There was a sculpture at the entrance of a corporate office in Mumbai. Imposing, beautiful, it was sculpted by an alleged rapist. The lunch area was buzzing with questions. What do we do with our feelings about the artist? What do we tell a woman who enters this office every morning: that the company she works for pays hefty wads of cash to an alleged rapist producing resplendent art to welcome you? A daily reminder of one’s worth in the larger web of corporate conceits and kickbacks?
The conversation was about getting it removed. Why, some argued? The money had already exchanged hands. Removing it would not make the artist materially worse off than he already was, and in a world whose bedrock is capital, having no bolt of lightning strike the monetary bottom line amounts to shouting your virtues into a vacuum. Then, what to do? Have the sculpture melted or returned or just leave it to rust somewhere in a warehouse?
The argument made, familiar to most people who have grappled with the Art vs Artist conundrum, is this: do not patronise, do not platform, do not provoke the artist whose art you find venomous. For the world is shaped not just by capital but also by attention, and in such a world, a less bloody but perhaps more effective revenge is to strip the person of both or one of the two and watch them languish into oblivion. Oblivion. That is punishment enough.
We forget that between the art and the artist, there is the audience, spectators that are negotiating the world, thumbing through their political, aesthetic, and moral preferences. What if we put the audience at the centre of a work of art while thinking about that work of art?
There is something “impure” about this, I have to concede. That between the art and your visceral wriggling comes a filter that accumulates all these thoughts and opinions and feelings of others. That to experience art is to experience it through the world. Those who argue against it—like I tend to on most occasions—believe that the world taints our perspective. That the more we take people’s issues, grumblings, and mumblings into account, however valid and necessary, the more we begin to produce art that is tame and agreeable, and thus without any serration or sigh, the less we are able to be moved by art, be struck by its dimensions, its depth because the Rolodex of people’s opinions is constantly fluttering in our minds. Those who argue for it believe that centring the world informs our perspective and even nudges it lightly or pummels it thoroughly towards what is moral, what is necessary, what is helpful.
A fundamental question
There is a fundamental question that animates this. Does the audience make the art? I do not mean this in the philosophical way of asking if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound. Assuming there is an audience to the art, assuming the thud is heard, how do we consider the gaze?
I have been thinking about this ever since Kantara released and then swept up the national discourse, getting co-opted—willingly, some might say—by the vitriolic Right. Before watching the film, I was told that in a theatre in Bengaluru one person went into a trance while watching the climax unfold, and screening had to be halted for half an hour. I had scoffed at this story because often it is easier to doubt than to believe. After a point rationality is a matter of convenience, not conviction. That was until I myself sat in the theatre.
Watching the film in the first week of its release among a packed audience, in the first row, looking up, neck craned, howling tears towards the end, out of fear, out of awe, I was smote to pulp by the visceral, primal howls. I could now believe that someone watching Kantara and struggling with their selfhood, preferring to, instead, hurl their anxieties in a scream. In a world that requires you to perform sanity and affability, the trance allows you to rip through the composure. It is socially sanctioned insanity.
Invert social hierarchy
The film, whose subtitle “A Legend” tells you much about its magic-realist reach, uses the traditional Bhoota Kola performance in a final climactic, cathartic demand for justice. Like any moment of possession, the performance in the film allowed the lower-caste characters to invert the social hierarchy, even if only for a brief moment. Once the trance melts off, the status quo is restored. This idea of a possessed protagonist briefly escaping their social limitations is also movingly portrayed in Fire in The Mountains. But with Kantara the discourse curdled around questions of cultural ownership.
A week later, the film had broken the pan-Indian barrier, becoming a bona fide hit in Mumbai. A Hindi dub was immediately rolled into action and released, which further bolstered its sheen. Alongside this, however, a more putrid kind of narrative was taking shape. In an interview, the writer, director, and actor Rishab Shetty, who until then had been giving more anodyne interviews, said: “Those gods, they are all part of our tradition. Definitely, it is part of Hindu culture and Hindu rituals. Because I am a Hindu, I have belief and respect for my religion.” He dug into the assertion, broadening his claim, in an interview with Frontline: “There is no caste element in the Kola (the ritual dance which is part of daiva aradhane) and it even transcends religion, as there are Muslim and Christian daivas.”
In response to the earlier interview, the Kannada actor-activist Chetan Ahimsa tweeted: “Glad our Kannada film ‘Kantara’ is making waves on a national level. Director Rishabh Shetty claims Bhoota Kola is ‘Hindu culture’. False. Our Pambada/Nalike/Parawa’s Bahujan traditions predate Vedic-Brahminical Hinduism. We ask that Moolnivasi cultures be shown w/truth on & off screen.” A first information report was filed against him.
Is this another example of the Hindu mainstream appropriating Adivasi or indigenous beliefs that thrived regardless of commercial attention in the coastal region of southern Karnataka?
The question of what “Hindu” means and what it excludes immediately became a bone of contention. Those arguing against Shetty had a very narrow conception of Hinduism as “Vedic”, completely ignoring the history of Hinduism as it absorbed and disseminated various traditions, even ones that were critical of it, such as Buddhism. To assert that these indigenous practices predated Hinduism is to ask from history what history cannot give, for there are no records we can refer to.
Those supporting Shetty were blinded by this uncomfortable Hindu pride that emanates from a cultural insecurity. The gloating tone, the hyperbolic rhetoric, all pointed to this feeling of “finally” being represented positively in the mainstream. Simultaneously, at the Karnataka government’s Global Investors Meet, Union Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman and Union Minister for Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal flung deep praise at the film. The deep state had intervened. The Indian Express recently ran a piece questioning the producer’s links to BJP leader and Karnataka Minister Dr C.N. Ashwathnarayan. The director of The Kashmir Files, which can charitably be described as a shot of poison, heaped praise on Kantara, further galvanising an uncomfortable fandom around it.
Kishore, who played a forest officer in the film, even came out publicly to push back against this surge of uncritical love: “Think for a moment before falling prey to the brokers of hatred, who have already hijacked the national anthem, flag, logo and poets, who have used and abused crores of freedom fighters including Patel, Gandhi, Bose, Nehru, just for Vote. Think for a moment before they hijack our cinemas too [ sic].”
Now suddenly, to watch the film was also to engage through the thick haze of assertions, intentions, and accusations. Friends who championed the film early on are now regretting the love they shoved in Kantara’s direction. I get this discomfort. It is like believing in something, and then realising that those who believe in the same thing are part of a noxious infrastructure that you want to distance yourself from. What do you do then? Do you continue loving the very thing that is also capable of producing acid that you cannot stand alongside even if that thing, Kantara in this case, is a rather innocuous creature that has been packaged and co-opted? Do you separate your love from the acid? Is that even possible?
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com