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Monday, August 02, 2021

To Vinod Khanna, with thought

Vinod Khanna's metamorphosis — from a popular Bollywood star to the minister of state, and that too for culture (and tourism) is sociol...

Written by Avijit Pathak |
July 8, 2002

Vinod Khanna’s metamorphosis — from a popular Bollywood star to the minister of state, and that too for culture (and tourism) is sociologically revealing. In a way, it shows — as Khanna himself asserted — that film stars are not just ‘crowd-pullers’; they constitute a political force to reckon with. It also indicates the growing legitimacy of Bollywood in the cultural landscape. Yes, Bollywood, no matter what its critics allege, plays a significant role in arousing the nation’s imagination. Its ethos is syncretic and secular and the contributions made by some of its great masters — from Bimal Roy to Shyam Benegal — have enriched our culture. Yet, it is legitimate to doubt whether Vinod Khanna — who unlike, say, Raj Kapoor or Naseeruddin Shah, is not particularly known for meaningful cultural contributions — can accomplish what the culture minister is expected to do.

Culture is not just a ‘soft’ domain of celluloid images. Nor is it something to be packaged in the name of ‘spiritual heritage’ for promoting tourism. Instead, it is in the domain of culture that men and women think, move, act, and shape their consciousness. No wonder, all great revolutionaries — from Gandhi to Gramsci — engaged themselves with culture, its resources and possibilities. Moreover, in a country like ours cultural politics has acquired added significance. Here is an old civilisation having a rich cultural memory. And, at the same time, it is a civilisation that is perpetually innovating, evolving and modernising itself. It is, therefore, not surprising that the cultural domain witnesses a complex, creative and dialectical relationship between tradition and modernity, mythology and history, religion and science. Again, here is a culture having multiple currents that fascinate the proponents of social diversity. In a way, we witness a continual interplay of folk and classical traditions, and plurality of religious rituals and practices. Therefore, to function meaningfully as a minister for culture one requires an extraordinarily high degree of intellectual and intuitive skill.

We need to recall the complexity of this task. Because in our times we are witnessing an utterly superficial, naive and dangerous orientation to culture. There are many manifestations of this misguided cultural policy and politics. First, we see the assertion of the dominant religious community that seeks to hijack the national culture and poses a threat to the survival of marginalised traditions. Second, as a result of this aggressive posture, we witness innumerable incidents of cultural policing: the way dissenting voices that do not fit well into the perception of, say, an ‘ideal’ Hindu society get repressed and censored. Third, we experience the phenomenal growth of a ‘culture industry’ that manufacturers what is being regarded as ‘popular’ culture. It causes violence to the sensitivity of an aesthetician, the rigour of a classicist, and the intensity of a folk artist. Not surprisingly then, we find ourselves amidst a situation in which there is an unholy alliance of communalism and consumerism, majoritarianism and packaged global mass culture, political violence and seduction of the market.

In such a scenario, what does cultural governnance mean? One thing is clear. The real task is not to dictate the agenda of culture, but to create situations conducive to the organic growth of culture, its transformation and innovation through people’s participation and engagement. This requires openness, and sensitivity to plurality and people’s struggles. Vinod Khanna, therefore, needs to take his job seriously. There are, however, two problems. First, Khanna represents a political ideology that, many would suspect, is not particularly conducive to the ethos of a pluralistic cultural landscape. Second, he represents the glossy/glamorous/ seductive Bollywood that trivialises culture and encourages stereotypes.

Khanna, therefore, needs to unlearn his past, and look at the world with fresh eyes. He should not reduce an vibrant culture into a ‘mythical/ spiritual’ zone that promotes superficial orientalism only to attract foreign tourists. Instead, he must be willing to appreciate and learn from the great stories of cultural innovation.

Is Khanna capable of doing all this? Or, is his presence in the ministry merely ornamental?

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