Pinned down by identity

“All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare. Sankara said something similar when he spoke about mayaand reality, as did Plato when he sought the “ideal”. They were discussing ‘that which is’ according to their own light. But they have prodded us to explore the abiding spirit that permeates their ideation; to realise that there is more to us than the ‘act’ we put up and be aware — brutally aware, as J. Krishnamurti may have said — of the dichotomy in this relationship. What we are, as persons, is beyond the label that we own or the designation that we wear.

But just look at what we have done even to these thinkers; we have made them ‘role models’. Plato’s abstract ideal of himself has been trapped in his marble bust! Shakespeare, Plato and Sankara have been mummified into the role that we have wrapped them in and all the various things that they said have been made to fit into their function in society as we see it.

We have so many different titles to describe ourselves, starting with our personal favourites: mother, father, wife, husband, brother and sister. These are followed by the ones the larger world gives us — businessman, politician, musician, activist, thinker, writer, mentor, critic, guru, blogger, columnist.

The visiting card is probably the best reflection of our professional tags. In fact, when a person gives us his/her card, we don’t really look at the name; our eyes search for the designation. What role does he/she play? How important is he/she? And, ‘what can he/she do for me?’  In fact, if he/she is the vice-chairman of a multinational conglomerate, we know what to say and, more importantly, what not to say! And, let us be clear, he/she too knows that the card is all about that ‘one description’. Depending on the designation on my card, the weighing scale tips the balance of our relationship.

We are, in fact, not persons but the roles we are playing. We have to be a certain way if we want to stay true to the role. There can, of course, be many different types of people within each role, yet if we were to look closely we will notice that they are all only different shades of the same colour.

I belong to the world of the performing arts. Mark the word ‘performing’! It has already told you the reason for my existence in society. I am here to deliver an evening of pleasure. Then when I tell you I am a Carnatic musician, you have further narrowed down the kind of pleasure demanded of me. In fact Carnatic music itself has been pinned down to the Carnatic musician-performer identity. Therefore, in a very convoluted way, the music too has become ‘a role’. Everything — from my interest, training, skill, practice — has been made captive to that one word ‘performer’.

This is true not only of music but also of every other field. Every designation that is given to us is a role that we have to enact. The better we are at playing the role; the more successful we will be. The moment we do not conform to the role as fabricated by our social context, we are failures since we have not delivered the goods.

If we sincerely ask ourselves why we do something, the answer will be a scorching revelation. And if we face what has been revealed, the world will open up. At a personal level, every moment of our living becomes an engagement with ‘what is’ and not ‘what it is preordained to be’. In the process, we could well come alive and shed the mannequin’s garb. The politician need not be a certain way because he has donned that attire nor the lawyer nor doctor. And, may I add, the priest or mullah. What they do will become more relevant than who they are. Can a historian explore history as a person and not a historian? Can a person delve into life without play-acting or performing the duty that is demanded of him? How will this change understanding?

A conversation with a so-called simple weaver or manual labourer reveals a greater insight into this conflict than we ever imagined. He may have not resolved this issue but, in his self-definition, there will be a level of awareness that we, the privileged, fail even to recognise.

The question that begs to be asked is can we rediscover the real in ourselves so that functionality gives way to living?

Originally written for The Hindu

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