The arbiters of good taste

Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

It is the responsibility of enlightened practitioners of arts to bridge the divide between the classical and the popular.

SEVERAL years ago, I watched a performance given by the European Youth Orchestra, made up of young musicians, mostly below the age of 19. It was conducted by Zubin Mehta and they performed with a brilliance that brought the huge audience in the Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi to its feet to applaud the virtuosity of these young performers. Later, when I went backstage to congratulate them I found that many had already changed from their formal black ties and tailcoats to T-shirts and jeans; polished black oxfords had been replaced by scuffed trainers - or sneakers as they are referred to more commonly. Indeed, some of them had headphones on and were listening to some kind of music that had them tapping away with their foot and their hands.

Kannathil Muthamittal.

I asked them what they were listening to. They grinned. "Heavy metal", one said. "Hard rock", said another. I was astonished and perhaps let it show. "Why are you surprised?" one of them asked me. I tried to explain that I had somehow assumed that they were lovers of classical music, which they had just been playing. They interrupted me and said that they were. "But we also like this sort of stuff. What is your problem with that?"

What indeed. I realised, after talking to some of them, that not only did they not see any dichotomy between the two but that there were many in their countries like them. It "wasn't a big deal", they said to me kindly. They told me that the conservatories, where classical music was taught, and the ballet schools had thousands of young, talented boys and girls waiting to get in. Comparatively few did, as the critera were very demanding. But the demand continued. And these were people who loved pop music also; they could not understand, amusingly, my inability to understand this.

That encounter has often made me think of the condition in our societies; we certainly do not have a generation of students of classical music and dance who are equally at home in the world of pop music, `filmi' music as we tend to call it, or to the kind of dance that had been made popular by our cinema. To me, as, I would imagine, to many others, those who study the classical forms give everything they have to it; the other kind of music and dance - `entertainment' - is virtually non-existent for them. Whether that is necessarily how it should be is something that has been of concern to me for some years. As Culture Secretary in the Government of India for a number of years this was one issue I came across in various fora, and what I heard very eminent creative people say at some of these left me as confused as I was when I spoke to the young members of the European Youth Orchestra.

During the 1995 International Film Festival, then being held in Delhi, I tried to persuade a gathering of `serious' film-makers that they needed to look at the market while making films, which reflected their own perceptions as admirably as they did. This did not, I recall, make me very popular with many of them, who felt, I think, that I was asking them to cheapen and trivialise their work. But I was not; I was only pleading that they try to look for a new language which spoke to a wider audience, and not restrict themselves to groups of cineastes who could never sustain good cinema on any worthwhile scale. The World Commission on Culture and Development said in its report: "As the cultural industries assume enormous economic importance there is an inevitable tension between primarily cultural goals and the logic of the marketplace, between commercial interests and the desire for content that reflects diversity" (emphasis added).

Why Me Lord?

The report went on to say, "In urban settings, the mixing of lifestyles and forms of expression can be a source both of creation and innovation, and of conflict. Consolidating social integration with respect to ethnic and cultural diversity, and yet inciting them to blossom, is a major public policy challenge. Supporting new, emerging, experimental art forms and expressions is an investment in human development."

Taken together, these statements reflect the concern of the World Commission that cultural expression cannot become isolated, or not take into consideration the `marketplace'. This coming together seemed so easy for the European youngsters I met years ago and has not been confined merely to them - teenagers listening to pop music while playing classical music in concert halls. Sir Benjamin Britten used popular music forms in his symphonies, and many visual artists have done the same in their paintings and sculptures. That temple of classical art, ballet, has also changed - comparatively modern ballet choreographers like George Balanchine have incorporated a good deal of what is taken from contemporary, `popular' dance.

The process is, however, fraught with peril. Innovation can often be banal, even ridiculous, taking shelter behind words like `experimental' and `fusion'. Practitioners are often mediocrities in their fields, who have never risen very far and seek the easy way of being `experimental' and `modern'. In the process, however, they succeed in doing precisely what is the most dangerous consequence - they distance the general people, society as a whole, from it. Less and less people relate to it; more and more turn to the fare offered today by television and entertaining films. The practitioners of the `new' and `experimental' forms then turn to the state for financial support, and some of them get it. That sustains them in the efforts that drive them even further from the appreciation of society in general.

This is not to denigrate the work done by gifted artists in different fields - music, dance, theatre and film - in creating new forms that have aroused interest and admiration both at home and abroad; but one has to pick one's way very carefully through the many who claim to be doing this to identify those who are actually the prime arbiters of a new perception in the world of arts. It is a dangerous world for the state to venture into, and one that can translate very easily into the fostering of cronyism and the advancement of the purely exploitative. Nonetheless, it is something that needs to be done, and with care.

Primarily, however, it is clear that the motivation must come from the practitioners themselves. Take the case of films. We are seeing the beginnings - just the beginnings - of the emergence of a new kind of film that tries to bridge both worlds. Mr. & Mrs. Iyer is a prime example; so are the kind of films being made in Mumbai, like The Rising and the films of Mani Ratnam. All of them try to keep the finer perceptions of the filmmakers, which they wish the audiences to recognise and identify with, and also provide them with films that keep them fascinated. One hears of similar innovations in musical and dance forms which in no way destroy the artistic validity of the forms but seek to enhance them, take them to newer and more significant levels of awareness, of beauty and enjoyment. The key is with the concerned, enlightened practitioners of the arts, not with the state or any public body.

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