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Answer by Tirumalai Kamala:

A simplistic formula to describe the process? An idea + charismatic and single-minded figures + cultural zeitgeist. The idea is the seed, the charismatic and single-minded figures embody the idea and provide the necessary nutrition, and the cultural zeitgeist the soil that allows the idea seed to germinate, grow and thrive. Do I have any data to back this up? Let’s look at a couple of examples.

  1. Henry Dunant, Gustave Moynier, Clara Barton and Mabel Thorp Boardman and the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Geneva Conventions.
  2. Anant Pai and Amar Chitra Katha.

ICRC and the Geneva Conventions.
The idea? How to mitigate the horrors of war and natural disasters.

The charismatic and single-minded figures? Two pairs of yin and yang coming together with single-minded purpose. On the one hand, the charismatic, free-wheeling and opportunistic dreamers, Henri Dunant and Clara Barton. On the other hand, the self-righteous and moralistic dogged do-gooders Gustave Moynier and Mabel Thorp Boardman.

Cultural zeitgeist? A rapidly industrializing world had become increasingly adept at creating ever more dreadful weapons of destruction. It simultaneously created the cultural (daily newspapers and their war correspondents) and technological (telegraph) instruments to widely disseminate this dreadful carnage in real time and also record it for posterity (dageurrotypes, photographs). The horrors of war thus emanated far beyond the soldiers and reached the doorstep of the entire populace. They felt they needed to do something but what?

Henry Dunant’s life-changing experience occurred on the evening of 24 June 1859 when he, a young Geneva businessman, arrived at Solferino. It was the evening before the Battle of Solferino. Earlier on 3 May, Napoleon III of France had joined forces with the Italians and declared war on Austria. The Battle of Solferino was particularly horrible because it happened by chance. Neither side planned to fight that day and did so after facing each other by chance.

Chance played its part in Dunant’s presence as well. Scion of one of Geneva’s prosperous families, by 1859, Dunant headed a troubled business empire. His latest scheme, to turn a stretch of North Africa into a bread basket for Europe, was literally drying up from lack of much needed water. He turned up in Solferino to try and meet Napoleon III and gift him a handsomely printed self-published book called The Empire of Charlemagne Restored, an obvious attempt to ingratiate and seek sponsorship for his failing business venture in French-controlled Algeria. As it turned out, Dunant’s overture to Napoleon III was rejected. Disappointed in business and retaining the horror of what he witnessed at Solferino, Dunant turned his experiences into a powerful anti-war polemic, A Memory of Solferino. With its vivid and detailed descriptions of the horrors of war, Dunant’s book evoked admiration for the writer and revulsion and condemnation of war across the length and breadth of Europe, from fashionable salons to church pulpits. Acclaim for his book created the right environment for the creation of the ICRC, and in the years to come, with the help of Moynier and other allies, Dunant helped create the ICRC while Clara Barton and Mable Thorp Boardman were decisive in expanding the mandate beyond victims of war to victims of natural disasters in times of peace, thus sowing the seeds of the Geneva Convention.

Anant Pai and wildly improbable success of Amar Chitra Katha.
The idea? Create a belief in a unified cultural identity of India among children born decades after independence.

The charismatic and single-minded figure? India’s uncle, Uncle Pai, the late Anant Pai. Combining the charisma of a Dunant or a Barton with the single-minded sense of purpose of a Moynier or a Boardman, Pai’s goal was no less lofty than to to eliminate “kula, matha, pranthiya abhimanalu” (loyalties of caste, religion and region) and to promote “bhaava-samaikyatha, desa-samikyatha” (unity of feeling and unity of nation) (Godspeed, Uncle Pai!). “Unless you have continuity with the past, you can’t easily be adjusted with the present,” he said. “The acquaintance with the past is a must. You may not agree with it. You can disagree with it, but be aware of it” (The New York Times).

Cultural zeitgeist? A newly independent yet exceedingly fractious and diverse sub-continent carved out as a country. For those born in the decades immediately prior and post-independence (1947), the freedom struggle against an alien foreign power was a potent unifying memory. What about those born in the subsequent decades? After all, there is no such country as India. Rather there is a United States of India. Different languages, different gods and goddesses, different cultures, different cuisine, everywhere one looks in India, there is a regional difference in kind, not just in degree. How could such a country stay together as the memories of the freedom struggle fast faded? In the years before cable television, the internet and economic liberalization, as the joint family system fast disintegrated, the cultural identity of India remained largely nebulous and inchoate to those born during the country’s adolescence and early adulthood.

What did Pai do? Using Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Illustrated Stories) as his vehicle, Pai’s genius was in making manifest the invisible glue that binds Indians together, the invisible glue embodied by the common stories passed on through countless generations, told and re-told in a single, unbroken thread stretching back hundreds, even thousands of years. Created in the easily accessible and understood format of brightly colored comics, Amar Chitra Katha almost single-handedly created a belief in India’s cultural unity-in-diversity for millions of children. Whether we grew up speaking Hindi or Gujarati, celebrated the birth of Krishna or Ganesha, or grew up eating makki di roti (corn flour flatbread) or idli (fermented steamed rice cakes), we intuitively understood the common cultural threads tying together the stories of Amar Chitra Katha, and doing so, we learned to recognize the underlying similarities in each other beneath all those seemingly insurmountable differences of language, culture, cuisine, caste and religion.

The more interesting question is how do cultural institutions continue to survive and thrive once their founders pass on. I’m not sure there’s a simple formula for that.

How are cultural institutions created?