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Something old, something new: Clash between the traditional and the modern

Once upon a time, there lived in Malabar, a kingly state of old South India, a master carpenter known as Perunthachan. He was widely known as an excellent craftsman, with unparalleled genius in architecture and design, and is even today credited for the aesthetic brilliance of many temples and palaces in Kerala. Legend has it that when Perunthachan grew old, there was a severe feud between him and his son, who had by then managed to build up a reputation as an architect in his own right.

Perunthachan believed that the ancient traditions of Vastusastra are too sacred to be modified, while his son had more modern notions of how ancient architectural methodologies and theories could be adapted to better suit the changing times. Versions of the tale also mention that Perunthachan and his son also disagreed on the relevance of caste system in society – the young carpenter was in love with a high caste Brahmin girl and wanted to marry her while Perunthachan strongly resisted it, believing it to be unacceptably antagonistic to age-old traditions. In a rather tragic and drastic ending to the story, Perunthachan is said to have killed his son and thus put an end to this father-son feud.

That is the story of Perunthachan, an old folklore of Kerala that dramatizes the clash between the old and the new. A story that has remained popular even in the current era, as a sign of how the clash between the old and the new is as relevant now as it as has always been.


Most of us would have been confronted with the old versus new question at some point in our lives. If you are from an eastern culture, respect for everyone and everything that has walked or been on the earth longer than you has probably been ingrained into you from the moment you were born. Even in the so-called modern cultures, people cling onto traditions they know and you frequently hear stories of people who have gone to extraordinary lengths in search of their roots. Antiques are usually valued many more times than an object of the same functional value, but with a shorter history to claim. From my own experience, my treasured early childhood memories include curling up next to my aged grandmother, and listening to mythical stories or sometimes, just to the news on the radio. It was not just a grandmother’s love or the excitement of the stories that made those moments special – at some level, I cherish those moments as the only links to a distant past I would never live in or which I can relate to only through words and pictures.

Why, you may ask, do we have this fascination for the old? Why is it that we continually look back, even as we live in the present, and strive to build the future? Perhaps it is an extension of our attempts to answer the enduring question of where did we all come from. Perhaps we think that the everyday questions that puzzle us might have been solved by someone else before us. Perhaps we hope that we can learn from the mistakes of the past, so we might be spared the dangers of a wrong choice or decision. Perhaps it is nothing so noble – just that letting go of the past may plunge us into a future that we are not yet ready to face.

Whatever the reasons that drive our reluctance to let go of the past may be, willingly or unwillingly, we are all part of a changing world. From the primordial evolution, through the rise and fall of nations, to the incorrigible onslaught of new technology, the one universal constant is the inevitability of change. Just as you cannot see both sides of a coin from one perspective, in order to make way for the future, we need to give up some part of our past. It has been said that we must die one life before we can enter another, an apt statement if one considers that substantial changes are often life-altering.

Almost as constant as change itself is the resistance to change. Almost every new invention or theory has faced opposition, directly proportional to the amount of the past it made us give up in order to embrace the future. Galileo Galilei was thrown into prison and had to face the wrath of the Inquisition for postulating, ahead of his time, that the universe revolves around the sun. Hippasus of Metapontum is rumored to have been drowned at sea for discovering irrational numbers. In a less violent example, closer to our homes, the ubiquitous television that is a part of every modern home and now is itself in danger of being extinct was called the “idiot-box” by dissenters, just about two decades back. When emails became a prevalent form of communication, complaints about the lower frequency of letters from the new generation were a constant topic of conversation among those less eager to accept the electronic over the paper version.

As I recently strolled through the streets of Marrakech, an Islamic town heavily influenced by the modern notions of the European nations to the North, I was impressed by the wide range in the dressing styles of local women – on the one hand, you can see modern style short skirts that seem to challenge the cold December night, while on the other, you have the heavily covered black purdahs that veil everything except the eyes, almost as an attempt to fade into the darkness of the same night. It can well be argued that the choice of what to wear is more often dictated by fashion than tradition. However, it can hardly be denied that, it is also an indication of a personal choice of how much tradition to uphold and how much of modern fashion to adopt. And this question is as relevant even in less controversial topics. Should I send a perfumed letter to my lover or a quick sms text? Should I visit my brother at his home to find out how he is doing or should I throw him a sheep on Facebook and wait to see what he throws back? Should I cook turkey for thanksgiving or can I use this opportunity to show off my new Cordon Bleu skills to my family? – Many of our choices demand that we make a choice on how much of modern conveniences we are adapting to, while giving up on old traditions sometimes forged during the lifetimes of those that came before us, sometimes during our own.

Regardless of whether we move forward or not, the world around us is moving. And even if we are moving, someone else is moving at a pace faster than our own. The aim is not to be the first in the fast-paced race. But the struggle for survival dictates that we shouldn’t get left behind. At least not by a lot.

Like a flowing river, let us not try and get rid of all the sediments brought to us by generations before us. Instead, let’s sift through them, take out the best we can, yet not be afraid to add our own. So, when we reach the sea, we are richer, better and stronger than the innocent spring that sprouted out on the mountain tops.

How much should we adopt of the future, even as we are reluctant to let go of the past? What should we throw away? What should we keep? And how much can we add that is our own? It is a conscious decision that each individual needs to make for himself or herself. Being aware of that choice and its many ramifications is probably the best way to ensure that we are at peace with our decisions and with our pace in this world.

(Image courtesy: Srijith)

Posted in Society on January 6, 2008

2 Responses

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  1. Sig11 says

    Welcome back Surya and Happy New Year! I see you have a cool new template and a new ‘Sundays @’ posting style. Waiting forward to reading great thoughts over my Sunday morning coffee.

    Interesting topic to reminisce over at the beginning of the year. While not changing is equivalent to being left behind, changing too much and flowing tangent every time you see a diversion is also flowing down thin lines. It is the balance, which is difficult to get right, as it always is.

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