Clean Chit Corner
2017 taught me why we must hold on to art
'Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.'
- Total Shares
This is a year-end walk through holding a different strand of my memory.
When I walked the hallowed corridors of the Delhi School of Economics as a young student, it was the nascent age of neo-liberal capitalism. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan along with Manmohan Singh’s 1991 Union Budget had changed our world in ways we can only comprehend now slightly.
Economics has a way of dressing up our ugliness in statistics; provide cogent rational explanations for the same to give us a perpetual sense of inhabiting a bubble of sanitised smug security. I grew up believing in Adam Smith’s invisible hand, laissez-faire, private property, individual freedom and intellectual property rights and the inherent goodness of these concepts. I believed in the universality of these concepts. I, oblivious of my identity, believed I am the citizen of the new order. My class and education were good insulators.
Concepts in themselves have moral neutrality. It is when they are in the hands of the policy-makers, state functionaries, powerful individuals or cliques of powerful individuals that they become a tool of appropriation, marginalisation, of excluding vast swathes of humanity from the general well-being. It took me a long time to comprehend that post-1991, we have become a nation of sub-contractors and middlemen, and through privatisation we have snatched social security from millions of underprivileged people working from a position of vulnerability and powerlessness. That we made a fundamental shift in the way our economics work and allowed wealth distribution to be more inequitable. We placed the advantage in the entrepreneurial hand, and exalted the spirit of entrepreneurship as a virtue.
From jumla-sloganeering we have descended into a bloodied inhuman cesspool where people are murdered in their homes or hacked and burnt alive.
Privatisation per se is not bad, but it’s not a free-run for a mercenary setup under the clause "contractual labour". Risk must be rewarded, but we removed the ethical fulcrum on which it stood.
Latest statistics confirm that wealth inequality has doubled in the past two decades in India and the top 10 per cent of wage-earners earn 12 times more than the bottom 10 per cent among them. At the baseline is the battle for resources, and as the resources on this finite planet dwindle, we will hear more alienating and polarising voices.
Mid-career, I became disillusioned with my banking job and decided to be an actor. My initial foray in theatre led me to the works of Vijay Tendulkar, Badal Sarkar, Manto, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and et al. Initially, rather than seeing these texts as challenges to the status quo, I let myself be happily ensconced in a naïve feeling that I was creating meaningful entertainment for the established order. The subtext in the literary texts of these great authors eluded me.
Theatre led into storytelling and the storytelling into the whole debate of art being for its own sake or for a cause. Early 20th century was a tumultuous time both politically and technologically. It was a period of great wars and scientific advancements. Art rose to the challenge and much of it served the purpose of being the voice of the marginalised. Much of our "dastanic" tradition of storytelling also lost its relevance with the rise of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and its belief that literature and art must represent the oppressed voices.
Initially, I tilted towards the idea that art must not operate from a precondition. Like a dream, it has to be subliminal, an unknown aperture opening on our world of consciousness. But then as Saul Bellow says, “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterises prayer, too, in the eye of the storm… Art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” It becomes T.S. Eliot’s "the still point of the turning world".
We are in the eye of a storm now. 2017 has been a tumultuous year. From jumla-sloganeering we have descended into a bloodied inhuman cesspool where people are murdered in their homes (Gauri Lankesh) or hacked and burnt alive with the entire episode captured on camera (Mohammad Afrazul), by the end of the year. The cheering and apologia defending the murders post these incidents make it imperative that art create a chilling stillness, a compelling arrest of attention, to be a perpetual mirror to the world, to be a stark reminder of what happens when the necessary social bad like murder becomes legit.
Social media algorithms and mainstream debates are reducing every debate into a polarised binary choice. You are either with us or with them. It is shrinking the space for any nuanced exchange. Through art we must push this shrinking space outwards to bring more narratives in and not fall for farcical set-ups where one is legitimising social evils like murder or rape through us versus them debates.
Although I do not like wearing my politics on my art sleeve, but then as Arthur Koestler says even a neutral physics class on laws of motion is laden with politics. If I look at my choice of work in 2017 whether it’s The Songs of The Progressives with Vidya Shah, or Rajiv Joseph’s Guards At The Taj with Vrajesh Hirjee for Aadyam, or Qissa Urdu Ki Aakhri Kitab Ka based on Ibne Insha’s classic text with the similar name with Gopal Datt for Prithvi Theatre Festival, or The Unfettered God | Lalon Fakir’s Search with the Baul singers for the Times Lit Fest, or the poems Denzil Smith and I curate for the ensemble performance Poetrification, or my being a part of Amit V Masurkar and Mayank Tewari’s film Newton, I have made some sort of an attempt to create a stillness that will respond to the storm we are in currently. And the year-end firms my resolve to continue treading this path.
Befitting to end with a Ghalib couplet given it was his birthday yesterday:
bāzīcha-e-atfāl hai duniyā mire aage
hotā hai shab-o-roz tamāshā mire aage.
(The world is a children’s playground before me
night and day, this theatre enacts before me.)
Underlying this eloquence is the poet pointing us our human pettiness, our attempt to abuse and destroy the ultimate oppressed one - the planet earth.