In a nation of 1.3 billion people it may appear strange that if you were to really assess, you will not be able to name even 20 all-time greats in any field in the last 10 years.
We revel in our mediocrity with schadenfreude. When nothing works then we look back in anger at all possible misfortunes which befell upon us denying us greatness. What is it that taken away sunlight of brilliance from India in the past few years? Forget the distant past and our imagined ingenuity in building aeroplanes and spaceships in an age when humans had not even discovered half the elements.
Yet, no one denies that people like Aryabhatta (mathematician), Sushruta (surgeon), Panini (grammarian), Chanakya (statesman), Kalidasa (writer), Natyamuni (cultural theorist), Ashoka (ruler) and you will find another dozen luminaries whose stature has withstood the vagaries of time and whose names still feature amongst the greatest. India has consistently produced a litany of world's greatest at regular frequency.
Right till the turn of the century we could count pre-eminent personages from Mahatma Gandhi to Rabindranath Tagore, CV Raman to Hargobind Khurana, Dhyan Chand to Sachin Tendulkar, Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, Lata Mangeshkar, MS Subbulaksmi, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, RK Narayan, Salman Rushdie, Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Tenzing Norgay and you can go on. There was hardly any sphere of human endeavour where our compatriots did not excel. Today, sadly the only standouts are skulduggery and chutzpah. What has happened to us now? Where has all the virtuosity gone?
Let us begin with public life. Can you name even one person across the political spectrum who has made a mark in the past two decades? Arguably the last truly inspiring statesman we had was Jayaprakash Narayan some three decades ago. One can easily ascribe this shortfall to falling standards in our polity. Take the two major political parties. Congress has had no global leader since Indira Gandhi and BJP none besides Atal Bihari Vajpayee (it's too soon to judge Narendra Modi). Regional satraps with narrow parochial outlook have sprouted all over.
By exploiting ethnic and local issues, they do well at the hustings but when it comes to statesmanship they are kaput. There is mere media hype, no substance and often an ante diluvian world view. Since Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, I. Allan Sealy, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amit Chaudhari caught the imagination of the English reading universe and Indian English writing started getting noticed, we are back again to the perennial Indian preference of quantity over quality. So for every Aravind Adiga and Neel Mukerjee you have 100 pedestrian writers attending multiple litfests. Not that the regional literature is any better. No exceptional talent has emerged in the last two decades. Similarly no major poet in any Indian language has captured cognoscenti's imagination.
Cinema too is a largely barren field. Occasional flashes of brilliance from a handful of young directors--the last 20 years have been pretty ordinary marked by savvy marketing rather than creativity. Actors, both male and female of any consequence, are those who made their debut years ago with a rare exception or two. Glitz and glamour, often tacky, crave for indulgence and fleeting fame is what most cinematic meteors gather today. Classical music is more popular but the so called rising stars are all who started performing two decades ago. Rahul Sharma, Aman and Ayaan Ali Khan, Rakesh Chaurasiya, Ashwini Bhide, Bombay Jaishree. It's the old masters who still rule the roost. From Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pandit Jasraj, Kishori Amonkar, Zakir Hussain, Shiv Kumar Sharma, L Shankar and TK Murthy, there is a whole generation of performing artistes who still command pride of place. It's the same with classical dance. Undoubtedly more young people are striving to learn classical art forms professionally but the rigour is missing. Hopefully the next decade will show some results.
In science and technology India lags behind in fundamental research or the number of patents filed than several countries including China, in business and commerce (if you leave a few Internet children) no significant figure has emerged since the nineties. The inheritors by and large have made some incremental progress but no breakthroughs. In the media, there has been no noteworthy editor or publication. Entertainment television has been stuck in a groove for 20 years and TV news has now replaced folk theatre complete with its 'vidhushak' and convoluted plots of intrigue and greed. Can you recall any newscaster of the last many years who can hold a candle to Prannoy Roy?
So from politics to philosophy, fashion to films, sports to entertainment we are have morphed into a society where mediocrity is celebrated. As Joseph Heller (Catch-22) said, "Some people are born mediocre, some achieve mediocrity and some people have mediocrity thrust upon them". We can only hope this is but a passing phase, part of our tryst with destiny and sooner than later we shall rise and awaken from mediocrity into brilliance and glory.