Culture in Eighteenth Century India

The eighteenth century witnessed a general decline in material life, the cultural life of the period also has often been denigrated. However, there appears to be little justification for such a portrayal of the 18th century.

Even Delhi, whose economic condition unequivocally declined, had a number of major poets, philosophers, and thinkers in this epoch, from Shah Waliullah to Mir Taqi Mir.

Further, as regional courts grew in importance, they tended to take on the function of the principal patrons of high culture, whether in music, the visual arts, or literature. It is also in relatively dispersed centres, ranging from Awadh to Bikaner and Lahore to Thanjavur, that one finds the courtly traditions of culture persisting.

Thanjavur under the Marathas is a particularly fine example of cultural efflorescence, in which literary production of a high quality in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, and Marathi continued, with some of the Maratha rulers themselves playing a significant direct role.

Similarly, it is in the eighteenth century Thanjavur that the main compositions of what is today known as the Karnatak tradition of Indian classical music came to be written, by such men as Tyagaraja, Muttuswami Diksitar, and Syama Sastri. Finally, the period brought the development of a distinct style of painting in Thanjavur, fusing elements imported from the north with older local traditions of textile painting.

This vitality was not restricted purely to elite culture. To begin with, many of the theatre and musical traditions, as well as formal literary genres of the period, picked up and ‘reincorporated folk influences. At the same time, the interaction of popular Hinduism and Islam gave a particular flavour to cultural activities associated with pilgrimages and festivals.

More than in earlier centuries, the tradition of long-distance pilgrimages to major centres from Varanasi to Rameswaram increased and scan be seen to fit in with a general trend of increasing mobility. It was common for post-Mughal states to employ mercenary soldiers and imported scribes and clerks. In eighteenth century Hyderabad, for example, Kayasthas from the north were employed in large numbers in the bureaucracy.

ln Mysore, Maharashtrian Brahmans were given fiscal offices as early as the 1720s. It is apparent that the mobility of musicians, men of letters, and artists was widely prevalent. When a major new political centre emerged, it rapidly attracted talent, as evidenced in Ranjit Singh’s Lahore. Here, Persian literature of high quality was produced, but not at the cost of literary output in Punjabi.

At the same time, new developments were visible in the fields of architecture and painting. Farther to the north, the principality of Kangra fostered an important new school of painting, devoted largely to Vaishnava themes. The cultural assimilation was outcome of mutual influence and respect. Among the major religions the Marathas supported the shrine of Shaikh Muinuddin Chisti in Ajmer and the Raja of Tanjore financed the shrine of Shaikh Shahul Hamid of Nagaur. Tipu Sultan of Mysore supported Shringeri temple and Muslims joyfully participated in the Hindu festivals just as the Hindus were part of Muharram processions.

Indeed, a surprisingly large proportion of what is understood today to be part of India’s ‘traditional” culture is attributable to this period and also to the preceding century.