The human mind loves ideas in contrasts or opposites. The understanding of one idea is dependent on the perceived comprehension of the other. For example, white and black, rich and poor, powerful and weak or, for that matter, the city and the village. This fascination for dichotomies is further complicated by the fact that the “powerful” among the two words controls the imagery of the other, having a stranglehold on the narrative.
Every one of us who has lived in the city sees it as a contrast to the village and, naturally, stereotypes emerge. For the romantic, the village is an idyllic, quiet getaway, where people live within their needs in harmony. Such a person ignores the obvious struggle among villagers with agonies and aspirations. The term “villager” also implies a simpleton. But it is this belief that justifies the city-dweller’s own need to spend some time in such an environment, only to return to his “happening world” — the city. An opposite stereotype of the citybred is of the village being an inefficient, dirty, uneducated, slow and archaic gathering of people that needs to transform, become a city, or “develop”. It is not new that many efficient cities, or smart cities, are touted as a socio-political-cultural-economic symbol, a sign of the country moving towards the next stage of development. Hidden within this belief system are subversive agendas that steamroll and crush the ugly inflexibilities of urban spaces.
The etymology for the word “city” leads us to some archaisms. But “city” implies a capitalist-centric, economic magnet. This may be the primary attraction, but it is a far more complex social animal in which the idea of culture plays a central role. In the grammar of economics, the city is a symbol of opportunity and in the poetic phraseology of culture, a symbol of equality. Both perceptions are not just flawed, they are concocted to establish the dominance of a certain class. But these beliefs have driven and continue to drive people to the city.
The word “urban” too must be explored in this context. This gives us a glimpse of the delusion we have created by the idea of the city. The word is derived from the Latin “urbs”, meaning, simply, city. What is “urban” is that which pertains to a city, which by tradition is meant to be civilised, refined, courteous. The adjective “urbane” sums up the essence of the city, as does the Tamil word “nagarikam”, where nagara means city and nagarikam implies being cultured.
But what is this “culture” that we believe exists within the urban space, which is lacking in the village? Is it universal? The moment we explore these questions more words pop up, such as sophistication, class, nuance, elegance and subtlety. These relate as much to the identity of the urban person as to the urban idea of art. One cannot disconnect the two. Cultural aspiration is a far stronger force than we concede. It goes hand-in-glove with economic upward mobility. The control group of any city, which tends to be the middle and upper-middle class, tolerates the rich-uncultured (culture as understood by them), but embraces the rich-cultured.
The city does certain things to people. It closets them in individual sociocultural bubbles. In a way, the city is a habitation of multiple cloisters, where each hardly recognises the existence of the other. In what is said to be a space determined by economics, it is culture-politics that actually rules. The fisherman’s city has no link with the accountant’s, which, in turn, is socially independent from the migrant labourer’s. These people are linked only through the services they provide. We know the services, but not the faces that provide them. The fisherman is unseen, but the fish is needed. This means the fisherman’s culture is irrelevant to me. But we still speak of an “urban culture”, a misnomer that exists only because of the constant hammering down of this idea by the controlling, powerful upper-middle class. To the urban middle class, the slum is a filthy village and hence culturally despicable.
This raises a serious question about art and “spaces”. In most cities in this country, art is compressed within specific spaces. Space is not emptiness; it exists only when it is filled. Here, the people who fill each kind of art space are homogenous and look for homogeneity for retaining its “values”. Certain performing arts moved to the cities in India in the early 20th century and have stayed in confined urban spaces. In due course, villages and towns that were part of the history of these art forms lost their connectivity. Once again, we have to come back to the middle class, since it is its art that moved with it to the cities. These are the arts we refer to as classical. Parallelly, two other things have happened. The other forms of art within the cities, often considered crude by the middle class, live in their own bubbles, yearning for acceptance as “urban”. Village art forms get universally categorised as “folk” and exotic or acceptable for certain occasions, but not “cultured”. We cannot ignore in this sociocultural hierarchy the fact that even those practising “other” art forms in the city or folk forms in the villages aspire to be accepted as cultured.
The greatest tragedy of urbanisation is what it has done to the idea of the village. We have manipulated the village to represent deprivation and poverty. We have presumed that vilage culture is a local phenomenon that has no role in the mainstream narrative. And, ironically, when this very same village-dweller becomes a city person, he is once again pushed to the cultural margins. Hence, it is insulted twice over.
We need to ask a fundamental question. Is the city really a sociocultural solution? Kerala is for me a cultural example that needs to be looked at. Kerala is a state of many vibrant villages and towns and, maybe, just two real cities, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. This has helped in disseminating a cultural and aesthetic identity across caste and class groups. The nature of the small town or village allows for real human connections between people of diverse identities and spaces. This sharing has allowed for the organic movement of arts across groups. I am not saying there do not exist in villages or towns their own hierarchies or hegemonies. They do, but the level of awareness and the sense of equality in receiving art is revealing. This comes from the natural movements that take place between multiple spaces and the resultant osmosis of multiple cultures. Here, the cultured is not a “fixed predefined box”, it is a cloud that gathers moisture from various places and showers rain across the landscape.
The city is an animal of the “mainstream”, defined by the urban middle class; the rest function independently as unheard melodies. This mainstream homogeneity has to be broken and, for this, we have to create multiple intersections between people. History tells us that in spite of all its sociological flaws, smaller villages and towns allow for this possibility. Maybe what India needs is not 100 smart cities but thousands of empowered villages and towns.
Krishna, a Carnatic musician, is the author of ‘A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story’