A wilderness of our own making

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

Music lovers at a concert by K.J. Yesudas at the peak of the 'music season' last year in Chennai. - N. SRIDHARAN

Music lovers at a concert by K.J. Yesudas at the peak of the 'music season' last year in Chennai. - N. SRIDHARAN

A vigorous support system from the state is essential to protect classical performing arts from increasing commercialism and cultural invasion, and to develop them.

WINTER - such as it is - brings with it an annual profusion of festivals of the performing arts, art exhibitions, concerts, seminars, meetings, conferences and those events that are fashionably and quite inappropriately called workshops on subjects cultural. Never mind what that word means; we know what is meant and that will do. The point is, where do all these take us? When the profusion finally peters out to the odd one here and there in the summer months, are we left enriched, better informed, more sensitive to the arts? Are our sensibilities more finely tuned? Or have we indulged in an elaborate ritual merely to conform, to see and be seen, and made the correct noises and movements required of us?

Many of these activities are widely reported, reviewed and commented on in the media. Some of this is because of the pleadings and cajoling by organisers, artists themselves and their promoters, and some of it is seen as fashionable and therefore necessary to play up, lest the media be thought not to be as knowledgeable as the best about such matters. Thus a play with a celebrity cast must be presented as a brilliant achievement, and passes to its showings must be fought over and grabbed when available; never mind that as a play it is maudlin, superficial and pointless, kept alive only by the fine acting skills of the professionals in the cast.

Media coverage notwithstanding, elegant receptions after some events notwithstanding, there is, in much of this, a distinct, discernible drift into sterile ritualism. Not that all of the 'cultural' events - performances, or exhibitions or seminars or other events - are part of this drift. Exceptions abound - an electrifying, exquisitely executed performance of traditional Kathak by Aditi Mangaldas in Delhi, a gentle, beautiful recital rich in dignity and sheer virtuosity by Bombay Jayshree Ramnath in Chennai - these have been events to which audiences have responded and from which they have come away rewarded and in a real sense more aware of beauty and its attendant insights into human endeavour.

But much of the rest has been part of the posturing and presentation of gimmicks which passes for art; and that must be a matter that concerns us all. It is easy to point a finger at the commercialism that is a tumult all around us, importunate, loud and never-ending. The increasingly aggressive marketing of various products from biscuits to electronic gadgets through television, that invasive medium that cannot be denied or wished away, the `happenings' that are organised around various `shows' which are platforms to sell something, and the intense concentration on the young, involving them in a myriad ways with inducements in the shape of prizes and gifts, `pumping them up' in the words of one of those who are hired to make these children scream and shout like banshees at `gigs' and `mega shows' or whatever else they are called - they are factors which do push the arts towards the financial benefits of this essentially commercial activity. However, they are not the only ones.

Those creative artists who have and do hold out are becoming, gradually, almost imperceptibly, marginalised. The turbulent, noisy caravan of commercialism continues to lurch onwards, followed by thousands and thousands whose minds have been numbed by noise, dazzling colour and sensational events. While the best of these artists have not allowed this to make them falter in their continuing endeavour to seek greater and greater levels of excellence, they have had to and still contend with greater and greater difficulties in the presentation of their art in different fora, of getting even modestly reasonable financial compensation of fees.

Much has been written and said about this dichotomy in the arts; but two major factors need to be recognised here. One is the fact that the situation is by no means as dark as some make it out to be, and the other is the fact that the seeds for any worsening of the situation are contained within the arts themselves. The second factor first. Even a cursory look at what our children are being taught in schools - forget colleges for the moment - will make amply clear the fact that they do not get even a basic awareness (not knowledge, awareness) of matters artistic or cultural in the twelve odd years of schooling they get after the basic pre-school years. In the papers on English, and even Elective English, for example, the Central Board of Secondary Education does not even mention the word Shakespeare, let alone expose the children studying the language to any of his work. What sort of knowledge of English literature are these children getting, then? The answer is obvious - the sort of English that will help them get their MBAs, or engineering degrees, or the kind that'll help them become snazzy, glitzy computer experts of different kinds. English becomes, then, a language like Windows 2000 or Linux; and that is obviously what the CBSE in its idiocy wants.

Compounding this is the culture of the work place. In the near total absence of any organised public support to the arts, singers, dancers, musicians, actors, playwrights, poets and novelists have to seek such support as they can find, and many seek the patronage of politically powerful people and of well-endowed individuals or organisations, using means that are not very laudable, to say the least. In the efforts of some, usually those less talented than others to establish themselves, malice, intrigue and bad-mouthing of rivals play as much part as in politics. In a field where it is difficult to have any universally accepted standards of excellence this may be inevitable, but it is, for all that, a revolting and dangerous aspect of the practice of the arts.

A word now about the first of the two factors one mentioned earlier. In spite of all that is happening which is distasteful - the commercialism and the intrigues within the artistic community - one must assert that the situation is nowhere near being a disaster. One has only to go to a recital by Bhimsen Joshi, Veena Sahasrabuddhe, or Shahid Pervez and look at the numerous young faces in the audience. One of the finest examples of public commitment and devotion to the arts is what is called the `season' in Chennai. From early December to the first weeks of January a number of organisations present a wealth of recitals and arts events that draw thousands to listen and watch, not a few of whom come from overseas.

There is most certainly considerable interest and love for the arts; music, dance, and the visual arts, specifically, and to a lesser extent for theatre in its various forms. But this love for the arts does not translate into economically viable terms. Not because the numbers of those who form audiences are too few, but because the costs of presenting such recitals and performances are far higher than the returns through ticket sales. In the Chennai season artists who perform do so for very very modest amounts. They do it because of the discerning and knowledgeable audiences they get, but can do it only for the season. For the rest, they need economically viable fees, which means relatively fewer engagements and then the dark aspects of the working environment come into play.

Nonetheless, the fact is there is still a very great deal of interest - fascination, devotion, love, call it what you like - for the classical performing arts. It has survived in the age of television, and the invasion of our cultural spaces by the synthetic McDonald's culture from overseas. It will continue to do so, but that does not mean that we, and least of all the state, can afford to sit back and do nothing.

A vigorous support system has to be put in place; not just an infusion of money into a non-existent system or one that is badly flawed, but a close look, first, at what we are doing with our young. The fault, as Cassius said in Julius Caesar, lies not in our stars but in ourselves - not that the CBSE would know, since it has not heard of Shakespeare. The young are willing to respond with fascination and delight to the arts provided it is presented in that manner to them; this is key to any larger endeavour that the state may take up.

It is then necessary to look at the structures of intervention that exist and determine how best these can be made more responsive, more easily accessed, more effective, to put it in basic terms. Only as a final step must the question of resources be tackled; and here one can do worse than look at the way in which, in the United Kingdom, the proceeds of the national lottery have transformed the whole business of funding the arts by the Arts Council.

We stand, as the New Year begins, on the cusp; we can, through public demand, convince the state - the Central and State governments - seriously to address the issue of nurturing and developing the arts, or we can stand back and allow the drift into the wilderness to continue.

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