Independence needs no introduction, explanatory notes or constitutional description, for we have all experienced its fullness. In moments of abandon, when we express, receive and share it without any external or inner censorship whatsoever, we rejoice in its sanctity. Yes! I have said sanctity, because there is something utterly precious, untainted in its embrace. Our lungs fill up with it, and though this may sound incredible, our hearts smile. Even the grievously marginalized feel this sensation of joy and of hope, and in those rare occasions they are distanced from unending oppression.
But independence does not live in or between us in permanence and hence every August 15th when India turns one year older we need to and seek to explore this idea and describe it to ourselves with many more adjectives and analogies. Even after 70 years, independence is not a living idea for every Indian, nor is it shared in equality. Vigil is a constant necessity.
As an artist I am tempted to reflect upon frameworks such as independence and democracy because these words rarely find place in an artistic context. In some surreal manner we feel that art inherently expands horizons and enables greater goodness and therefore leads to a more democratic society. A euphemism that gives us a permanent ‘feel good’ sensation, detaching artists from any form of self-questioning.
In reality, artists have elevated themselves and art into a realm way above the stratosphere from in a way that makes the real no more than a speck of dust. Consequently, the artist is disconnected from everything real. But art is society’s most expressive vehicle to understand identities, beliefs, inter-community behaviour, ritual and the politics of livelihood. Art celebrates, describes, navigates, dreams, proposes, questions and answers life’s every moment, which also means that it connives, exploits and orchestrates. These become functional in the way art’s aesthetics, its participants, spatial addresses and contextual roles are determined. Therefore every moment of beauty is more often than not created amidst great disparity and even violence. Marginalized art forms very much like the communities they originate in are rarely given respect or empowered to participate in the larger discourse. An overall assessment of the art space leads me to say that it is unequal and undemocratic, lacking independence.
But for these issues to be even addressed we must first acknowledge that art is a willed act, not a gift of god or blessing, it is the creation of conscious human endeavour. When we re-engage with art looking at it as a space for democracy another thought emerges. Can there ever be true creativity when art worlds do not permit disruptions that de-stabilize every basic premise? Unfortunately art cloisters are bound by norms that make sure that this kind of freedom or independence is kept in check. Hence we need to wonder if artists are free and that leads to another difficult question, what then are we creating?
An artist’s first democratic act is to awaken to this stranglehold and unsettle this recurring pattern of passivity. The artist then releases art and herself from submissive silence, but more significantly allows art to become a transformative instrument. Art enables change only when artists first question arts own prescriptive hierarchies. The reader may wonder if change in art’s own dynamics and between art forms makes any difference to society at large. When art becomes questioning and liberal then art objects in their multiple mediums and forms influence every thought. A society of independent artists from across the social spectrum belonging various gender identities stimulate thought through music, dance, drama, literature, visual art and cinema. Until then the art is lost, democracy muffled and independence a lie.
There is another intersection, one where the non-artist meets art. Art is about creating objects of aesthetic distinctiveness. But if we understand art as a philosophical edifice from which we can draw, then there is something much more intrinsic to learn. And this is very closely related to being a citizen. What makes us citizens? And I am not talking about our address of birth, the passport, Aadhaar number or suffrage. There is something deeper that defines me as a citizen of India, and that is active participation in its democracy. Democracy occurs and is mutilated everyday and at every moment and hence this is not some grandiose theorisation. And very closely tied to its occurrence is the independence of all those involved in its play. Therefore becoming a citizen is to remain alive to the complexities of who we are, where we live, our relationships and to empathise with all that exists around. A citizen is one who places others before herself. Very often we find that those who have very little and have been discarded, brutalised by society do this with ease, while you and I selfishly reject such theories as utopian.
It all begins with the individual, yet in concentric circles enlarges and creates communities of citizenry. A citizen is not a passive consumer of her rights, privileges and responsibilities. She introspects, rediscovers and questions all aspects of her citizenship. She begins with her own identity and the various roles she plays in her immediate circle. But very soon the questions covers everyone of us and she is constantly grappling with the inside and the outside. The artist may arrive at these questions through, sound, light and shape, but for citizens it is their everyday encounters. But in both cases observation, self-criticism and an openness to receive are imperative.
To reflect about who we are as participants in an inter-connected society and to realise the obvious inequalities in our relationships with people and the environment is citizenship. We are un-free and what many of us consider the normal way of living in actuality infringes upon the independence and rights of others. But citizenship comes alive only when we respond and act, when imagination becomes creativity. This will lead to a realignment, a re-drawing of personal maps, identities, practices and nature of our contribution to society.
When Bezwada Wilson rejected the manual scavenging job offered to him or when Perumal Murugan declared that the writer dies when his words are erased, they acted as citizens. These were acts that collapsed the personal struggle with a bigger calling, transcending the private. These were creative acts of disruption, instants of freedom, when the artist in these individuals emerged.
The artist and the citizen are realised through very similar processes. Both are intentional and deliberate and occur only when we express, empathise, share, introspect, challenge and live in the conflict of disagreement on an everyday basis. In the last 70 years we have had phases when sections of our population became citizens and were at the forefront of this participatory democracy. But later we forfeited our spirit of citizenship to activists. We have remained quiet, selective, a fearful lot unable to spread our wings.
The time has come for us to become citizens of India, democratise thinking and make independence an everyday discourse. And when we act on these ideas we stumble upon creativity and un-fettered freedom. The citizen then becomes an artist and the artist finally discovers her citizenship.