By Baisali Mohanty

Edited by Anandita Malhotra, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

Modernity is a historical project that focuses on the methodological, archival, and theoretical approaches particular to modernist studies. It started in the post-feudal west, gradually influencing other civilizations today. It was in the 18th century that the word started acquiring a more specific meaning regarding the ‘unique social change’ that emerged in Western Europe.

It is described as a rejection of tradition, and a tendency to face problems from a fresh perspective based on contemporary ideas and techniques, being talked about by the social institutions and societies suggesting the pre-determined movement towards the European Enlightenment model of modernity. The foundations of scientific and technological progress were firmly established during the age of Enlightenment. Arjun Appadurai talks about the Enlightenment era of the European Modernity which declared as well as desired the universal applicability. This era created persons who would wish to be modern.

The discipline of sociology was invented as a part of the larger attempt to make sense of this changing social context. Classical theorists including August Comte, Karl Marx, Max Weber and others were all concerned with theorizing the Western European experience of modernization. Sociologists identified modernity as an evolutionary approach adopted by the Western cultural model of development and denied novel forms of society emerging.

However, during the course of history, the world was unified and the need for interdependence was seen when it witnessed the world wars, great depression and other calamities. This is when the western world applied modernization studies to the non-western world. But as the process of decolonization began, fresh hope was released and progress on the basis of rational-scientific technologies started taking root.

Pitfalls of the modernity tradition popularized by the west

It has been earlier argued that European Modernity claims to have universality but at the same time, a complete detachment from the local influences is not possible. It can only be spoken of at the highest level of abstraction. The coming of modernity is not a form of a complete replacement for the traditional or cultural society but rather an influence on it. This is the case with a country like India, where the old and new powers worked simultaneously to form a sphere of influence for the emergence of a new social functional order.

Indian Context

The social dominance of nationalism and the existence of institutions for the intellectual expression of this dominance paved the way for a different mode of modernization for India. According to Deshpande, it is these social movements in the human history that are responsible for shaping the world order into an image that it holds today.

Colonization has been one of the starkest forms of this reshaping especially in the case of India where it has altered the way we think and function, the ideological frameworks and intellectual tools we apply while dealing with any situation.

Earlier, India did not see any sustained interest in the social change, however, post-independence it became an important item on the agenda of the social anthropologists where the idea of modernization took on the dimension of a national mission. And India entered the race to be ‘modern’. But as Satish Deshpande mentions, ‘the Indians want to be modern, but not ‘too modern’ or ‘only modern’. The presence of modernity in the Indian social context is thus both confusing and challenging at the same time and hence requires a detailed account.

The timeline of modernity in India, is spread across the period from pre-colonial India to the post-independence where India emerged as a potentially modern country.

The dominant influence in the Indian Modernity has connections with the British Raj. The advancement in the sphere of industry, transport and communication took place in the 1850s and broke the barriers across distance, bringing together different communities within the country. More and more ideas seeped into the traditional Indian society and people started realizing that they needed to change the lens with which they viewed their culture as well as the society.

It was realized that identity is chosen and achieved through hard work and rational action and not ascribed. Work was now being separated from the family or residence in order to facilitate a neutral functioning in the bureaucratic or any other organization. The emergence of democracy and social awareness in the modern nation state was also due to the impact of the modern flow of time. Deshpande calls it meta-narratives of progress that started emerging.

In India, neither modernity, nor tradition is strong enough to completely erase the other. Thus a distinct relation was formed. There is however a fact that the dominant description of dualism in the Indian literature is very different. In the Indian accounts, tradition and modernity are parts of the same personality; however they are kept discrete even within the same personality. T.N. Srinivas gives the example of a worker who uses machines in his work space but at the same time is very traditional in his beliefs. This schizophrenic Indian personality has created ‘discrete’ sectors like individual, family and social groups within itself, which co-exist with each other. This creates a dualistic-but-unified identity which makes the Indian social unit different from others.

Avijit Pathak in his book ‘Contradictions, Paradoxes and Possibilities’ highlights that Indian culture is continuously evolving, growing and altering because of its diversity in the language, tradition, life practice and ethnic identity. Indian Culture has the creativity and ability to accommodate and synthesis multiple currents and traditions. Of late, modernity seems to be emerging from different, unexpected spheres like the media, film, law, institutions of the state and also academic disciplines. The most noticeable change in the Indian Social theory today is the increase of confidence of the third world vis-à-vis the west.

The presence of scholars of this much of a variety and diversity is not to be found in any other country in the Third World. This has given rise to different Indian scholarship which is no longer dominated by the western theories. There was a desperate desire to be not just modern, but to have a distinctive modernity. The study of the thing that is changing becomes more important than the change per se, as said by D.P. Mukherji. Also, the words modern and traditional should not be treated as descriptive but rather as suggestions regarding the viewpoint that needs to be adopted towards a particular object or scenario while talking about the Indian context. (Deshpande)

Robert Redfield believes that tradition occurs as part of a chain while handling down from one generation not another. It is in the form of a process or product. Thus, there is no clear division between tradition and modernity. What is modern for the present civilization would be traditional for the civilization that exists a few decades later.

It is however being claimed that everyone and everything is modern today. It however is not the same. We analyze it according to its context, procedure and relationships on the traditional-modern axes. Thus the unitary status of traditional or modern that has been stamped upon certain objects needs to be re-examined.

Baisali belongs to the political science department of the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College for Women. For a brief period she has been associated with several international and national media houses including the Hindu, Times of India and Jasodhara Global Media. She has been involved with several national level campaigns including The honour for women campaign, One billion rising. Her contribution to several NGOs has also been quite noteworthy which includes OYSS, Kirti, Nirbhaya and several others.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind