Shiv Visvanathan on the importance of being (and thinking like) Devdutt Pattanaik

Published on 16th December, 2016, on scroll.in

Interview conducted by Shiv Visvanathan

I meet Devdutt Pattanaik for a conversation. There is something easy, amiable and self-deprecatory about him. We settle down like two old friends in the Chinese restaurant at the Taj. He orders dimsum dumplings as appetisers and is ready for a chat.

He almost shrugs off the first question about the making of a Devdutt Pattanaik. He claims, “Mine was not a childhood full of myths and storytelling. There was no involvement with Ramayan and Mahabharat. I belonged to the generation teethed on Amar Chitra Katha and Chanda Mama, the first generation raised on comic books as folklore. We were indiscriminate or maybe cosmopolitan as children reading Asterix and Tintin with equal enthusiasm. Goscinny and Anant Pai were equally profound. I had a child’s interest in storytelling. My mother used to tell me I was a constant storyteller.

“I spent my childhood in Mumbai, my universe content among the Palghat Menons and Iyers. My favourite temple was the Subramanium Swamy temple. I was a good student and, like all good students, sentenced to medicine or engineering by parents who could not dream of less. A merit list student who qualified for Grant Medical College, I discovered I had little interest in medicine but was not brave enough to walk out; a student who did reasonably well in what he had been condemned to. A typical Indian middle class male competent at suffering subjects he disliked.”

The doctor who wasn’t

“I realised I did not like clinical medicine and yet, looking back, my training as a doctor gave me the analytical skills I applied to mythology. I was in a lost world and turned to the UPSC exams, which I passed, with history as a subject. I realised history at that time was navel-gazing by historians and had little to do with history.

“With nothing to focus on, I turned to medical communication and it was bread and butter for a few years. My friends in journalism asked me to write on culture. In fact, I saw myself as a quasi culturalist, not a professional academic but a folklorist of beliefs, norms, a passionate storyteller – who felt academics had ignored the fertile world of mythology. I was a freelance writer working on health columns. That is all I could do and it was sheer purgatory.

“My editors asked me to write a book on Shiva. At that time there was no book on Shiva. It sold a hundred copies. My editors had no sense of publicity or promotion. I then wrote on Vishnu. I kept writing and I am thirty books old today.

“Writing was my initiation into professionalism. I grew with every book. I applied the method of medicine to myth, searching for definitions, meaning, looking for sources of pilgrimage and recording festivals. I was literally a doctor of myth. But right through, there was one thing I looked for – patterns, the search for connections and connectivity.

“I thought I would take a course on myths offered by Mumbai University. My teachers had no sense of comparative myths, no knowledge of Robert Graves, no sense of the importance of the Golden Bough. We did not study myth but a syllabus on myth. There was no definition, no rigour – but I had the Indian talisman, a diploma which professed that I had a certificate for studying myth. There was little that was scientific, no sense of depth.

“The deeper I went as a writer, the more I realised the depth of the world available to me. The little money I had I would spend on books from the publisher Motilal Banarasidas. There was a whole body of knowledge I wanted access to, and I also realised that the public had little access to it. I realised one thing, that scholars wrote for each other. It was an incestuous world divided between scholars and storytellers.

“Indian intellectuals preferred to read philosophy while I wanted to enter the world of myth. But myth was seen as secondary, it was the world of folktale. The secondary had greater width and looked more lively. I was by now working for ad agencies. This was around 1996. I wrote Jaya while working in the world of pharmaceutical MNCs.”
Myths of management

“My management friends felt my conversations on myth made sense for problem-solving. My language probed deeper, and they found my analyses relevant. They had the resonance I was looking for. I began writing for The Economic Times, five articles which made a mark. I ended up writing Business Sutra, one of the longest-lasting columns, which survived as long as ET’s Corporate Dossier survived.”

Business Sutra was the turning point, more a tipping point, to his career. “Kishore Biyani recruited me as a consultant to explain India and how India thinks to the foreign visitor. In 2008, TED came to India and I gave my first TED talk on East and West, which was on the nature of difference. This went viral. Corporate dons coming to India emphasise and invoke its repeat value.”

There was something about management technique which was simplistic. It lacked the simplicity of mythology which is both formal and elegant. The world of management knew that India was different but it could not locate or specify the difference. Management needed roots, an indigenisation, it realised it could not be a second orientalism. There was a latent need for brokers like Pattanaik, and he was appointed Chief Belief Officer, a title he doted on.

“I didn’t want to mystify India – just explain and describe it with rigour. I wanted mythology to be a discipline, not an outpouring of sentiments. When you read a Karen Amstrong, you realise her outpourings have little intuitive sense of myth. I followed the way of medicine into myth, insisting on definitions, flow charts, diagrams, tables, fragments from scientific communication – which made myth feel like an anatomy class. I learnt a lot from Laurence Coupe at Manchester. The old man is dying now. His book, Myth (a Critical Edition), taught me that myth demanded discipline. What began as storytelling, is now a discipline.

“It was around that time that I met Santosh Desai. Santosh was more preoccupied with understanding cultural frameworks of behaviour but we shared a sense of structure. Structure gave order, coherence, a sense of creativity. I was fascinated with structure intuitively, without being a structuralist like Levi Strauss. I was home-made in that sense, intuitive, rigorous but not a trained academic. The audience loved it. I enjoyed straddling different worlds.”

For Devdutt, pattern is commonsense structure. It is rhythm and recurrence in a phenomenon. It is transformational. Most of our media, our management, our politics, do not seek structure. It is superficial, surface-oriented, sentimental and sensory. Intuitive rather than disciplinary. Method is critical and industry and management realise this. Let me put it this way: 70% is craft and the rest is art.

Management. Hollywood can industrialise creativity as craft. Myth, I feel, provides an ecology language, style, art and ethics for management thinking. It allows probes into the depth. Management in India, despite the search for roots, is superficial. There are a hundred leadership conferences, but few talk about power. Myth allows management to confront its deeper self.

“For me, Myth = Mithya was my PhD or equivalent. Business Sutra was a foray into the pragmatics of consultancy. Now I am in a third phase. I dig deep into evolutionary psychology. I use terms like “wolf pack”, “deer herd”, “beehive”, “animal instincts”, to look at organisations, point out similarities and differences.

“When I call an organisation a wolf pack, my audience smiles in recognition. They know my description is not a compliment. I use more evolutionary psychology rather than Jungian psychology to explain behavior.

“Hinduism is concerned with evolution, the evolution of consciousness, more than history. My choice is intuitive. The labels of discipline and expertise come later. Evolution as language, thought, consciousness, is what interests me. I am not evolutionary in the Darwinian sense, of the survival of the fittest, of a certain materialism. Evolution is about consciousness and cooperation.

“I cite books like Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture, but to me such scholarship is illustrative. I fall back on patterns. For me the classic example is the Kolam, a few dots like a homemaker’s check-list. The rigour and complexity that emerge from it are amazing. No management theory has the rigour or aesthetics of a Kolam. A Kolam is structure, pattern, play. Myth is like that.”

Are we too defensive?

Pattanaik claims that we are defensive about what is considered Indian. We resent the fact that we are explained away in a particular way. There is a power in language that wishes us away as underdeveloped. Too busy being defensive, we are not able to crack the provincialism of the western code.

Whether it is Roberto Calasso, or Wendy Doniger, they read us linearly and insist we read our cultures as Abrahamiac continuities. The West misreads our gods. Rama is not a hero; Ramayana is not a quest. The West does not sense this. We are not reversing the Western gaze through Pattnaik’s latest book, Olympus. Our study is “non-contestational”.

The dumplings rest easily and the noodles disappear as we talk. There is a playfulness, an ease about the man. I want my storyteller to be like that. The BJP can be semiticised, our management cultures yield to pressure, but India dreams and thinks differently.

Olympus is an attempt to provide an Indian reading of Greek myths, to look for patterns, similarities. Western linearity does not understand our diversity. Yet when I tell management experts diversity is inefficient, they protest. Western thoughts based on equality leads to uniformity. The sense of diversity is superficial. It frightens a Morgan Stanley.

Olympus seeks to reverse the lenses on myth. For decades, the West has been reading our myths. Olympus is an attempt to create a deeper reciprocity. Pattanaik looks at Greco-Roman myths in particular. Students of myth like botanists love to classify and compare. Pattanaik makes a loving comparison of myths. He creates a sense of familiarity and understanding. It is a loving, lovable act of popularisation, an appetiser inviting every Indian to explore Greek myths.

It is the beginning of the democratisation of myth, a hospitality of storytelling which should lead to interesting debates; a conversation on khats and by firesides which welcomes new cosmologies into alien territories. Pattanaik’s enduring power is that he makes myth-reading an open, playful, almost domestic game, like Chinese Checkers or Scrabble.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.