The Arts

India Has a Long History of Artists Acting as Keepers of Social Conscience

While Deepika Padukone's presence at JNU shows film stars are prepared to take risks, there was a time when artists were deeply aware of their social responsibility.

Cynics and doubting Thomases may try to dub it as a “publicity gimmick” and link it to the impending release of her film Chhapaak, yet the appearance of Deepika Padukone on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus to express solidarity with the students is of great symbolic significance.

Firstly, it shows that artists are increasingly becoming aware of their role as keepers of social conscience, and secondly, that film personalities are prepared to take risks and are shedding fear of authority and the prevailing intolerance of dissenting views. A previous Deepika Padukone film, Padmavat, had faced fierce opposition and threats organised by Hindutva forces, something the actress spoke about when supporting the students, adding that she hoped it doesn’t become the ‘new normal’.

Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone visits JNU campus in solidarity with students and teachers who were attacked on January 5, in New Delhi, January 7, 2020. Photo: PTI

Many others, including Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj, Sonam Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha, Diya Mirza, and Swara Bhasker, have also come out strongly in support of JNU students and faculty members who were attacked on Sunday evening by masked goons armed with iron rods, sticks and stones. It may be recalled that Hollywood artists have been using platform such as Oscar award ceremonies to voice their unconventional, anti-racist and anti-authority views for a long time.

Also Read: Deepika Padukone’s Silent Presence at JNU Protests Will Change the Game

Modernity in India has developed as an offshoot of anti-colonial intellectual and political movements. Social reform movements were an integral part of the anti-British national struggle and went a long way in contributing to the rise of modern consciousness. There was a time when writers, musicians, theatre and film artists, painters and sculptors were not unduly obsessed with their own work and were conscious of their social responsibility. Historical research has brought to light many instances when courtesans of Kanpur and some other places took enormous risks, and paid a very heavy price, for helping rebels soldiers who had risen against their British superiors in the historic revolt of 1857.

Gauhar Jaan, one of the highest paid courtesan singers of the first half of the 20th century, was requested by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920 to organise a concert in Calcutta and donate its proceeds to his ‘Swaraj Fund’. She readily acceded to the request, although her patrons were mostly wealthy businessmen and members of aristocracy who swore allegiance to the British. It was a risk that she unhesitatingly took.

Abdul Karim Khan. Photo: Public Domain

Kirana gharana founder Abdul Karim Khan too contributed to the Mahatma’s fund-raising activities by participating in recitals that were held to support satyagraha. He also sang ganapati stavan  (Sanskrit poetry in praise of Ganesha) for Mahatma Gandhi.

When Bal Gangadhar Tilak was released from the Mandalay jail in 1914, Abdul Karim Khan met him as Pune Brahmins were attacking him for singing Sanskrit verses including the Gayatri Mantra through the language of Hindustani classical music. Tilak supported him and it is said that he sang in front of him and R.G. Bhandarkar. Most people today may not realise this but the great maestro was a truly political musician who, despite having collaborated with Englishmen like Clement who was experimenting to create a shruti harmonium, had his sympathies with the nationalist cause. So were many others like Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and his disciple Omkarnath Thakur who often sang at the Indian National Congress’s annual sessions.

When politically conscious writers got together to form the All India Progressive Writers’ Association in 1936, they invited Premchand to preside over its founding conference. The great writer gave a clarion call for creating “new standards of Beauty” that were in tune with the demands of the time. Some years later, Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was formed in which musicians like Ravi Shankar and Salil Chaudhury, theatre personalities such as Bijon Bhattacharya, Shambhu Mitra and Balraj Sahni, and other performing artists took active part. Uday Shankar and his troupe too made a very significant contribution, as is evident in his avant garde film Kalpana.

Also Read: How Celebrities Reacted to January 5 Violence at JNU

However, these days, very few classical musicians or dancers show an interest in the burning social and political issues of our times. One exception that comes to mind is the event Muktnaad organised by Safadar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) in Ayodhya after the demolition of the Babri mosque. Many top musicians, dancers and writers had participated in it. But the norm these days is that either musicians and dancers support the government’s policies or keep quiet. In this respect, Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna is an exception.

Carnatic singer T.M. Krishna. Photo: https://tmkrishna.com

On January 1, Krishna sang at the annual event organised by SAHMAT in New Delhi to observe the martyrdom day of Safdar Hashmi and cast a spell over his audience. He sang compositions that dealt with issues like pollution, environmental hazards created by nuclear power plants and the condition of the sewage workers. He also rendered a poem of well known Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. Krishna regularly comments on the issues of the day and has questioned many practices prevalent in the world of South Indian music and dance. One hopes that other musicians and dancers will also follow suit and align their art with the aspirations of common people.

Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.