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

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