we should not cash in on the foreigners' curiosity about the Orient. But this must not mean pandering to their love of the false-exotic. A great many notions about our country and our people have to be dispelled, even though it may be easier and — from a film point of view — more paying to sustain tile existing myths than to demolish them." Ray was not alone, of course, in pursuing such an approach. There have been several other eminent directors from India who have essentially followed the same route as Ray. As an old resident of Calcutta, I am proud of the fact that some of the particularly distinguished ones have come — like Ray — from this very city. (I think of Mrinal Sen, Rhtwik Ghatak, Aparna Sen and others.) But what Ray calls pandering to the "love of the false-exotic" has clearly tempted many other directors. Many Indian films that can fairly be called "entertainment movies" have achieved great success abroad, including in the Middle East and Africa, and Bombay has been a big influence on the cinematic world in many countries.

It is not obvious whether the imaginary scenes of archaic splendor shown in such "entertainment movies" should be seen as mis-descriptions of the India in which they are allegedly set or as an excellent portrayal of some non-existent "never-never land" that is not to be confused with any real country.

As Ray notes in another context, quite a few of these traditional Indian films, which attract large audiences, "do away wholly with the bothersome aspect of social identification" and "present a synthetic, nonexistent society, and one can speak of credibility only within the norms of this make-believe world." Ray suggests that this feature "accounts for their countrywide acceptance." This is true; but this quality of make-believe also contributes greatly to the appeal of these films to some foreign audiences, which are happy to see lavish entertainment in an imagined land. This is an easily understandable "success" story: acceptance abroad brings both reputation and revenue. In contemporary India, where "export promotion" is becoming a supreme value, who can deny such an achievement? In fact, the exploitation of the biases and the vulnerabilities of the foreign audience need not be concerned specifically with the "love of the false-exotic." Exploitation can take other forms — not necessarily false, nor especially exotic. There is nothing false about Indian poverty nor about the fact — remarkable to others — that Indians have learned to live normal lives in the midst of this poverty, taking little notice of the surrounding misery.

The graphic portrayal of extreme wretchedness, and of heartlessness towards the downtrodden, can itself be exploited, especially when supplemented by a goodly supply of vicious villains. At a sophisticated level, such exploitation can be seen even in Salaam Bombay!, the wonderfully successful film by Meera Nair. Nair's film is powerfully constructed and deeply moving; and yet it mercilessly exploits not only the viewer's sympathy and sentimentality, but also her interest in identifying "the villain of the piece" who might be blamed for all this suffering. Since Salaam Bombay! is full of villains, and of people totally lacking in sympathy and any sense of justice, the causes of the suffering portrayed in the film begin to look easily comprehensible even to distant foreigners. Given the lack of humanity around these Indian victims, what else can you expect? Nair's kind of exploitation draws simultaneously on the common knowledge that India has much suffering and on the common comfort — for which there is a demanding seeing the faces of the "baddies" who are causing all this trouble, as in, say, American gangster movies. (This easy reliance on villains is less present in Nair's subsequent film, Mississippi Masala, which raises some important and interesting issues of identity involving ex-Ugandans of Indian origin in the United States.) At a more mundane level, City of Joy does the same with Calcutta, with clearly identified villains who have to be confronted. By contrast, even when Ray's films deal with problems that are just as intense (such as the coming of the Bengal famine in Ashani Sanket), the comfort of a ready explanation through the presence of villains is avoided. In Ray's films, villains are remarkably rare, almost absent. When terrible things happen, there may be nobody clearly responsible. And even when someone is clearly responsible, as Dayamoyee's father-in-law most definitely is responsible for her predicament, and ultimately for her suicide, in Devi, he, too, is a victim, and by no means devoid of humane features. If Salaam Bombay! and City of Joy ultimately belong in the "cops and robbers" tradition (except that there are no "good cops" in Salaam Bombay!), the Ray films which portray tragedies have neither cops nor robbers. Ray chooses to convey something of the complexity of social situations that makes such tragedies hard to avoid, rather than to supply easy explanations in the greed, the cupidity and the cruelty of "bad" people.

While Satyajit Ray insists on retaining the real cultural features of the society that he portrays, his view of India — even his view of Bengal — recognizes a complex reality, with immense heterogeneity at every level. It is not the picture of a stylized East meeting a stereotypical West, which has been the stock-in-trade of so many recent writings critical of "Westernization" and "modernity." Ray emphasized that the people who "inhabit" his films are complicated and extremely diverse. Take a single province: Bengal. Or, better still, take the city of Calcutta where I live and work. Accents here vary between one neighbourhood and another. Every educated Bengali peppers his native speech with a sprinkling of English words and phrases. Dress is not standardized. Although women generally prefer the sari, men wear clothes, which reflect the style of the thirteenth century or conform to the directives of the latest Esquire. The contrast between the rich and the poor is proverbial. Teenagers do the twist and drink Coke, while the devout Brahmin takes a dip in the Ganges and chants his mantras to the rising sun. It is important to note that the native culture which Ray stresses is not some pure vision of a tradition-bound society, but the heterogeneous lives and commitments of contemporary India. The Indian who does the twist is as much there as the one who chants his mantras by the Ganges. The recognition of this heterogeneity makes it immediately clear why Ray's focus on local culture cannot be readily seen as an "anti-modern" move. "Our culture" can draw on "their culture" and "their culture" can draw on our culture." The emphasis on the culture of the people who inhabit Ray's films is in no way a denial of the legitimacy of the interest in things originating elsewhere. Indeed, Ray recollects with evident joy the time when Calcutta was full of Western (including American) troops, in the winter of 1942: Calcutta now being a base of operations of the war, Chowringhee was chock-a- block with GIs. The pavement book stalls displayed wafer-thin editions of Life and Time, and the jam-packed cinema showed the very latest films from Hollywood. While I sat at my office desk ... my mind buzzed with the thoughts of the films I had been seeing. I never ceased to regret that while I had stood in the scorching summer sun in the wilds of Santiniketan sketching simul and palash in full bloom, Citizen Kane had come and gone, playing for just three days in the newest and biggest cinema in Calcutta. This interest in things from elsewhere had begun a lot earlier. Ray's engagement with Western classical music goes back to his youth, and his fascination with films preceded his involvement with music.

In his posthumously published book, My Years with Apu: A Memoir Ray recollects: "I became a film fan while still at school. I avidly read Picturegoer and Photoplay, neglected my studies and gorged myself on Hollywood gossip purveyed by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Deanna Derbin became a favourite not only because of her looks and her obvious gifts as an actress, but because of her lovely soprano voice. Also firm favourites were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, all of whose films I saw several times just to learn the Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern tunes by heart." Ray's willingness to enjoy and to learn from things happening elsewhere in India or abroad is plentifully clear in how he chose to live and what he chose to do. (In addition to Ray's own autobiographical accounts in Our Films, Their Films and My Years with Apu: A Memoir his involvements in ideas and arts from elsewhere are discussed in some detail in Andrew Robinson's Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, which appeared in 1989.) When Ray describes what he learned as a student at Santiniketan, where he studied fine arts at Tagore's distinguished center of education, the elements from home and abroad are well mixed together. He learned a great deal about India's "artistic and musical heritage" (he got involved in Indian classical music, aside from being trained to paint in traditional Indian ways) and "far-eastern calligraphy" (particularly the use of "minimum brush strokes applied with maximum discipline"). When his teacher, Nandalal Bose, a great artist and the leading light of the Bengal school, taught Ray to draw a tree ("Not from the top downwards. A tree grows up, not down. The strokes must be from the base upwards..."), Bose was being critical of some Western conventions and introduced Ray to the styles and the traditions of China and Japan. (They got the tree right, Bose had decided.)

Ray does not hesitate to indicate how strongly Pather Panchali — the profound film that immediately made him a film maker of international distinction — was influenced by Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief. He saw Bicycle Thief within three days of arriving in London for a brief stay, and noted: "I knew immediately that if I ever made Pather Panchali — and the idea had been at the back of my mind for some time — I would make it in the same way, using natural locations and unknown actors." Despite this influence, Pather Panchali, of course, is a quintessentially Indian film, in subject matter and in style, and yet a major inspiration came from an Italian film. The Italian influence did not make Pather Panchali anything other than an Indian film; it simply helped to make it a great Indian film.

The growing tendency in contemporary India to champion the need for an indigenous culture that has "resisted" external influences and borrowings lacks credibility as well as cogency. It has become quite common to cite the foreign origin of an idea or a tradition as an argument against its use, and this has been linked to an antimodernist priority. Thus, even a social analyst as acute as Partha Chatterjee finds it impossible to dismiss Benedict Anderon's thesis linking nationalism and its "imagined communities" by referring to the Western origin of that "modular" form. I have a central objection to Anderson's argument. If nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their imagined community from certain "modular" forms already made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to imagine?

Anderson's concept of "the nation as an imagined community" may or may not have much to commend it (I think that it does); but the fear that its Western origin would leave us without a model that is our "own" is a rather peculiar concern.

Indian culture, as it has evolved, has always been prepared to absorb materials and ideas from elsewhere. Satyajit Ray's heterodoxy is not out of line with our tradition. Even in matters of day-to-day living: the fact that the chili, a basic ingredient of traditional Indian cooking, was brought to India by the Portuguese from the "New World" does not make Indian cooking any less Indian. Indeed, chili has now become an "Indian" spice. Of course, cultural influences are a two way process: India may have acquired the chili from abroad, but we have also given the world the benefits of our culinary traditions. While tandoori came from the Middle East to India, it is in its Indian form that tandoori has become a staple British diet. In London last summer I heard something described as being "as English as daffodils or chicken tikka masala."

The mixture of traditions that underlie the major intellectual developments in the world dictates strongly against taking a "national" (or "regional" or "local" or "community-based") view of these developments. The role of mixed heritage in a subject such as mathematics, for example, is well-known. The interlinkage between Indian, Arabic and European mathematics has been particularly significant in the development of what is now called Western mathematics. These connections are beautifully illustrated by the origin of the term "sine" in Western trigonometry.

That modern term came to India through the British, and yet in its genesis there is a remarkable Indian component. Aryabhata, an Indian mathematician and astronomer who lived in the fifth and early sixth centuries, discussed the concept of "sine," and called it Jyanardha, or "half-chord," in Sanskrit. From there the term migrated in an interesting way, as Howard Eves describes in An Introduction to the History of Mathematics: Aryabhata called it ardha-jya ("half-chord") and jya-ardha ("chord-half"), and then abbreviated the term by simply using jya ("chord"). From jya the Arabs phonetically derived jiba, which, following Arabic practice of omitting vowels, was written as jb. Now jiba, aside from its technical significance, is a meaningless word in Arabic. Later writers who came across jb as an abbreviation for the meaningless word Jiba substituted Jaib instead, which contains the same letters, and is a good Arabic word meaning "cove" or "bay." Still later, Gherardo of Cremona (ca. 1150), when he made his translations from the Arabic, replaced the Arabian jaib by its Latin equivalent, sinus [meaning a cove or a bay], from whence came our present word sine. Given the and intellectual interconnections, the question of what is "Western" and what is "Eastern" (or Indian) is often hard to decide, and the issue can be discussed only in dialectical terms. The characterization of an idea as "purely Western" or "purely Indian" can be very illusory. The origin of ideas is not the kind of thing to which "purity" happens easily.

This issue has some practical importance now, given the political developments of the last decade, including the increase in the strength of political parties focusing on the Indian — particularly the Hindu — heritage. There is an important aspect of anti-modernism, which tends to question, explicitly or implicitly, the emphasis to be placed on what is called "Western science." If the challenges from traditional conservatism grow, this can become quite a threat to scientific education in India, affecting what young Indians are encouraged to learn, and how much emphasis is put on science in the general curriculum.

The reasoning behind this "anti-foreign" attitude is flawed in several ways. First, so-called "Western science" is not the special possession of Europe and America. It is true that, since the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the Enlightenment, most scientific progress has occurred in the West; but these scientific developments drew substantially on earlier work in mathematics and science done by the Arabs, the Chinese, the Indians, and others. The term "Western science" is misleading in this respect, and misguided in its tendency to establish a distance between non-Western people and the pursuit of mathematics and science.

Second, irrespective of the location of the discoveries and the inventions, the methods of reasoning used in science and mathematics give them some independence of local geography and cultural history. To be sure, there are important issues of local knowledge, and of the varying perspectives regarding what is or is not important; but there is still much of substance that is shared in methods of argument, demonstration, and the scrutiny of evidence. The term "Western science" is misleading in this respect, too.

Third, our decisions about the future need not be parasitic on the past we have experienced. Even if there were no Asian or Indian component in the evolution of contemporary mathematics and science — this is not the case, but even if it were the case — their importance in the contemporary India need not be deeply undermined for that reason. Rabindranath Tagore nicely illustrated the tyranny of being bound to the past in his amusing but profoundly serious short story Kartar Bhoot ("The Ghost of the Leader"), in which the wishes of the respected but dead leader make the lives of others impossibly constrained.

There is a similar issue, to which I referred earlier, about the role of "modernity" in contemporary India. The recent attacks on modernity (especially on a "modernity" that is seen as coming to India from the West) draw greatly on the literature of "post-modernism" and on similar approaches that have been quite influential in Western literary and cultural circles, and in India, too. There is something interesting in this dual role of the West, the colonial metropolis supplying ideas to post-colonial intellectuals to attack the influence of the colonial metropolis; but there is no contradiction here. This dual role does suggest, however that the mere identification of the Western connections of an idea cannot be enough to damn it. The critics of "modernism" often share with the advocates of "modernism" the belief that being "modern" is a well-defined concept — they are for "it" and we are against "it." But this type of identification is not at all easy, given the historical roots — the long and tangled roots — of recent intellectual developments, and given the mixture of origins in the genesis of the ideas and the methods that are typically taken to characterize modernism.

The point is not that all modern things are good, or that there are reasons to doubt the wisdom of many developments that are justified in the name of modernity. Rather, the point is that there is no escape from the critical scrutiny of ideas, norms and proposals, no matter whether they are seen as pro-modern or anti-modern. When we come to decide what policies to support in education, health care, or social security, the modernity or the non-modernity of a proposal is neither here nor there. The relevant question is how these policies would actually affect the lives of people. Similarly, when faced with communal tensions in contemporary India, there is much to be gained from reading the tolerant poems of Kabir, or studying the political priorities of Akbar, in contrast with, say, the intolerant approach of Aurangzeb. The discrimination among ideas must be made in terms of their worth, not on the basis of some claim that Kabir or Akbar was "more modern" or "less modern" than Aurangzeb. Modernity is not only a bewildering notion, it is also largely irrelevant as a measure of merit or demerit in assessing contemporary priorities.

What about the specialness of "Asian values," about which so much is now being said by the authorities in a number of East Asian countries? These arguments, used in Singapore and China, appeal to the differences between "Asian values" and "Western values" to dispute the importance of human rights and press freedoms in Asian countries. The resistance to Western hegemony — a perfectly respectable cause in itself — takes the form, under this interpretation, of justifying the suppression of journalistic freedoms and the violations of elementary political and civil rights on the grounds of the alleged unimportance of these freedoms in the hierarchy of what are claimed to be "Asian values."

There are two problems with this mode of reasoning. First, even if it were shown that freedoms of this kind have had less importance in Asian thought and tradition than in the West, this would still be an unconvincing way of justifying the violation of these freedoms in Asia. To see the conflict over human rights as a battle between Western liberalism and Asian authenticity is to cast the debate in a form that distracts attention from the central question: What is right, what makes sense, in contemporary Asia? The history of ideas, in Asia and the West, cannot decide this issue.

Second, it is by no means clear that historically there has been systematically greater importance attached to freedom and tolerance in the West than in Asia. Individual liberty, in its contemporary form, is a relatively new notion both in Asian and in the West; and while the West did get to these ideas earlier (through developments such as the Renaissance, the European Enlightenment the Industrial Revolution and so on), the divergence between the cultures is relatively recent. In answer to the question, "at what date, in what circumstances, the notion of individual liberty... first became explicit in the West," Isaiah Berlin has remarked that "I have found no convincing evidence of any clear formulation of it in the ancient world."

This view has been disputed by Orlando Patterson in Freedom, Volume I: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. His historical arguments are interesting and forceful; but his thesis of a freedom-centered tradition in the West in contrast with what happened elsewhere seems to depend on attaching significance to particular elements of Western thought without looking adequately for comparable elements in non-Western intellectual traditions — for example, in the fairly extensive literatures on politics and governance in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Arabic, and other languages.

In the reading of Western tradition that sees it as the natural habitat of individual freedom and political democracy, there is a tendency to extrapolate backwards from the present. Values that the European enlightenment and other relatively recent developments have made common and widespread can scarcely be seen as part of the long-run Western heritage, as if they were experienced in the West over millennia. In specific contexts in the Western classical tradition, of course, there have been championings of freedom and tolerance, but much the same can be said of many parts of the Asian tradition as well — not least in India, with Ashoka's inscriptions, Shudraka's drama, Akbar's pronouncements, or Kabir's poetry, to name a few examples.

It is true that tolerance has not been advocated by all in the Asian traditions. Nor has that tolerance typically covered everyone (though some, such as Ashoka, in the third century BC, did insist on completely universal tolerance, without any exception). But much the same can be said about the Western traditions as well. There is little evidence that Plato or Augustine were more tolerant or less authoritarian than Confucius. Aristotle certainly did write on the importance of freedom, but women and slaves were excluded from the domain of his concern. The allegedly sharp contrast between Western and Asian traditions on the subject of freedom and tolerance is based on the special nature of Asian values is particularly dubious. Further, even if it were the case that "Asian values" are more authoritarian, this would not have been grounds enough to reject tolerance and liberties in contemporary Asia.

The debate about "Asian values" draws attention to an important issue underlying attempts at generalizations about the East and West, about Europe and India, and so on. There are many sharp contrasts between Europe and India, but there are many sharp contrasts within India itself. And there are great differences between various parts of Indian intellectual and historical traditions. One of the things that goes deeply wrong with grand contrasts between "our culture" and "their culture" is the neglect of the tremendous variety within each of these cultures. Joan Robinson, the Cambridge economist, used to say that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.

It is not that cultural differences are of no importance; but the contrasts do not come in the tailor-made form of some immense opposition between, say, the West and India, with relative homogeneity inside each. The problem is even greater, of course, when there are attempts at generalizations about "Asian values." Asia is where about 60 percent of the world's entire population lives. There are no quintessential values that apply to this immensely large and heterogeneous population, which separates them out as a group from the rest of the world. Those who have written on the importance of cultural divisions have been right to point to them, and yet the attempt to see these divisions in the over-aggregated form of a dichotomy between East and West conceals more than it reveals.

Indeed, even generalizations about a single religious community within India (the Hindus or the Muslims), or about a single language group (the Bengalis or the Punjabis or the Tamils), can be deeply misleading. Depending on the context, there may be more significant similarity between groups of people in different parts of the country who come from the same class, have the same political convictions, or pursue the same profession or work, and that similarity can hold across national boundaries as well. People can be classified in terms of many different criteria, and the recent tendency to emphasize some contrasts (religion or community,) while ignoring others has overlooked important differences even as it has capitalized on others. The difficulties of communications across cultures are real, as are the normative issues raised by the importance of cultural differences; but these difficulties do not require us to accept the standard divisions between "our culture" and "their culture." Nor do they give us reason to overlook the demands of practical reason, and of political and social relevance, in favor of faithfulness to some alleged historical contrasts. Which brings us back to Satyajit Ray. His delicate portrayal of very different types that make us what we are cannot be matched.

Reflecting on what to include in his films, he posed the problem beautifully:

What should you put in your films? What can you leave out? Would you leave the city behind and go to the village where cows graze in the endless fields and the shepherd plays the flute? You can make a film here that would be pure and fresh and have the delicate rhythm of a boatman's song. Or would you rather go back in time — way back to the Epics, where the gods and demons took sides in the great battle where brother killed brother and Lord Krishna revivified a desolate prince with the words of the Gita? One could do exciting things here, using the great mimetic tradition of Kathakali, as the Japanese use their Noh and Kabuki. Or would you rather stay where you are, right in the present, in the heart of this monstrous, teeming, bewildering city, and try to orchestrate its dizzying contrasts of sight and sound and milieu?

The celebration of these differences — the "dizzying contrasts" — is far from what can be found in labored generalizations about the unique and fragile purity of "our culture," and in the vigorous pleas to keep "our culture", "our modernity", immune from "their culture", "their modernity." In our heterogeneity, and in our openness, lies our pride, not our disgrace. Satyajit Ray taught us this, and the lesson is profoundly important for India. And for Asia, and for the world.