Increased cultural cooperation can help overcome stereotypes

In an exclusive interview with RIR, Dr Elena Karachkova, author of a new book on the history of Jaipur, talks about the importance of cultural anthropology and various representations of history.
The Snow Maiden
‘Dialogues With The Past: Ethno History of a Rajput Princely State’ by Dr Elena Karachkova

One of the most  talked about events in Moscow’s Indology circles is the publication of ‘Dialogues With The Past: Ethno History of a Rajput Princely State,’ a book by Dr Elena Karachkova, a leading scholar and senior researcher at the Centre for Indian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies.  

The book describes in detail, but at the same time in an entertaining way, the results of a study on Jaipur, the former capital of the formidable Amer kingdom. Particular attention is paid to the four main ethno-religious groups in Jaipur -- the Rajputs, Meenas, Muslims, and Jains. An English-language version of the book should be ready in time for the 2015 Jaipur Literature Festival. Karachkova, an Indophile, whose father was a diplomat in the Soviet Embassy in Delhi, dedicated the book to Rani Lakshmi Kumari Chundawat, an eminent author from Rajasthan.

Karachkova has been visiting the capital of Rajasthan for the last 40 years and is quite passionate about the history of the ‘Pink City.’ Karachkova's main topic of study in the book were the oral traditions and collective historical memories of the local people, particularly their traditional thinking, and the role that myths, legends, and architectural landmarks have played in shaping the peoples' ideas about the past. The book shows the effectiveness of the author's participant observation method, which is the study of societies from within through direct and prolonged contact with them.

In an interview with RIR, Karachkova talks about modern cultural anthropology, and about collective consciousness and historical memory.

What are the main goals of cultural anthropology as a science?

Cultural anthropology is not a high culture of the elites, like art history, but it is culture of the masses. Describing and understanding traditions, views, thought processes, and collective historical memory of ordinary people, which is the majority of the people in the world, is the most important goal of cultural anthropology.

How are cultural anthropology and the historical sciences related?

Each discipline has its own objectives and methodology. But bringing together the talents of historians and anthropologists to work on a research project could yield new results and even discoveries. The necessity and usefulness of interdisciplinary research is one of the main ideas of my new book ‘Dialogues With The Past: Ethno History of a Rajput Princely State’ Combining field work, which is the main method used by cultural anthropologists, with the study of written sources is a very effective way to do research.

What is the role of collective historical consciousness and historical memory in contemporary international relations?

I will not attempt to judge their role, I have not worked in this area. But I believe, however, that the friendly relations and mutual interest that were deliberately cultivated by the political leadership of the USSR and India from 1950-70 benefited the mass consciousness of our peoples. From my own experience, I know that Indians still are very friendly towards Russians, but are gradually losing interest in Russia. This is due to the significant decline in cultural contacts between the two countries. The older generation of Indians remember with a hint of nostalgia the times when they could buy high-quality translations of Russian and Soviet classics for affordable prices when folk ensembles and classical music and dance groups frequently toured there. 

What are some examples of historical myths or folk interpretation of memorable events in Russia?

One of the most common historical myths in modern Russia is the myth of Stalin as an honest and incorruptible ruler capable of punishing evil and restoring justice. These myths emphasize the personal austerity of Stalin, who allegedly had just one coat and one pair of boots.  Such stereotypes have given rise to the main complaints Russians have of the present regime – that it is corrupt and unable to restore order. In order to idealize an image, its shortcomings are overlooked. Russian believers have a widely held myth that in 1941, when German troops were approaching Moscow, the Soviet leader sought a blessing from St. Matrona of Moscow, although we all know perfectly well that during the Stalin era believers were persecuted.

What perceptions and stereotypes do Russians have about India and vice versa?

Russians' ideas about India still are mainly oriental in nature. Russians think of India as a mysterious country that holds untold riches. They associate it with yoga, fakirs and elephants. The image of Russia common in India is also not particularly different from that of other countries (cold, snow, bears, nesting dolls, and vodka).

The older generation of Russians got their information on India from the Soviet film on the journey of Afanasy Nikitin and from Indian films starring Raj Kapoor; young Russians are familiar with India's modern Bollywood films.  Both images are far from reality.  Stereotypes about other peoples have always existed and will exist in the public consciousness, but they can be overcome in part by increasing cultural contacts and encouraging tourism.  

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