It was a dinner party. While food was getting ready, the host entertained his guests by raising several topics for discussion and entertainment. It was mostly for entertainment, as such parties are seldom an occasion for serious intellectual discussion. If someone makes any political statement, or explains any scientific theory or shares some issues of personal life, it should be considered as such without giving too much importance to it. It is just a social gathering and communication is the only objective there. In other words, contacts, relationship, communication is the primary goal there and the subject of discussion is secondary, just serving as a foundation or medium for that discussion to take place. This is important to note because time and again we come across occasions when a dinner party was spoiled by some stupid discussion on politics and/or religion. That is why these two topics are in general ‘prohibited’ from after-dinner discussions.
One proposition raised by the guest related to arts. To be specific, he was curious about — barring a few — why Indian movies are not at par with international standards — in terms of quality, acting, direction. Financial constraints could explain the inferior quality given the recent success of Bahubali. But other factors? Of course, with time a new generation of young and talented actors have come up, but still very few in number — Irrfan Khan, Rajkummar Rao, Nandita Das, Manoj Vajpayee, Ashutosh Rana. Who else?
Time and again this question is raised in other fields as well. So I use the word arts here to include fine and performing arts, literature, music and dance. Where are we lacking? First question is — are we indeed lacking, or is it simply our own inferiority complex that makes us belittle our own achievements? Or is it prejudice of the west that still hasn’t been able to shed its colonial mindset and looks down upon anything and everything which is not produced in Europe or America? Or do we inherently lack something which is absolutely essential for flourishing in these fields? Or is it that with time we are on a downward slope into stagnation and decay — following the natural cycle of birth and death of civilisations. I do not want to cause alarm, but death of culture announces the death of a civilisation. We would discuss these possibilities in future articles.
What provided the motivation for this post was the assertion by my colleague and friend who was of the opinion that the primary factor behind this lack of creativity in arts in India is social environment and lack of security. Ours is a developing country and people still have to struggle for their financial stability. Social environment is not that good as it should be. When the mind is completely occupied with one problem or the other, how could it indulge in arts or such any such activity? Youth are occupied with how to find job, adults are occupied with family affairs, old are worried about health problems. Then law and order, lack of facilities and so on. May be, some day in distant future, when some moderate progress has been made, then Indian mind may find some time to follow artistic pursuits. I did not think it proper to contradict it then, simply for the reason I noted in the first paragraph. It was a dinner party, and neither the host nor my friend meant it as an intellectual discussion. It was just a means to kill time while the dinner was getting ready.
The argument was flawed. Had it been a serious debate, my friend would have been asked how come, then, arts continue to flourish in other countries, in spite of the various problems peculiar to their society. A perfect, peaceful environment is impossible, however deeply do we yearn for it. There is no end to problems neither in the life of an individual nor that of a society. Whatever action has to be taken, must be taken now itself. The waves do not cease.
Tell me, which was the first piece of art? Yes, you are correct. The ancient cave paintings, the oldest of which has recently been discovered in Indonesia. Now was there any period of struggle more difficult for survival than that phase — when survival itself was a battle to be fought every day, every moment — against other animals and creatures, other tribes, against nature? In comparison, in spite of terrorism and social conflicts, we are leading a life of luxury. As a historian has noted — “We have certainly become more civilised; earlier, we used to kill and eat one another, now we only kill”. It is like that only.
What do you think? The era when Khajuraho, Ajanta, Madurai, Taj Mahal were made, was it all butter and cheese? And what is most funny is that among the greatest marvels of Indian architecture are the innumerable forts all the way from Hyderabad to Delhi via Gwalior and Jhansi. How do you explain that? Sure, that required money. But art is not just that. The rangoli that very housewife makes on festivals, and the various ways she decorates her house to convert it into home, isn’t that art? The various ways people dress and groom themselves, or the various cuisine they make, isn’t that art? Like science, art has also been compartmentalized in our society. It is not good. One cannot divide it into what is art and what is not. Anything which lifts you up from a routine way of doing things to a higher plane is art. Art is not just a hobby or an activity that you indulge in your free time. It is a spiritual yearning of a hungry soul. This is absolutely essential to understand. That is the sole reason why any piece of art lifts your spirits like nothing else, why child psychologists lay stress on children’s indulgence in arts, why psychiatrists suggest art therapy to tackle emotional, mental problems and disorders. Remove art from your life, and you would sense an intense feeling of vacuum and loneliness. And then you try to fill it with luxuries and materials — which in turn are piece of art created by someone else! No, indulgence in arts would not make you rich nor would it fill your tummy. But the point I am making is that arts and aesthetics is a necessity for us just the way food and money are. However, unlike lack of food which makes itself felt on physical plane, the lack of aesthetics is mainly felt on mental and emotional plane, and that is why it is so easy to ignore it. In simpler words, nobody ever died because of non-indulgence in arts, however miserable their lives might be.
So are we not able to produce good art because of social insecurities? No, artists will keep pursuing their faculties irrespective of the environment they are living in. They cannot live otherwise. If you feel our work is inferior and lacking in quality, then you need to look elsewhere for the causes.
Now, can we say that our movies are behind? I really doubt
Yes and no. Though I disagreed with his remark in general, but on closer look, the question is a bit involved. The answer is ‘no’, because we do have Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal, names which every Indian should be proud of. Yes, good movies had always been made, but their fraction is negligibly small against the large number of movies produced by our country. But then the answer is ‘yes’ if we consider the following points. First, there had always been a chasm between the art movies and the commercial movies. Second, the commercial movies do have popularity and recognition all over the world; however, it should be noted that that popularity is more on account of the entertainment factor, or more specifically, emotional content (than art or creativity), which are most sought for in the comparatively more reserved societies of the west. This explains the global craze for, e.g., Shahrukh Khan. But this is an inappropriate time to ask and answer this question. It is because quite recently the aforementioned chasm between art and commercial cinema is narrowing, also with positive audience reception. In the last one decade, new experiments are done, in script, theme, style, narration, performance, everything. We can look forward to a bright future, very soon, very very soon. Third, if our cinema is indeed lacking, then a large share of responsibility falls on audience also. We are not educated in art appreciation; we do not know what is called a good movie. That is why punch dialogues, item songs and fantastic special effects become the deciding factor for the success of any movie. As for acting, realism is the only criteria for us — how close to a real event does the actor’s performance seem (interestingly, this also holds true in the case of fine arts). And finally, emulation is the disease which is eating up our industry. Someone made a biopic, here comes a lineup of biopics, another one made a police movie, here comes a train of khakis, same with mythological, horror, comedy, romance and so on. Replication, intimation and formula-based work are a sign of lack of creativity. And not to mention the remakes, re-remakes, re-re-remakes . . .
So much for cinema. But for other arts, the story is more complicated, especially in literature. We would discuss it in a future post. Thanks for your patience.
Mind blowing, as always.