High brow, Low brow

I have long maintained that the so-called classical arts need to be celebrated beyond the elite domains within which they thrive. The elitism there exists in the varied shapes of caste, religion or economic status, but the basic idea of proprietary rights is common to all of them.

Even as I have adhered to this idea with growing conviction, I have come to realise that there is something that I have missed out on. While I am convinced that catholicism must be a foundational idea embedded within any artist, no philosophy of art should try to force an artistic culture — even the ‘gentle’ one of making ‘high’ art accessible to ‘others’ — on any community. When I argue for broadening of the social horizons of classical music or dance am I guilty of condescension? Worse, might I be perpetrating a kind of cultural violence myself?

On every step of the social ladder, there lurks somewhere the notion that the cultural behaviour of those one-step or more above needs to be replicated. Built into the aspiration for ‘upward mobility’ includes a desire to see changes in one’s own cultural practices that are more in sync with those ‘above’. Our complex social maze encourages a low sense of self worth and makes the cultural celebration of one’s own heritage very difficult. Practices are turned around and bent over since ‘social classicism’ becomes a determining factor.

Such being the case will the introduction or ‘inculcation’ as it is often called of an art form that is ‘elitist’ into ‘non-elite’ tribal or Dalit communities create a cultural imbalance and destroy important artistic practices that have been handed down for centuries? I do believe in disenfranchising art but I don’t want that very process to lead to personality disintegration in the receiving groups. Cultural sharing as between equals is one thing, acculturation is another. No art form is superior to another. Sophistication and complexity are contrived ideas of power and domination used only to further the cultural ownership of certain art forms by certain groups.

Showcasing (a word I dislike with passion) art forms labeled ‘folk’, as part of festivals or workshops is not a way of giving them life. There has to be something more, something that creates an inversion in the idea of cultural aspiration. Can we create cultural aspiration that is top down or one that is lateral?

When any of us socially privileged individuals watch a traditional artistic practice from communities that are lower in the caste hierarchy we do believe that many of ‘them’ lack the class, sophistication, structure, framework or training systems of ‘our’ classical arts. These artistic traditions are acceptable to us as long as they make their novelty appearances in ethnic breaks during cultural expositions or when we present papers at seminars on ‘The folk origins of our classical forms’.

Unfortunately the words classical and folk are constantly used in a discriminatory sense and need to be shunned. We need to find ways by which the ‘folk’ can be taught, practised and celebrated along with the classical arts on an equal footing. The message must go out that the classical arts are not superior to the folk arts and that artists of both categories are artists. We cannot, any longer, think of ‘folk’ or ‘ethnic’ art in those anthropological terms. Those highly intricate and moving art forms are not frozen murals from a stage of cultural evolution long since gone but a contemporary articulation of something as timeless and as time-bound as the ‘classical’ equivalents.

In our zeal to stretch ‘folk’ into a larger social canvas, we cannot be blind to the dangers of artistic appropriation. The already marginalised artist should not be forced into a new oblivion.

Cynical exclusion and thoughtless ‘inclusion’ lead to art keeping a mask on but losing its heart. As the ‘folk’ artistic traditions are opened out, the closely held traditions of the higher classes must be opened up.

Everyone should be ‘welcomed’ to learn, practise and enjoy the ‘classical’ forms. Artistic sharing is not a one-way street. If we can, with complete awareness of all that it involves, spread the wings of the ‘elite’ art forms over the ‘non-elite’ — not to overshadow, but to embrace the art forms and stagecraft skills among diverse communities — we may even achieve artistic equity.

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg and cannot discuss the nuances of these thoughts in a short column. There are serious artistic, philosophical and sociological questions that need to be addressed and I will keep looking out for mechanisms very carefully, for dismantling artistic hierarchies can be a way of changing the divisive nature of our society itself.

Originally written for The Hindu

Note from a naysayer

Human experience anchors itself in man’s innate gift of expression. Within us lies that unseen and untouched ‘voice’ that is the seat and the vehicle of this gift. The voice gives life to emotions of every kind that touch our beings in the form of words, tunes, rhythms and sometimes, just sound. It is the voice that takes thought into action, articulates our unanswered questions and gives collective strength to communities. Without that ‘voice’ we will be dumb followers of a deaf state.

Exactly as may be expected in a democracy as lively as ours, political voices of many pitches and hues have risen, but, essentially, in two dimensions — critiques of Mr. Modi and in fans’ acclaim of Mr. Modi. I am not going to discuss the two sides of the argument as that has been done in so many ways to deconstruct or eulogise our Prime Minister. Yes, I have said ‘our’ Prime Minister, which means that I, like everyone else, respect the constitutional position he holds. But that does not deny me the right to voice my scepticism regarding what the future may hold.

Every individual within a social fabric is in constant negotiation between the larger societal canvas and his own very personal space. He hopes to find a balance between his needs and all that the world around requires. This translates into what he looks for in a leader or government. These thoughts don’t remain thoughts; they very quickly, in a flash, become opinions. And this is where we hit a roadblock. We read events and say what we want to in a way that will support that pre-conditioned opinion and stay fixed there. Seldom do we change our positions, even partially, let alone completely.

Post the elections, Modi ‘fans’ seem to be shouting down any voice of dissent. Voices are getting louder, uglier and aggressive, pointing to an unpleasant future. This is not to deny that Modi-sceptics also stooped to very tasteless comments about him during the election campaign. But deeply polarised as it was, the election was not a civil war; it was our way of signposting the future.

In the after-glow of the victory, the attitude of many ‘fans’, however, points to the burgeoning sense of domination. This negative triumphalism is deeply insensitive, apart from being totally un-democratic. It seems to want to demolish all voices of opposition. Nobody has the right to silence or marginalise any voice. The so-called Gandhians, Nehruvians, Ambedkarites, Modi supporters, leftists and those who don’t belong to any of these categories encapsulate the political past, present and future of our country equally. The pre-Modi past was not as ugly as the demonising ‘fans’ would like to portray it. Nor will the future under Prime Minister Modi necessarily be a perfect world.

In a healthy democracy we need ‘Naysayers’. They are essential, not just for political balance but for what I described at the beginning of this column as the seat-vessel of human expression. Let the fans disagree with the ‘Naysayers’, but threats will only weaken the society that ‘fans’ believe Mr. Modi will transform. Every voice is crucial to providing multiple narratives to the currents in societies. Every voice picks up a few threads and ties them together. The weave that emerges from this is the collective consciousness of our society.

Elections are not about the victor and the vanquished; they are about the health of the community. Those who believe that the country will get a fresh lease of life under the present dispensation have every right to feel elated and thrilled. But that does not make those who are uneasy or disappointed, irrelevant. No one wins or loses, everyone hopes for the best within their own understanding of life.

Let no one be bulldozed into keeping silent. Let us all listen and allow everyone to be heard. Let us disagree but with the willingness to redraw our positions. I for one will not remain silent and will say what I say with the humility to acknowledge that I can be wrong.

I am one of the Naysayers. I am not comfortable with the chasm between the Muslim Indian and the Indian who is being triumphalist about Mr. Modi. And I find his idea of development deeply unsettling. But let me recognise that I will be happy to be proven wrong; as this is not about me. It is about this country, which we all hold so precious.

Originally written for The Hindu