Defending the trivial

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KRISH ASHOK delves into the latent hypocrisy of our curiously selective notion of cultural censorship.

What connects harmless custom and obscene song lyrics? You might perhaps imagine that tradition and obscenity are generally not bedfellows but then again, that would depend entirely on your personal definition of the word “obscene”.

For instance, in Bharatnatyam, the jaavali is a lyrical compositional form that uses colloquial language, typically Telugu or Kannada. And when I say colloquial, I mean it in the sense of how an auto-driver’s colourful language might be considered street in today’s context. Interestingly enough, the word jaavali itself comes from the Kannada word Jaavadi, which literally means “lewd poetry”.

Now when I bring up history like this as a prelude to an argument, there are many of us who go, “Now wait a minute, I can see where this is going. Surely you are not going to use the sensuous beauty of a jaavali to point out the hypocrisy in forcing Anirudh Ravichander (of ‘Kolaveri’ fame) to remove his dirty and objectionable music video off YouTube?”

When Dharmapuri Subbarayar, legendary composer of jaavali s, asks us in the most colourfully street dialect of Telugu “Did some drunk witch seduce you?” it’s classical art. But when Anirudh does a topical remake of a Kanye West/Jay-Z song ( Ain’t nobody ******* with my clique ) with pretty much the same lyrics, there is outrage over the moral decay of our classical civilisation and funnily enough, with over 2.5 million views, the Kanye West original is still on YouTube.

But pointing out the latent hypocrisy of our curiously selective notion of cultural censorship is really not my main point. But to get to that, we have to take a short, uncomfortable detour into the comfortable confines of our homes. As a child growing up in a family that has walked the tightrope between liberal modernism and the desire to preserve tradition, I would often wonder why it was customary for the women to serve food first for the men and then eat later.

In the early days, the answer was quite evasive; usually a variant of: “Look, it’s not a big deal. Someone has to eat first and, from a kitchen management standpoint, it makes better sense for the women to finish up since they do the cooking in the first place.” This typically led to further questions about why men didn’t cook or at least help serve later and it usually reached a dead end with “well, that’s the way things are” at some point. Occasionally, some men would help serve the women once they finished eating but, for the most part, they retired to betel leaves and prognostications on the career prospects of Michael Holding and Joel Garner and the political machinations of Mrs. Gandhi.

As the years went by and my line of questioning lost its childlike sense of curiosity and started probing into these fuzzy areas, the male response took on a new strategy. “Look, I understand your feminism angle and all that, but let’s not waste our time on simple, harmless customs like these and focus on real problems like female infanticide and rape. Surely women today are better off than the women from your grandmother’s generation in that they are educated and they work (and cook food for the family) so why are you probing pointlessly about who should eat first in the family?”

And that response, I think, has a deep connection to our response to Anirudh’s music video. It’s this fallacy of “Oh there are bigger and more important problems to solve, and heritage to preserve, than protecting some upstart West-corrupted music director and upsetting the delightful comfort of how we eat as a family.” It is this often-ignored idea of Defending the Trivial.

So, yes, a Jaavali is a classical art form with a rich history, and erotic (and Article 377-violating) temple sculptures are part of our larger cultural identity, while the remake of an obscene Rap song is hardly worth defending and wasting our time on. How is that inconsistency not cognitively dissonant, I wonder.

Yes, we must stop female infanticide and rapes and let our daughters study and pursue careers (only till we find a suitable match, at which point, IIM or not, she has to give up her career), but do we even realise that infanticide and rapes, disturbing as they are, are still rare events? We focus on the legislative and judicial infrastructure to prevent these rare events while completely ignoring the social infrastructure required to prevent everyday sexism that preserves gender stereotypes because we do not want to waste time defending the trivial. When we ignore the trivial, the commonplace, and rest comfortably with the illusory satisfaction of preventing the sensational, yet rare, we are missing something big without even realising it.

Perhaps Anirudh should push the envelope and make a new music video (with obscene lyrics) on the subject of the cumulative violence of everyday sexism so that we can all collectively go into an apoplexy about which way we should now tilt our hypocritically balanced sense of culture and propriety.



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