Why do I read you, Outlook?

Not to seek a reiteration of my own opinions or for a vindication of my beliefs. Not to seek contrary opinions either. Both those reasons would be self-defeating. The former would lead to a pretentious ‘I was right’. The latter, while urging me to reconsider my stances, would, most of the time, actually do the exact opposite. I would ‘dig my heels in’ even deeper. I read you, really, to hear ‘voices’—voices from across the sea of humanity, giving me many eyes and ears to sense society with. In general, socio-political publications tinker with the voices, change accents around, “clean up” dialects or, even worse, press the “mute” button.

Outlook for me stands out as a distinct publication where the voices have been varied, diverse, soft, loud, intimate, mannered, violent, tender, brash, considerate, empathetic and even sterile. But they have been voices, real, true, human voices. We are the owners of every one of these emotions and Outlook symbolises us, the human race, and specifically the ones living within the cultural basket we call ‘India’.

Originally written for Outlook

I am going to begin this column with two commonly used words that cannot be published: f**k and ba****d. These are two simple examples from the large collection of abusive words that all of us process in our repertoire in various languages. They are not taught in any classroom but imbibed through social osmosis. As is often said the first words we pick up in a new language are words of abuse. We hear them being flung at targets and cannot fail to be struck by the strength of their utterance. Understanding the full import of the abuse often comes after the volley of sound, yet it is never a deterrent.

Using these words gives the teenager a sense of adulthood; for the adult, power and control. These are expressions of violence used when we snap. Very often, the use of these words is the point when a verbal bout degenerates to physical assault. They then illustrate, in a word-image, a physical intention. Verbal abuse then becomes an attack on the other person and meant to hurt deeply. Right through history ‘bad language’ has been a form of protest, a non-conformist counter to what is acceptable in society. And may be it is because of this nature of these words, that they vandalise ‘that which is rarely discussed in the open’ — sex and sexuality.

These words have been created by the masculine social construction we call society and are, naturally, male-chauvinistic! Take for example the ‘four letter word’. This is not just an expression of sexual intercourse; it signifies sexual violence. When you are abused by anyone with that term, you are being attacked. This term also comes from the perception among men that the sexual act is controlled by ‘him’ and hence even its abuse is part of his artillery.

Put all this together and I don’t see how the typical four-letter word isn’t regarded with the horror that ‘rape’ is. Women use this word with equal nonchalance. Living in a male-dominated, discriminative environment, being comfortable using these abusive words gives the women a sense of being ‘one of the boys’, even acceptance among the men. If we survey any language, we will find that verbal abuse is almost always a combination of sex+violence+women.

There is more. We know that the worst form of physical abuse in custody is targeted at the most sensitive parts of the human anatomy. This gives an insight into why verbal abuse too targets actions associated to the very same parts of our body. Both physically and emotionally, anything associated with sex makes us vulnerable; that may be the reason why historically we have saved the worst insults for sexual acts.

But, all this over obsessing with verbal abuse of only one kind has made us numb to other verbal abuses that we use freely. In fact we consider them acceptable, even funny. Take for example all the terrible expressions that target the physical disability of a person, even the simple phrase: ‘Are you blind?’ We use this with ease every time our child is unable to find something that is right in front of her. There are many such words, the ones in Hindi for instance, that target physical disability — kana (one-eyed), langda (lame), behra (deaf) and, of course, pagal (mad). We hear them everyday, as part of banter and fun, never feeling even for a moment that they are expressions of violence and discrimination.

There are some other abuses that are more than acceptable. I can freely use them in this column without wondering about repercussions: moron, retard, idiot, stupid, dimwit, imbecile. I have used them from the time I can remember the idea of ‘word’ itself. Like foul sexual abuses, we use these too among friends. But we also use them when we want to insult or question a person’s intellectual capacity or insinuate a lack of mental faculty and, as with all abuse, from a position of power we attack and put down the victim, making him feel incapable. We don’t care that these words cause as much hurt as the ‘real ones’. Even worse we are totally insensitive to what they say about people with serious intellectual disabilities.

We live in times when we have taken steps to evolve sensitive terms such as ‘differently abled’, and socially banned the use of several racial and caste related insults. Yet, we use terms that abuse the physical, mental capabilities and the sexuality of people without batting an eyelid. It is time to pause and think.

Originally written for The Hindu

Margazhi Moments

For those who may not have heard of the Chennai December music season, here is a ‘serious’ one-liner: This is the largest festival of classical music and dance in the world; the coming-together for a whole month of musicians, dancers and connoisseurs from across the world. Ok, now for some fun.

December is when Chennai awakens to its own artistic legacy. Chennai is India’s cultural hub and art happens through the year; yet December is special, very special. So special that many who have been in a state of ‘cultural coma’ over the preceding eleven months suddenly awaken to becoming official aficionados of art for and only December.

For established artists, it is the time to bask in their glory, crowds milling around them, the media hounding them for one-liners, rasikas desperate for a glimpse, a photo op. The ones trying to establish themselves want every available platform. Any of their numerous performances could be that ‘special one’ when the cognoscenti deliver their votes of acceptance.

The singers dig out the mufflers, scarves and shawls from the deep reaches of their closets. Every throat specialist in Chennai is ready to face the onslaught, the frantic mid-day request for an express remedy. For dancers, painkillers are suddenly their best friends. Rehearsal after rehearsal and sandwiched somewhere in-between is the concert. The homes of artists turn into fortresses. ‘Beware, an artist lives here’.

During the season there are at least 20 sabhas holding their ‘annual’ festival. Organisations come in different hues. These can be graded according to age. There are, of course, the ‘vintage’, ‘know-it seen-it, done-it-alls’. There, the committee member walks around with an air of superiority in all respects. ‘His’ — because most of them are male! — understanding of art is usually minimal and his authority, maximal. Then come the ‘middle-aged sabhas’, those in the second tier, their committee members hoping that in the next 50 years their grand-children (who will by then be committee members) can be the music honchos. Then there are the fly-by-night operators, who hold music and dance festivals once a year, in December. Their focus is clear: get a small piece of the cake, it will rise on its own in the oven; money which is available in abundance.

Getting a season ticket in a sabha is like winning a bumper prize in a lottery. You’d better know somebody to get that card and then you can, if you wish, pass it around to your friends and relatives. Family members who hardly speak to one another cozy up only because one is a member of a sabha. If this was made into a comic strip you would see a bubble over the head of the person that reads ‘I want that pass’.

Within this ‘hungama’ exists, like an omnipresent God, the corporate. We could hold a ‘corporate banner hunt’ across the city and be sure to find them all. If you are a serious investor, then just gauge the size of the banner, the number of places it is found and importantly the number of times the CEO or chairman of a company is a ‘chief guest’ or receiving a title that has the following words in some combination — kala, sangita, natya, seva, ratna, tilaka. With this information you will know where to place your money. This is not sound advice, however, since some corporate chief guests have by now gone under.

Almost all television channels, magazines and newspapers become culturally sensitive. They send out their most experienced, revered journalists, with decades of experience in covering art and culture to interview musicians, write columns and bring out the hidden aspects of the season. If you fall for that, it just means that you don’t read culture news. In general, when an artist gets a call from a journalist during the music season, it is from a ‘temp’ or ‘on assignment’ or ‘intern’. I am certain they have Wikipedia open, just to make sure they get the name right. Of course they write the most insightful pieces on art! And let us not forget the reviewers. Almost like in a Harry Potter movie, they tumble out of empty cupboards. Many of them have ‘a listening experience of over four decades’ or have learnt music ‘from when they were 12’, or read all the musicological books that were ever written. Or, if you are a clever reviewer, just bring along a knowledgeable rasika to the concert that you are reviewing.

But now, a serious note.

Is the music and dance season a perfect world? Absolutely not, it is still a private upper-class club, restricted by practice, tradition and habit. Sponsors don’t really care where the money is going; they spread it so thin that whether the money is resulting in any long-term impact to the art is an important but unaddressed question. Opportunities are not always given on merit and many good artists are obliged to importune sabhas for a ‘concert chance’ compromising their self-respect.

There are many such issues that need addressing and I do hope we do, very soon. Nevertheless the December Music Season gives you a rare insight into music and dance and their practice, something you must experience.

Welcome to Chennai.

Originally written for The Hindu