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A mirror up to nature

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST



The arts will provide an alternative to television and Bollywood-type films, if the state patronises them with more funds and revitalises arts education.

For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now was, and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

- Hamlet, in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

HAMLET was speaking of theatre and acting, but what he said can apply just as well to all the other performing arts. They, too, hold the mirror up to nature, and show the age and body of the time his form and pressure. Its form and pressure. Not only his appearance, but the significance of that appearance in its different aspects. This is not a sort of add-on function of the arts; it is its very essence. The arts are what they are because they hold up that mirror, though they may do it in different ways. Those different ways are the expression of the creative genius of the artist, whether a novelist, poet, painter or singer.

"Three aspects of Natya are well known," writes Dr. Anupa Pande in her book The Natyasastra Tradition and Ancient Indian Society. "It was regarded as a form of popular entertainment, as a delectable moral instruction and as an aesthetic creation with its distinctive flavour. How these different aspects without any essential connection may characterise the same object has been a standing puzzle. Acrobatic spectacles provide entertainment but no instruction. Hitopadesa provides instruction but has no aesthetic flavour. Pure formal music or dance may provide pure delectation but has no connection with meaning, much less a moral meaning. Yet Natya in Bharata entertains, instructs and transports... as if song, dance and drama were to be integrated into one."

This holds good even today. The arts cannot exist without one another, and they cannot exist unless they perform all the three functions mentioned by Bharata. And all three elements must be finely balanced; if one element is emphasised more than the others it ceases to be true art. That's what happened to a great deal of the theatre of some thirty years ago in Bengal. They became strident propaganda and the balance of the elements was lost. We see a good deal of that in what passes as street theatre today; in fact, street theatre has come to mean the `staging' of some social issue, and all it succeeds in doing is attract mere curiosity, as a man walking on his hands would.

Take a look at the novels of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, written in the early-20th century. Whether it is Grihadaha (The Home Destroyed), or the epic Srikanta or even slighter works like Nishkriti (Release), Chatterjee never rubs the reader's nose into a social issue, any more than Dickens does. In fact, he once said what Dickens may well have said in his time, that he never wrote to make any point, or advance an argument - he merely wrote about what he saw around him. In the process his novels and stories highlighted some issue, or moral dilemma or an aspect of human frailty. That was incidental to the totality of his work, though it was a very significant element of it.

The point here is that the artist's genius transforms a story, or a play or a poem into something that contains significance that is integrally moral, aesthetic and fascinating - like Keats' line "Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know." Thus it was that the arts were at one time integral to social intercourse, giving it a richness, which was - for want of a better word - civilised. Till we lost the balance between the three elements and opted for the merely diverting, the mindless entertainment that is now provided by our films, television and in all the `concerts' and `shows' that consist of ear-splitting noise and gyrations on stage that evoke near hysteria in the audience.

In an age that is driven by the insatiable desire to make as much money as possible, the large amounts that such spectacles, films and television programmes brought in succeeded in driving the performing arts out of the public domain, and very nearly out of the public consciousness. Except in Chennai, where the winter `season' is something the city can rightfully be proud of, our metropolitan cities have a pitifully small number of people who take pleasure in the performing arts. There may be large gatherings for such great artistes like Kishori Amonkar or Bhimsen Joshi, but we are not talking of one or two big names. We are talking of the performing arts as a whole, the very concept of these being virtually forgotten or ignored, not because they are not performed well, but because they are not financially viable. In other words, they do not fill the pockets of sponsors or event managers.

Anyone who has had to go to corporate houses to ask that they sponsor a performing arts event - be it a play or anything else - knows what a bitter experience it is. The condescension, the indifference, the patronising advice to make the show more `marketable' has driven many groups away, and as they have scrounged for funds from some friends and well-wishers, they too have moved away from their chosen fields to more and more esoteric, and at times, incomprehensible modes of expression, and these, in turn, have made people in general stop going to such events, be it an art exhibition, or play. They have stopped buying novels that are often bizarre, with little or no plot or structure and consequently boring.

This hiatus has been written about and debated often enough, and inevitably the arguments have come round to what the state is doing. The answer is, of course, it is doing next to nothing. Not because they are looking at the arts as a means of making money as corporate houses do, or would like to see them doing so, at any rate; it is because of two factors that have been at work for several decades. One is the education that is given to children in schools. The arts - literature, including drama, music and the visual arts - are either perceived as something additional, or are taught in a manner that makes most students take a definite dislike to them. These children grow up with their attitude to the arts set in them as being something `arty-crafty', or something sissies liked or did. No school - and I say this without fear of contradiction - succeeds in making their students see the wonders in theatre, music, dance or painting. No school succeeds in instilling in their students a firm conviction that the richness of awareness that the arts bring to the whole business of living is vital if one is to be a mature, discriminating human being.

The second factor is in a sense because of the first, but it is something that is also affected by the fact that the development of the arts costs money and in terms of priorities funds for the arts are far down the line. I would hazard a guess that the amount spent by the Central government on the arts would not be more than 0.001 per cent of its annual budget. In the States the position is even worse; for one, most States are broke anyway, and whatever funds they have are certainly not spent on the arts except in sums so small as to provoke laughter if it was not so outrageously foolish. Add to this is the fact that both at the Centre and in the States much of the pitiful amounts available are used to favour certain artistes who are politically on the right side or oblige the ruling elite in other ways, and you see how dreadful the situation is.

ENTERTAINMENT will always make huge amounts of money and attract advertisers and sponsors. It is also true that the arts, even if they are the very best, and presented in the best manner possible, will never make that kind of money as things stand today. In the United Kingdom, a company as distinguished as the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has as fine a set of performers and directors as any in the world, and presents its plays for three or four months at a stretch to full houses, still needs substantial grants from public bodies like the Arts Council. So does the Royal Opera. But, one of the reasons is that, at its best a play can be seen by about 10,000 people, while a film may be seen by two crore people, if it is a run of the mill film. The problem is inherent in the form itself. But, does that justify the utter indifference by the state here in this country?

It is no use beating one's breast about the evil effects of television and bad films; it is much more practical to scale up the amounts spent on the arts, to much more than it is now, in spite of what the Planning Commission may have to say. If the Central and State governments can do that, and, more importantly, revitalise the teaching of the arts in schools to become more attractive and a joyous thing to children instead of the dreary learning of poems and passages for recitation before teachers, there is a chance that in the decades to come the arts will begin to come into their own - never supplanting television or Bollywood-type films, but providing a vigorous, attractive alternative.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 26, 2003.)



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