Placing Culture First

By Mila Tuli

Today we feature an essay by Mila Tuli regarding the place of culture in our everyday lives. This essay was first posted in City Sabha, a team of inter-disciplinary thinkers, creatives, and activists working towards inclusive and sustainable cities. Mila Tuli, Ph. D. is an Associate Professor at Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi. She is a developmental psychologist working in the area of childhood, culture and society and the negotiation for gender balance.

Placing Culture First

The word culture in any part of the world has an immediate connection with people (their histories, language, beliefs and narratives) and with the environment, they create around them (the objects and systems and processes they fill it with). In either case, the interaction is always dyadic, flowing from person to culture and back to person, each creating, influencing, defining and altering the other.  In other words, culture is not something external to people but rather an intrinsic part of everyday human functioning. Art, music, stories, language, built form, artefacts, customs and traditions are simply the tools we use to express and organize social activity. Perhaps the earliest evolution of these tools was directly based on human needs and natural resources available. What was created and what was adapted into the daily routine of any group of people was determined by a combination of what was essential, what was locally available and what was valued. People attribute meaning to their environment, thus creating culture. Cultural symbols, in turn, provide meaning to people. The cultural need to respect elders and those who are senior to us is demonstrated in several Indian languages by the use of pronouns that indicate varying levels of social hierarchy.

Culture provides a context for the day to day functioning of individuals and groups. The thought processes, beliefs and customs of individuals and communities are shaped by culture just as these beliefs and ideas play a role in selecting what becomes a part of our everyday lives. It is therefore important to understand that by looking at culture only in the form of what is outside and tangible we risk defining the possibility of cultural impact too narrowly. Heritage, customs and activities are typically the most common interpretation of culture and these are used extensively to promote cultural transmission and preservation by policymakers through craft bazaars, public art and music and dance festivals. I would like to use the connection between culture and the built environment to understand the wider meaning of this term.

The earliest human settlements emerged as a shift from a nomadic style of living to staying in one place in response to the requirements of cultivating land, growing crops and agriculture. As settlements grew and exchange in the form of trade followed, several systems were created to meet the evolving needs of human interactions and living collectively. Villages, towns and cities gradually emerged as human civilizations boomed.

Today, settlements, human needs and patterns of interactions have exploded creating multiple cultural pathways, contexts and meanings. From being spaces that responded to local needs, values and resources, the urban metropolis has become a space that belongs to nobody. In the chaotic creation of urban cities in India, any planning or logic seems to have been sacrificed to the predominant need of maximizing usage of limited resources and minimizing cost thereby ensuring profit. All the digging and cutting and building and construction and destruction seem to happen endlessly and without thought. At least that is what it appears like to the common citizen in urban India.

Every day when we step out of our homes we wonder why the roads have been dug up again, why the sidewalks are broken, why the parks are empty, why every single open space is being furiously filled up with more housing units and malls that eventually stay empty? Why are there no spaces for us to come together, interact with and feel a sense of belonging? Why does every contemporary space look the same? These replicable, homogeneous structures and layouts have completely silenced the voice of individual communities and cultures. And along with that our cities have adopted a stance that denies civic engagement and a sense of ownership to its citizens.

Every behaviour is in response to some aspect of culture. In the absence of collective ownership and participation, the culture of urban living operates on each to their own policy. People in our cities willingly and purposefully works towards increasing the amount of space they can occupy, build over, utilise, encroach upon and essentially make their own at least in practice if not on paper. Homeowners spill out beyond their boundary walls, extend their homes on precariously balanced cantilevers, making additions as and where they please. Shopkeepers use the pavements and galleries outside their shops to display goods. Hawkers install their temporary stands at bus stops, on pavements. Office goers park along the road reducing four lanes to two. Everywhere this belief that space is meant to be occupied prevails. Another response has been to create some order in all this chaos through building gated communities. These small islands of community living create a sense of privacy, orderliness, social interaction and connectedness. They also promote exclusion. Those on the inside of the society gates are distinctly separate from those outside the society gate.

The collective responses to urban living as well as the choices that we make as individuals are still guided by our belief systems. Our cultural filters operate to guide behaviour in a particular direction. This not only provides us with typical responses but also operates to set up constraints that limit the set of behaviour responses available to members of a cultural group. Our collective beliefs are almost culturally geared towards ignoring the needs of the lowest common denominator. Both the responses to urban living mirror the predominant beliefs and cultures of our society. The segregation practised inside our homes has spilled out into the public realm. Public spaces continue to reflect the exclusion and separation that we as a people so strongly believe in. So malls become spaces only for those who can consume. The city parks and the streets discourage the presence of women by deliberately creating a sense of fear instead of the confidence of security. And the differently-abled must continue to remain in their homes because the city acknowledges them only in policy documents.

The intrinsic human need to interact with others cannot be ignored forever. Several attempts to create truly public spaces, even if only periodically have been run successfully. Private and public initiatives like Raahgiri and Bhagidari in Delhi, NCR have shown how it is possible despite everything to develop opportunities for community participation, ownership and engagement. The success of these initiatives rode on the collective expression of a need and the readiness and willingness to change the way we approach public activity.

The assumed homogeneity of cultures and communities must be replaced with a recognition of the diversity in human response. Providing citizens opportunities for collective participation and ownership to the spaces surrounding their localities and making civic bodies more approachable and interactive are some of the ways in which perceptions can be altered.

What we believe guides the choices that we make. What we value is what we focus on and include in the realm of our everyday. What is part of our everyday lives is our culture.

As opportunities and systems alter, they impact our everyday experiences and beliefs. The possibility of creating responsive, inclusive cities with a strong sense of collective ownership lies in making it a part of our daily discourse.

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