Seminar Lecture: India’s Syncretic Culture by Rana Safvi

Report by Arunabh Konwar, Reserach Intern at CSPS

The CSPS Internship comprises a series of virtual talks featuring prominent thinkers, scholars and writers, to speak on pressing themes related to pluralism. The fifth session hosted Historian Rana Safvi who presented on “India’s Syncretic Culture”. The session included a lecture following an interactive question and answer session. The session was chaired by Dr Javed Iqbal Wani, Ambedkar University Delhi.

About the speaker

Rana Safvi is a historian, author and translator who writes on the culture, history and monuments of India. A believer in the idea of “Ganga-Jamuni-Tehzeeb” that underlines India’s syncretic culture, she has extensively documented the same in her writings and other media. She has authored several books on the history of Delhi along with translating various accounts of the city from Urdu to English. A regular contributor to various newspapers and magazines on literature and culture, she blogs on Indian culture, food, heritage and age-old traditions at  ranasafvi.com.

Lecture Notes & Q&A

Rana Safvi began with an image of celebrating Diwali at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in 2019. She juxtaposes this image of dynamic community practices emerging out of exchange between several religious communities with the popular idea of the polarised religious communities existing in isolation from one another. Safvi relativises multiculturalism and its epistemes in the specific historicity of migration and interaction of several religious and ethnic communities in the region. She argues that contrary to the assumption that multiculturalism implies an overlapping of different cultures and a simple blending of cultures leading to a ‘composite culture’, it is rather an expression that facilitates the expression of different cultures with a foregrounding for equality between them rather than assimilating them into one singular entity.

Problematising the idea of religious historiography and colonial historiography and illustrating the relationship between power and history-writing, Safvi talks about the importance of primary sources in reading history with special importance on the visual and oral histories. She goes on to present specimens from medieval architecture such as the Eternal Knot iconography in various temples and mosques, along with a few select oral narratives from Kashmir and Delhi. Presenting them, she articulates how these can be read as expressions of syncretic culture in the region to produce an alternate history of syncretic culture in the Indian sub-continent. The Q&A session that followed was in the form of responses by Safvi to the various questions that were raised by the interns. Elaborations on the idea as to how syncretism fosters an appreciation for “difference” along with a discussion on the epistemological definition and differences of often wrongly interchanged such as “multiculturalism”, “syncretism”, “secularism”, etc. Further, brief comments were made on the regional variations of syncretism in parts of India such as Assam along with the political use of syncretism and its implications.

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