Artful Seduction HIMANI DALMIA The Times of India 26 Feb, 2007
When the scions of a business family start disappearing into the corridors of art and literature, concern about the business empire is coupled with confusion about how this could come to happen. Today, my family consists almost entirely of writers and academics. How is it that all the children born to my grand-father, the industrialist Ramkrishna Dalmia, from his wife Saraswati either became or married scholars? One of his daughters was a writer whose partner was India's then leading poet, S H Vatsyayan; another is a professor of Philosophy; yet another, a professor of Hindi at the University of Berkeley, is internationally renowned in the field of South Asian Studies; and a fourth is a pre-eminent art historian with many books to her credit. As the male heirs, his sons were never presented the option of drifting into academia. Businessmen they became, yes, but they also wrote on the side. And whom did they marry? One, an academic who is today a Commonwealth prize-winning novelist and, the second, a lawyer and educationist. Were these marriages in fact the expression of a repressed love of culture? If yes, where did this love come from? Logically, from my grandmother, a Hindi poet and Sanskrit scholar. But why did a semi-literate man from a small town in Rajasthan seek her out for marriage and why did he similarly seek out three other educated, cultured women.According to Pierre Bourdieu, economic capital alone does not make class. Education, skills and knowledge create 'cultural capital' while networks and institutionalised relationships provide 'social capital'. These lend a power and influence that cannot come from money alone. It is in search of such 'symbolic capital' that the wealthy buy works of art, found educational institutions, become members of cultural committees and start trusts that give away literary awards. This is what converts the merely rich to the truly elite. In early capitalistic societies, once traditional systems of patronage had broken down, this was also what gave the artist a place of importance. The merchant needed the artist because the latter signified a life romanticised as both aristocratic and free from bourgeois taboos. The 'seduction'of business families by the arts can lead to both significant contributions to culture as well as greater pride and significance for the family. American business dynasties like the Rockefellers, the Du Ponts and the Mellons are now as well known for their contributions to culture and society as for their business accomplishments. Successive generations have presided over the decline of their business empires but have been actively involved in art, academia, scientific research, politics and liberal education. Paul Mellon, for example, is remembered today for his extraordinary collections of art and rare books, the billions of dollars he gave away to museums, and his passion for horseracing. In India, the Sarabhai and Shriram families have followed a similar trajectory. Despite his illustrious business lineage, Vikram Sarabhai became one of India's leading scientists and married the celebrated classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai. Their daughter Mallika also became a dancer. The Shriram family is today one of the foremost patrons of culture in India and Vinay Bharat-Ram has created a niche for himself in the world of Indian classical music. The process of negotiation between money and culture is complex and perhaps also contains the solution to my family mystery. My grandfather belonged to a poor merchant family. Making pots of money could not compensate for an upbringing that had not prepared him for high society. He found himself at the pinnacle with a small-town woman as his spouse. He himself had a questioning mind. So, when he decided to marry again, he chose women who could bring cultural refinement with them. The first of these was highly educated, smoked and wore chiffon, lipstick and high-heels. She refused to be ruled by her husband and the couple decided to part ways. Once bitten, my grandfather now searched for a more balanced proposition. He approached my grandmother's father and said that Saraswati was just right for him: she had studied Sanskrit, was highly educated, wrote prolifically but also respected tradition. His next wife brought with her the culture of Lahore, then known as the Paris of the east. His last wife was a writer who went on to become well known in the Hindi literary circuit and win national awards. It is the women, after all, that bring up the children. A mother who inculcates a love of art in her children could well spell trouble for a business family. Other branches of my grandfather's family faced no such conflict and remained committed to their businesses, which prospered exponentially as a result. My grandfather's brother Jaidayal did not marry a woman with cultural inclinations. Their children may have patronised the arts as a business adjunct but did not directly participate in them. How-ever, the offspring of Ramkrishna Dalmia from his later wives were born to double messages: one, to join the family business; and two, to value culture and creative expression. The cultural influence was too strong for his children to escape and was compounded manifold by the arrival of their spouses. The next generation — that of my cousins and me — is the recipient of the 'cultural capital' my grandfather invested in. It leads to much inner conflict, certainly, but it is a fortune in itself. We are the children of a marriage between money and culture and therein lies the resolution of apparent contradictions: concerts and writers'seminars will be held while people in business suits walk in and out, all amidst the income tax case laws in the family bookshelves and the Sanskrit shlokas inscribed on the walls of our home.