Monday, February 4, 2013

How lynching art and culture came to be a popular sport in India today By DIPANKAR GUPTA | Feb 2, 2013, TOI

Politicians like to be on top but not in front. This position does well in dictatorships and monarchies, but botches up the act in democracies. Our ministers enjoy the privileges of office, but not the work that should go with it. Whenever decisions have to be taken they hide behind "the people", and every battle line they draw is nearly always on sand.

This attitude shows up in a number of ways, but never more grossly as in matters of culture. When Bertolt Brecht said, "Art is not a mirror held up to society but a hammer with which to shape it," he could have been thinking of democracy as well. Democracy, at its best, is much like art; it is not supposed to reflect reality as much as to change it.

Where there is good demo-cracy there is good art for there are good laws that keep people in place. This allows scholars, painters, filmmakers and authors to survive for, by definition, they think differently from the rest. But if you ride the river with them, you would sail to shores you would never have imagined.

Like art, democracy too takes society to levels unthinkable in the past. If people were always supreme then the many things we take in as part of our everyday life, would not be there. Women would not have voting rights, minorities would hide when the majorities marched in, and only the rich would be counted as full citizens. If all of this is not acceptable any longer, it is because there were leaders once who went against the people to deliver what was right and just.

Quite as Brecht had recommended for artists, these politi-cians shaped peoples' views and did not reflect them. There was not a single pregnant woman in the British Parliament when it banned the employment of expecting mothers in mines. Nor was there a demand from the streets of London or Manchester, when child labour was banned in the UK. Hitler, on the other hand, was a blot on European civilisation, for he played on peoples' passions like an orchestra.

Come to think of it, Gandhiji never asked the people if they wanted untouchability out, nor did Nehru go for a straw poll before he piloted the Hindu Marriage Act. Neither of these measures would have been possible if Gandhi and Nehru stood in the shadow of the people and feared the light. As they knew how to call a bully's bluff, they junked the mirror for Brecht's hammer, and gave us the liberties we enjoy today. Like good democrats, artists too are meant to force the pace, but they need a wise democracy to protect them.

On the other hand, if our politicians insist on reflecting peoples' views only that section of the crowd will win that can most aggressively snatch the mirror. What explains the swagger of khap leaders, Deobandis and Hindu fanatics? It is almost as if they have been promised lunch, dinner and the taxi fare home. It is because those in state power find the people alibi so easy to use, so convenient to fob off as being democratic, that they rarely use the hammer. It is the line of least resistance that does the trick; it keeps both lazy politicians and sleazy rabble-rousers happy.

This allows Jayalalithaa to blame Kamal Haasan for offending a dozen sections of Muslims and for the Congress to look the other way when M F Husain is threatened. Mamata too feels entitled to use the people to pillory intellectuals and Mayawati and Narendra Modi do just the same in their own bailiwick. If the spectre of the people can spook the law, even in broad daylight, who would dare to take it on? If only our leaders feared the people less and the law more.

But experience tells us that once we taste the new that democracy serves up, our stomachs turn at the traditional fare. If we must always have the familiar gruel, then why have a master chef in the kitchen? If it is always going to be etchings on the walls of caves why have Picasso or M F Husain? If the past is always so good, why have a future? Only when artists and democrats go against the people and their parents, they are worth that candle at the India Gate.

At his coming of age speech in Jaipur, Rahul Gandhi had a chance to break free from the past. Instead, he too took the easy route like any other hard-boiled, elderly politician might. Instead of leading from the front, he said that robust "building blocks" were already in place. Incidentally, he also mentioned listening to peoples' voice, in one form or another, perhaps 15 times in that short speech. In the Hindi bit that remained he wanted to create leaders as if they could be made in classrooms and political hothouses.

This is why we have a bunch of old people on top even though some of them look young!

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