Greet, cheer, clap: Mutuality in Indian civilisation

 Cultures represent natural responses of a people to the requirements of their ecosystem, both organic and inorganic

Published: 17th February 2021 07:17 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th February 2021 07:17 AM   |  A+A-

Namaste, Greetings

Even the dance and music halls in pre-colonial palaces were restricted, with a purpose, of course. (Express Illustrations | Amit Bandre)

Civilisational studies are quite complex as each one is quite unique or else it would not qualify for the term. Basically, cultures represent natural responses of a people to the requirements of their ecosystem, both organic and inorganic. In India, for instance, we really do not wish “good morning” and “good evening”, except to a Westernised clientele or (in recent times) to colleagues. We hardly ever greet our family members. Many, of course, insist that we have traditionally greeted people with Pranam, Namaskaram, Vanakkam, Sat Sri Akal or something similar.

But there is hardly any supporting evidence from our literature and records in pre-modern times about its daily and universal use. This is certainly not an indictment—it is only a fact that reveals a trait worth noting. For instance, when we shop, we exchange no pleasantries as in the Western world, but get straight to the point. One is now told that we had greetings like Jai Shri Ram or Radhe Radhe, but one hardly notices people saying so even now, except perhaps in certain small pockets or to provoke Mamata Banerjee. Historian Eric Hobsbawm has explained that all over the world, old traditions are invented all the time and then bestowed retrospective respectability.

Caste or class often mandated that peasants and artisans salute their superiors (while untouchables were kept out of sight), but then this was not ‘greeting’; it was social subjugation. In Muslim societies, however, greeting others with Adaab or As-Salam Alaykum appears more common, but here again, several other factors also mattered. The point that we make is that as a people we have, by and large, not been habituated to greeting each other and the mutuality of relationships does not appear to have been so critical, as in other cultures. Let us now examine another closely related trait: clapping, that we made real use of as one more post-colonial habit. Despite this, we are surely among the most unenthusiastic and non-energetic clappers in the world.

Our root languages, Sanskrit and Tamil, as well as the languages that were inspired by them, have words for clapping. But our literature hardly mentions its public expression as in cheering performing artistes or competitive sportsmen. Even the tales of archery or wrestling that we hear of in the hoary past were contests limited to just a few aristocrats. In fact, we hardly hear of grand games or athletic competitions in our history. Though we built glorious stupas, monasteries and temples, we have no archeological evidence of public auditoriums or stadiums in ancient India.

Nothing like the Greek amphitheatres or Roman stadia or the Colosseum. Several mandapams attached to temples were used for the performing arts, but except the two mighty Chola temples, their circulation area was usually small and constricted by pillars. Even the dance and music halls in pre-colonial palaces were restricted, with a purpose, of course. We are not discussing rare exceptions like the hall of the Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal of Madurai and the later palaces built in the 19th and 20th centuries. Classical music and dance were, of course, limited to the classes and not meant for the masses.

Creating public spaces for performances and sports does not appear to have been a cultural priority, nor was cheering. We may mention here that, in the social history of mankind, open public events, clapping and cheering have played quite an important role. Sociobiologist Desmond Morris says that “when we applaud a performer, we are, in effect, patting him on the back from a distance”. Among the oldest texts, the Bible mentions several times that people clapped in approval when kings were appointed or at public events. Rulers acknowledged this affirmation of support as it conferred greater legitimacy.

Ancient Greeks also used this mass communication technique at their public forums and amphitheatres, equating clapping with auditory voting. In his book Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome, Gregory Aldrete actually confirmed that “this is how rulers gauged the people ... (and) it was a poll of their feelings”. Roman emperors are known to have taken public enthusiasm and frenzy at the Colosseum to barbaric levels. On the whole, clapping and cheering encouraged contestants to excel and also helped integrate societies by instilling group consciousness and participation. The stratified, status-determined society of India may, however, not have required them.

The only major examples of public clapping we can recall are during bhajans and when Chaitanya Mahaprabhu broke out into his ecstatic dance and song. But these examples actually reinforce the postulate that clapping does assist human bonding and breaks down social barriers. The Vaishnava movement of medieval Eastern India attracted masses through rhythmic songs played to the beat-stirring hand-held musical clappers, the khartal, and the earthen mridangam-like drum called khol.

There may surely be other examples in pre-modern India, but the fact remains that our history does not highlight mass involvement at large public performances and sports. Let us remember that when we fold our hands firmly in a Namaste, we also ensure that touch is impossible. It is quite possible that Indic civilisation succeeded in bonding incredibly diverse ethnic groups into one, maybe because it imposed its own rules of coexistence and ensured distinct boundaries, clamped hierarchies, and maintained exclusivity in communication and contact.  

Jawhar Sircar  (, tweets @jawharsircar)
Retired civil servant. Former Culture Secretary and ex-CEO, Prasar Bharati


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