French Salons and South Asia

Maupassant provided us the opportunity to reflect on the social pecking order in South Asia and Kabir’s comment has pushed the door wide open. There is so much space for speculation that it needs a post by itself to fill. In doing so we can bring together a number of themes that have figured prominently on this blog – in particular those of modernity and democracy in South Asia.

A lot has been written about French salons and there remain disagreement on the details – I will choose selectively to motivate the discussion:

A salon is a gathering of intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation.

The salon evolved into a well-regulated practice that focused on and reflected enlightened public opinion by encouraging the exchange of news and ideas. By the mid-eighteenth century the salon had become an institution in French society and functioned as a major channel of communication among intellectuals.

A whole world of social arrangements and attitudes supported the existence of French salons: an idle aristocracy, an ambitious middle class, an active intellectual life, the social density of a major urban center, sociable traditions, and a certain aristocratic feminism.

The period in which salons were dominant has been labeled the ‘age of conversation.’

Theatres of conversation and exchange – such as the salons, and the coffeehouses in England – played a critical role in the emergence of… the ‘public sphere’ which emerged in cultural-political contrast to court society.

Wealthy members of the aristocracy have always drawn to their court poets, writers and artists, usually with the lure of patronage, an aspect that sets the court apart from the salon. Another feature that distinguished the salon from the court was its absence of social hierarchy and its mixing of different social ranks and orders. In the 17th and 18th centuries, salons encouraged socializing between the sexes and brought nobles and bourgeois together. Salons helped facilitate the breaking down of social barriers which made the development of the Enlightenment salon possible.

Put all this together and a fairly clear picture begins to emerge. One can see the evolution in society whereby a public space is created outside the patronage of the court and in this space individuals on the strength of their talents and freed from the stigmas of social hierarchy engage in conversations about ideas that form the core of the Enlightenment. And this paves the road to the French Revolution in 1789, the fading out of the monarchy, and its gradual replacement by a democratic political order. (For an understanding of the factors that drove this evolution, read the first part of this excellent essay on Hobbes. The economic historian, Dierdre McCloskey, makes the extreme claim that it was these conversations that explain the modern world, not material or economic factors.)

The contrast with South Asia should also be obvious. The patronage of artists by the courts was very similar to that in France but the creation of independent spaces for public discourse never took place, radical ideas of equality and liberty never took hold, and the hierarchical social order was never disturbed. As a result, a social revolution did not take place in South Asia.

Notwithstanding the absence of a revolution that would have done away with social inequalities, South Asia inherited a democratic order as a legacy of British colonial rule – a democratic order into which the ancien regime survived with its privileges quite intact. Not surprisingly, in this undisturbed social hierarchy, the wielders of authority remained at the top and mere talent at the bottom.

As we have argued in earlier posts, this reversal of sequence is what makes the evolutionary process in South Asia so unique and fascinating – democracy and the vote are being used to both bring about equality and to force the acceptance of a belief in equality. Democracy is the instrument that is substituting for what the Enlightenment and social revolutions did in the Western world. And all this is taking place without any real sharp discontinuity in the intellectual and moral worldview of the typical South Asian.

Given the nature of the dynamic, it is no surprise that the struggle for the socially marginalized is proving to be so long drawn out and painful. The privileges of birth are yielding ground only very reluctantly to talent. Not for nothing does South Asia remain one of the last bastions of dynastic rule.

One last thought: can we think of blogs as modern-day equivalents of the French salons? If yes, does that give us some new ideas on how to use them better?


  • kabir
    Posted at 05:48h, 13 November Reply

    Interesting article, South Asian. I think that the critical point is that the French Salons existed outside of court patronage (though may be not initally, some of the hostesses were the mistresses of wealthy men, often associated with the nobility) and that they involved the rising middle-class. You are right to note that there was no comparable middle-class activity in 18th and 19th century India, or at least I am not aware of it.

    As for the question of whether blogs can be conceptualized as salons, I would argue that TSAI is a salon– a gathering of intellectuals who meet virtually not only to interact with each other, but also to learn from each other and refine their own ideas and arguments.

  • Balasubramaniam Keluvardhanam
    Posted at 15:00h, 13 November Reply

    The last two posts were very interesting. Intellectual conversations and the role they have played – and the role that this blog and similar blogs play – are extremely important. It would be nice if more people participated.

    I want to raise two questions:

    1. Why did salons not emerge in the subcontinent? Has anyone investigated this? It is because such spaces are lacking even today that the weight of Bollywood on the social imagination is so crushing. There are no alternative spaces – as there are in the West – that allow thought to flourish and to be nurtured. I do not think that it is just position and authority that hold sway in South Asia; there is a space for “culture” but it is largely occupied by what makes money and what is the lowest common denominator. There is nothing like the New York Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement or the Paris Review.

    2. Why have pecking orders existed in all societies and why is it desirable to have a rigid pecking order at all? Why should musicians > artists > writers? It seems completely arbitrary to me. After all, people contribute on the basis of their inclinations, opportunities, and talents. Why should they be confined to some “level” forever?

    In South Asian cultures, this need for a pecking order is so pervasive that it emerges even when two friends meet over coffee. This seems absurd and detrimental to the democratic spirit. A whole person is a bundle of attributes: one person may be better than another with respect to one attribute but worse with respect to another attribute. How legitimate is it to create an ordering among individuals? Why are some attributes treated as more important than others?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:34h, 14 November

      Bala: These are difficult questions. I think the answer to both is tied to the fact that we continue to have a deeply hierarchical social order in South Asia. Conversations about ideas can only be productive when carried out from a basis of equality because no fertilization can occur without disagreements and contradictions. In environments where deference is the norm, there cannot be two-way exchanges that are free. Some people talk, others listen. The latter, in turn, can talk to those who have to listen to them.

      On the pecking order, I feel we should make a distinction between a socially sanctioned ordering and a preference ordering. The latter should be quite acceptable and I feel it was this that Maupassant had in mind in his generalization about French salons of his day. Perhaps people generally considered musicians more interesting than artists; and a writer was considered more dangerous than a poet because the former might put a participant in a book. This kind of preference ordering that varies with individuals and over time is to be expected whenever scarce positions are to be rationed. It is quite different from institutionalized pecking orders – for example, that only a gentleman could be the captain of the English cricket team, never a player, no matter how good.

      As for conversations, I will quote a paragraph from Ian Johnston whose website I used as one model when I was designing the blog. I wrote to him for advice and received this reply:

      As for your own project, that sounds very exciting. I’m not sure that I have any very helpful advice other than to promote as much as possible calm, reasonable discussion, so that the blogs become really fertile discussions, rather than soap boxes for all sorts of dogmatic views. That may mean that you have to educate your participants and keep a careful watch on what is going on. I think conversations are the very best way to promote the best education, but they don’t just happen. People have to learn how to participate in them.

  • kabir
    Posted at 05:11h, 14 November Reply

    “Culture” in South Asia was not always defined by what makes money… that’s what I was trying to get at in my comment on the previous post. Under court patronage, for example in Mughal Delhi, artists, writers, and musicians were supported by the Qila-e-Mualla and didn’t have to worry about money… I think the fact that money is now viewed as the prime indicator of success is a very twentieth-century phenomenon.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:58h, 14 November

      Kabir: This is what Mark Slouka was pointing to when he complained that everything, even the arts and the humanities, have now become subservient to the market. Pre-capitalist and capitalist value systems are very different. Once the patronage of courts was lost in the transition to capitalism, artists had to survive based on their appeal to the masses – thus today pop singers are valued much more highly than classical singers.

      One thing we should keep in mind. The salons were forums for conversations about ideas. Therefore, you will note that while Maupassant allows for the occasional general and parliamentarian, he does not even mention performers. And this should highlight another point that we tend to overlook – in Europe the term musician, at least in those days, invariably referred to composers while in South Asia it referred equally exclusively to performers. Composition and writing are by their very nature intellectual activities while performing is not. I am sure there would be individual performers who would be great intellectual company, but it would not be the norm. Add to that the fact that in the South Asia of the time, performers belonged to specialized sub-castes at the lower end of the caste hierarchy.

    • kabir
      Posted at 03:33h, 15 November

      What about people like “Sadarang” and Tansen? They were performers but also composers, inventing entire ragas and numeruous bandishes… which still form the basis of Bharati Shastra Sangeet today. Where would you place them in this perfomer/composer dichotomy?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:51h, 15 November

      Kabir: It seems to me that the art of composition was very different in the two traditions. That is perhaps the reason why when one thinks of the big names in WCT one recalls the composers while in ICT one recalls the performers. I would guess that Sadarang and Tansen were great performers who also added to the repertoire of ragas and bandishes. But is there really something like inventing an entire raga or a bandish? Almost every musician one meets today claims to have invented ragas and bandishes or sings bandishes that were invented by his grandfather. ICT is performance oriented – some performers are innovative and experiment with variations but I haven’t come across a musician who was primarily a composer in ICT. This changes once one gets to film music – AR Rehman is not known as a performer, for example.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:07h, 15 November Reply

    Regarding spaces for intellectual conversations on ideas, the Tamil Channels Vijay TV and Sun TV, on an everyday basis (not sure) host and telecast public debates on a wide range of topics – politics to family upbringing, from the important to the silly (‘Who changes more after marriage – the man or the woman?’) . These debates are always over packed. From the size of the hall and the density of the packing, I think there are atleast 200 people in the audience. Some of them are standing on a foot at the doorstep to the hall and listen to the debate. The audience range from all sections of the society. They are a very disciplined lot. Even kids seem to listen with rapt attention. I don’t know how the debators are selected. But they seem to be a regular bunch of people with the occassional new member. The debates are entertainng and thought provoking. They are moderated by former film dialogue writers who call on the speakers, provide summaries and decide on which side carried the day. My parents watch it regularly. I don’t know if that has made a difference to their thinking. I can’t find a direct connection between any perceptible change and the programme. A friend of mine who watches it finds it very thought provoking. Again, he hasn’t told me whether any of his views have changed. But from his amazement at the programme, my guess is that it has made him think.

    In my view, urbanization is eroding a lot of the social hierarchies. With people from different parts of India coming together to stay within the same gated communities (mostly middle class), their children stuyding in the same schools, the growing number of inter-caste, inter-religious affairs (A significant number of the marriages in the colony I grew up are of this nature) the former ideas of caste, morals and tradition are losing their grip on the people. 14-19 year olds are quickly facing an identity crisis in their lives (at that age, I knew little more than my study room and maths/physics text books). Granted that these form a minority in India. But the point is that even unintended consequences of urbanization – the bringing together of people within the same space over a sustained period for carrying on the daily business of survival – goes a long way in challenging established pecking orders. I think something like this is not quite there in rural areas. This may be a universal phenomenon and not just an Indian one.

    Regarding the arts, Bangalore has regular ‘katcheris’ (classic music performance) at various venues. My parents regularly attend them on a fortnightly basis. I don’t know what to make of this. They weren’t so frequent in the past (a decade or two back). Does that mean the arts is growing in Bangalore? I am noticing many people daring to take professional courses in design these days and not choosing to take the familiar engineering or medicine route. I wish I knew whether the arts colleges/institutes in Bangalore were growing. That would give me an idea of the state of the arts.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:18h, 15 November

      Vinod: Would it be correct to argue that the stress in South Asia is on passive learning? The tradition of debates exist (perhaps another legacy of the British) which is one step up from the lecture. But still the audience is listening to experts argue opposite sides of a proposition – they are not taking part in the arguments themselves. I recall reading that passive learning enables about 20% retention of ideas; active learning raises that to 80%. In a sense the TV debates are also a form of performance like the classical music performances – one goes away marveling at the skill of the performer more than anything else. To learn to think by watching other people thinking can be a very slow process of intellectual development.

      On urbanization, things are changing no doubt. In The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani has an observation (p. 115) about the earlier period of urbanization in India that is directly relevant to our discussion on salons, coffeehouses, and public discourse: ” Urban political or social associations were nothing like the ‘public’ bodies that began to appear in the eighteenth-century Europe. These European ‘societies’ were in principle universally accessible to all individuals with common interests, but in Indian cities association was sanctioned by denser criteria of lineage, caste and religion, and it operated by strict rules of exclusion.”

      Rapid economic growth is changing that and your description (of life at the day-to-day level, not the political level) seems compatible with an observation that Vikram quoted some time back: “the caste system as it is existed between the three twice-born castes (Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya) has almost disappeared. Caste conflict is centred on the competition between the Shudras and the Dalits for land and other resources.” I hope Aakar Patel would elaborate on this observation.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 21:30h, 15 November

      Vinod, yes there is definitely debate in Republican Indian society, it has been present at some level since 1950, initially it was the exclusive domain of English language newspapers. With literacy and technology, the space for debate has expanded, first with Indian language newspapers and now cable television.

      It is difficult to pinpoint changes in society, especially when it is as large and complex as India’s. But mass culture can give some clues. A decade or so ago, boy girl romances (with social forces opposing the union) were widespread in popular culture, they have virtually disappeared today. I can see the difference among my friends and family, although many still face constraints in marriage, there seems to be an unmistakable trend towards more individual choice in marriage.

      One interesting observation I have made in graduate school here in the US, is the number of Indian girls coming to study abroad. A few years ago the male to female ratio was perhaps nine to one, today it seems more like six to four. In contrast, I have not met a single Pakistani graduate student, and the number of Chinese female graduate students is only slightly less than the males.

      If Indian parents are ‘letting’ their girls travel and live this far to study, I doubt if they will constrain their choices in marriage and other areas.

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