Pro (professional) and non (non-professional). These are the two types of people who exist in cultural field. Education is a-given. No point even talking about it (Hindi Medium or not. All Indians must see this unique film on our education system. Late Irfan Khan and Samar have acted so well in this film, which is a story of typical Delhi family from Chandni Chowk – that’s most ancient part of old Delhi area – and traditional. How a young couple have to move to a fancy neighbourhood just to keep up with the Joneses and get their child admitted to a good school, read, English oriented. Their trials and tribulations; tricks and trade-offs. How possessing a BMW, they have to pretend to be poor and try catch a city bus which, in Delhi, used to be a form of art in itself, till the Metro came. They become poor and live in a rat-infested room in a slum basti, all to prove they deserve a seat under RTE quota. That’s Right to Education. In the end, they realise government schools are just as well and take their daughter out of a fancy five-star school and put her in a Hindi medium school, read government run.)

I detailed this film and story as a culture point: India is unique and the starting point of our societal systems is school education. Alas, in most advanced countries education being a civic right, all schools have basic standards. One just goes to a neighbourhood school and not travel miles to reach to a school. Often, one cannot see or select which school to go to. Most often one ends up in the nearest school to home, unless one is super rich and wants to go to Eton or Shiton! Going to your neighborhood school means easy commuting and makes sense as a study in the USA, showed 25 per cent less traffic in the morning on roads as most WALK to school, not go by bus or car (that clog the roads). Same in Sweden or Germany or France with minor variations in accordance to population and climate.

India has the most complex layers to education. As this is June-July, admission season to schools and colleges have just begun. I recall my own some 45 years ago. Born in Baroda, shifted to Delhi via Punjab and Madras, my father first thought Indian-ness was important. So Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan it was for school. For college, he felt the farther away from Delhi the better it’d be for us. So off we were sent to Manipal, as in MG college that’s near Udupi, which is near Mangalore, which is not a cousin of Bangalore, as many in north India then thought. Going to Manipal (that’s not in Manipur, as most Delhites thought those days) from Delhi, those days was as far as going to the moon. One look at the drab college and I said no, no. Father wanted me far away from the evil Capital culture even if we has passed school from there. He thought South had culture. I might learn Yakshagana or SOMETHING. In Delhi, i just had failed to learn Kathak properly from great guru Kundanlal Gangani; Odissi from guru Mayadhar Raut and Bharatanatyam at home. So as a last resort, he said Yakshagana just might be it. No way. I ran for my Delhi life all the way and applied to, perhaps three colleges which offered History which is what I wanted to study. And I got it in the first list without even trying: St. Stephen’s. How? I had passed from a school that’s a very Indian chain called the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and I passed with distinction in three subjects: History, Geography and English. I was called for an interview and finished with it in a less than a minute when the principal Rev. Rajpal said in his booming voice “Young man why are you here?” I thought he meant I didn’t belong there as my clothes were Indian and basic (we had moved to Delhi from Baroda, hailing from Punjab and Tamil Nadu). I mumbled something. He looked at the interview board and scolded the members, saying why you wasting our time? Look at his marks! He is a topper of all India. Take him!

Khatam-Over and out. They said: Go pay the fee. And I was out of the room, dazed. Till two dopey kids in torn jeans approached me and said: Sorry, man, you were thrown out of the interview, it was so short, what will you do next? I said: I’ve been asked to go pay the fee. They looked totally zapped. They thought I was a cat.

That was an ultimate compliment those days. He is a cat meant he is ultra-uber. It was another matter that soon I was thrown out too! My attendance was so short in the first year because I had gotten busy with cultural activities and thought why go sit in a class, when real life teaches so much? As someone famously remarked: I never let college interfere with my education! A bigger course and college engulfed me: Life! Dance was in my genes and music I loved. Next, theatre engulfed me. I always wanted to be an actor so when I was chosen to play Amir Khusro in a production by choreographer Bhagwandas Varma of Natya Ballet Centre, I was happy. The President of India, no less, was coming as chief guest. Those days, to see the Prez was a rare sight. And we were interviewed by the press that was very big those days. 1976. He came with his begum who had puffed, stylish hair and we were photographed and feted. In that show, the cameraman of one of the biggest Bollywood producers, happened to be present. He had just made a film called Sholay. That cameraman spotted me and recommended me for a role in a Bombay Hindi film! I was paid handsomely for running around trees and sing and dance. Things I’d do for free. Soon, I was thrown out of the film, as some superstar’s kid wanted work. Nepotism begins at home, where often charity doesn’t. I was also soon thrown out of college for attending only 13 days in a year! Now I know why they call number 13 unlucky. My father was maha upset as he had thought of me as a career diplomat which was farthest from my nature, temperament and core competency! I’m international but least diplomatic. I find it fake. That’s why I’m not even on Facebook. Talking of books, poetic justice was done when a few years ago, in Delhi’s Kamani auditorium, I chanced to meet the current principal of St. Stephen’s and gave him a copy of my annual folly attenDance -the yearbook of Indian dance. When he asked why such a name for a journal? I said: I was thrown out of your college, for lack of attendance! He was evolved and invited me to address the students in morning assembly whenever it suited me. I never go back to anything I leave in life. Jobs, houses, people. I’ve no real attachment as I’ve no ego. Only professionalism.

So Stephens’ loss was Hindu’s gain. Bang opposite each other, the Hindu College loved things Indian, was not pretentious and encouraged non-colonial art activity and took me in with open arms. I was a double star there! Rejected by Stephen’s meant I was very good on my own and the college didn’t make me and having worked in professional theatre and film meant those days, I was maha good at arts. At 18, is one good at anything? I had the best “jolly” three years of my life there as they never stopped my art activities. Jolly was my best friend and we saw every film in the book, to often escape the boring atmosphere at home. Hindu was smart to use my connections to get ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh perform at college and then Yamini Krishnamurthy, Aloka Paniker and others. In end-1970s, all this was big. We barely had ten rupees in pocket but were rich with experiences. Today young India has it too easy. Their sense of entitlement would put Bal Gangadhar Tilak to shame. They think they are very smart and some are, alas, only on paper or in virtual world. Practical experience? Zilch. I feel for young India too, as they got no goals in life, no role models.

Cricket and credit cards are not dependable items. So sorry to digress, but I was on 12th century Sufi poet Amir Khusro, a ballet choreographed by Bhagwan Das Verma, a handsome pink-cheeked talent. Those who don’t know, he was a happening ballet master of Delhi of the 1960s and 1970s. If Sumitra Charat Ram created Bharatiya Kala Kendra in late 1940s, her buddy Kamala Lal created the Natya Ballet Centre. One did Ramlila; other did Krishna Leela! There was a healthy competition of sorts between these two friends, who also ran a sari shop together above Regal building. That’s a prime cinema hall in CP, that’s short for Connaught Place.

Well, I’ve written a whole book on the institutions of Delhi 30 years ago (Delhi institutions and artistes detailed in Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Roli, 1999) so won’t repeat here. For those outside Delhi, this institution has a hall called Kamani. Delhi’s best auditorium. So Kamala Lal loved arts, so did her daughter Rupa who was a gracious lady. After both died, Rupa Lal’s sister Manju managed the institution and after her passing her daughter Radhika is in charge. Natya Ballet Centre has seen better days when run by professionals. I’ve detailed the history of this institution because I know it firsthand! Having lived in four cities of India – Baroda, Delhi, Madras, Bengaluru – and been to many often and regularly like Bombay, Pune, Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Chandigarh and Trivandrum for work during last 4O years helps me not being a frog in the well. Culture takes us places and makes us what we are.

My work with INTACH (1988-1992) was a Bharat Darshan. Having finished handling the Festival of India in Sweden (1986-87) and this was after exposure to the one in France and USA (1985-86), I was lucky to be hired by INTACH, India’s best known heritage and conservation institution. Pioneers. The best of India was part of it. I’m talking of the end eighties and early nineties. Whole India was our palette. One month Cochin to help Mattancherry Palace to next month Bhubaneswar Lingaraj complex. One year Amritsar Heritage plan to next year in Bombay to save the Opera House. I saw all of India as never before. Patna, Mathura, Assam and Kashmir. There was so much to be done. The palaces were just becoming hotels to survive and royalty was at risk. We could help Jodhpur Mehrangarh Museum come up as much as Bolpur. There was only Indian Airlines those days, no internet. Letters were still typed and we all worked like ants. So the rich international experience (after Sweden, one got a chance to work with Germany (1989), then China(1992), Hong Kong and Malaysia(2000) and national exposure makes one what one is today. We created many museums and restored some of the best palaces and properties that would have fallen or eaten up by builders or termites.

So, why I shared all of above is to share that culture is a process, not a product. There is no substitute for real work. Practical experience. It is the first type and one who KNOWS. The second type is one who PRETENDS to know! First type is a proven professional. The other is the plain unprofessional. First type has practical experience; others have none of paltry. First type is real books. Second type is facebook! Today, increasingly one notices the cultural and educational scenario is full of fake-it-till you- make it. Bluff your way through. Pretend one is a brahmagyani. Internet has given a fake sense of followers, replete with emoticons and symbols. Young ones don’t really have a reality check. They fail to realise that 2000 followers is a mere bubble!

Culture column doesn’t mean putting anyone down. That would be poor culture. Culture also doesn’t mean dance and music alone.

It means how we live. What class one comes from. Not money. But value system. How we conduct ourselves. What we leave, whom we inspire and how much we perspire. Today Indian society is shallow. In such a country, what’s excellence? What’s first rate? What’s exemplary? What’s professional? Future columns will take this up one by one. Till then, enjoy your summer or rains are here and some cities are under water. Krishna doing a Goverdhan act? Acche din ayenge!

Ashish Khokar loves and serves Indian arts and culture selflessly, by writing, documenting, filming, archiving, celebrating and awarding. 45+books, over 5000 articles, work with 10 inter/national organisations make his work the gold standard of the field. More details on



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  • Real connect to life and very practical, very good read!

  • What an excellent piece with dollops of Information and humour. Made my day.

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