City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Need for Barbaric Rituals

A few weeks ago, Jairam Ramesh, in a dramatic gesture, removed the convocation robe worn usually at graduation ceremonies labelling it a barbaric colonial ritual. His assertion that India did not need to live with such vestigial symbols of colonial pomp, and that there was no need to dress like ‘medieval vicars and popes’ is easy enough to agree with. Implicit in every symbol is a larger set of beliefs and an embedded worldview and the robe with its resplendence and flamboyant form, serves to re-inforce elitist notions of class. The robe communicates among other things that the graduate is now a class apart from the rest and bestows not just a degree but an earned pedigree on the wearer. By uncritically continuing a practice that has no cultural roots in India, we are in some ways perpetuating a colonial mindset that has little relevance in the Indian context. And this is by no means an isolated instance- colonial practices continue to thrive in our courtrooms, armed forces , offices and clubs, often in the name of tradition.

The minister went on to wonder as to why we could not carry out convocation ceremonies in a business-like manner and dress simply for the occasion. After all, what was the need to dress up in such a strange and alien way for an occasion of this kind? Now this where the question becomes an interesting one. It is one thing to argue against an inappropriate symbol and quite another to argue against any symbol or ritual whatsoever. Should the convocation need to be marked by any kind of special attire at all? Going one step further why have convocation ceremonies at all, for isn’t a ceremony by definition a ritualistic practice that is densely packed with symbols of one kind or another? The desire for matter-of-fact business-like conduct of proceedings is a common one and reveals an impatience with too much inscrutability in our lives. Surely we didn’t need this mumbo-jumbo and pointless ritualisation in today’s and age?

Rituals exist among other things to mark transitions and turn discretionary culture into seemingly inevitable biology. We celebrate births, mark deaths, solemnize marriages and remember birthdays and anniversaries. Each event of this kind is marked by a set of actions that have little physical need. We exchange rings, blow out candles, wear funny pointy hats, dress in yards of brocaded fabric, walk around fires seven times, shave our heads and break some coconuts, depending on what particular event we are marking. Each of these actions is, if seen from a matter of fact and business-like perspective, an absurd enactment without any tangible reason. In each of these cases, we are moving from one life stage to another, in some cases incrementally and in others in a significantly discontinuous way. The larger the transition, the more elaborate the ceremony.

Take marriage. It is without question, the most important relationship in our lives not determined by biology. It is a social contract of extraordinary sweep- we choose someone to hopefully, spend the rest of our lives with, produce children with and bring them up together. Nothing in our lives prepares us for such an immersive surrender; the transition is an extremely difficult one to make. The elaborate marriage ritual full of sacred incantations and cosmic invocations, serves to create a threshold area laden with compressed meaning that allows one to make a transformation from one kind of life to another. Nobody really understands what the ceremony itself connotes; in most cultures it is mediated by a religious intermediary who plucks out divine references from the religious ether and sprinkles them with authoritative finality on the couple. They feel married; they may not grasp the full implications of the act, but they are certainly made to understand its momentousness.

That is not to say that more matter-of-fact ceremonies like the civil marriage have no place in our lives but to merely to point out that in spite of its obvious disadvantages, a ritual like marriage continues to thrive in its overblown, ruinously expensive avatar. Clearly, there is a need felt for undergoing an experience of this kind even when cheaper and more apparently sensible options are available.

Graduation too signifies the crossing of an important threshold. The completion of education marks the conversion of an individual into an occupation- we ‘become’ lawyers, doctors, managers, scientists and teachers for the rest of our lives. It becomes our primary calling card and the world defines us and itself in relation to this source of identity. Just like the label ‘husband’ or ‘wife’, the label ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer’ is an earned one. It must adhere to our selves without allowing any light to pass in between, and it is thus important to mark this transformation in a significant way. Photographs commemorating this event must instantly tell us of its significance; degrees, diplomas and certificates recording this must look like documents full of gravitas and somber self-importance.

So perhaps it is time to shed colonial markers of graduation and look for an Indian expression of the same. Discarding the robe might well be a good idea but too much of matter-of-factness when dealing with events of this kind might make our lives seem less significant. We construct our sense of importance in this world brick by brick and need to be careful about dismantling the same. It is an illusion no doubt, but it is ours to maintain.