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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Art For Life’s Sake

Why it is dangerous to reduce art to political rhetoric

Written by Avijit Pathak |
Updated: November 23, 2018 5:35:41 am
Art For Life’s Sake Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna (In middle/File Photo)

In this age of intolerance, even a song or a poem or a painting can be seen as a “threat”. Particularly when absolute conformity to the “system” is seen as a virtue — a token of Hindutva- induced nationalism, an artist like T M Krishna, with “problematic” political views, is bound to be hated and censored through a meticulously designed social media campaign.

To begin with, it is important to realise that art matters because it is not merely for professional artists. Each of us is a potential artist as life itself is a way of seeing, living, creating and attaching meaning to the everydayness of the world.

Likewise, politics is not just what professional politicians do. Politics surrounds our existence because it is about our socio-historical location, our engagement with power and the economy, and, our silences and voices. For instance, not to say anything against mob lynching or cow vigilantism while singing a bhajan song in a concert, or to celebrate sufi music while endorsing the Talibanisation of culture is not freedom from politics; it is a negative political act. Likewise, if it becomes exceedingly difficult for the daughter of a Dalit cab driver to get an entry into a Bharatanatyam academy, its political implications are obvious. Therefore, it is futile to separate art from politics. Who understands it better than an experimental classicist like Krishna? Yet, we should not forget, this relationship between politics and art is extremely nuanced. In this context, there are three dangers we need to overcome.

First, in the name of politics, art should not be reduced to a slogan or a predictable rhetoric. For instance, “revolutionary” art, be it a song or a play, does not mean that one is only stating one’s “anti-Brahmin”/ “anti-patriarchal”/ “anti-bourgeoisie” position. Art is not noise, nor a pamphlet or a manifesto. Its grace and aesthetic depth are its strength. As Bhupen Hazarika invokes the river in O Ganga, its radical meaning goes beyond the immediate frame of the song. It is good politics as well as fine art. Franz Kafka’s Joseph K in The Trial makes us feel the horror of what sociologist Max Weber regarded as the “iron cage” of bureaucracy. Its politics is deep. It is not a slogan for instant applause; it is not a loud street theatre full of catchy lines. Likewise, despite his sharp political articulations, Krishna’s music charms even a man like me who doesn’t understand the grammar of Carnatic music.

Second, there are limits to reductionism or determinism: The tendency to judge a piece of art merely on the basis of “class” or “caste”. For instance, how superficial it would be, as Raymond Williams cautioned us, to see D H Lawrence as representative of “decadent bourgeois literature”. Or, for that matter, to say that “forward caste” Satyajit Ray’s film Sadgati is less authentic than “marginalised” Omprakash Valmiki’s autobiography Joothan, as far as the depiction of caste hierarchy is concerned. This is to be burdened with the baggage of “political correctness”, and hence lose the spirit of art.

And third, we should never forget that there is an element of inexplicable creativity or intuitive flash in art and its appreciation. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Monalisa, Nandalal Bose’s portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, a baul singer’s magical performance in a local train in Bengal — these artistic articulations have extraordinary beauty. And, it would be vulgar to measure everything in terms of “political correctness”: the way it would be absurd to think that enjoying Ustad Bismillah Khan’s shehnai on a lazy Sunday afternoon is nothing but one’s “bourgeois privilege”!

Before I conclude, it is important to realise that these days the dangerous politics of the “culture industry” — the continual bombardment of glossy soap operas, unreal “reality shows”, “bestseller” fictions and noisy music for lavish wedding parties — is creating the ground for the growth of the “average” consumer, in tune with the mob psychology of authoritarianism. It has no respect for Krishna, or for that matter, Sonal Mansingh, even if, as her recent article in this paper suggests, she doesn’t want to “sing a political tune”. The establishment might co-opt them with awards and prizes. However, art that heals, makes us receptive and reflexive, and activates our creative potential, would find it difficult to flourish in an age that negates critically constructive thinking, arouses mob mentality and promotes narcissism. The likes of Krishna are needed precisely for this reason.

The writer is Professor of Sociology at JNU

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