As Indians, we honestly believe that culture is in our blood and that this gives us an edge over other nationalities. We make statements like: ‘They have no culture in their country’, ‘It’s all about money there’, ‘Theydon’t have roots’, ‘They don’t have values’.

Very rarely do we actually try and define our culture. Is our culture based on our religion? Is it based on our clothes or our behaviour? Is it our movies that determine our culture? What is it?

Old timers would equate culture with our religious or artistic heritage. A young teenager may add ‘Bollywood’. A middle-aged person equates it with listening to Mohammed Rafi and watching Satyajit Ray’s movies. I remember telling a friend in the U.S. that it’s so sad that people there think that Indian culture is all about temples. He looked at me and asked, ‘Then what is it?’ That was an eye-opener. I realised that everyone holds on to one aspect that is convenient and flaunts it.

We always see culture as an external object or thought process that we need to imbibe or respect. One who has learnt the Koran or the Vedas is said to have gained an understanding of culture. Thus culture is often related to a religion. Therefore when we refer to Hindu culture, Muslim culture and so on, what we are talking about is religious customs and practices. Just because we practice them does it make us culturally rooted? Do any of us know the meaning of these rites or their social contexts? Most of us do not. So what does it really mean?

I am a Carnatic musician and most people believe that there cannot be a better way to be rooted in Indian culture than that. They may have a point, since culture, to some, means being able to practise ancient traditions and rituals in today’s context. Many lead lives as information technology professionals or businessmen and also believe in pujas, attend classical music concerts and, of course, want their children to master all the arts. Does this mean we are cultured people?

What about me? I am a musician practising an art form of great tradition, aesthetics and philosophy. Does this mean I have culture in my life? No, it just means that I practise this art for a living. Whether this has led to a sense of culture in my life is a different question.

To me, culture is awareness, sensitivity and absorption. How many of us are actually aware of our every action? Most of our lives are a mechanical process of actions. What is this awareness? I drive my daughters to school every morning. I take the same route but is life the same every day? No. But how much am I aware of this? The only time I notice a difference is when it affects me. For example, if there is more traffic on the roads it bothers me as I don’t want to be late to school. Awareness is not in relation to benefits or problems that may arise from the changes but it is the capacity to observe without passing judgement.

What has this got to do with culture? Culture is about the growth of the human being. The more aware we are, the more we celebrate life. Every nuance, every action is seen as a dimension of life.

Often I am asked, ‘What is it that you look for in young musical talent? Is it the voice, the intellect, the presentation?’ The answer is—I don’t look for any of this. I look for sensitivity and taste. This may sound vague but let me explain. When a true artist performs, his sensitivity to music is so high that every musical expression is an aesthetic experience. The raga unfolds like a slow motion film in his mind. Every movement is seen. He sees the change and he is the change. This, to me, is the highest level of sensitisation. At this point nothing else matters.

If I see the possibility of this in a youngster, I see talent. The intellect can always be developed, but this other dimension has to be experienced. Instilling this process is much harder. If we extend this to life what happens? Imagine if we are sensitive to every thing around us. Then there is an internalisation of this awareness, yet it is not judgemental. To be sensitive is to be able to be aware—to actually experience it. Thus we not only see but also experience life as a continuous process of change. To put it differently, we see reality at every moment. Culture is not about gains and benefits; it is about experience and absorption. With experience and absorption comes a respect for life. So what about change? We see change in the light of this awareness and hence our decisions are of a holistic nature. Will our actions be judgemental? No, they will be respectful. Our perspective of the past, present, future will be an unbroken chain and hence the respect. This is culture. All enjoyment of aesthetics that we celebrate as culture, is born from this sensitivity. Therefore it is not that we do not have it in us; we do not recognise and harness it. We have compartmentalised our lives, and hence, cannot extend experiences from one to another.

Another problem is the lack of openness. We do not see the difference between response and reaction. A reaction is usually an action born from a personal emotion, positive or negative. Response is born from an understanding that is sensitive. How do we develop this? First, we need to believe that all actions and changes are connected. We do not live in isolation. Life is not just about myself, my family, my house, my money and my fame. Every action of ours affects life. I think that my house is dirty so I throw my rubbish on the road. That’s not a solution but a new problem. This understanding gives us a true sense of ourselves. To be sensitive, or to empathise, we need to experience; and unless we let our minds grow beyond our own self-centred world, nothing will change.

Just because we have a beautiful history of art, music and dance, it does not make us a cultured people. Some people say, ‘But aren’t our temples and music a stimulus to our culture?’ Yes, of course, but isn’t life itself a stimulus to culture? We can live in the most aesthetic surroundings and yet be devoid of inner cultural development. As a musician I believe this is a process of change that needs to take place. It can start from your art but has to move to your life as a whole. Only then does it have any meaning.

We are cultured only when we are culturally awakened.