The literary community is justifiably divided about Bob Dylan winning the 2016 Nobel Prize of Literature for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ We’ve all read many articles expressing diverse opinions on the matter on the screens of our smart-phones and other gadgets at this point. Such are our times – so radically different from the past – that our digital engagement has become an indispensable aspect of our modern lives. So it’s unsurprising that the sentiment of ‘times they are a changing’ has possessed our minds.
By awarding Dylan the prize, the Nobel Committee has not only raised the question of ‘what is literature’ but also expanded the meaning and relevance of the word. Many are sceptical about this expansion and have wondered whether screen-plays, stand-up comedy and even tweets can be considered literary. It has also left me wondering if the ‘performance’ aspect of an artist’s work has also become a factor for judging literary work in? Literary festivals are also performances – conversations held in public for the benefit of an audience. Shy authors who dislike public engagements are already on the decline. Most authors have to prepare how they will speak and how they will smile or frown in front of their mirrors before they head out to ‘perform’ at a literary panel. What will be said – the actual words – need to correspond with body language, gestures, dress code, tone, manner of speech and so on. The auditory and the visual aspects are as important as the words – image making is important, sometimes more so than the art.
Those who love solitude – the essential infrastructure for art – need to become performance artists for the public. Only those who have experienced being in that position can tell you about the terrors and the nervousness they experience and the strange sensations in the pits of their stomachs.
So in our world, stage performances and managing public perceptions has become so crucial that everyone from authors to terrorist organisations hire PR firms now.
PR can get you further than mere art can. Virtual reality – the internet – is as important as the physical reality of our world.
Placing a premium on perfomance
At an event which featured Amitav Ghosh, I noticed that people were queuing up – not to get the book signed – but to take a selfie with the author. The photo with Ghosh – immediately posted on social media even as the selfie taker stumbled down the steps of the dais – matters more than Ghosh’s forceful and urgent prose about climate change.
So everyone wants to create an image of themselves. In such a climate, perception and performances along with entertainment value are dominating over actual ideas, actions and their consequences. Politicians know this better than anyone else, since they go to great lengths to create and maintain specific public perceptions. Asking uncomfortable questions is discouraged and punished, covertly as well as openly. Recently it has become increasingly difficult to express oneself, even in democratic societies which supposedly value freedom of expression. Those who don’t perform to the tune of the official narrative are called ‘anti-nationals’, ‘intellectual terrorists’ and ‘conspiracy theorists’.
So whether one likes it or not, taking an artist’s performative ability into account while choosing the literature Nobel’s winner is simply a sign of our times.
But I welcome the decision since it has prompted us to think about literature and the world we inhabit. Poetic expressions in folk songs constitute the origins of literature as we now understand it – it is a radical idea to merge ancient oral tradition, 1960s and 70s history and our societal focus on the performative with the idea of literature.
Saying the above, I would also hope that this decision is not just an exception in the Nobel tradition but a step towards a new normal. Gamblers at Ladbrokes might take bets against Leonard Cohen and Gulzar from next year onwards. But I hope that we return to the authors, poets, playwrights and even philosophers, for a time period, before it becomes necessary to pose new questions to society.
Robert Zimmerman, better known to us as Bob Dylan – who has taken his surname from the poet Dylan Thomas – had a long association with the mystical folk tradition of the Bauls of Bengal. Purna Das Baul and Luxman Das Baul feature on the cover of Dylan’s album ‘John Wesley Harding.’ Dylan also turned up in Calcutta to attend the wedding of Purna’s son.
The tradition of poetic expressions through folk songs is the tradition of the Bauls of Bengal. The stalwart in this tradition is undoubtedly Lalon Fakir, who was also a part of the nineteenth century Bengal Renaissance, when modernity and new ideas were entering Bengali society. Lalon was born in Kushtia village (now in Bangladesh); he had no formal education and lived a long life of poverty. Lalon composed songs of mystical, social and political content which he sung to the poor peasants of the land. As his reputation grew, Lalon inspired many poets, including Rabindranath Tagore and Allen Ginsberg. He was a mystic, song writer, singer, social reformer and thinker. But his source of inspiration was the life he lived not philosophy or literary books.
It is estimated that Lalon composed many songs – somewhere between 2000 to 8000 – but left no written record of the compositions. They were mainly orally transmitted to his rural followers, who were illiterate and could not transcribe the works. Tagore published some of Lalon’s poetic expressions/folk songs in Calcutta’s monthly Prabasi magazine.
But in the today’s world, the internet is helping inspire public interest in Lalon. There are sites dedicated to his work where one can read Lalon’s astonishingly complex mystical poetry/lyrics in Bengali and even hear his songs, sung by others on YouTube.
There has also been a surge in academic interest in Lalon. Scholars from foreign universities are writing various papers about his surviving works which have been translated into English.
To give you a taste of his work, let me quote two translated songs of his. The two poems/ lyrics – translated by Azfar Hussain – are taken from Reading About the World.
A Strange Bird
Look, how a strange bird flits in and out of the cage!
O brother, I wish I could bind it with my mind’s fetters.
Have you seen a house of eight rooms with nine doors
Closed and open, with windows in between, mirrored?
O mind, you are a bird encaged! And of green sticks
Is your cage made, but it will be broken one day.
Lalon says: Open the cage, look how the bird wings away!
People ask, what is Lalon’s caste?
Lalon says, my eyes fail to detect
The signs of caste. Don’t you see that
Some wear garlands, some rosaries
Around the neck? But does it make any
Difference brother? O, tell me,
What mark does one carry when
One is born, or when one dies?
A Muslim is marked by the sign
Of circumcision; but how should
You mark a woman? If a Brahmin male
Is known by the thread he wears,
How is a woman known? People of the world,
O brother, talk of marks and signs,
But Lalon says: I have only dissolved
The raft of signs, the marks of caste
In the deluge of the One!
Devdan Chaudhuri is the author of Anatomy of Life.