Culture After Covid: Artists Cannot Be Tone Deaf in the Face of the Real World

Where are the modern compositions which speak of today? Even as I write, dead bodies have been found floating on the Ganga. My response to it cannot always be Tulsidas or Kabir.

Last year, when the pandemic broke in India, artists — especially those who reside within the privileged domain — went into shock. All of a sudden, their profession came to a standstill, and their cultural circle physically shut down. Not every member of these communities is economically safe, yet they possess socio-cultural and aesthetic might. This power comes from the space and the people who occupy the territory. Those who occupy the periphery of these artistic spheres even during ‘normal’ times were only pushed further away.

The past couple of months have been a rude shock. People are dying in the thousands now, and there is no hiding from the fact that India is in distress. The pandemic had landed a punch so big that there was no denying it. Now, what do we do, they wondered. The answer was actually simple: just make the right noises, some perfunctory messages for prayer and healing, and continue to cater to your insulated world. This is what I have seen happening over April and May. The tone-deafness of the privileged cultural environment has been grating on my heart and mind. There is death all around and we have failed: as a people, as a country.

Is it not a moment to pause and ponder over the relevance of what we do? May be just from that our art will undergo a metamorphosis; we may be able to truly see and listen.

Whether we admit it or not, there is an inability among artists who come from socio-cultural privilege to artistically engage with the disturbing truth that surrounds them, even when it screams to be heard.

The cultural closet that privileged artists occupy is visible in the objects they create. It is a culture that stations itself as being detached from – or only necessarily attached to – the ugly every day; a culture that counters all accusations of insensitivity with the argument that it provides ‘relief’; a culture that wants us to be lost in its make-believe world.

Alibi for detachment

Among this group, the classical music/dance world view themselves as being further removed; in fact, this is considered a necessity. They label their art products as ‘divine’ or ‘spiritually uplifting’ – which allows them to detach themselves completely from real-life occurrences. The real is only a platform on which they exist; their culture and art are means of transportation to another realm.

This is both a psychological belief and sociological conditioning – that these art forms are meant for upliftment of a ‘different’ sort – and it ensures that artists do not have the cultural and aesthetic learnings or tools to respond with seriousness to the real world. The entire aesthetic mechanism is shrouded in mystery and secrecy. This allows participants to suffuse it with characteristics of their own conditioning. In turn, these characteristics are touted as the essentials of the form. Consequently, the art form is taught, disseminated and understood in a manner that is disconnected from the current larger reality and only reiterates the worldview of one set of people.

Having been trained to think, feel and respond in such a manner, artists do not know how their art can overtly, subtly or even subversively stay relevant to their own time. This aloofness is a result of an insulated cultural habitat, which keeps the privileged isolated from issues such as gender, caste, race, power or oppression. Ideas such as universality of the human condition, poverty, mortality, joy, surrender and love are all acceptable. Nothing that digs below the surface and goes into the roots of our own violent and hateful nature is even envisaged as a possibility.

The limitations of the past

Artists also resort to going back to the past, finding something, and using that to flag their historical and current catholicity. This is an exercise fraught with the danger of appropriation; one that refuses to acknowledge the realities that led to the creation of those art objects.

An example of this is the rendition of Abhangs by upper-caste musicians, which then become a symbol of their social awareness. I am not saying that Abhangs should not be sung. But when singing, an artist must acknowledge the context and the struggle that led to its creation. This change must begin in the music class room where these compositions are taught. The atmosphere of learning must involve understanding the limitations of the art form, its community and its oppressive side. Students should be encouraged to receive from beyond its four walls.  This will hopefully lead to a self-awareness of his or her own culpability and, in the long run, make the form more diverse culturally, both in practice and listenership.

Also, it must be asked: why do we always bend backwards and selectively choose from the past to respond to issues of today? This too is escapism from self-reflection and discomfort. Where are the modern compositions which speak of today? Even as I write, dead bodies have been found floating on the Ganga. My response to it cannot always be Tulsidas or Kabir.

In the case of privileged mainstream cinema, the lack gets camouflaged because of the form’s narrative format. Some privileged filmmakers employ an engaged-like posturing and, even when criticised, remain largely unmoved and the film still sells.

Caste and cinema

In fact, this seemingly conscious way of filmmaking is learned habit, a part of its culture. Some wonderful exceptions aside, the social composition of the people who write stories, make these films and create icons leads to the perpetuation of this habit. They find it difficult to genuinely observe the larger canvas of life without feeling threatened. For long, in Tamil cinema, movies on caste oppression were made by those with caste power. This meant that casteism was always dealt with in a careful manner, and filmmakers were conscious about not upsetting the order. They have not been taught, nor have they learnt by observation, the aesthetic techniques needed to tell stories that come from the depths of awareness.

Even to learn from looking, the individual needs to possess – or has to be shown the path towards – open receiving. When this does not exist, they do not notice the actuality that stares at them. When you do not notice, how can the art object possess it? Their story tellings are escape valves, filled with convenient half-truths, wishy-washy nothings or lies. But, now, with the emergence of filmmakers from the Dalit community in some industries, we see this being challenged.

An identical void can be experienced in other forms of visual arts, plastic arts and creative writing that comes from the privileged. Remember that the art itself can still be pleasurable, stylistic, inspired and wonderful. This makes it much harder for the privileged to recognise the problem.

When we, the privileged, find a movie, painting or poem that even superficially touches upon one of the fault lines that surround us, we are convinced that the art object has done something pathbreaking. To my mind, this kind of feel-good engagement with the truth is more dangerous than denying its existence. In our overwhelming response to a movie that flirts with the issue of, say, caste, we provide filmmakers with the feedback that “this level of association with life is enough. Don’t go further.”

The reader may wonder what common framework privileged mainstream cinema and the classical arts share. On the face of it, one is ‘mass’; the other is ‘niche’. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to look at similarities between ‘alternative’ cinema and the classical arts, both of which appear to cater to the exclusive? To me, however, what binds mainstream cinema and classical arts is their lack of a nuanced understanding of the world. They indulge in flattening serious issues and conveniently ignore life’s more uncomfortable questions. What they have in common, thus, is an aesthetic, emotional and social deficit.

Even in niche cinema, such an absence can be spotted. For example, in the film, The Disciple, there is not one mention of the monolithic nature of Hindustani music’s caste environment that it depicts. It has to be understood from the last names! But the problem is that the entire film offers just one view: from the interior world of Hindustani music, which is of the privileged caste. In such a cinematic design, it is very important to provide a voice from outside that caste-dom that calls out its caste insularity. This is entirely missing.

Learn from life

I cannot provide a prescriptive direction to how artists can make art that is real, responsive and unselfish. Depending on the genre and style, this will vary. But what I can speak of is the intention and effect. What can we hope for in the art’s nature and emotive quality? Artists need to make serious art that forces them to pause and look at their own nature and actions. The process has to begin even before the singing begins, before the canvas is kept on the easel. It begins with an acknowledgement that the world occupied by the privileged is not the ideal and that its very insular nature makes it impossible for those within to actually feel. Artists have to stop providing aesthetic solutions to the world with the presumption that their art is priceless and represents the high point in human imagination. This would also mean a genuine effort on their part to immerse themselves in literature, music, dance and theatre that are not part of their mainstream. An intention to observe and learn about life and not to judge and slot. This will bring about much-needed doubt and tentativeness into the art.

This leads to space, people and content being rethought. Depending on the art form and keeping in mind its foundational aesthetic congruence, melody, lyric, rhythm, colour, movement, design and shape will be re-imagined. A new direction in art is not just a nuevo style. It happens when ingrained habits are dropped and the artist and the art object are stripped of socio-cultural casings. Art coming from such ongoing realisations, unlike its predecessors, will not be a reiteration of the past or a convenient telling of the truth. It will complicate the experience of art, but more than anything has the potential to bring together diverse sections of society and enable conversations.

If art is to be truly transformative, it must open hearts and free minds, make us feel something we never have, and recognise beauty in something we never even noticed. This will not happen unless artists free themselves from their self-perpetuating cloister.

No single pathway

Is it my understanding that art emanating from the privileged must remain real, now-bound, reflective, vulnerable and questioning in the widest possible way? Yes. Am I suggesting that this should be a homogenising movement? No. There will always be any number of ways in which we comprehend and respond to life; this is what civilisation is all about. What we cannot have is an entire section of society, especially one with so much socio-cultural mileage, remaining closeted in a cultural-aesthetic hideout of convenience and then claiming that as a symbol of diversity.

Can a melodic flow, rhythmic meter, movement or frame speak and connect with real-time life? This connection is abstract in nature but is stationed in the present. Abstraction does not happen from nothingness; it comes from the ability of the art object to touch raw emotion. It grasps that emotion and allows it to travel beyond the clutches of the event that inspired it. But there needs to be a context for this to happen. If we are going to twist or ignore the context, or perpetually claim connectivity only with the bygone, we are deluding ourselves, lying, or are simply unaware. The clarion call for sensitive transformation must be part of an artist’s everyday living. The artist must seek to embrace life as it is. The art experience is not an accident we should wait for; it must be an act of conscience.

T.M. Krishna is a musician, author and activist.