From Incredible India to Authentic India
There is a place high up in the mountains of Uttarakhand called Majkhali where, when darkness falls, you can lift your head and stare endlessly at the night sky, and watch the moods of millions of stars form endless loops of twinkling joy. Sometime, when I feel the silence beckon, I take the train from New Delhi railway station (which, thankfully, seems cleaner than before) and bump uphill to Kathgodam, a merry little station at the foothills of the Himalayas from where a hired taxi spirals me up through pine trees fighting a battle with diesel fumes and the stench of stale vegetable oil from scores of dhabhas.
On the way to Majhkhali is the ashram of Neem Karoli Baba. Most people have heard of Neem Karoli Baba because Steve Jobs visited the ashram in search of the Baba but arrived too late. The holy man had already left his body. Yet fact that Jobs came here is known even by the dhaba-wallah, ‘Apple-wale aye the’, he once told me. Jobs came in 1974 but at Kainchi Dham it is as if Black Polo-necked One was just here.
There is a lesson in this story. A lesson that has more to do with authenticity than mere tourism. The search for authenticity is one of the biggest challenges of our age of big data where human control and intervention is being questioned more than ever before. We seek more ‘authentic’ experiences because so much of our everyday lives is led on ether, driven by algorithms that we barely understand. But these algorithms seem to determine everything — from our dates to our washing powder.
Where does this desire for authenticity come from? It comes from a hunger for tradition after all traditions have been effectively demolished by modernity. The Hungarian philosopher Anges Heller argued that modernity ‘has no foundation, since it emerged in and through the destruction and deconstruction of all foundations’. The algorithmic life is the apex of the modern life and having reached there, it is unsurprising that many might find it lacking a foundation — a foundation only culture and tradition can provide. This should not be misunderstood as tradition and culture being anti-modern. In fact as the Indian example has shown again and again, culture and tradition can be intelligent and supple to consistently evolve according to the changing times and accommodate new realities.
That’s why the desire for authenticity has grown ever so urgent. I stumbled upon conversations on authenticity regularly a few months ago at the World Economic Forum Young Global Leader summit in Buenos Aires, it is the pitch of ‘organic’ discussion, it is why vinyl records outsold digital music sales in 2016 in several markets, and the historian Yuval Noah Harari has been urging us to ‘know thyself’ (i.e. become more authentic) in the age of big data.
It is authenticity that differentiates the traveller and the tourist, the seeker and the believer.
As perhaps the only unbroken civilisation in the world — think about, millions of Indians today recite chants every morning that their Vedic ancestors did thousands of years ago, using exactly the same words, unchanged, unaltered — the dawn of the age of authenticity presents India with an unique opportunity. From the definitive Incredible India, which served us so well, we must have a new campaign: Authentic India. Incredible India did stellar service in providing a new way of looking at India, a novel, colourful approach to comprehending the bewildering rainbow that is India. Authentic India would take this journey forward.
In the era of artificial intelligence, this is our old-new USP, our own AI. In all the chatter about the disruptive power of artificial intelligence, most people are not seeing the other grassroots opportunity that is emerging very strongly — a surge towards authentic experiences, materials, and goods and services. India has this living wisdom, this authenticity in every nook and corner. It has it in hundreds of everyday rituals, it has it in living monuments (it must be remembered here that India’s great temples are not merely architectural marvels but they are living places of worship with jagrut or ‘living’ deities for millions of worshippers), it has it incantations repeated time after time with the belief that even the sonority of words can purify space.
The revival of this sense of authenticity will have a domino effect of not just bringing to visitors a sense of captivating wonder in presence of lived history but also bring billions of dollars in tourism revenues and from the sale of cultural goods and services from India to around the world. It will also have the additional attribute of further fuelling a deeper sense of cultural literacy among Indians at home.
Think about it: according to latest data, India has 149 products which have a GI (geographical indication) tag. Each of these products has a history, a home, a presence, a sense of everyday authentic mooring in their production and design. Each of them is an ambassador for Authentic India.
Authenticity, said the revolutionary sage Aurobindo, is the first step towards absoluteness, and the time for an Authentic India campaign is upon us.
(This essay was first published on the by-invitation only platform of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi http://www.narendramodi.in/reflections/time-for-authentic-india-31)