Culture splash

11th December 1998 at 00:00
By Vivien Golding
by Shelby Mamdani
By Paul Dash. Wayland #163;9.99 each.

Tradition, as T S Eliot said, can't be inherited; it has to be worked for.Whether it's choosing the appropriate embroidery for a sari, learning to make noodles, or fashioning a calabash into a storage pot for beans, people have to make the old way work by making it new.

This set of books uses a broad set of categories - food, clothes, music, religion, leisure - to show how human lives are enriched and shaped by turning the necessary into the desirable and surprising. The photographs are particularly helpful. Stunning colour images of a market in Grenada, a group of Burundi drummers, a pair of tumbling Chinese acrobats or a crowd at prayer in the River Ganges immediately draw the eye to the explanatory text.

The quality is high. Traditions are explained without anthropological hauteur or touristic gee-whizzery, but with quiet good sense. The compact histories of each region or continent show that a brief book can do no more than point towards a much greater living complexity. A folk-tale at the end of each volume outlines other cultural themes, timeless and concurrent.

The sections on music and the arts are particularly interesting, overspilling as they must into areas of leisure and the spiritual. In India, for example, we hear about the endless narrative variety of the Kathakali dances from Kerala, but also about pop group Kula Shaker, Bhangra groups and the productivity of the Bollywood film industry.

We are also given a sense of how traditions influence and are influenced by distant peoples. British children will learn why they drink tea from "china" cups. They will also be able to contribute to a question of great moment to some of us - why England can't win a cricket series against India or the West Indies.

Tom Deveson is an advisory teacher for the London Borough of Southwark

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