The Other Face Of India

Monday, July 23, 2012

theothersideofindia

A group of smiling young faces stare back at you from the photograph. Their bodies are thin and semi-clothed, and they are sitting in filth; a stagnated water puddle serves as a befitting background. Kids of slum dwellers in Kolkata are extremely excited at having their picture taken. Their joviality belittles their circumstances. This shot may win a photo contest someday.

A Sadhu Baba is sitting on a ghat in Varanasi, bestowing spiritual reverence to his followers. Ash-smeared forehead, long graying beard, minimal clothing and a peaceful expression — he has it all. Dried-up flowers and half-used incense sticks — remnants of previous religious ceremonies — are strewn around. The atmosphere symbolizes everything that is holy and spiritual.

A cow is sitting in the middle of the road in a congested market. Cars, buses and rickshaws all go by without as much as anyone taking another look. Traffic is rowdy, horns are blaring and people are jostling for space to walk. All around, there are old crumbling buildings and older shops, dilapidated signboards and dirty walls.

This is India as the world sees it.

The image of India as a country is plagued with clichés. In most cases, even before I open a publication or start reading an article or blog about someone’s time in the country, I usually know what’s coming. It’s either a recollection of a resilient experience in a budget hotel somewhere in the depths of the city or a picture of the sunset on the Ganges with (possibly) a floating dead body as the backdrop. Better, a spiritual experience bestowed upon them during their stay in a yogic ashram.

Every country has elements associated with it that represent and symbolize it — something new that it has to offer. In the case of India, the novelty element manifests itself in the form of the elephants on the road, the beggars on the traffic light signals, the sadhu on the ghats and the villagers carrying pots of water in sweltering summer heat.

The exoticism of India lies in the picture of the old, emaciated rickshaw-puller or the eunuchs dancing on the streets. This is the picture of India that sells.

As an Indian, however, I’d say that this picture is biased and incomplete.

India has another face too: that of being a developing, progressive, educated and culturally diverse nation. A face that is hardly recognized or rarely spoken about, simply because it mirrors itself as something that is not unique for the Western world. To a visitor, visuals of a prosperous life with all its peripherals are not as exciting simply because it’s a life they have been used to for long and in fact have left behind. It’s not what they have come seeking.

This thought in mind, I spoke to a few friends and acquaintances whom I consider models of modern-day India. Did this generalization, this one-sided representation bother them too? Isn’t this stereotype of being a country of poor, hungry people damaging to India? What does the “other face” consist of? How can it be brought forward to the world?

Akash is a software developer works for a multinational company in New Delhi. He’s young, opinionated and also an atheist. He wonders whether expectations are blinding visitors from the truth. “The answer is to explore both sides of the coin. Reflections of modern-day India, in the form of a thriving middle class, a growing economy and a youthful global culture may not be interesting to a Westerner per se, but this is a picture that is completely relevant to what a huge part of India is about, especially today.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I thought of some ways a traveler to India can experience this “other face of India.”

Meenakshi Amman Temple

Meet the Locals

Spend a little more time in the bigger cities interacting with the youngsters as well as with the urban, working-class Indians, to gain an insight into life as it happens on an everyday basis.

Explore Indian Music

Hindustani classical music is the oldest form of music in the world. Institutes such as the ITC music academy in Kolkata chronicle this history, and live classical music concerts are frequently held at India International Centre in Delhi. Local rock music has evolved as a result of a fusion between old classical and contemporary sounds. Live gigs by homegrown rock bands like Parikrama and Agnee fill weekend calendars for clubs and lounges all over the country.

Sample the Food

India has 28 states and 7 union territories, each having a cuisine of its own. Curry doesn’t even begin to cover it. Every state food is distinct, including the spices that are used, the cooking methodology and even how it’s consumed in some cases. Dilli Haat in New Delhi, a traditional open-air handicrafts bazaar, is a one-stop destination for food from every single state in India.

View the Arts

Indian art forms are versatile starting from local traditional arts like Madhubani and Kalamkari paintings to more modern artwork by well-known Indian painters showcased at venues such as the respective National Gallery of Modern Art museums in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

Explore the Architecture

There are 17 different architectural forms present in India. Dravidian architecture, Chaulakya architecture, Rajasthani architecture and Architecture of Kerala are part of this list. Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, the Konark and the Sri Venkateshwara Temple in Tirupati are all in South India and are some of the best examples of old intricate forms of Indian architecture.

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One of the reasons why we travel is to expand our own view of the world. Preconceived notions of a country and its culture is detrimental not only to the nation but to the ethos of this purpose as well.

For someone who belongs to the developed world, the visuals of a less prosperous life, heart-wrenching poverty and soulful spiritualism are extremely attractive because they add meaning and perspective to their travel experience. It’s a testimony to the human spirit and highly fulfilling on a personal level.

However, it is also important to realize that as a visitor to a country, one carries a greater responsibility — a responsibility to view and then portray that country in its entirety, not just in a way one chooses to see it.

I’m not advocating telling someone how exactly to travel, or what to see specifically. Instead, I simply raise the question of what responsibilities travelers have while seeing the world.

Is travel just a personal pursuit, or is it a means to an end? Is it just an avenue for one’s own individual gratification, or is there a greater purpose? Should travel be a medium for spreading awareness about social issues? And should it serve to dispel those preconceived notions so firmly in place within us all?

What do we owe to the country we choose to visit?

The answers lie within ourselves. In the end, it’s just a matter of asking the questions.

By Priyanka Kher

[Pahar Ganj in the morning by Christian Haugen/Flickr; Meenakshi Amman Temple by Brad Coy/Flickr]

TheExpeditioner

About the Author

PriyankaKherBioPictureOriginally from India, Priyanka called New Zealand home for six years and lives in he United States now. Road trips, food and writing constitute the three big loves of her life. She is an optimist who believes that life goes on, no matter what. You can read more about her and her musings at RoadIsWhereTheHeartIs.wordpress.com.

  • Priya

    Hi Priyaka loved your article as always but this one is really special as it’s something I always get into discussion about with our Kiwi friends. You have put into words what many Indians living abroad feel so strongly about that is India is much more than filthy streets n beggars n people sleeping on railway platforms! Your mastery on words is excellent n u speak with all ur heart n that shines through!
    Love Priya

  • shuchi khanna

    hi Priyanka,i liked the latter part regarding the meaning or prpose of travel.True,that we travel with a particular frame of mind and thats how we interpret things,like1) when we r in a relaxed holiday mood,we look for peaceful resorts,where we get our spas and ample time to ponder over a book and thats where india is advertising itself as an ultimate spot for spas like Ananda,2)when we r on an adventurous holiday,we r guided to the Himalayas in and around Manali ,where we go for water sports and para gliding,3)similarly ,for wild life enthus,we have plenty of sanctuaries,be it Ranthambhor or kaziranga or madhu malai 4)for a religious holiday,we havecountless spots to choose from,right from Vaishno Devi in north,Jagannath in east,Dwarka in west,Tirupati in south,jyotirlingas spread arund the country and yes the list is endless.5)then comes ouer new industry of medical tourism,with good doctors advanced technology and may be one third of the expenses6)educational travel,where nris prefer their kids to have atleast primary edu here back in their country…..so much written ah……u promt me to think and write! Also,i think IRCTC is doing so well by launching new pkgs for bharat darshan,train travel helps the traveller to enjoy the “ground”realities,then our hotels and resorts r doing their best to charm the visitors with home grown warmth and the feeling of belonging and the ad on Incredible india,MP tourism and Gujarat tourismm have also done wonders for our Bharat.

  • Ankita Siddiqui

    like they say a glass half full or a glass half empty…….it is all the way we look at things……..as a traveller one should explore all possibilities instead of following preconceived notions. when the mind sets out all empty it is like a canvas waiting to be painted with colors…..and lets travel to India again to paint a new picture…….loved ur article as always…….u rock PK!!!!!!!

  • Ishaan Michu

    I seriously believe that preconceived notions are always detrimental to a good exploration…. To see it best, read James Mill’s History of India… The biased view with which he described India’s history is actually falsified considering the accounts of Al Beruni or Hieun Tsang or Fa Hien…. who actually lived in India and studied about the Indian Society unlike Mr. Mill….

  • Priyanka,

    Thank you for bringing out the ‘other face’ of India. There is a mix of a lot of traditional and modern things in India and like you rightly pointed out a traveler has the responsibility to show case both sides of the coin.

    Loved this piece.

  • Love it! And as a westerner who has been to India half a dozen times, I couldn’t agree more. I think people initially focus on those things because India, the first time, is simply so exotic and different and this is what hits you first off. But like you say, if you delve deeper and look beyond, there is so much more in this wonderfully diverse, rich country.

    • Thank you for your comment Shelley. I am glad you could relate to this.

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