Perils of cultural alienation

By Aziz Ali Dad

The culture of Gilgit-Baltistan has evolved over the centuries within a mental framework or worldview that is unique to the region. Likewise, the economy, literature, society, music and architecture of the region have a close relationship with the indigenous worldview.

Within the traditional social setup, cultural knowledge is transmitted through institutions, personalities, rituals and activities that are linked to orality. Since all the languages of Gilgit-Baltistan are oral, cultural knowledge is imparted through oral mediums.

Such mediums have enabled individuals to become a part of the worldview that connects the individual self with society, the semiological universe and the world. This indigenous worldview has informed the people’s understanding of different spheres of life and nature.

With the advent of modernity, Gilgit-Baltistan’s society has experienced the disintegration of the traditional worldview and the natural world and society has been disenchanted. As a result, society has lost the mental structure that offers different ways of seeing the world. A society without a mental framework to understand the subjective and objective world cannot make sense of the order of things.

The disintegration of the indigenous worldview has affected every aspect of life, including the processes that have facilitated the internalisation of cultural knowledge. The disintegration of the traditional worldview has created a rupture in the value-chain of knowledge transmission.

In the absence of a worldview, society and its members continue to operate in an ideological vacuum. In other words, the society of Gilgit-Baltistan has become a clean slate. In this state, it has gained exposure to exogenous ideas, the modern cultural industry and the media. When a society without cultural and intellectual capital gains exposure to a stronger culture, it loses the genuine parts of its culture and becomes a passive receptor of various impressions. This results in a change in the structure of thought and brings about a change in social behaviour and the cultural ethos. Such changes have far-reaching effects on society and the self.

With the rupture in cultural transmission, the individual feels alienated from his/her society and nature. The disintegration of the worldview in Gilgit-Baltistan is an outcome of the roaring current of change that, in the words of Alvin Toffler, “overturns institutions, shifts our values and shrivel our roots”.

Now, the indigenous sources of self in Gilgit-Baltistan have dried up and the individual is invested with ideas and a cultural vocabulary that does not help him/her make sense of self-existing in society and nature. Such is the situation that the new generation of Gilgit-Baltistan can easily explain the psychology of African hyenas, but are oblivious to the social dynamics in their own hamlets or neighbourhoods.

There is no denying the fact that modern means of communication have facilitated cross-regional cultural interaction. However, at the same time, it has widened the communication gap within local communities in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Take the example of organic relationships and communications that have evolved during the age of compulsory foot-walks. In olden times, there were no roads and hotels and people established relationships with far-flung villages and areas in Gilgit-Baltistan through marriages and other kinship-based solidarities. With the opening of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the people began using modern means of communication.

Now, a person does not know about his blood relatives who live in a different ethnic, linguistic and religious milieu because modern transportation has enabled him or her to whiz past the villages in a vehicle without fulfilling traditional compliments.

Ideally, the modern schooling system should have taken the role of imparting cultural knowledge in the wake of the disintegration of traditional mediums of transmission. But this has not happened in Gilgit-Baltistan as none of the local languages and indigenous literature is part of the education system.

In his book titled ‘Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know’, E D Hirsch states that “the basic goal of education in a human community is acculturation, the transmission to children of the specific information shared by the adults of the group or polis”. He claims that “only by piling up specific, communally shared information can children learn to participate in complex cooperative activities with other members of their community”.

In the case of Gilgit-Baltistan, the education system has failed to acculturate children. As a result, there has been a failure among individuals to cooperate and participate in collective activities. There has also been a breakdown of communication among linguistic, cultural and religious groups in the region. Although the region has witnessed a phenomenal increase in literacy as compared to other parts of Pakistan, it has failed to equip the new generation with cultural literacy.

Today, children and the youth of Gilgit-Baltistan can quote Mir, Ghalib, Faiz, Shakespeare and John Keats but cannot express their sense and sensibilities in local cultural metaphors. Hence, local literature is replete with alien metaphors, similes and images that do not have a resonance with the lived experience of the people who inhabit the cultural space of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Another major change in culture and society has been brought by information and communication technology. Gilgit-Baltistan has entered the information age with the dawn of the new millennium. The advent of modern information and communication technology has coincided with another development: the uprooting of the youth from the region. Owing to the lack of opportunities, the youth in Gilgit-Baltistan have left their homes to find jobs in major cities of Pakistan and abroad. This has culminated in the hollowing-out of adults and the youth in various villages. As a result, important social and cultural roles are fast disappearing.

What we are witnessing in the abovementioned developments is the uprooting of the self from society and the individual from solid space. With their absence in solid spaces, the residents of the region who are living elsewhere try to reconnect with their culture and society through virtual spaces. In this regard, social media has become an effective tool to establish new connections and solidarities. Now, virtual identity has superseded the solid identity among the new generation in Gilgit-Baltistan. Unlike previous ages, the sources of the contemporary self stems from virtual spaces and alienated conditions.

The combination of the virtual with the alienated self can have dire repercussions on culture and society as such a society is more prone to nihilism. To avoid the complete alienation of the self from culture, it is imperative to invest in creating solid spaces where the self can express its creative and aesthetic dimensions through cultural metaphors and gain cultural knowledge.

Amid the disintegration of atoms in the cultural sphere, it is heartening to see that novel initiatives have been undertaken by the civil society and the government. For example, the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan has opened a music school and a carpentry centre for women in Altit Village in Hunza. It imparts training to young men and women in the cultural music, arts and crafts of Gilgit-Baltistan. Similar, activities are carried out by the Bulbulik Music School in Gojal, the Karakoram Area Development Organisation (KADO) and the Baltistan Cultural and Development Foundation.

Traditionally, music and poetry has remained male-dominated and caste-specific. Now, young students from diverse backgrounds are learning music and other crafts. In addition, the government of Gilgit-Baltistan plans to introduce local languages at school till class five. In this regard, a special committee has agreed on a common syllabus.

However, the outreach of the abovementioned initiative is still limited. At the broader level, the society is under the spell of a new version of faith that manifests itself in social and mental spaces in the shape of religiosity. This has contributed towards creating an exclusivist narrative that is based on faith. This new form of religiosity is gobbling up the remaining cultural spaces and expressions.

Such an exclusivist mindset can be countered by investing in culture and creating cultural spaces that are not only inclusive but also provide spaces for the self to reengage creatively with society and achieve self-actualisation. If we ignore culture, we are doomed to be swallowed by multiple forms of nihilism.

Email: azizalidad@gmail.com

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.

Originally published by The NEWS

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