Embracing change

Published : Aug 15, 2008 00:00 IST

There is a great tumult and tension that is affecting society and social relationships as much as it is affecting creative expression in different forms.

The essence of all these moving pictures Brings to my mind the image of language, Forever forming, forever unforming, Continuous coming, continuous going

Railway Station Rabindranath Tagore, translated by William Radice.

WHAT Tagore calls the image of language can well be taken as a metaphor for the tensions and tumult in society today. It is not as if society has not been forming and unforming, as he says, and it is not as if in his day what we commonly call modernity was not changing, through pressure and even conflict, traditional attitudes and postures.

Leaving aside political changes, of which much has been said, there were deep social changes and tensions that left society as he knew it altered forever. He himself was responsible for some of that in the world of literature. The opening up of the world of knowledge as defined by the Western world, then seen as the new world of ideas and concepts to young people in a generally ordered, familiar, even staid society brought uncertainty and the excitement associated with it just as it did in the West.

Thomas Robert Malthus had predicted an exponential growth in population, and to the extent that the population in Western countries did begin to grow rapidly he was proved right, but he did not foresee the Industrial Revolution or the enormous exodus to America, South Africa and Australia. What he perceived to be a massive disaster turned out to be the opposite an economic boom period as the production of goods increased and the pressure of population was dissipated by migration.

But there was change in every aspect of society, and this was the period when Western education came to India in the form of colleges and universities. It brought new ideas and new attitudes and shaped everything from art to music to literature. Tagores poetry and writings were to a very large extent a product of the new social tensions and excitement, but they were equally rooted in traditional forms of music and poetry and in traditional myths and legends.

It is easy to say today that what he and other young writers and artists like him went through was welcome because it was new and fresh and brought a dynamism to something that was static and had, perhaps, lost its ability to evolve. It is easy to say this, but it would be untrue because the process was far more complex and cannot be written off in a few sweeping generalisations.

But this is the context, today. There is, as we are all aware, a great tumult and tension that is affecting society and social relationships as much as it is affecting creative expression in different forms. But the confrontations today are more intense, certainly. They are made so because communication is far more intense. Television, film and printed journals and newspapers have all made communication far more penetrative than it was in Tagores time.

Film and television have succeeded in creating a ferment in social attitudes, responses and concepts at all levels in society and even shaped them through a process that would be considered comic if it did not have such serious consequences. It involves the desperate attempt by both media to find out what audiences want.

Market surveys such as TAM (Television Audience Measurement), which is run by a private market survey group and which most television channels accept as the norm despite declaring it to be deeply flawed, are interpreted to determine what people want or like or prefer. This is then served up to them and is inevitably the lowest common denominator the dumbed-down programmes and soap operas that most television channels carry. The film industry has no such survey but takes its cue from certain trade journals that are thought to measure audience reaction even though the methodology may be, in statistical terms, wildly inexact.

Films, and to an extent television, have created the image of the hero who whistles at girls standing at bus stops or who deliberately bumps into them in college or on the street and then runs his hand through his carefully tousled hair while exposing his bare chest through his unbuttoned shirt. This is more or less the stereotype made glamorous by Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and others of the same breed. It is consequently no surprise that young men who watch all this, who live dreadfully dull, eventless lives, should want to emulate their heroes and bring some colour into their lives.

And it is not only behaviour. Language has been dumbed down to a mixture of slang and street talk, with the odd English word thrown in for effect. Use of such language is not restricted to times when young people hang out with friends but is becoming the only mode of communication for many of them.

This effect of television and film on social behaviour and concepts has been discussed and studied but perhaps not enough. Side by side there has been another change affected by these media, but only peripherally, as traditional modes of expression in the performing arts come under the influence of what are perceived to be exciting new forms from the West. Hence, there have been attempts to weave flamenco into kathak and integrate musical instruments from other civilisations with our own percussion, string and wind instruments.

On one level this can be seen as explorations that could enrich the art form but on another and more common level, they appear to rely on sensational effects and on superficial, if unusual, creations. Whether these will have any kind of permanent effect only time will tell, but the truly remarkable development has been in the field of the visual arts. These have been so heavily influenced by outside forms and perceptions as to obscure their origins in the country; some artists have kept to them but many others have not.

The rapid increase in the market for plastic arts, paintings, sculptures and other objects has had the same effect as in the world of entertainment it has made a rational assessment of the development of expression through these forms not only difficult but of little consequence. If a painting sells for Rs.20 lakh, what does it matter whether the artists creative energy is more derived than original?

As is generally acknowledged, the same effect can be seen in the world of ideas and perceptions; what is of consequence is that we have clever people who interpret and carry forward such ideas and perceptions abroad.

This is, perhaps, a part of the basic changes we are in the midst of, and we are too close to them to be able to appreciate rationally the directions in which they are going. As the years pass, outlines will emerge, and the true nature of the changes will become clear.

But what is manifestly clear is that it is through the dynamics of such change that society will change and evolve. In all likelihood that is what keeps societies alive.

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