Culture as capital

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Enhancing aesthetic experience: Moving on. Photo: REUTERS
Enhancing aesthetic experience: Moving on. Photo: REUTERS


In 2005, people across India were affected by natural disasters, terrorist attacks, agricultural debt, and the gridlock of dying infrastructure. Across the globe, too, people suffered the costs of the `war against terror'. A look at what we need to do to face the formidable challenge ahead of us. Five scenarios ...

ON a wintry Delhi evening two weeks ago, we walked through a narrow lane peopled by hawkers and beggars, to Ghalib's tomb. It stands in a courtyard near the monument of a Sufi saint, and the faithful seem to treat the departed poet, too, as a sanctified presence and source of blessings. This is just as well, despite his ironic asides on the observances of organised religion, and his somewhat relaxed attitude towards the Divine. Between the heritage conservationists, who have struggled to retrieve the tomb from a messy oblivion, and the kerbside folklore-making of the devout, the celebrated Urdu poet's physical memorial has been redeemed from the relentless churning of time. But Ghalib's place as a major modern poet has yet to be secured properly. Few, beyond the realm of Urdu literature, recognise his impressive modernity, as articulated in his tactical ability to confront and recast tradition, his metropolitan love of novelty and shock, his awareness of being a survivor from a vanished world taking his chances in a new topography of risk and opportunity, his inventive handling of diverse materials, tonalities and predicaments. Thanks to a combination of historical factors, this grand contemporary of Baudelaire remains trapped in the cage of local premodernity.

Full import lost

Despite the excellent efforts of scholars such as Aijaz Ahmad - who marked Ghalib's centennial in 1969 by inviting major American poets including Mark Strand, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford and W S Merwin to translate or produce their own versions of Ghalib's ghazals - the poet's reputation continues largely to be framed within an ethnic ghetto, redolent with Mughal nostalgia and the fragrance of South Asian Islam. His poems may travel as exotic exports in translation, but their full import is not always grasped because we do not situate him in a wider, more enriched and enriching context of discussion. If historical ignorance obscures the true nature of a literary achievement, an obsession with commercial value - which has dominated reportage on the realm of contemporary Indian art during 2005 - can destroy the possibility of viewing the real accomplishments of visual art. The torrent of words wasted to express rage and outrage at the phenomenal price-linked developments in the market for postcolonial Indian art, for instance, eclipses all serious discussion of works of art as invitations to the senses, provocations to the intelligence, gestures staged against several contexts of feeling and viewing. The fact that art works are not only objects carrying monetary value, but that they are also discursive and communicative objects - that they reveal their meanings most fully when they are talked about with sensitivity, attention and insightfulness - is being eclipsed by the shallow, ill-informed, often factually incorrect and painfully naïve reportage that passes for cultural journalism today. Unlike Ghalib, contemporary Indian artists do not even have to wait for the gates of the final passage to open; the truth of their art is already being buried by trashy coverage that misses the point of an artistic project, accompanied by the tunes of a publicity apparatus that plays up the man (or woman) and not the work. The epoch that opens up before us will be one in which transitive selves and their nomadic creative impulses will have to confront, not only official structures, but also the more destructive fixed-frame approach of the mass media. How, as we go along, is India's creative capital to be rescued from the oblivion of excessive visibility? How shall we evolve forms of attention that enhance aesthetic experience, rather than killing it? How will creative individuals find communities that sustain them, rather than relying on fan clubs that cannibalise them, or remaining trapped in ghettoes where familiarity has long ago bred an aesthetic complacency that is far worse than contempt? How are writers to win the space of retreat, and artists to secure the repose so necessary for them to tap the deep springs of their art, to maintain contact with the operative rhythms of their work?



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