Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Sparse culture vs rich culture

One of the things I most love about Ladakh is its sparse culture, the slenderness of its means.

Take the village economy. There are three trees, only three: the willow, the poplar, the apricot. The poplar for building. The willow for the roof, for hurdles, for sticks. The apricot for fruit.

There is one crop. Barley.

There are two toilets. Ladakhi toilets come in pairs; one for use this year, one for last year. At the end of its year fermenting, the compost is turned out in the fields, and the last year toilet becomes next year's.

This is sparse culture. It's not just the difficulty of the climate that makes it so; it's the predominance of a single religion, a single devotion (mahayana Buddhism has many deities but in all Ladakhi temples you see the same few - Green Tara, White Tara, Padmasambhava, Maitreya), a single way of life. (Though Leh is something of an exception: I met a number of local Sikhs, and stayed with a Muslim family, and in summer, anyway, the town is as much Kashmiri as it is Ladakhi.)

Music has only five instruments: the drum, cymbal, bell, the shawm and trumpet. Most music is sung: the ploughing song, the chant. A contrast to the richness of Varanasi, where bansuri, sitar, tabla, shehnai, violin and shruti box vary and ornament the two hundred different ragas, and the streets are full of diverse musics.

Iceland also has a sparse culture at its heart. Rich in stories - the Icelanders are great storytellers - but sparing in its food, for instance, sparing in the seasonality of its life, sparing in the lack of ancient history - though it has the oldest continually used Parliament site in the world, Iceland has hardly any buildings more than two hundred years old. Even its rifts, its mountains and its islands are recent, and not just in geological terms: Thingvellir subsided in the eighteenth century, so what you see now is not what the Vikings saw when they held their first parliament there, and the island of Surtsey is a mere half-century old.

The wonderful thing about Iceland, though, is that a sparse culture allows originality and eccentricity to develop easily. A ridiculously high number of Icelanders write and publish books. Bjork and Sigur Ros are just the tip of a huge Icelandic music iceberg. There are no traditions to hold you back.

Rich cultures, on the other hand, surround you with an amniotic soup of tradition, of culture, of music, of difference. This was the type of culture Shakespeare lived in - a mixup of Bible learning, classical myth and history, chivalrous romance, medieval devotion, modern science. While it's possible to maintain that the creator of Shylock probably never met a Jew - they had been barred from England for centuries - there was a Moroccan ambassador at the English court, and Elizabethan adventurers had reached Persia (Shirley), Surat (Coryat) and even Norwich (Will Kempe).

I was thinking of that today reading an article in the Guardian about Ethiopian music. With "80 ethnic groups and 40 native instruments" this is a rich culture - add to that modern tech and western musical beats, and you have something very massive and very rich.

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