Hosannas are being chanted as Chennai has been pulled into the Unesco ‘creative cities’ network. It is seen as a nod to the ecology of art-music the city spawns and supports. ‘Innovation and creativity for inclusive urban development’ is the credo of the idea of the ‘creative city’. And the Twitterati can’t find characters enough to gloat in the self-congratulatory carnival that it has triggered.
Methinks it’s time to press the pause button. What is the frenzy about? Is it possible to be a little more objective and a little less hypocritical?
Granted the city gets into a paroxysm of Carnatic cacophony for about 50 days between late November and mid-January, when over 3,000 performances, lecture-demonstrations and talks are presented — albeit in an insular, high-class, high-caste ambience. Almost 90 organisations (sabhas), sponsored by almost 250 state, corporate and private agencies, present musicians, dancers and scholars at some 35 venues across the city. This is the annual circus that is called the ‘music and dance season’.
In swift bites
It is a gigantic pageant of contradictions. The tyranny of quantities is overpowering. Quantity, however, belies quality. Lucky are those who might catch even half-a-dozen high standard kutcheris in an environment that serves up Shankarabharanams, Shuddha Saveris and Todis like quick-fix nibbles in a fast-food stall. Quantity also brings in its own brand of concert fatigue, propelling audiences to desultory modes of listening, where even 15 minutes is an unfashionably long amount of time to lend an ear to any one concert.
Kutcheris are consumed in swift bites, like a bajji or pakoda in the adjacent canteen, with that one nibble enough to reveal its spicy or bland potential. It has led to a new kind of exhibitionist exit of elite rasikas from concert halls, which has become an entertaining side-show during the season. The large-scale empty halls at most venues for most concerts leaves you wondering why the hype is hyphenated with the hypocrisy of ‘service to high culture’.
What we witness here is an orchestra of opposites, where the old obfuscates the new, the classical cohabits with the kitsch, the austere is upstaged by the ambitious, the traditional is threatened by the contemporary, prodigy slums it with its parody, the gifted defer to the greasy, and the commercial corrupts the venerable.
It is a choreography of dichotomies in which the pious and the credulous, the amateur and the professional, the soul-pure and the techno-contaminated, the enchanting and the prosaic, the captivating and the abhorrent, the connoisseur and the dilettante, the resident and the non-resident — are all blended into a mega symphony of contraries to briefly hold hands, lock together in a tight embrace, and syncopate under the compulsive and charismatic baton of a good conductor called ‘Our Culture’. Of course, you are required to coax out the word ‘culture’ devoid of plosives, in slanted sibilants, with an accompanying lump in the throat.
There are very few venues that can lay claim to being genuinely music or dance friendly, with lamentable conditions for lights and acoustics. There is an all-pervading air of casualness and lack of auditorium aesthetics, with a tacky penchant for privileging the ugly banners of sponsors over the artists on stage.
The stages are mostly Thermocol or Formica contraptions in giddy geometric patterns overlaid with peppermint coloured jamakalams (dhurrie). The audio systems test one’s patience combined with the gestural performance of musicians and accompanists, constantly urging the sound technician to up the volume. Few of these board operators can distinguish between base and treble and end up producing an embarrassing 90 minutes of apaswaram .
Amenities at the auditoria too are woeful, with rickety seating, cramped green rooms, non-existent rehearsal spaces, and leaky toilets. It is a city that does not seem to believe in infrastructure development. In fact, that’s the point one is trying to make. This whole bluster around the idea of being a ‘creative city’ happens amid the clutter of rapidly crumbling institutions, the peeling of paint and plaster, and the dust and rubble of ‘cultural debris’ accumulating in the city. Who are we fooling?
Just take a look around. The museums, libraries, and arts and music colleges are in ruins. Kalakshetra is gasping on an artificial respirator, unable to get its programmes or its auditoria aligned with the times. The university department is in the doldrums. The city has little regard for creating work and studio spaces for its musicians/ dancers/ theatre workers, who can be seen shuttling from pillar to post in a desperate hunt for rehearsal spaces.
Spaces of resistance
Of late, the sounds of protest are getting distinct. A leading Carnatic vocalist has critiqued the upper-caste insularity within which the music scene operates here. There is also a critique of the cloyingly religious/ devotional content of the music, with its resistance to relating to anything else in society. The Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha is trying to present alternative visions of inclusivity and diversity in the practice and within festival culture. It is also an attempt to take the arts out of ghettoised spaces to enable more democratic public engagement.
Asian College of Journalism, in South Chennai, is on its way to getting ready a new auditorium that can host concerts without electronic or acoustic amplification. It is in these areas of resistance to the mainstream that the ‘creative and innovative’ in the city need to be sought.
It is important to seriously reflect on what the Unesco recognition means, rather than smugly patting oneself on the back.
In this centenary year and month of the Russian Revolution of 1917, we need to collectively reflect on what it means to construct a humane culture in which the arts are able to lead the revolution by constantly speaking up to power, standing up for rights and, through unrestrained creativity, wipe out the pervading atmosphere of fear.
The ‘proletkult’ (proletarian culture) movement initiated by Anatoly Lunacharsky and Alexander Bogdanov that motivated artists as significant as Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich and Sergei Eisenstein, was a movement for constant critique and artistic freedom. It believed that a city and a society’s cultural wealth lay in the real sense of autonomy that its workers and artists experienced in shaping their own as well as the collective’s lives. By that yardstick, Chennai has a long march ahead.
It was Schopenhauer who claimed that all arts aspire to music. Chennai has music. But it is yet an unequal music.
The writer loves living in Chennai not because it’s a ‘creative city’ but because it’s a city that lets you be.