In 2011,some of the best Indian artists passed away. But are we capable of truly evaluating their contributions to society?
As a writer,Ive had to deal with two requests from editorial desks this year. One was just an apologetic grunt,a pause,and a cryptic Well can you,by this evening? query,referring invariably to a tribute obit on a hugely important art/culture personality who had just passed away. The other was the pre-emptive exclamation even before my wary hello No,no; this is NOT for an obit. That has been the year,when an unusually large number of distinguished citizens from the arts have walked in a procession to the great beyond.
Suddenly,in that place up there,the new flush of creative infusion must be leading to great rejoicing. Consider the roll call musicians Bhimsen Joshi,Bhupen Hazarika,Sultan Khan,Asad Ali Khan and Jagjit Singh; artists MF Husain,Jehangir Sabavala and Mario Miranda; theatre persons Badal Sircar and Satyadev Dubey; filmmaker Mani Kaul; cartoonist Kutty; writer Indira Goswami; photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha; actors Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand.
Why do we need to respond to these dear departed? Why do we feel that each of these departures took away some part of ourselves? And what makes us incapable of articulating the loss in a marginally intelligent way?
Part of it,perhaps,has to do with our hypocrisy with history. It is on a par with the fact that we do not have one decent,honest account of,say the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (with which Badal Sircar,Bhupen Hazarika and Dev Anand were associated) or of the Indian new cinema movement of the 1960s/70s to which Mani Kauls contribution was seminal or of the Kirana gharana of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi,by far one of the most sublime musical schools of the 20th century.
It is significant that a large number of the creative souls who left us this year were in their 70s and 80s and were,therefore,active during the formative nation-building decades of the 1940s and 50s. These were the decades when,in the heat of the pre and post-Independence idealism,some of the most exciting artistic and cultural battles were launched and won,during which the kalakaar was centrally integrated into the project of the new nation. It was the period when notions of aesthetic nationalism consolidated. This was when gender taboos were challenged and many creative women found centre-stage. It was the period when important cultural institutions like the National Museum,the National Gallery of Modern Art and the three Akademies were established,leading to the formation,in the early 1960s,of the National School of Drama,the National Institute of Design (NID) and the Film and Television Institute of India. It was a period which was convinced of the role of the State in supporting the emergence of a new culture and every artist active during the period participated in the task. By remembering these artists,we remind ourselves of that unfinished agenda of artistic renewal that a newly liberated nation set out on.
However,it seems remarkable now that we have reached such a state of cultural amnesia that we find ourselves unable to evaluate their contributions within the mosaic of the larger cultural grid. Can this be put down to some kind of a generational incompetence a generation bereft of the tools and equipment necessary to assess its immediate past?
Perhaps,not. It seems more like the failure to create an institutional framework within which to map the coordinates of our collective cultural and artistic practices. It is evident that even cursory archival mechanisms are not in place in our artistic and academic institutions. Most artists are forced to make their own archives,which is often done whimsically and without any professional support. Most Indian artists pass away without anyone being responsible for their legacies. The few universities that do have art history departments are unable to generate research programmes based on the available material.
To give an example,artist/designer Dashrath Patel,who passed away last December,was a founding-father of NID. However,even after his demise,the NID has institutionally shown no interest in inheriting and being responsible for the 20 years he put into the foundational processes of the institute a period so crucial to the idea of design history in India. A future researcher will be hard-pressed to gather this material once it scatters or goes abegging.
If the national media cannot positively respond to the passing away of say,a Bhimsen Joshi,and,or if it ignores the passing away of a Badal Sircar or if it goes over the top,as it did,in the case of a Dev Anand or a Shammi Kapoor,then all one can deduce is that the crisis in the media has only deepened.
Since 1994-95,when Indian English mainstream media exited from serious arts writing following their re-conceptualisation of the arts as being entirely entertainment,the space for arts writing in the media has shrunk to invisibility and leading papers and periodicals have done away with a professional cog in the wheel called the arts editor. This de-professionalising in the mainstream has inevitably led to a substantial de-skilling of journalists who must comment upon significant developments,trends or paradigm shifts in the cultural terrain,let alone evaluate the passing away of artists who brought radical changes in their disciplines.
When an artist of MF Husains calibre passes away,aged 95,and the media struggles to react quickly with depth,the signs are not too good. This is not a crisis; it is a catastrophe.
Of course,since the days of Shankars Weekly,there has been little attention paid to the art and craft of cartoonists like Kutty or Mario and even in reputed media institutions cartooning remains orphaned. While the history of visual arts in post-Independence India has been a little better charted,it is uneven and is still replete with black holes. No wonder the demise of artists like Husain or Sabavala,whose works so crucially thickened the painted Indian canvas,evoked such thin response.
Writings on popular cinema receive the largest column space in contemporary media. Yet,the content of much of this can be dismissed as being superficial and vacuous. It is a sign of the times that numerous writers with adjectival competence so cavalierly reduced actors like Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor to the inscrutable category the romantic hero,without reading in their figures the far from romantic tensions and contradictions of post-Independence urban life in India. Obviously,if even popular material cannot be creatively and rigorously analysed,the fate of more complex contributors to the Indian creative matrix,like Mani Kaul,can be imagined.
The short point one is making is that every one of these departed luminaries needs to be treated as an entire university in herself or himself. Their passing away signals the shutting down of a flourishing fountain of creative energy,which is also the repository of the cultural metabolism and a meta-narrative of the nation. We need to be able to find a collective means to tap into that story and relay it back to us for renewing our own humanity. Towards this,it is the media that needs to re-connect with its sense of agency in this task of recovery.
(The writer is a Chennai-based cultural critic)