I.An Introduction to Culture and its Myriad Aspects

We, the people of the SAARC region, share the same cultural heritage, the same roots, and it is through culture, primarily, that we need to be connected.

Our organisation FOSWAL realised it long back, in 1986, and launched the first-ever cultural initiative in the region with the first Indo-Pakistan Writers Conference in 1987. Why with literature ? Because our cultures unanimously believe that ‘In the beginning was the WORD’.

Let us have a look at what exactly culture is.

Culture determines our identity : the sum total of our beliefs, attitudes and habits, of our historical memories and our oral traditions, of our folk songs and folk tales, of the way our civilization has evolved, of our social-religious-political evolution, of our myths and legends, of our beliefs and our relationship with our surroundings, of the influence our environment and ecology have on us, of our relationship with our birds and animals, with the changing seasons, and with nature’s bounties and furies, and how we deal with them.

We, the people inhabiting the SAARC region share this identity.

Our culture influences our attitude to life; how we mould and shape and transform our ever-evolving societies.

Culture is not a frozen set of values and practices. It is constantly recreated as people question, adapt and redefine their values and practices to changing realities and exchanges of ideas.

Culture is man’s relationship with mountains and snows and with all the animals living in them. Culture is man’s relationship with vast oceans and its vast population of water creatures. Culture is man’s

relationship with the earth he tills, with the trees and plants, with the crops and birds and animals.

It was so in a natural and subconscious way in primitive so called ‘illiterate’ and ‘undeveloped’ societies which revered all natural forms and spirits. Ironically urbanization and the ‘advanced’ human mind killed this relationship. If our planet is to remain habitable for future generations we have to revive that ‘worship’ which connected us to nature.

Understanding cultural traditions can offer insights into human behaviour and social dynamics that influence development outcomes.

It is when people are looking for and consciously exploring new orientation and values that the impact of culture on society can be clearly visualised. Culture when acknowledged in all its myriad manifestations, gives strength to move forward. It becomes a backbone that can create the resilience to deal with change and transformation in our evolving societies, and move with confidence towards transformation in creativity, innovation and renewal.

We, the people of the SAARC region need to share our experiences regarding this ever-evolving transformation in our societies, in our ideas, and in our creativity.

For example, we in the SAARC region are perhaps the only people, excepting the original inhabitants of Australia who the haughty colonisers called ‘aboriginals’, the way they called us ‘natives’, the only people who have such passionate relationship with land. For us, land is the mother which gives us food. Land is fertile only because it has soaked, from times immemorial, the drops of sweat of our forefathers. The aboriginals of Australia go a step further and believe that their ancestors have been transformed into green ants, and these green ants are sleeping in the earth, dreaming green dreams.

We, the people of South Asia have this unique cultural bondage of our convictions.

We also share, in a unique way, how we express our grief and our

joy ! We are perhaps the only people who have songs for every occasion, right from the time a mother conceives to the time of birth.

From the time of birth, through all stages of life ! We are perhaps the only people who sing even when someone dies !

We sing when we sow the seeds, we sing when the crops grow, we sing when we bring the harvest home ! We sing when the seasons change, we sing when the rains fall ! We share the songs of our animals and birds, and plants and trees.

We, the people of SAARC region share all this ! All this, which is our way of life ! Our culture ! It is only culture which has the power to connect us.

It is culture, our way of life, our folklore and myths and legends, the three great religions which were born here, other three which found a flourishing soil here, this great cultural connectivity of the region forms our civilisational links which binds us together.

Cultural evolution dates back to the first time man felt the urge to draw those animals he killed, on the rocks of the caves he lived in. Cultural evolution includes the first leaves of trees he started wearing on his body. Cultural evolution is the story of his comprehension that rivers sing, that the earth has the potential to grow crops, that the animals can also be his friends and co-workers, that there are vast spaces on earth where he can move on and search for better environment and better livelihood, that instead of caves he can build houses and a compact habitat system for group living.

Evolution of culture is also the story of how man started singing with the songs of flowing rivers, quivering of tree leaves, songs of birds and bees, unfolding of myriad colours of blossoming flowers, movement of stars and moon, singing to the glory of the mighty sun.

Even today, man’s relationship with his environment and his relationship with fellow beings living anywhere on this planet, and with all living things with whom he shares this planet, with his rivers and oceans, with birds and trees, with animals and harvests, certifies – more than anything else – how cultured he is.

We, the people of SAARC region share this evolution, and this intense relationship with nature.

Culture is fine-tuning of co-existence, with the environment and with fellow human beings. Culture is compassion and respect for all living things. Culture is awareness of our heritage, and a capacity for reconciliation. Culture is respecting the otherness of others.

We in the SAARC region need to share this vital and profound  


II.Importance of Cultural Initiatives

If the goal of countries in transition, like our SAARC countries, is to have motivated, creative initiatives, they need committed individuals who contemplate, chisel, mould, and give shape to fresh ideas. Preserving our cultural heritage of course. Turning imagination into reality or something concrete is a creative act, so the arts more than most activities are concerned with creativity, invention and innovation. Reinventing a society or nursing it through transition is a creative act, and the unique experiences have to be sustained and nurtured and shared.

Cultural initiatives are important because they help in the recognition of cultural identities – ethnic, religious, linguistic, racial.

Initiatives for cultural exchanges are also important because we share our historical memories, we share our myths and legends, we share our love for our lands, we know the language of birds and animals and fish, we respect our sky and stars, and we know the tales of the oceans and mountains, of the sun and the moon.

We also share the secret wounds we carry within us, wounds of forgotten memories of things happened many many years ago, centuries ago ! Wounds so secret that we are hardly aware of them.

We need cultural connectivity so that we can patiently explore those memories, know them, illuminate them, own them, and make them a conscious part of our spirit and understanding of those who are living next door, sharing with us the sky, the birds, the clouds, the mountains-oceans-rivers.

We need cultural connectivity by sharing our folktales and folklore , comprising oral traditions of stories and songs and folk theatre and folk dances, which are the mirror of the lives of common people – the

social products created, transmitted and retained by millions of simple-hearted people. These are the voices of masses, travelling to us through centuries !

Folktales and myths and folklore and legends of the South Asian region have common roots, which need to be understood if the societal issues are to be adequately and comprehensively addressed.

The spirit of South Asian folklore and tradition is eternity and spirituality, based on universal brotherhood, compassion, tolerance, equality. It has always struggled between conformity – continuity on one hand, and transformation – modernization and change on the other.

We need to share them, to join hands to save them, because the soul of the SAARC region lives in those ancient tales and songs.

States also have an important role in forging cultural connectivity. However they face an urgent challenge in responding to the demands which are implicit in leading a full life. If handled well, greater recognition of identities will bring cultural diversity in society, enriching people’s lives.

In this era of globalization, when communities and countries are feeling that their age-old cultures are being swept away, even languages are getting extinguished like fluttering flames in the sweeping winds of globalisation and pop culture. And there is a strange, general amnesia towards profound intellectual initiatives and ideas, when, even globally, there is a trend to treat culture as ‘culture industry’. Though I respect ideas emanating from U. N., but when U.N. commits blunders like its monumental silence regarding the bombing of Iraq, the idea of ‘culture industry’ is a systematic attempt at eliminating the value and integrity of original thought and of ideas, the main components of civilisational links.

Countries of South Asia, with their diverse cultures, the vast spread of their languages and their knowledge systems, as ancient as the Himalayas, have to protect themselves of this sweeping onslaught on cultural identities.

It is very urgent and important that cultural connectivity is strengthened and reinforced by initiatives of civil society.

It is high time that we realise that cultural connectivity is the real challenge, because cultural diversity is here to stay and to grow. States need to find ways of forging national unity amid this diversity. The world, ever more interdependent economically, cannot function unless people respect diversity and build unity through common bonds of humanity.

In this age of globalization the demands for cultural recognition can no longer be ignored by any state or by the international community. And confrontations over culture and identity are likely to grow. Easy availability of communication facilities and travel have shrunk the world and changed the landscape of cultural diversity. Awareness about the need for democracy and human rights, and new global networks have given people greater means to mobilize around a cause, insist on a response, and get it.

These struggles over cultural identity, if left unmanaged or managed poorly, can quickly become one of the greatest sources of instability within states, spilling over to the neighbourhood ! – triggering conflicts that take development backwards.

Identity politics that polarize people and groups are creating fault lines between “us” and “them”. Growing distrust and hatred threaten peace, development and human freedoms.

Struggles over identity can also lead to regressive and xenophobic policies that retard human development. They can encourage a retreat to conservatism and a rejection of change, closing off the infusion of ideas and of people who bring cosmopolitan values and the knowledge and skills that advance development.

Managing diversity and respecting cultural identities are not just challenges for a few “multiethnic states”. Almost no country is entirely homogeneous. We have to locate, identify and promote cultural connectivity to cross over these fault lines.

The SAARC Region presents a landscape of cultural diversity, where cultural connectivity can be the only redeeming factor, to save the region, to save peace, to save dreams !

If the governments of South Asian countries get really serious about cultural connectivity in the region, and resolve to cooperate, it can result in a larger churning of collective conscience of people of the region.

III. Sharing Civilizational Heritage: Cultural Connectivity in the SAARC Region

The SAARC represents eight sovereign countries which share and participate in a common civilisational enterprise. They also share languages, life styles, religions, cuisines, costumes and customs, worldviews and a core of values which govern social structures, intellectual pursuits and art practices. In brief, with all their different profiles, predilections and concerns, they are eight members of a family – a family which nurtures them, allows them to grow on their chosen paths, promotes their distinctiveness, and yet ensures a vibrant and luminous cultural space in which they are in dialogue, interaction, mutual search and exchange of ideas with each other. All the eight members know that their survival, cultural sustenance and flowering are critically dependent on the dialogue, the interaction, the sharing of the plurality.

Languages and literatures, including the oral and folk traditions are, in the SAARC region, the most obvious evidence of the rich plurality, and diversity. They are the storehouse of memory, imagination and creative courage. They embody the aspirations and struggles, the dreams and anxieties, the values and ethics, the sensitivities and nightmares of the people and the societies which inhabit the region. They constitute the creative map, the intellectual spectrum and the spiritual ethos of the land and the people of the area.

What, then, are the cultural connections that have nurtured the diverse peoples of our region? We shall single out four key thematic areas that are symptomatic of the common heritage that we should celebrate.

First and foremost, our diverse and divergent cultures share common historical origins – broadly speaking, linguistic, geographic, sociological, mythological, anthropological,¬ and all the creative force of such a shared history, shared consciousness and common heritage.

Second, and tied to this is the fact that South Asia is truly home to all the world’s great religious philosophies and traditions. No other region is as diverse as ours; none can claim the birth of so many religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism – and having provided a second home for others such as Christianity and Islam.

Third, we share to a great extent a more recent history of colonial exploitation.

The colonialist and neo-colonialist strategy of denigrating all that is local or non¬-western as worthless, primitive, defective or crude is a vestige of the Macauleyan worldview of 1835, which held that all the books written in the oriental languages would not equal one single shelf in any reputed western library.

Fourth, and no doubt as a result of the strong historical links that we have shared over millennia, is what has been called a common “South Asian Worldview”, or ethos, which comprises many different aspects and manifestations, from the cultural practices of openness and hospitality to all, through commitment to family and friends, to a broad philosophical attitude to life, and a sense of collectivity and community that must seem very strange to western eyes.

IV. Constructing Connectivity in South Asia

South Asia has always been praised for its diversity, and the region has always been noted for its unity in diversity. The colonial past and the postcolonial present combined themselves to suggest new but politically motivated ways to evaluate the trends of culture. The divisive nature of this move was exploited by people who became the new rulers of independent sovereign states. Their theoreticians, often sectarian, came up with new discourses with some set objectives that exclude the need for harmony.

But the divisiveness, in spite of its growth to some extent, has been limited to the outlining of some plans by the policy makers. It lacked the strength to intercept the cultural roots from which the common people derive their sustenance.

As I look at the socio-cultural fabric of South Asia, I can identify so many areas that have resisted so strongly to some of the threats from the outside world, which could bring about rifts in social relationships and structures.

One fundamental essence of South Asian cultures can be located in the definition of family and its solid foundations. Interdependence of family members exists even when this is a situation of split family separated by long distance at home or overseas locations. Often the family also gets strengthened with a sincere, practical and faithful connectivity that involves friends and neighbours too. This richness of human relationships is a very distinct experience in the societies that live in the countries of South Asia. This reality defies the distinctions of place, language, race, religion and class. The distinctions of regulated spaces among the communities do not lead to any cultural exclusion, rather create a linkage often referred to as the oriental value system.

Deep and sustainable connectivity between peoples can be established only by foregrounding culture in interregional and international relationships. While economic and political co-operation is important in establishing tangible material connections, long-lasting kinships are always founded on civilizational understanding and cultural exchange of literature and folklore, visual and performing arts, philosophy and ethics, theatre and films, folk theatre and traditional handicrafts : the most profound expressions of people’s emotions, experiences, visions and world views. These are the sure ways in which we grasp the sacred or secular essence of one another’s culture, and the evolution of civilizations across ages.

When we encounter the intangible aspect of a civilization, we touch the very soul of a people

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Unfortunately, the policy makers who wrote the SAARC Charter more than 20 years years ago forgot to include ‘culture’ in it. It was largely with the efforts of our Academy and later Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature, and our obstinate optimism that in the 11th SAARC Summit held at Kathmandu, the word ‘culture’ was included in the agenda for the first time, and the FOSWAL, the first and the only organization in the region working in the area of culture, was given the status of a ‘SAARC RECOGNISED BODY’, now elevated as SAARC APEX BODY, the one and the only organization in seven SAARC countries, authorized to work on culture-related activities in the region.

While tons of money is spent on Ministerial Summits and the SAARC SUMMIT, where rhetoric sometimes blurs the view of ground realities, where plane-loads of journalists are brought by every country head to take back home and flash their glorious speeches and their majestic personalities, not even peanut expenses are allocated by the governments for cultural connectivity which has the power to connect hearts across borders. Not roads, not buses, not railway links, not economic cooperation, not the beautifully worded poverty alleviation programmes in the region, not SAFTAs, it is only cultural connectivity which can eliminate conflicts and bring people closer to each other.

Once that happens, and confidence builds up, perhaps a day will dawn when we will be able to spend a major part of our current defence expenditure on building schools and hospitals, building roads and railways, and making at least fresh drinking water available to the thirsty millions who still have to walk miles in search of just the basic necessity of drinking water !

Amazing, but true ! Reality is stark and dark ! Nations become strong only when they provide human dignity, freedom and basic necessities to its people !

South Asia has begun to emerge as an important world-region in more than one sense, and the cultural dimension of this awakening is hard to ignore. Any country or continent beyond the region will better seek its entry into this diverse and fascinating cultural zone through its arts, literature and other intellectual and imaginative endeavours.

The whole of South Asia is passing through a period of transition, modernization, and fruitful interaction with the rest of the world. This region is not only of fast developing economies with vibrant market potentials, but is also a growing civilization with a spirited, responsive and responsible community of writers, artists and intellectuals.

South Asia always has had much to offer other countries in the form of its classical arts, ancient literature and philosophy, linguistics, poetics, even its traditional cosmologies, knowledges, and ways of understanding the world, a lot of which has mystified and fascinated the creative mind for ages.

The best way to understand a people and to build bridges with a nation is to translate their literature – fiction, poetry, drama and folklore. This, we feel, is an area where enough attention has not yet been paid by the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation. Our Foundation has now given top priority to our work of translations of the best works of literature in the region.

In SAARC, our destinies are intertwined due to our geographical proximity and cultural connectivity and struggle for development. Our destinies are intertwined because our countries are facing almost similar problems of urgent need of economic emancipation of the powerless and the marginalized, of the concentration of wealth in fewer hands, of interventions of super powers in our economic programmes, of competing with the world for more equal opportunities in education, health facilities, job opportunities; and dealing with ethnic, religious and economic conflicts.


Twenty years back, in the vast wilderness of mutual suspicion we, some mad dreamers, urgently needed to sow the seed of reconciliatory attitudes and determination, of compassion and reconciliation, of collective will of the creative minds resolving to look through war games, hate propaganda, and turn things on the right track, howsoever impossible it looked at that time. It was a tremendously difficult and uphill task, with no support, financial or otherwise, from ANY quarter ! Only the burning desire to initiate this much-needed dialogue ! For the first time ever, after Partition in  
1947 !

Once a beginning was made, our Foundation accelerated its pace of work on the long road ahead. So far, we have organized 19 major SAARC Writers Conferences in all the SAARC countries. We invited poets from Afghanistan in our first major SAARC Wrtiers Conference in April 2000. It seems our initiatives have been breaking new ground, always, later followed by the official decisions.

We have initiated Writers Exchange Programme, Youth Outreach Programmes Writers-in-Residence Programme in which eminent writers and young university students from one country of the Region go to another country on long sojourns and interact freely with writers and literary cognoscenti, with academics and young students, and with the creative fraternity of that country. Such exchanges of creativity help writers and young students and research scholars form beautiful relationships of connectivity and camaraderie, benefiting all. And then they write books about the countries they have visited, not as tourists, but as sensitive writers and research scholars who go and explore people’s minds, meet writers and creative people, see plays and films, visit historical monuments, visit art galleries, and assess which way that country is progressing in its cultural journey. The resulting books are profound testaments written with sensitivity, deep understanding, compassion, trying to respect the otherness of others.

Our Translations Project is perhaps the most essential component of our endeavour.

We believe that translation is the key to cultural connectivity in the Region, a region blessed with a plethora of languages, literatures and cultural traditions. We celebrate diversity, but we realize that translation is the best gateway to pass through from one language or culture to another.

We have also set up a massive website (foundationsaarcwriters.com) through which we beam a large corpus of contemporary SAARC literature for the benefit of the literature-reading public, globally. We constantly add and update its contents so that the best pieces of SAARC literature are offered to the discerning readership.

Our quarterly journal Beyond Borders portrays the best in not only contemporary SAARC literature but also highlights ideas, arts, films, books, theatre, and the best contemporary creative scene in the Region.

We keep publishing literature of the Region – poetry, fiction, plays, travelogues, essays, anthologies, monographs, plays, novels, literary travelogues, in English translations to start with, and then expanding to different languages of the region. With culture gradually coming to the center-stage of SAARC discourse, we are committed to accelerate the process.

We have our vision for the future lined up. We have been endeavouring that :

  • all major universities in the SAARC Region should have departments teaching South Asian literatures and cultures.
  • that all countries should give year-long visas to writers and artists, to enable them to interact with their counterparts over long stretches of time. 
  • that the governments should sponsor travels of writers and scholar for Writers’ Conference and Workshop, and of young university and high school students for Youth Outreach Programme. 
  • that the governments should spend at least twenty per cent of their budget for SAARC events on CULTURAL initiatives. 
  • that more literary conferences, seminars, workshops, literature-reading sessions and visits of young people across the border and brush up the prejudices imposed on them by doctored histories, should be organized among SAARC countries. 
  • That SAARC Theatre Festivals, Film Festivals, Music Festivals should also get as much priority. 
  • That Youth Outreach Programmes should be given priority in cultural initiatives so that the next generation should develop friendships and compassion as a core value, and understand each other’s anguish, learning their histories afresh, stretching their hands across borders ! 
  • that Centres of SAARC Culture should function in all SAARC countries, sponsored by the respective countries; with the Ministries of Culture playing a more proactive role by at least looking after the travel expenses of writers of their countries visiting the neighbours : for literary conferences, and all other festivals  
  • that SAARC Cultural Centres should be multi-focused and multi-dimensional, with Libraries, Writers’ Meeting Programmes, Visual and Performing Arts, Theatre, Art Galleries, Museums of Tribal Arts and Crafts and  
  • handicrafts, et al. 
  • that the TRANSLATIONS should get priority they deserve. Translations should be an ongoing project bringing in more and more areas under its programmes..

We congratulate Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and all the Heads of States of SAARC countries for accepting the concept of SAARC University, visualized and conceptualized by eminent Professor, Dr. Gowher Rizvi and his colleagues in Harvard University, with inputs by our FOSWAL too.

– Presented at the Regional Conference on ‘SAARC : Fourteenth Summit

and Beyond’, ICWA and KAF, June 2, 2007.

References :

  1. Human Development Report 2004, Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World, UNDP, New York, USA. 
  2. Kapila Goonasekare and Arjuna Prakrama : Paper published in SAARC Journal ‘Beyond Borders’ Vol. 2, No. 2. 
  3. Dr. Kapila Vatsayan’s address at the 14th Conference on Cultural Connectivity for Peace in South Asia. 
  4. Prof. K. Satchidanandan, FOSWAL Project Proposal on Translation, April 5, 2007. 
  5. Partha Chatterjee, “Democracy and the Violence of the State : A Political Negotiation of Death” : Inter-Asia Cultural Studies.