Culture & Life · History India South Asia · Politics

What are the origins of the unique cultural parades during India’s Republic Day celebrations?

We are so used to seeing the interesting Republic Day parades since childhood that we hardly pause to think where and how exactly all of that originated. The bare minimum we are told is that the revered Constitution of India came into effect on January 26 1950, and the celebrations commemorate that event. While that explains the origins of the celebrations, it does not tell you much about the reasons behind the format and content of the celebrations. Here I reproduce some material from historian Srirupa Roy’s book ‘Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism‘ which helps us know this history better.

The Indian Express, Jan 27, 1957. Courtesy Google News Archive

Note: Everything that comes after is reproduced from Srirupa Roy’s book

“The first Republic Day celebrations of the postcolonial period were held at the Irwin Stadium [now Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium] in Delhi on January 26, 1951, to mark the first anniversary of the Indian republic. The day was marked by flag-raising ceremonies and by the singing of the national song. [In the New Delhi celebration] processions by the armed forces and fly-pasts by planes of the Indian Air Force were integrated. The following year the Republic Day celebrations in Delhi began with a morning parade on Rajpath. The parade consisted of a military display of forces and weapons, as well as a cultural pageant. This military-cultural blend was the product of a deliberate decision taken by the state. As Ashfaque Husain, the joint-secretary of the department of education, stated: ‘Whereas other countries, on similar occasions, hold impressive military parades which are calculated to give to the whole world an idea of the armed might of the country, we have combined the ceremonial military parade with the cultural pageant, which signifies that this young Republic values cultural progress no less than military strength.’

Nehru suggested that the cultural pageant on Republic Day should be preceded by a cultural festival in various locations throughout the country, with ‘performances, displays and exhibitions showing something not only of our cultural heritage but also of our cultural progress in the widest sense of the term.’ Special attention was given to displaying and promoting the culture of what Nehru understood as neglected groups, such as folk performers from the nation’s peripheries along with tribal artistes. The focus on folk culture was not just part of an effort to invent a common cultural tradition for post independence India but also one that enabled the state to present itself as the guardian and the benefactor of all minority groups…

As Nehru noted in 1952: ‘In regard to folk dancing, we can hardly hope to get folk dances from all over India. That would be too expensive a business. We might, therefore, select some areas from which they will be invited. The next year other areas can be invited. It should be clearly understood that we have no amateur dancing. We must have the original stuff.’

Finally, Nehru viewed the cultural pageant as an occasion to display the cultural diversity of India. As he stated, ‘The concept of this procession and exhibition and everything else should be to demonstrate both the unity and great variety and diversity of India . . . Each State could represent some distinctive feature of its own in the tableaux or in the exhibition or both. Thus the procession would be a moving pageant of India in its rich diversity.’ In 1952, the cultural pageant consisted of a series of tableaux rep-resenting the cultural diversity of India, where each tableau depicted the inhabitants of a particular state engaged in a distinctive cultural practice indigenous to a specific area, such as a religious festival, a dance, or a wedding ceremony. In sum, by defining Indian culture in terms of its intrinsic diversity rather than its homogeneity, the cultural pageant on Republic Day presented the Indian nation as truly sovereign, as an expression of collective free will.

Nehru’s proposals for the cultural pageant were incorporated into the Republic Day parade of the following year, 1953, and the cultural displays subsequently became a familiar feature of the ritual repertoire of January 26. Contemporary accounts of the parade also made repeated references to the extraordinary character of ritual time or the ways in which January 26 interrupted the quotidian flow of time as usual. The journalist Amita Malik’s account of her interactions with folk dancers who had traveled to Delhi to participate in the Republic Day celebrations of 1960 is just one such example…

‘And how do you like Delhi?’ I asked the leader of the Hyderabad dance party.

‘Oh, it is big, very big,’ he replied with awe in his soft South Indian voice. ‘Our village is very small,’ he apologized, ‘and this is the first time we have left it.’

‘We shall tell the people in our village,’ said a shriveled old man with a white enormous turban, ‘that Delhi is so big that you need four eyes to see it.. They will never believe us when we tell them that Delhi is so big.’

‘They will never believe us,’ added the young boy, ‘when we tell them that we saw Panditji too.’

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