A few weekends ago, I was at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, a premier cultural institution and performance space perched at the very edge of the Mumbai shore, at Nariman Point, to attend the two-day bhakti music seminar. It had an exciting line-up, which included Hindustani classical vocalist Ajoy Chakrabarty, Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, and Maithili and Bhojpuri folk singer Sharda Sinha, among others.
In between the musical performances, there were lectures that tried to huff and puff through the various histories and geographies of bhakti. The performers, too, often broke their musical reveries to lecture on the significance and context of the texts they were alchemising into recitals.
As was expected, each of these gifted singers produced remarkable music. These are singers for whom the concept of an artistic peak rings fictive. Their music lifts the very air of the room. Interestingly, however, their lectures were facile. And soon I realised that there was no point in trying to reconcile one with the other, the beauty of the one with the banality of the other. One of the lecturers, who is not a singer, made the bold claim that the strains of bhakti could be seen right from Harappa, the 5,000-year-old civilisation, basing his assertion on the wafer-thin evidence of a seal that depicts a man sitting cross-legged. Such are the logical leaps we are willing to make in order to fashion bhakti into a seamless tapestry going back to the very first moment of historical conscience.
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The lectures at this conference soon became frustrating because they refused to serve their purpose and instead just filled time with fluffy concepts and porous adjectives. Everything cultural was treated with velvet gloves, with no one even being willing, forget being able, to look at culture as a space of both beauty and brutality. The blind indulgence, for instance, of the guru-shishya parampara without recognising the institution’s inherent violence was baffling.
Take this story that was recited at one of the lectures. On a bus, the conductor kept asking a seated man whether he would give up his seat for a woman. The man said he would not. What if the woman was pregnant, the conductor asked. The man said no, even for a pregnant woman he would not give up his seat. What if she was old and frail? The man still said no. It then transpired that the seated man was actually the driver of the bus. And how can you ask the driver to get up from their seat? The lesson in this story was that even if your guru seems impertinent, adamant, and problematic, they have only one thing in mind: to make sure you reach your destination safely. Such is how arrogance and even shades of misogyny are rebranded as affection through a joke.
But even if we leave these progressive grumblings aside, when each of the performers too tried to explain the beauty of bhakti music, the only way they seemed to be able to speak of it was through exaggerated platitudes. Words like anadi and ananta, without beginning or end, floated like flotsam and jetsam throughout the talks. “Endless joy” was another zinger that kept getting shot at the listeners. Gilded metaphors choked every lecture. Through those two days, one of the recurring ideas was that bhakti is unconditional love, and speakers ran away with the luxurious idea of unconditionally loving the “divine”.
“People writing today about classical music and dance seem to write not as if they love the art after seeing it but as if they blindly worship it anyway.”
Then, towards the end, a moment came when all this hand-waving and grandiose staging was briefly punctured. Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, who gave the endnote speech, began his short address with an evisceration of all that had been said during the two days. In one fell swoop, he declared that unconditional love was nothing but another name for exploitation. Suddenly, here was a man who was insisting that this room drunk on bhakti rethink the very assumptions on which they had thus far built their slobbering, salivating reverence.
And that moment, to me, seemed to encapsulate the very role of a critic, a persona largely missing from India’s classical music and dance scene. Someone who will crack the whip, use words judiciously, who will not fall prey to veiny truisms, someone who will attempt to charm people either into loving the review or the art form on which it is based.
Beauty of criticism
That is the beauty of criticism: that it is both an art form in itself and that it bolsters another art form. People writing today about classical music and dance have a certain posture of boredom in their writing, as though they are not excited by the art of criticism but merely by the classical music or dance art form, which they simply translate into words. They seem to write not as if they love the art after seeing it but as if they blindly worship it anyway.
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I built my love for cinema through criticism, I came into poetry through poetry criticism, and was able to read Pablo Neruda and Czesław Miłosz through the eyes of the critic Charles Simic, who recently passed away. While Simic, as a critic, reproduced entire poems of the poet, as opposed to lines, giving one the space to marinate in even the smallest image, an art critic like B.N. Goswamy wants to hold one’s attention and direct it wherever he thinks is most exciting: look at the smoothness of that knee, the colour of the pendant, the pattern in which the flowers fall. I often think of critic Parul Sehgal’s book reviews more than I think of the books themselves. “Charm”, that is what Sehgal said was the most important thing a critic needed. And a part of that charm is both honesty and a mind that does not express honesty as hostility or hubris.
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.
- At a recent two-day bhakti music seminar at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, gifted singers produced remarkable music.
- However, the lectures on various aspects of bhakti that were given between the musical performances left a lot to be desired because they refused to serve their purpose and instead just filled time with fluffy concepts and porous adjectives.
- No one was willing to look at culture as a space of both beauty and brutality. For example, it was baffling that the inherent violence of the guru-shishya parampara was not recognised.
- Only the mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, in his endnote speech, eviscerated all that had been said earlier and declared that unconditional love was nothing but another name for exploitation.
- He seemed to exemplify what a critic should do.
- The critic is someone who will crack the whip, use words judiciously, who will not fall prey to truisms, and will attempt to charm people either into loving the review or the art form on which it is based.