Friday, February 18, 2005

Lamenting Contemporary Indian Culture

What influence will India have on 21st century thought and imagination?

Bollywood? Call us elitist, but we sure hope not.

A great power is marked not just by guns and gold -- but principally by exportable ideas that inspire the world. Like other great civilizations, India too has had its share of such ideas (e.g., Yoga, Syncreticism, Taj Mahal, etc.). Our lament is that these ideas are antiques and that contemporary Indian thought -- much like contemporary global thought -- is increasingly noisy, unoriginal, and (deliberately or otherwise) designed to shock, like a mirror reflecting our broken world.

Our December trip to Delhi brought home this reality to us. We were astonished by how rapidly Delhi has grown -- and grown rapidly ugly. Our buildings have no character, no voice, no message -- other than a plea that we avert our disapproving gaze. Our cities have become piled boxes -- like graves for the living.

Then, there is the ever-present Bollywood muzak -- played at decibels masking its intrinsic emptiness. At a New York ghazal festival a few years ago, globalized and literate Indians yawned at real ghazals, then burst into applause when Pankaj Udhas sang an insipid lyric set to the horrifying (to us!) tune of "My heart will go on" from the movie, Titanic. A ghazal mahotsav reduced to aping Celine Dion? We felt like committing khudkushi that evening!

You want to discuss Indian art? The two biggest stories on art we've read in recent times were really stories about India's growing affluence and commercialism -- Hussain's sale of 100 un-created paintings for 100 Crores, and the recent sale of a VS Gaitonde painting for $215,000. Read these stories and you'll see they are less about art, more about Indians who can now afford -- what they consider is -- art.

Literature? That which sells is all in English (frequently by Indians abroad) -- the words we devour, therefore, are smothering our beautiful languages. We acknowledge our own guilt in this by throwing up the haunting lines (we forget by who) from Junot Diaz's devastating 1996 book Drown:

The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don't belong to English though I belong nowhere else

Our architecture is rotten. Our music is noise. Our art is a whore. Our literature is alien. Our much-celebrated exports are fake accents in call centers and cold bit-streams from clattering keyboards.

We are arriving now into cultural modernity even as modernism in culture is already passe. Dan Henninger has a terrific column in Wall Street Journal today demanding respite from this jarring modernism. Here are money quotes:

Modernism was a reaction to the industrial age or the machine age. It produced Cubism, Stravinsky's music and James Joyce's "Ulysses" (also voted the 20th century's most important novel by a panel of the Modern Library). Its most important cultural values included discordance, challenge, collision, violation, confusion. This is wholly out of sync with what people want or need in the current age.

Google, Web surfing, cell phones and 1,000 television channels have also brought us something other than "Grand Theft Auto" and Britney-on-demand. Everyone in the world watched the second World Trade Center tower fall in real time, and will do so the next time. The world we inhabit now is Iraq, Sudan, tsunami, weapons of mass destruction, Rwanda, Bosnia, Beslan. Knowing--and seeing with our own eyes--so much that is so bad is not normal. We don't need to be shocked by art. We now live in a constant state of shock.
We cannot hide from the world as it is, and should not. But we need respite. And sometimes we need solace.

Thats where culture comes in. We need to change the discordance of contemporary culture and imagine it anew. Hopefully Indians will be part of this new 21st century revolution.


Gana said...

Terrific blog too!. But I say be patient. India has so much to offer and I am sure it will in due course of time. We are still nascent stage as a nation after that brutal colonialism by British ( When they virtually destroyed our culture) and bollywood will pass !

Amrit said...

This was quite profound and engaging and most of it was a genuine outrage against the rampant mediocrity in the fields of arts and architecture. An everyday example are the remix songs that are nothing but an insult to the intellect as well as the old classics.

I see it even in children. The so-called cell phone wielding smart kids are actually so dumb when it comes to solving logical problems.

But I think it is a phase. There are still some people who are quietly working towards ushering a change. It'll eventually show.

-- Amrit

Tilak said...
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Tilak said...

India is run by whores. Every foreigner I meet, including diplomats from the US embassy, will tell you how they hate Delhi. I could not agree more! Returning after 35 years abroad, I am stunned by the utter lack of civic values and the mindless belligerence of one and all in this city. One infamous denizen in my street, whose father was murdered in Mumbai like an animal, married a dumb starlet and proceeded to keep the entire street awake all night by playing the rubbish he himself no doubt produces. A courteous British lady who phoned the cops to complain was told that Bhusan Kumar (worth 400 Crores) would have their heads broken if they dared intervene. Everything here can be bought - where's the room for common decencies. It's completely sick and cultural life a zero.