Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Public Diary 13: New Year, Religion and other Foolish Things

(All is Well)

What was 2013? And what 2014 is going to be? Does this December 31st night exactly make any difference from the night of 30th or 29th? People will talk, party, dance, drink, eat, have sex, meditate, go to temples, churches, mosques or any other religious establishments, some people fire crackers, most of them send text messages, emails and many more would make phone calls. They all wish each other and say that the coming year would be really different from the one that has is in the process of going out. Horoscopes say that everyone would do great. Ministers and politicians pronounce New Year greetings. Advertisers ask people to shop till they fall dead. Tourist operators ask people to travel. Restaurants ask people to have wonderful dinners. Priests ask people to come and pray.

All these happen because we all think the year that has gone just now was not good enough. This illusion has been operational for quite some time. Do you remember what exactly you were doing last year this time? You were perhaps sitting in the same place or in some other place, like a tourist destination, or a restaurant or a discotheque or in a party, sipping your wine and enjoying the talks and hoping for the best. You also might have hundred and one text messages, made phone calls and even embraced each other. Then what happened? Have you ever thought of it? In fact nothing happens. It is just about social control. One can think about the people who introduced Roman Calendar or even about the reason for introducing Calendars at all. From astronomy to agriculture the reasons could be far and wide. I am not getting into a scholastic discussion about that. But Calendars change when twelve months are exhausted. A new year is born. A normal thing. And it is always good to celebrate something new arrives or happens. Celebration is one way of putting away all the sour tastes that we have been accumulating over a period of time. But what about that feeling of betrayal, the feeling that the year that has just gone by was also a much expected, celebrated year. But you dump it as if it were a piece of dirt. Why you do that?

I am a person who uses memories and the past experiences to live and I live in my writing. When I am not writing or reading, I am just an organism that exists. Like any other writers, past and memories are raw materials for me. However, philosophically speaking, I do not have anything to do with the past, mine or others’. What is the use of the past? The fact is that past was once present and today’s present was once the future? What did this past, present and future do to us? Do they make any difference? I can tell myself or to others that tomorrow is another day. They suddenly will think about tomorrow and feel better. Or I ask someone to think about the past and learn from it. Then also they feel good about it because they are no longer attached to that past. To someone else I would say focus on future. Then they too would feel good about it because the future is still a mystery; a yet to come thing. But these are all illusions. Social structures and social conditioning make people to believe in all these nonsense. So they keep celebrating New Years, birthdays, death days and so on.

I can say this for sure because I have attended a lot of New Year parties. The next day people just do not even remember what they have done. When you are young and in love you think about your lover or beloved and sending a message at 12 midnight is something quite exciting. But that is all about when you are blind or blinded by passions. You feel something very special. Actually there is nothing special about it. You have been doing the same at different times, day or night even yesterday, day before yesterday, but today you attach some values to it. This is a social ritual which has been slowly turned into a ritual of commerce through gradual social and mental conditioning. Today I saw a hardly two year old child at the lap of his mother in a metro train. The child was using his father’s super tech mobile phone and was listening to the music of his choice. The adeptness with which the child was moving his fingers on the touch screen and choosing the stuff that he wanted to listen was really amazing. But it is sad too. The child has learnt a wonderful social skill but certain of his faculties have been numbed in the process. What happens to the children of today’s world is what has been happening to us for the last hundred years.

On this day, anyone cares to read this blog, which is also my public diary, I would ask them to shun all kinds of social rituals. Religions contribute a lot to these social rituals. So shun religion. Great scholars say that one should stick to one’s religion at least for the sake of having roots. But I would say, one does not need any religion at all because there is only one religion that is commerce, which in fact is not a bad religion. The commerce religion brings job opportunities to people. Corporate executives become the priests, other lower rank executives become retailers of this religion and we all become the devotees of it. When such an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent religion is in place why should one think about other religions at all? Religions do not bring you any solution. They do not lead you to a brighter future. One young boy in the metro was calling up someone and telling that after a party he had to go and attend a jagaran. But the boy simply does not think why should he attend a jagaran if he is attending a party or vice versa. If he is looking for fun and instant deliverance, party is more than enough. Religion also provides the same; instant moksha.

I ask all my friends, on this day to unlearn their religions and become just human beings who operate in the world based on their common sense. No god is going to come and help you out of any kind of problems that you are in. No god is going to help you to pass an examination or to get a job. If gods could do everything then why should one work at all? Some kind of bhakti would have alleviated all poverty from the world, all sufferings, all wars, all pestilence and even he would have saved women from getting raped, children from dying out of cold and the old and poor from destitution. So please understand that this religion thing is as commercial as the market. Both create a desire for the non-existent. And the better evil is the market, not god. Now if you are going to counter me with the so called spiritualism, it is another market. A real spiritual person does not go around and say that he is spiritual because he just does not that he is spiritual. All what is happening in the name of spirituality, yoga and all the related aerobics and exercises are just hogwash. These are all made to fool people and make profit. If you are buying a ticket for a yoga class, or a spiritual retreat or a satsang, or even if it is coming for free, let me tell you, you are in the market place. You are going to buy something illusionary thing. You taste it and you feel the taste, and after a moment it is gone.

I have visited god men and god women. I have gone through Tantric rituals. I have consulted oracles. I have done all kinds of things thinking that all those things would bring changes to my life. Changes might have come but I have not observed it. If at all I have observed, all those things have come from my work. Once I was in front of an oracle. She opened her hairs, brandished her sword, jingled her bells and told me that I lost all money because I was a drunkard. Perhaps, that was an eye opener for me. I am a person whose name could be added to the list of stingy people. I am parsimonious. I do not spend money. I do not even drink a cup of tea from a shop. Then how can I become a spendthrift. Then, me being a drunkard; I drink moderately. If I do not drink also nothing will happen to me. If I drink, then too nothing happens to me.  I never squandered money on drinks. In a friends’ place where I have access anytime there a private bar with all kinds of drinks and he has even asked me to drink anything whenever I feel like. But till date I have not even touched something from that bar. Not because I am afraid of doing so or losing a friend. But because I think that drinks make me dull. It never energizes me. So I said good bye to the oracle and left her to her own fate. I have worn iron rings, golden rings, rings in all the fingers. Nothing has happened. And today I am sure nothing will happen with these things.

People are blinded by religion and spiritual practices. They have been just taken for a ride. I like to go to the religious places just to feel the place. I have never felt a sense of bhakti in crowded places. I feel choked and suffocated. With a friend of mine I used to go to the famous Hanuman temple in Connaught Place. People are treated differently in religious places. Rich and powerful get direct access to god. Hanuman temple is also not different. I used to stand and wonder why I was there. But I have enjoyed the foolishness of my friend and the rest of the people there. Once I went to Shirdi Sai temple in Shirdi. Ten thousand rupees was stolen from the bag of my wife right inside the shrine. Initially I thought it was supposed to go. Or it was what Baba wanted. Then I said, it is bullshit. Baba cannot be a pick pocket. It is a nexus, of priests, police, politicians and the pickpockets. So there is no god in the places where you think there is. I do not know what is god or who is god. God is a notion passed on to me by the culture in which I was born. So I carry it. But I have grown up enough to understand that God, if at all, all those values embodied in that word, is there, he or she is right there inside me or next to me. I am not talking anything new. People have said it in different forms. But nobody heeds. I am repeating it thinking that someone would listen to my words. Even if you do not listen nothing will happen to me.

Let me tell you, New Year is another reason they have created to make you believe in God. You will feel grateful to god because he is giving you another chance to be alive and happy. And nobody says that it was he who had been keeping us unhappy throughout this year, dangling the carrots of happiness for the New Year. So dear friends, if you are drinking drink well, if you are dancing dance well, eating do that well. That’s all what you can do. Tomorrow could be a holiday, but day after tomorrow things are the same. You are your god. You make and break yourself. There is no New Year. It is just tomorrow, another happy day at work.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Performative Symbolism of Arvind Kejriwal and its own Traps

(Arvind Kejirwal addressing his supporters)

Somehow I have not seen anybody making a direct reference to George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ vis-à-vis the present political experiment in Delhi. With tactical support of the Congress Party from outside the Aam Aadmi Party has finally reached the seat of power. Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal on whose image the party has garnered votes proves himself to the best demagogue around, perhaps a notch ahead than his national rival, Narendra Modi. The performative symbolism of both these leaders does not fail to catch our attention. While Modi, in the assembly elections in Gujarat had employed virtual 3D imaging for his political campaigning where he could simultaneously address political rallies held different parts of the state using high tech gadgets, Arvind Kejrival uses his physical presence to address people. Both are convincing in their performances, despite the journalistic as well as political skepticism. But what Modi considers as virtual demography, by making himself a virtual image, Kejrival deems his population as a real entity. Modi could be seen and Kejriwal could be felt. The ocular and tactile qualities of these two leaders efficiently move people to these leaders’ desired effects.

Let me come back to Animal Farm. In this political fable, a group of animals capture power from a ranch owner through a coupe. The animals who have now become the leaders spell out rules that are to be observed by all the other animals during the regime. The first rule is: Four legged are right and two legged are wrong. Gradually, the subjects see the animals in the top rung of the political order walking on two legs, and at the dinner table even using forks and knives. When questioned, the leadership sends out a circular which reads: All animals are equal but some are more equal than others. Aam Aadmi Party leadership abjures all that comes with power; red beacons, bungalows and police security cover. But the inevitable has already been in the offing. Kejriwal has to move to a five room guest house near the Delhi Secretariat. He would be given security cover by plain clothed sleuths from the UP and Delhi Police. So many former political leaders have already begun queuing up to become Aam Aadmi Party members. That means, they bring the prevalent political culture into the party, if they are admitted. All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.

I am not an Arvind detractor. But I want to be one among those many who would like to be his conscience. He has asked ten days for implementing his political promises handed out to the people during the election campaign. Feasibility studies are on. Many heads have already rolled. Many seats have been shuffled and replaced. The inevitability of governance, implementation of power from up to down, is waiting in the wings for its cue. However, I do not want to see Arvind to become another politician or animal who has become more equal than others. Had he been sitting at the opposition benches, he would have been more belligerent. Now his voice has calmed down. Now he wants patience and tolerance from people. For him, it is like waking up from a beautiful dream and sees it is right there in reality. Now he has to face it and handle it. Dreams are good so long as they remain dreams. The moment they become real, they lose their dreamy charm. That’s why many skeptics have a problem with Arvind. They think that he is too idealistic. I do not find there is a problem with his idealism. The problem lies in the ways in which he tries to employ it.

First of all, Arvind made the swearing in ceremony a public affair. Theoretically speaking, it was a creation of a spectacle. In a spectacle, the apparent loses its meaning and its place is taken over by the relationships created between the many apparents. Hence, what we have seen in Arvind’s swearing in ceremony is a chain of relationships; between people, images, caps, slogans, speeches and the exhaustive number of people and their aspirations. What is lost in this spectacle is the meaning of governance/government as a reality. The danger is, when the relationship between these apparent images collapses, the reality that caused the relationship between them also would crumble under the weight of disillusionment. In a democracy, it is always good to assure the participation of the people who have elected their members or even those who have voted against them. That is the true spirit of democracy. And it happens through decentralization of power. In the former communist states like in Kerala, this decentralization had been effectively done. Arvind too wishes to have a sort of decentralization of power in place. But the problem is in every decentralized zone, it is Arvind who is the leader.

Before I come to the multiplication of Arvind into many in mohallas and pachayat’s let me deal with the idea of opening up of the doors of Delhi secretariat to the public. It used to be a fortress during the previous regimes, guarded well by policemen, politicians, leaders, sycophants and bureaucrats, and above all by arrogance and lethargy. Today, Arvind opens up the secretariat for people. I am not a supporter of a well-fortified government office. But opening up of the gates does not help either. There will be a stream of people coming in with their petitions from remotes parts of Delhi to seek an audience with Arvind. They could show even their ration cards to get an entry. It would be humanly impossible to handle such a flooding of complaints and grievances. The natural outcome will be mild controlling. Slowly police people will appear. They will control the inflow of people. Appointments will take place. Middlemen will appear. Sleazy ways of getting entry would start. That would be actually going against the very principles of Arvind. It is not that we do not have a system to check bribing. But the people who are in despair do not mind even shelling out some money to get their things done, whether it is by Arvind or Shiela.

Does the opening up of doors of Delhi secretariat help then? No. Instead, it would create commotions and even things ending up lathi charge and tear gassing. Today people from Valmiki community ask for permanency of their jobs in the Delhi Transport Corporation. When they come to secretariat they will not come alone. They will come in groups, the way the Jats had come from Haryana, Chandigarh and Punjab during Shiela’s time. The auto drivers will come to the secretariat. For effect they will bring their own badsha, Rajnikant. Or even they consider today Arvind as their Rajnikant. Then Rajnikant has other responsibilities. Similar would be the case of any community, caste and class. It would lead to anarchy. Good governance is one thing but anarchic governance style is another. Good can turn ugly within moments in that situation.

Arvind takes a leaf from Gandhiji’s history. Gandhiji had traveled around, met people, talked to them, whenever he got irritated he left food and resorted to fasting. But Gandhiji lived in a time when there were no ipads and apps. People had enough time and no jobs. Today people do not have time and they have a lot to do. Secretariat Tourism or Mohalla visiting Tourism could be another result of these activities. Arvind cannot address all the sections of Delhi in person. Or if he thinks that, like in Athens on 4th Century BC everyone could participate in democratic process, I have to tell him that times have changed. Such kind of limited populace and class divisions in the society could have afforded that sort of democracy. But today, the society is a diversified organism. The society elects representatives to handle their problems. Going back to them for each and every problem does not show maturity of democracy or the politician who employs that method. One cannot invite everyone into policy making and implementation. Hierarchies are bound to take place. But how you handle these hierarchies, make them accountable and transparent, that is what all matters. So Arvind, please desist from this populism or slowly give performative indications that you are here to change the system, not to entertain the mohallas and panchayats. Make everyone accountable, that is what you are expected to do.

One more thing, I want to bring to Arvind’s notice. Before the elections, I had seen Arvind praying in a Gurudwara. At various times, he has been seen/shown at various shrines. Today’s newspaper shows a picture of his parents doing a havan (ceremonial sacrifice) for the health of their son. Let them do the havan. But Arvind going to the temples and religious sites is a wrong thing. This is what exactly done by Jawaharlal Nehur, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and many other prime ministers, perhaps with one exception of V.P.Singh. Tomorrow, to appease the Muslims you will go to mosque, to appease the Christians you will go to church. Next day to a gurudwara. Then to a Ram temple. Then to Malai Mandir. Your focus will shift from policy to vote. Arvind will fall into the same gutter of religion. We don’t want a god fearing and temple trotting Chief Minister in Arvind. We need an Arvind who is secular and anti-corruption activist. I do not ask Arvind to become an atheist. But I would request him not to flaunt his religious sentiments in public. Kumar Biswas, one of the AAP leaders asked Narendra Modi to contest from Amethi, the sure seat of Rahul Gandhi in UP. But, how many Harijan temples, AAP leaders cared to visit, especially the broom holding working class comes from these bastis?

Aam Aadmi Party should not show its own weakness. One understands that it is very difficult to become different from the political ethos of a country, which has been shaped over ages. But the change should happen here and now. A secular Delhi, as metro has proved, does not run on Hanumans, Rams, Jesuses and Allahs and Gurus. It is run by people. And we have s/elected you and sent you there to govern; not to show your allegiance to religion; we have more than enough priests and god men to do that eye fooling magic. You are here to handle our problems. You are here to change the political climate of the state. You are here to establish an accountable, transparent, fearless and uncorrupt society. If you are thinking about Gandhiji, let me tell you, the man who had walked and preached around the world holding an imaginary Gita in his hand, was never seen standing or paying tributes to any temple of whatever complexion.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal and the Vulgar Indian Middle Class

(Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi Chief Minister)

Arvind Kejriwal is now the Chief Minister of Delhi; the 7th and the youngest. His rise to power makes people like me happy not just because he has vowed against all socio-political ills but also because he belongs to my generation. So I have all the reasons to believe that he understands the problem of the peculiar Indian middle aged people who were born in the years of the gradual deterioration of the Nehruvian dream and the rise of an autocratic regime with license-quota raj to spice it up. We belong to a cusp generation that had radio and newspapers as windows to the world only to hook up to television during our early 20s. Computer and internet came to our lives when we had crossed the maturing mark of 30. We are a generation that has been pushed around even by ideologies and education. Most of us grew up with a revolutionary fervor to change the world only to compromise as salary earners by our mid-30s. Once the social networking sites came into being, we all became activists there as if those platforms were just the regained paradises of anarchic self-expression, assured with some sort of security in our private havens. Then Arvind Kejriwal happened. And I believe he understands this. Perhaps, much of his followers belong to our generation.

I am not going to talk about our generation anymore. What I am going to talk about is a generation constituted by people who are in their early twenties today. This is a volatile generation. Whether the members of it belong to middle class or lower middle class, they all share one aim; and let me tell you, it is not a corruption free administration. Their aim is success. ‘Success’ is the magical word. So what does Arvind Kejriwal have got to do with the ‘success’ of these people? Rather, to put it in other words, the ‘failure’ of this young generation? Is ‘change’ the only defining word for them? Why do they support Aam Aadmi Party so much? Is this the charisma of this puny little man? How much do they understand when Aam Aadmi Party or Arvind Kejriwal talks about policy change, free water and reduced electricity tariff?

Let me start with the notion of success and its after effects amongst the young people. Everyone wants to succeed in life and it is naturally understood as a very comfortable materialistic life. Education and talent became tools to achieve this target; the success in the material world. It is not a bad thing to have a comfortable life style or a comfortable life environment or a lot of money to enjoy all what money could get. But there were days when people thought education and talent as tools to get a job in the government sector when government sector was the sole job provider. People otherwise depended on small trades, agriculture or wage labor to eke out a living. But with the change in attitude and the attitude towards economics in particular and life in general people started using education and talent as tools to achieve materialistic success. A doctor today no longer becomes a doctor to serve the ailing people. He or his parents ‘invests’ in his education and he should get the ‘returns’ or ‘profit’ once he finishes his education and starts off his career. Children are sent to school with a clear target about materialistic success.

But what about those people who do not have education, talent or any other means to achieve these means? They look at those people who have made it with some sort of grudge and envy. There are other set of people who despite having an education and talent yet denied opportunities. Some people get to vantage positions by using muscle power or crooked ways or asocial ways. Those people operate like this always get connected to the existing political parties and the power centers and a sort of symbiosis develops between them. So those people who are devoid of these means to power or not daring enough to resort to asocial ways thanks to fear or ethical thinking find it difficult to digest the fact that one section of society getting or taking all the advantages and success. Those young people who support Aam Aadmi Party today are led by this sense of frustration. Given a chance to express their mind or given a chance to be at the power centers they too would become a part of the existing power mechanisms only to replicate what they have been seeing from a distance with a grudge so far. They are not goaded by an ethical guidance nor are they supported by deep rooted democratic ideals. On the contrary they are led by an ambition to be successful in their lives. What stands between them and their success are the kind of social ills as manifested in the system of bribing, nepotism and opportunism. Their idea of social change or revolution comes from this simplistic notion of removing all these asocial patterns with one single magical stroke. Today, Arvind Kejriwal’s broom seems to have that magical power.

Yesterday, I happened to see a few youngsters wearing the Aam Aadmi topis and doing a lot of show off in a metro station. They were in a very euphoric mood. I suddenly thought that they could be from any party which had won the election. This time it is Aam Aadmi Party that is the winner. I do not show disrespect or cherish distrust in their euphoria or in their belief in the new savior. But today what I saw in a metro coach confirmed by skepticism about the idea of changes this young generation carries with it. The whole coach was filled with praises on Arvind Kejriwal who had said that he would travel by metro to take oath as the Chief Minister of Delhi. Some boys were also talking animatedly in support of Arvind. Their body language showed that anybody who said a word against would be thrashed up instantly. Surprisingly all of them were talking one sentence; From the birth of a child he/she starts giving bribes.’ I knew that the statement might have come from Kejriwal himself at some point. These were just parroting the words. Ideologically and in terms of propaganda, parroting the leaders’ words is a natural thing to do. But politically and critically speaking, all of them were just becoming ‘followers’ of a grand dream shown to them by Arvind Kejriwal. They do not discern whether the dream was a workable one or not. Yes, it is workable, provided we have too many people at the leadership who think with the same verve and sincerity of Kejriwal. But today, it is not the case. People are here for his magic touch which would turn any stone into gold; the success.

I am sure these boys would be disillusioned at some stage because all of them wear an Aam Aadmi topi and think that they have become one. In fact from an ordinary man’s status they have just become people who are at the threshold of power ready to replicate what they have been opposing so far. Their words and gestures prove it. It is comforting to see that so many young people attended the swearing in ceremony of the new Chief Minister at the Ramlila Maidan in Old Delhi. But I do not think that the larger turn out does not naturally translate into larger participation in the democratic process. People are here to see a spectacle; a scene that would not occur twice in history, perhaps. They just want to know how this man is going to remove the system that has been in place since ages and puts something new there. I do not doubt the intention and image of Arvind Kejriwal. But I do doubt the intention of the middle class. They want to replicate the success formulae of muscle based politics and the idea of success that has been spelt clearly by their predecessors till date. They do not have an alternative philosophy other than the claims of doing away with bribes. It is good to do away with the bribing. But what we are going to do with the idea of success?

The idea of success presupposes the failure of someone else. When you are making money, somewhere someone is losing it. Isn’t there a solution to this? I think, the solution lies in the hands of the people, not in the hands of Arvind Kejriwal. He cannot solve every problem of every human being in Delhi because he is not a superhuman thing. Our middle class, that in the name of religion, politics and anything conceivable vandalize the society and do self serving activities. They litter the roads, they acquire public parks and convert them into religious places, they deny job to their own brothers and sisters citing caste, creed and gender. And how such a middle class is going to sustain the dreams of Kejriwal? Wearing aam aadmi topi or trying to become the clones of Arvind Kejriwal will not change the society or will not cause any fundamental changes in the society. Instead it will turn the society into a large carnival of fancy dress and mimicry. Aam aadmi does not have a topi. Aam aurat does not have body guards. But in collective they become fancy dressers of Arvind. But it is not going to solve any problem.

The change in the society lies in the individual. In the individual lies the responsibility. When self-serving ends and the ideas of success change the individual becomes a better person. Arvind cannot do it for you/us. Arvind can show a possibility. Arvind is just a possibility. Be the change you want to see in the world, said Gandhiji. My life is my message, he added. How many can take up this challenge, in a changed scenario, not from Gandhiji but from Arvind?

I want to close this with a few lines from Bob Marley’s famous song Get up Stand up:

Most people think,
Great god will come from the skies,
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high.
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth:
And now you see the light,
You stand up for your rights. jah!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sabarmati Again: Following a Lost Man

(Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India)

Once again I am at Sabarmati Ashram. I try not to make this visit a ritual whenever I am in Ahmedabad because I fear that for me at least, the visit could be a symbolic gesture and any kind of symbolism could lead to a ritual and rituals could become blind repetitions of certain acts devoid of its original intention or meaning. Still, every day when I travel from Paldi to Gandhinagar, as I cross Sabarmati Ashram a part of me goes out there, and it stays there till I retrieve it forcefully or let my complete self to go and join the broken part, sitting there lost. I have started liking the word lost. Gandhiji said, my life is my message. U.G.Krishnamurthy, a radical philosopher said, do not follow me, I am lost. Both philosophers seem to be pragmatic in their views. Gandhiji is at his persuasive best and Krishnamurthy in his negative best. But both of them gain their own followers, ages after ages. Addiction of being lost or led is quite strong.

I do not want to be addicted to anything. If at all there is an addiction, it is to reading, writing, listening to the stories of people and above all being alone. When you read you are alone, when you write you are alone, when you listen to the stories of people you are alone and when you are alone, you are not alone. The whole world is with you, the universe, the cosmos and you become a part of all these. Complete merger is not possible though people speak about it. The moment you speak about complete merger with cosmos, you are already separated from it. That’s why learned people say that only you can say how that merger happened but you can never say what that merger is. It is a break down and a flight. A breakdown and flight cannot happen simultaneously to the same entity. But in the merger it happens. But still it is an explanation, an answer to a how, not an answer to what. I get the answers to what from Sabarmati. I am attracted to Sabarmati only because of that.

But I find, Sabarmati too has become a ritual to which I am a distant part. I see people, right in the middle of the day, pouring in as if it were a pilgrimage that they have undertaken, walk around the campus, speak in hushed up words, take photographs and go back to the world of materialistic worries and in pursuit of worldly pleasures. I observe the ritual conducted by different people from different walks of life. They come from all over India; all over the world. The moment they walk in, they feel the difference. You are entering in history, a space frozen in time, a make believe world, an island of disbelief and a magical land where past is present and present is not even future. The layout of the campus is in a reverse order. Before the historical site, you hit the memory museum and the souvenir and literature shop. So after a pictorial journey through Gandhiji’s life, you end up in buying souvenirs and books. You carry your purchase when you reach Gandhiji’s original ashram.

Sitting on a raised platform that lay across the small dual hut meant for Mira and Vinoba, I see people coming to the original Ashram. They remove their footwear outside, go inside, stand near the Charkha teacher, further walk into the rooms, kitchen and inner courtyard, stare at nothingness, feel some vague feeling about history, compare it with Attenborough’s Gandhi if they have seen the movie, come out, peep into Gandhiji’s study room as if it were a cage. People click at past and try to make it present. I am sure they don’t. Then they walk around the house, clockwise direction, come back to the front once again, some people fold their hands out of habit. I am afraid, one day, someone dressed up like Gandhiji would come out and give some flowers and sandal paste to the devotees. I am worried of a future when there would be three-time puja and aarti for Gandhiji. But I am solaced by the thought that there would be still Gandhians at Sabarmati who would not let it become a ritual. Rituals cause institutionalisation and vice versa. Though Gandhiji has already become an institution, he has resisted throughout the process of turning himself into a rituals. Gandhians have tried the Gandhian rituals only to prove themselves to be the poor and laughable caricatures of Gandhiji himself. That’s why when contemporary leaders wear anything that remotely reminds people of post-Gandhiji Gandhian rituals, the gradual corrosion that has been taking place since his death in the values systems that have come to be known as Gandhian principles, I feel like telling them to keep off from such kind of rituals.

Behind the Ashram, in a diagonal from where I sit, under the cool shadow of a big tree, a group of children play some games in absolute abandon. From their clothes I understand that they hail from lower middle class families. They must be on a school trip as they have a young male teacher to lead them in their games and give them sufficient instructions, besides to control them with sharp chiding if it is needed. The game in progress is the blind man’s bluff. Initially a girl is blind folded and is sent in search of her companions. Each faltering step sends the other children into throes of laughter and reasonless absolute glee, often almost collapsing the otherwise calm and serene atmosphere of the ashram. But the noises that the children make do not sound too crass or disturbing. The next turn goes to a boy. He is blind folded. He is more adventurous and daring; the more he dares and become adventurous the more he goes away from the pack, walking with hands stretched out to dark nothingness, while other kids follow him in mock trailing with their giggles and foaming and overflowing mirth.

Looking at the game, I think of Sabarmati ashram in particular and the whole of our socio-political life in general. It is a blind man’s bluff game. We are all led by the acts of blind men or blind folded men. Blind men are super sensitive but blind folded men are not. They affect sensitivity and express it with expanded gestures. They move towards sounds and movements; they move towards power and money. The pack, all of us are also in a sense happy to follow this dumb game. We follow the blind folded men in absolute happiness. We can see, we are not blind folded. We can walk off from this game. But still we follow this man/men till they catch us or they fall down. I find the metaphor of this game so meaningful and adequate. I see the ritual people enact there in front of the ashram. They too are blind folded by the society. They are not seeing any of Gandhiji’s principles. They just come to this place, they feel good about it. They will go back and boast that they have been to Gandhiji’s ashram. Except for souvenirs, I do not think they take something from here. Buying of books, peering into the rooms where once Gandhiji and his people lived and hanging out there and taking photographs seem to have become a ritual in itself. They are registered only to be trashed the moment of departure.

Sabarmati Ashram today is a place that could collapse into a ritualistic space with elaborate actions of devotion at anytime. The river, Sabarmati has already been institutionalized. It has been straight-jacketed within the developmental agenda of river front tourism. Today we have a riverfront with spots for relaxation and revelry. But where has the river gone? The river has become a slimy streak of water that still glistens and beams with happiness at the touch of the sun rays as if it were a bride inside a refugee camp. In the direst of occasion also she blushes by the arrival of her groom. The cemented, concreted and regimented shores of the river give a contrasting picture to what the riverfront once had been. It is no longer a river, it is no longer a flow, it is no longer a life, it is no longer a history, it is a present, an wound from the past still festering with memories. The sight pains me. People are happy to climb up the boundary wall of the ashram that separates the ashram compound from the riverfront. They click pictures against the grey haziness that silhouettes industrial plants across the river. The sunlight from the west falls behind most of the photographic subjects. I am sure they all will get a dark silhouette of human being from that angle in that afternoon.

Gandhiji walks up to me. He smiles at me. He asks why I came again. I do not have an answer. Everything around here has changed. And change is a must. But ashram has not changed for good. Any change would make it another pilgrimage centre that doubles up as a touristic destination. Sabarmati and tourism do not gel. A forced collation could be as ironic as giving a machine gun to Gandhiji’s hand instead of a long walking stick. I walk back and go to the book stall. The Story of My Experiments with Truth has been published in most of regional languages. The stack of those copies makes me happy. Gandhiji is still a reader’s pleasure. Gandhiji, if he fails to give further political leads in a changed scenario, I believe he would remain to excite literary exponents. May be, he would be condemned as a doomsday philosopher one day, who knows. Still I would love this man because he was a man of contradictions and was the lost sheep and the shepherd who went behind the lost one. He has not turned back in his search. But we have, indeed. But it is a pleasure to follow a lost man because he could throw up a lot of surprises.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Interesting Case of Yo Yo Honey Singh: Mainstream Versus Sub-cultures

(Yo Yo Honey Singh)

Last year, in December, after the infamous Nirbhaya Rape case in Delhi, rapper-singer Yo Yo Honey Singh’s concert in a Gurgaon hotel was called off due to public protests. He was expected to peform there on the New Year eve. The vulgar lyrics (that amounts to the claim of the singer/lyricist being a rapist and so proud of it) in one of his songs had apparently spurred the public anger especially in a volatile atmosphere charged with the middle class anxieties and fear regarding the safety of women in private and public domains. Later the Punjab and Haryana High Court dismissed the case against Yo Yo Honey Singh citing that there was no objectionable content in his song and the version that had been available in YouTube was a doctored version by some trouble shooters. I am no legal expert to challenge the court verdict nor am a hyper moralist who would censure Honey Singh at least from my cultural sphere. In the age of mechanical ways to concoct reality, which Baudrillard qualifies as simulacrum, anybody could prove or disprove a reality simply by concocting for and against evidences based on the direction of the case. What I want to argue in this write up is this one liner that came to my mind today while listening to one of the Yo Yo Honey Singh songs in television. I said to myself: Yo Yo Honey Singh is not a disease. He is a symptom.

I would like to argue my case, or rather the explanation of that one liner in a few different ways: First of all I want to analyse the context in which Yo Yo Honey Singh and his songs become relevant or appealing to the mass or in other words, how this rapper’s songs imply the general tendencies of our present mass culture. Secondly, I would see how Yo Yo Honey Singh, the musician-singer-actor operates from within a particular cultural context still transcends the boundaries and becomes an international star through the very playing up of his own ambiguities. Thirdly, I would also like to go a bit in detail about why Yo Yo Honey Singh does not represent a sub-culture or a regional culture but uses the traits of sub-culture to be right in the middle of the popular culture. Before I launch myself into the thought process, I would like to tell you that I am not a researcher in the music culture of the masses hence my observations are based on my experience as a passive consumer of this mass culture. Besides, I am not a Yo Yo Honey Singh fan or scholar. However, my analytical mind has been seeking him out for a long time, perhaps from the first time I heard him a couple of years before in a local gym. The song was ‘Lak 28 Kudi da’. What attracted me in this song was not the shrill voice of a generic Punjabi popular singer (exceptions being Gurdeep Mann and Rabbi Shergil) but the ecstatic outburst of a female voice, ‘nghaa..’ it went like that.

(Shah Rukh Khan and Yo Yo Honey Singh in Lungi Dance still)

Wikipedia tells me Yo Yo Honey Singh is born in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, in 1983. He studied in Delhi and later studied music in Trinity College, London. He lived in Delhi for some years till he found a posh accommodation after success in a plush Gurgaon neighbourhood. He was a music arranger, then a DJ and finally he realized his real strength was in rapping. Hirdesh Singh aka Yo Yo Honey Singh has been around in the scene for the last ten years but he shot into fame, from the Punjabi DJs driven musical and dance nights and the local gyms to the Bollywood mainstream during the last three years. Getting his name associated with the mainstream Bollywood stars and music directors was the first step towards it. In a carefully played strategy, Yo Yo Honey Singh, worked through the cut throat music industry in India and reached the top of the charts and in the meanwhile had already bagged a few awards from Britain where the Punjabi diaspora makes anything Punjabi more than a hit. The latest story of Yo Yo baiting was Vishal Dadlani’s (of Vishal-Shekhar music director duo) disowning of his ‘Lungi Dance’ song in ‘Chennai Express’, the Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone starrer directed by Rohit Shetty. Vishal who had given music to the film and also sang the foot tapping number ‘1 2 3 4 Get on the Dance floor’ accused, like many others did at that time, Yo Yo Honey Singh of misogyny (after his controversial Balaatkaar song) and also said that ‘Lungi Dance’ by the rapper was a later addition to the film without the knowledge or consent of the music directors. It shows that the producers do not care much about the sentiments of the crew members, when it comes to big bucks. ‘1 2 3 4 Get on the Dance floor’ which had been the promotional song for Chennai Express in the initial days, was taken out from the promos and in its place the Lungi Dance song was used. It was one clear victory for Yo Yo Honey Singh, because he knew for the success of a movie, that too of the top star and top director of the Bollywood needed his voice. To underline his success, the Lungi Dance, penned and crooned by Yo Yo Honey Singh himself was re-shot and combination scenes between King Khan and the rapper were canned once again to add to the original print. Today, this version (in an old jargon, this re-mixed version) is used when Lungi Dance is given the airtime by the television channels and FM Radio channels.

(1 2 3 4 Get on the Dance floor still from Chennai Express)

I am not a sociologist however, at times as a writer it is imperative to use empirical data to argue a case which is popular in nature. Today, when I was watching the Lungi Dance song in television I found that the one and only King Khan was almost ‘sidelined’ by the presence of Yo Yo Honey Singh. In the combination shots, one has to really train the eyes to see King Khan on the left of the frame. I double checked it with the frames where King Khan and Deepika Padukone come together. I experienced/felt/saw that in those frames one’s attention remained on the jumping and thumping King Khan rather than on the tall, beautiful and rustically elegant presence of Deepika. Height of the heroine just did not affect the screen presence of a comparatively short King Khan (interestingly, in Chennai Express, his diminutive physical stature is a thing of self-ridicule against his contender for Deepika’s hand, Thangabali, played by a six and half feet tall actor, and again it is an irony played up against the belief that the Pathans are generally tall and hefty). But in the scenes where he is seen with Yo Yo Honey Singh, King Khan just disappears. That means Yo Yo Honey Singh has more screen presence than King Khan, which I would argue as a temporary screen presence but a real one.

The particular screen presence of Yo Yo Honey Singh, which I qualify as temporal but real, comes from our idea of seeing someone of the rapper’s reputation and talent within the given socio-cultural context, which interestingly is out of the politico-legal surveillance (except when it is called for by public demand). I would like to use another empirical data to see this presence in the right perspective. Today’s Hindustan Times newspaper has published so many reports about rape cases including the now hot Tarun Tejpal scandal. From the first page to the last, a cursory counting revealed that the word ‘sex’ is used around fifty times. When a word, which has been considered as a taboo till now finds ample amount of print space, it achieves a sort of neutrality where it’s connotations remain the same while the denotative meanings get submerged in overuse. This is good and bad at the same time. When the word sex is used as we use the words ‘chair’, ‘table’, ‘car’, ‘cinema’ and so on, it gains a sort of normalcy and also a sort of acceptance in the ‘decent’ crowd. It is good as the issues related to gender could be talked freely without attaching any kind of taboo to it. At the same time it is bad because, the overuse could kill its denotative meanings therefore its possible nuances and reducing it to a ‘normal’ thing therefore an offence related to it could turn into a ‘no-offence’. Emma L.E Reeves, the scholar who has written the latest book, ‘The Vagina’ also speaks the same idea when she analyses the origin and use of the word ‘cunt’ in different mediums and in different periods. While she says that the use of the word ‘cunt’ by woman with confidence it could be an act of reclamation of the power and abuse of power related to the word for and by its rightful owners.

(King Khan and Rapper, Akon on a stage)

Yo Yo Honey Singh naturalizes the taboos. The social context in which he operates does not take too much of an offence when he uses the taboo words liberally or expresses misogynistic ideas in his lyrics. He finds the social context automatically becomes a cultural context (with occasional outrages) and vice versa. Hence, he does not find it a problem to call a girl ‘a bomb’ or puns that cut across age and respectability of women. This social turning into cultural and vice versa must have become a necessary evil for the mass cultures to monetize its product. Had it been the singles that got Yo Yo Honey Singh his due attention and later the albums, despite the offensive lyrics he got his recognition from the cream of the popular cultural industry in India, the Bollywood. It is interesting to notice that there has been rappers adding to the regular crooning as a part of the changing complexion of the popular music for the last few years. First time it appeared via Appache Indian and Hard Caur in Indian popular music in the new millennium. The changing pace of the film narratives, mostly aiming at the impatient multiplex cine goers, facilitated by the new age film makers who revel in taboo stories, fast cutting and unconventional songs, made the mainstream film makers to follow the suit and the first major hit was from Ra-One of King Khan where rapper the American Rapper Akon sang Tu meri chammak jhallo for the robotic Khan in the sci-fi movie. It would be interesting to see that Akon (an alien singer with no Indian origin, unlike Appache Indian and Hard Caur) singing for the robot not for the human Khan. Even before that the famous black American Rapper, Snoop Dogg had crooned for Akshay Kumar in Singh is King. The alienation effect was re-iterated there by the intercutting of the singer’s image with the actor himself or bringing both of them together in the same frame but remember as a promotional strategy.

(Akshay Kumar and rapper Snoop Dogg in Singh is Kingg)

It is Akshay Kumar once again does the trick (interestingly not King Khan) in his Khiladi 786 with the Himesh Reshamiya as the music director, in which we see in the ‘Lonely lonely tere bin’ song, Akshay Kumar, Himesh Reshamiya and Yo Yo Honey Singh coming in the same song to promote this comically nasal song. Himesh Reshamiya here accepts the criticism against his voice as nasal and makes it a virtue. This song becomes a vehicle of recognition for not only the music director but also for the rapper and as we all know Akshykumar is not a singer but a ‘lipper’. But from the release of the movie in 2012 December, incidentally the same month the Nirbhaya issue came up, we see a gradual change in the aggressive posture of Yo Yo Honey Singh. In Khiladi 786, he goes along with the loneliness of the hero and the music director. But when it comes to Chennai Express, he plays up his aggression through the character of King Khan. He says, ‘Mere mood mein dance karega, kisi ke daddy ko na darage’ (I will sing my own tune and I will not be afraid of anybody’s father). He goes on to say that ‘mere bare mein Wikipedia mein pad lo or google kar lo’. Here he asserts his own position than that of King Khan. One need to google Khan to know more about him but it is always necessary to do a Wikipedia search on Yo Yo Honey Sing. But what interests me is Yo Yo Honey Singh’s own self-doubt when he plays with two Titans in the field; King Khan and Thalaiva (Leader/God) Rajni Kant. The lyrics go like this ‘This is the tribute to Thalaiva. From King Khan and the one and only yo yo honey singh’. I deliberately use the small cases to write his name here. If you listen the song carefully you could hear the intentional emphasis. While Thalaiva is pronounced as if it were a German word, the name King Khan is stated with the dignity it demands but when he says, ‘yo yo honey singh’ in a Punjabi accent, it sounds like an apology. But in my view, this is a deliberate strategy taken by the singer as he knows that it is his autobiography than a Tribute to Thalaiva. But through this down playing of his own name, he gets the endorsement of both Thalaiva and King Khan.

(Himesh Reshamiya, Akshaykumar and Yo Yo Honey Singh)

Yo Yo Honey Singh continues with the same strategy in his next film ‘Boss’ of Akshaykumar. When he reaches Boss, the rapper knows for sure that he is in demand but he does not want to burn out within that demand itself. So in the introduction song, he raps for Akshaykumar; ‘Mein apni tariff karoon’ (I will say some good words about myself), ‘Upar wale se na darun’ (I don’t even care God), ‘Hum Haryana kelauta king’ (I am the much liked king of Haryana), ‘Bahut hai apni fan following’ (Yet I have a lot of fan following), ... ‘Akshaykumar ho bhai hai apna/bol to sahi, photo kara dun’ (Akshaykumar is our brother, tell me shall I give an autograph). Here, Yo Yo Honey Singh (though he is not the lyricist here) gives an answer to King Khan blow by blow but puts the words neatly into the mouth of the hero himself. It is also autobiographical for him because while Akshay is a Punjabi from Old Delhi, Yo Yo Honey is Sing is a Punjabi-Haryana boy who had been even exempted from a possible crime by the High Court there. This clever play between autobiography and popular demand helps Yo Yo Honey Singh to establish his temporal position where the male chauvinist could dare anything and anybody (including God) provided money, muscle and law are on his side. Yo Yo Honey is accepted in such a cultural milieu. But in the same movie, Yo Yo Honey Sing, in the song, Party All Night comes out as himself in the lyrics at least and even boasts that the girls from Delhi and Haryana come for the party, they all carry Yo Yo Honey Singh CD with them to scorch the dance floor. The party will continue for long and the catch line is ‘aunty police bula legi’. Aunty will call police. That means he knows well that his words are offensive and his song and DJying is going to disturb the neighbour and the Aunty is going to call the police. ‘But still the party will continue all night’. Here one could see the disregard for an ‘aunty’ who suddenly becomes a sexually available woman but restrained by her age and her threat to call police is only a result of her jealous for the young crowd who are out there to enjoy ‘it’. Also, he says that even if the Police come the party is going to continue; means even Law cannot stop Yo Yo Honey Singh. In one of his recent private albums he asks a young girl to leave the class room, tell lies to parents as she is staying out and even her principal is a fan of ‘Yo Yo Honey Singh’.

(Yo Yo and his girls, from one of his private albums)

My second argument is that Yo Yo Honey Singh does not really represent a mass culture. His primary audience is the Punjabi mundas and kudis who understand his language. To give a wider space to him, I would say that it is the ‘new North India’ dominated by the Hindi-Punjabi speaking, politically and economically affluent classes that identify with Yo Yo Honey Singh. Even after studying in Trinity College, London, his Wikipedia page says that he prefers to sing in Punjabi. That is a good stance that he has taken but at the same time this identification with a particular language and a particular region makes this singer’s presence a bit problematic. But he transcends this problem by aligning himself with the mass culture dominated by the Punjabi-Pathan oriented aesthetics of Bollywood. He transcends his Punjabi language and region by singing for the masses (multiplex going and bar hitting masses who think about weekends, shopping brands and life style issues). So the Yo Yo Honey Singh phenomenon is a limited phenomenon though his presence has given birth to so many local Yo Yo’s in various regions and in their respective cultural industries. What makes his success in the industry ambiguous therefore interesting is that he at once identifies with his Punjabi-ness (through language), the affluent middle class youths’ aspirations (through his style, body language and lyrics) and an international community (through all kinds of identifiable symbols of urbane cool, luxury life and a sort of borderless liminal spaces of bar interiors, wide roads which could be in Arizona or in Amritsar, airport lounges, hotel rooms, dining halls and all sorts of nowhere-s). This is what exactly the mainstream Bollywood flicks produce as the urban culture that does not give any damn to God or Dad. Like Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) exclaims, Eh Gad, bad Dad.

(Legendary rappers, Biggie and Tupac Shakur)

I would like to end this article by turning my attention to the third and final argument which says that Yo Yo Honey Singh does not belong to any sub culture but the mainstream culture. There are certain writers or journalists who tend to position this singer as a representative of sub culture. Interestingly, they have mistaken the use of expletives and crude expressions as the emblems of a sub-culture. This misreading happens when we look at the history of rapping in the West, especially in the US. The Black music or the black American music which has taken various forms and has gone through various evolutions, basically had begun as chanting to pagan gods and later on wailing of the slaves. Their wailing and complaints took the form of music and slowly it became the expression of a covert protest. Rapping stood against the sweet, velvety music of the white, and during 1970s and 80s it got its evolution in black ghettos in Harlem and elsewhere in the US. This music of protest, rebellion and even defiance did not mind using expletives and cuss words when it spoke out the angst of the society. It did not speak the mainstream sentiments. It in fact attacked the mainstream sentiments as expressed by the Hollywood movies. This music evolved in ghettos, streets, barbar shops, chicken shops, drug dealing dens and brothels. This was the music of rebellion. The music industry found the potential of this different form of expression and pitted the first two exponents, Tupac Shakur and Biggie against each other and got them killed. While a parallel music industry developed funded by big thugs and warlords, the white world brought out a white rapper in Eminem and he brought rapping closer to the mainstream world in his movies like Seven Miles. He mentored another black rapper 50 Cent and a generation of rappers like Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Ice T and so on became mainstreamers in 1990s and 2000s. Rapping was a sub culture eventually co-opted by the mainstream.

 (Rapper, 50 Cent)

Yo Yo Honey Singh, except for his affinity for Punjabi language did not and does not stand for any sub-culture. The kind of sub culture that he portrays in his language and style are co-opted sub-cultures. For example the hair style and the heavy chains worn around the neck, the finger rings and so on are the stereotyping of the American Black culture. The black American wanted to show a sort of affluence even using illegal means to gain them in order to counter dream the Big American Dream of getting richer and richer. Even when they knew that they could not match up with the white chauvinistic world, they dreamt affluence differently. And they used abusive language to drive in a few facts not only to their own communities who primarily enjoyed rapping but to the white world. Yo Yo Honey sing just clones these attitudes in the mainstream urban rich culture of Delhi, Haryana, Chandigarh and the satellite cities like Gurgaon and Noida. His influences could go to Hoshiarpur, Amritsar and Ludhiana. Yo Yo Honey Singh does not address any sub cultures in India as seen in the Dalit Movements or Queer Movements or Environmental Movements or anything of that sort. He is a singer who has identified with the mainstream using the effective tools of the sub cultures. This is how the cultural industries do away with sub cultures. But such phenomena will keep coming up in regular intervals forcing even a lucky singer like Mika (who is a staple ingredient in current Bollywood music even though he is a limited singer with a different voice) to embrace Yo Yo Singh and getting a song recorded along with him. That’s why I say, Yo Yo Honey Sing is a temporal phenomenon but a real one.

Friday, November 29, 2013

My Public Diary 12: Whose Voice is to be Believed, Artist’s or the Critic’s?

(Artist Usha Ramachandran with her sculpture)

“Now tell us when you are free and in mood, whose aesthetic interpretation of a work should we go by when there are conflicting interpretations of a work--the artist's or the art critic. Especially when the artist is simple and down to earth and not good at elucidating ideas and the critic is extravagantly imaginative,” ask my artist friend, Usha Ramachandran. She is an artist who has devoted her life to capture her emotional responses to life in various mediums including drawing, painting and exquisitely modelled bronze sculptures. Older than me by many years, she keeps a young mind when it comes to art. Like a young enthusiast she engages with questions regarding art raised by people in private and public platforms. Even when she disagrees with your point of view, she poses it mildly without causing any hurt to anybody, but stands by her opinion with energy and clarity. Such energy and clarity are seen rare even amongst the artists younger by age. Hence, I find it is extremely important to answer the question raised by her. As quoted above, the question is: Whose view is ‘the’ right view, of the artist’s or of the imaginative critic?

I remember a view expressed by a contemporary artist on one such occasion. He said: Once freed from the studio of the artist, a work of art takes to its own trajectory, finding meanings and leaving interpretations possibilities till it finds it resting place in a collection or a museum. Though the commentator avoids mentioning about the agency of people who helps a work of art travel from one place to another, the implication is quite apparent. There are people who help the work to find its own path; they are the critics, gallerists, buyers, dealers, collectors and now the new tribe called curators. In each step facilitated by these agents of meaning production both spiritual and economic or in other words, intrinsic and extrinsic meanings, a work of art behaves in a very flexible manner without disputing such meaning generations, at times succumbing to the negative pressures and at times finding wings to soar further high. This flexibility of a work of art opens up its possibility as a visual text capable of generating multiple meanings often not intended by the artist himself or herself.

Text is the key word here. A freed work of art from the clutches of the artist/studio is a text. A text carried as an implied meaning as intended by the artist. But the intended or revealed meaning of a work of art as seen within the confines of an artist’s studio is the primary meaning therefore a visual code or clue. A work of art in this sense, is a text containing one or more clues. As the artist does not work from a vacuum, his very meaning production through the creation of a visual text itself is the result of the artist’s effort to contain contesting ideas or experiences in a one comprehensive and aesthetically logical visual clue. That means, a work of art in itself is a negation of various meanings, which struggle for manifesting in the work of art. Had it been a verbal text the artist could have accommodated several meaning at one go through various characters, incidents, plots and subplots. The biggest problem faced by a visual artist is that he has to work from within the limitation of a single moment, even if the work shows the tendency of being narrative. Either it is a decisive moments, painted, sculpted, captured and documented or it is a series of decisive moments spread around one singular point of departure. Raising of one point over the other/s in effect results into the obfuscation of the other points or moments in a work of art. While literature also leaves spaces for further interpretations, it becomes a bit more ‘liberal’ in the case of a visual work of art.

This is where we talk about sub-texts. Each reading of a work of art by a critic (informed or not) or a common art lover, or in that case by anybody who happens to spend a few minutes on it, is the production of a subtext. Here, this critic or the viewer is not an innocent person absolutely coming from a vacuum. He/she too comes with a set of acquired knowledge and experience which automatically functions as a key to unpack the given text. As we have seen that the given text is the negation of several texts in favour one, the reading of it becomes at once an acceptance of the intended text and the negation of it. The whole effort of the viewer is to subconsciously negate the diktat of the artist/author and find his/her own text there. This again happens as a series of negations; first the negation of the intended meaning/text and the replacing of it with several subtexts. Even the selection of the subtexts cannot be a crowding affair. There the viewer chooses one of his preferred meanings which could either go by the author’s intentions or by his own knowledge and experience. Hence, the reading of a work of art (as it is seen as a text), is the negation of authorial intentions and consecration of the readerly intentions. In other words, a writerly text turns into a readerly one and in the process, it ones again becomes a writerly text or subtext. It happens like a chain of fissions and that is how the reading of a work of art proliferates.

Now, one may ask how then ‘a certain kind of reading’ or meaning making takes predominance over other meaning making efforts and comes to have a canonical presence. It depends on the right of speaking; who says what and when and also why. If the author is supposed to be the sole authority of a particular research and his work of art is the result of such a scholastic effort and in a given context if none is capable of challenging such erudition, naturally the verbal explanations accompanying a work of art direct the reading of it. The artist may speak for himself or even through a catalogue writer (not necessarily a critic), or a gallerist or a dealer. They all tend to repeat the scholarship of the author/artist as their tools are limited to interpret or challenge the meaning which has been already intended by the artist. In a different scenario, we see a viewer or a reader confronts a text with equal or better erudition on the given field of research within the given context and reads out a new meaning or cancels out an intended meaning. Hence, I would say, reading of a work of art is a sort of power game. It is a relationship between two or more power centres; author claiming his right to hold his meaning and the reader challenging it. While the former scenario where the artist is near to God in knowledge of the given, the reader yields to the artist’s authority and in the second scenario in subtle or aggressive ways, he questions the authority of the artist. An informed critic, while reserving his praises for the authorial intentions, reveals the chinks in those intentions and creates a new meaning in his critical intervention. However, such critical interventions do not cancel out the very existence of the work of art. Instead, it becomes an event, a point of departure that spurs too many events around it.

In any situation, creation of a work of art and reading of it or interpreting of it is a political act. What I mean by political is not in the conventional sense of pragmatic politics. This politics is about the ideology of self or rather idea and ideal of the self. How does the self negotiate past, present and try to cross over to the future. Even in the choicest expressions, unintentional ideologies could crop up as the artist is subconsciously driven by such ideological forces. It appears like a slip of the tongue that goes unnoticed. But it gets noticed in another political act, the act of reading and understanding a work of art. As I mentioned before, the viewer also does not come from a vacuum. He has his own conscious and subconscious ideological leanings which lead him towards the production of a meaning which is totally different from that of the artist.

There are three main aspects when it comes to the creation and understanding of a work of art. First of all, a work of art is an intentional and unintentional text at once so is the reading of it. So one cannot claim authority over the other in a given ideal situation. Two, it is a power game pertaining to the right to speak as well as to be heard. In this both the artist and the viewer participate in this game for power and prominence. But interestingly, both are not cancelled out in the process. However, one gets dominance over the other in a given situation which is prone to change when the situation and context change. It may take even centuries for such changes to happen. Three is the ideological negotiations of the artist as well as the viewer with the past, present and future. Some ideologies are so strong that they become myths that are hardly challenged by any. It happens both with the ideology of the artist as well as that of the reader. This myth is also prone to be deconstructed with the changing times; but the difference is unlike the second scenario, even the myth is challenged and reinterpreted for changed times by readerly intentions and creation of subtexts, the myths once created remains to be a myth, therefore a starting point for newer interpretations. The artists need not necessarily be vocal even when the critics are hyper imaginative. The mutual cancellation is simultaneously mutual rediscovery. I can say this much that in this process the artist and the viewer get constantly re-discovered, at times vigorously and at other times in very subtle ways. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

My Public Diary 11: Two Artists and Two Philosophical Issues of Life

She asks me why she is not mentioned as the disciple of a particular guru, in my essay written for her catalogue, as I had mentioned a few others so in their catalogue essays, again written by me. I ask her whether it was a complaint or a compliment. She says, neither. Still she wonders, why. I tell her that if she really wants to be qualified so I could add a line or two to that effect. But she says, no.

I feel that I owe an explanation to her. So I tell her that whenever I see the works done by students under that particular art guru, they all tend to work like him. That’s quite natural, I add. But it becomes really curious when female students also work in the same way; masculine bodies, male point of views, dark backgrounds and so on. Is there a woman’s visual language and man’s visual language, she asks. I say, yes, there is. As language, visual or verbal, is a medium of expression the gender gets inscribed within the body of the text. What about the neutral subjects like still life and compositions, she probes. Even those genres could have gender inscriptions, I tell her. She looks at me with her unbelieving eyes.

I tell her the story of another artist who had come to meet me a month back with her works. She too was from the same school and taught by the same guru. She paints household utensils, vegetables, bathroom taps and so on as her predominant imageries. I find it interesting because she stands quite distinct from other disciples of the same guru. She told me that she was quite meditative. And for her meditation does not mean sitting in one place or concentrating on something. She found peace and harmony when she worked in kitchen, tidied up the rooms, washed clothes, cut vegetables, looked after her infant baby and painted at night when the baby slept.

Even if she had not told me about all these, I would have still made out that the works were done by a woman. There is a different sensitivity about a woman’s language, visual or verbal. V.S.Naipaul recently made a statement that he could tell the gender of author by reading a first few lines of a text. He received flak for his comments because he said it in a condescending fashion. He thought women were inferior writers. When I say that I could sense the gender of the author of a visual text from the embedded gender specification, I do not make a condescending statement. I congratulate myself that at least I could discern the sensibilities expressed in the visual text.

But I find it a problem when women artists work like male artists. Speaking strictly from the perspective of a visual language, one need not give much attention to the inscribed gender within the expression. Most of the artists argue that they are not here to produce a male language or a female language. They produce a language which is gender neutral. But no language is gender neutral. If some women artists are employing the language of a male guru, then I would say, that the students are not able to transcend the rules of teaching. In Zen stories it is said that one could use a boat to cross the river, once crossed it is not necessary to carry the boat on the shoulders; may be one could keep the memory of it with some amount of gratitude.

My artist friend says that she is not influenced by her guru therefore she is not reproducing his language. I tell her that even that is a false argument because the primary principle about learning is the amount of influence that one gets from his/her teacher or from the immediate surroundings. She tells me that when she joined the institution she was absolutely a novice and did not know how to do a composition decently. Hence, she started looking upto the guru for the perfecting of language. He is a perfectionist, she says. I agree and ask her whether she has seen the works of other gurus to which the answer is a no. I ask her to see more gurus so that she could transcend the teaching of the first guru. Also I tell her that the idea of perfection or perfect language is just illusionary on the one hand and on the other, it is quite relative. It depends on how much you are exposed to the world of linguistic perfection. And for me perfection is something comes with an awareness of defect; awareness does not mean that one should be conscious of the defect outweighing the assumed perfection. Perfection becomes appealing when the awareness defect adds a virtual value to it. At times, may be an apparent defect could also heighten the sense of perfection.

She asks me if it is a problem to aspire for that language of perfection and I tell her that there is no problem to it. But the issue is that once you learn the grammar you should be able to perform a language without its grammar also. Pushing the possibilities of the grammar and almost making it look like without any grammar is the success of any art. But the primary requirement is knowing the grammar well. When you are stuck with the beauty of grammar what you could become maximum is a grammarian and even the best grammarians in the world start their thesis with an apology that I am not a grammarian, because grammar is a rule and it also presents the possibility of breaking that rule and coming back to its safe havens. It is exactly like a musician with a genuine felicity to sing. He/She may belong to a particular school (gharana) of singing. But he/she becomes a distinct music personality only when he/she breaks the grammar and comes back to its protection off and on. It helps the language to flow, grow and flourish.

Are you trying to question my guru, she asks. I say, no. There is no problem with the guru. Guru is supposed to be like that and that is why he is called a guru. Guru is a person who has been grounded in his own language. He has moved enough till he decided to roost in one place. So he does not have any problem to be a guru. Is there a problem with the disciples, she continues. I say, there is no problem with the disciples either because the schools and gurus ask the disciple to function from within the grammar and idea of perfection. And the gurus at the same time know that only when the disciple breaks the grammar without asking for permission he/she becomes and independent artist. So it is guru’s job to show the way, but it does not come under his prerogative to push you out of the way. It is your job. Then there should be a problem with the school, she says. I tell her that don’t worry about the school either. The school in itself is not a problem. School exists because there is a guru and disciples. When guru vanishes school also vanishes. When disciples vanish, then also a school vanishes. Hence, it is a three pronged relationship. Guru, disciples and school, they together make the problem and the solution also is embedded in the problem itself. Once you come out of it, once transcend the boundaries, once you break the rules of grammar, and once you kill the guru in you, you are liberated to reach your language.

 I do not know whether she is convinced or not. She looks at me and smiles. I look at her and smile. She pays for my time and energy and takes leave. Then I get a phone call from another artist friend. She is in a Eureka mood. She has finally found out her problem. She has been an imaginary invalid all these years. Now she has found the root cause of her pain. She says that she is helped by a plastic surgeon turned psychologist; in fact his book. While reading it, she tells me, she found out there were three kinds of people; one, who attached their personalities with the defect they have, like a mole, wart, or a pair of protruding ears or a bulbous nose. These people, once the defects are removed by plastic surgery, gain a lot of self-confidence and become new people. Two, the people who attach their personalities with the defects and still remain the same bitter people after getting the defects removed by plastic surgery. Three, the people with no defects but still behave as if they have some defects and mold their personalities according to the defects. She says, she has been there in the third category all these while. Now she could come out of it as she realized that there was no defect in her.

You too belong to the third category, she jokes. I say, no. I am like God, perfect with an awareness of defect that makes me complete. She says, no, you are Amitabh Bacchan, the angry young man. I say, then I would be stabbed at stomach when I am at the peak of my career. She suddenly goes silent. I could listen her breathing. Then we laugh as if life was more interesting than art.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Another Tehelka Story and Tarun Tejpal

I wonder what Mathew Samuel thinks today? Or in that case Aniruddh Bahl; the architects of ‘Operation West End’, the famous sting operation conducted by Tehelka in 2000-2001. Tarun Tejpal was the captain of boardroom; Aniruddh Bahl was the chief strategist and Mathew Samuel, the secret agent on ground camouflaged in the garbs of a journalist. There were too many side characters in the drama; I was one among them. The well oiled secret machine of investigative journalism worked 24x7 at Tehelka’s Soami Nagar office. Minty Tejpal, the brother of Tarun Tejpal was giving Tehelka a new edge; the edge of popular culture. Inside the first floor office, things looked absolutely cool. Tehelka was daring enough to run a semi-porn literature channel. I used to wonder why a young woman journalist always surfed for porn sites. Later I came to know that Tarun was pushing the limits of journalism. Geetan Batra, Tarun’s wife was planning to set up a fulltime art website. In an adrenaline driven context, everyone looked perfectly happy except for persistent existentialists like me and a few others. We, the young journalists of Tehelka drank ‘banta’, a locally made soda from the only shop adjacent to the building.

Today people talk about self-righteousness of Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Choudhury. Tehelka had all reasons to be self-righteous at that time. It had revealed the cricket gate and it was covertly moving towards a big catch. Tehelka journalists worked with a sense of purpose. I remember Safar Agha, the benevolent senior journalist who planned the stories for the day. Ever philosophical Parsa Venkateswara Rao Sr, and his enthusiastic brother Parsa Venkateswara Rao Jr. Today’s star journalist Verghese K.George, sceptical Charu Soni, poetic Nabanita, silently rebellious Ajitha GS, enigmatic Proteeti Banerjee, sports specialist Shamya Dasgupta, happy Kunal Chuhan, differently troubled photographer Iqbal MK, Arun Bhanot and Kajal Basu were the constant presences. The team was really good. They knew it was a new organization with a mission and they were all proving their mettle there. Tarun Tejpal came to the desk once in a while, tall, handsome, smiling and animated like a commander. Shoma was always in tow. At least I knew, who was the second in command. It was not Geetan or Kajal Basu.

The self righteousness of Tehelka came not from posturing but from hardcore journalism. My training in political journalism was minimal but the team work helped me to find the right stories at the right time. Whenever a good story came from my desk, Tarun Tejpal congratulated me with a smile. I used to feel a misfit there as my mind was elsewhere in art. So whenever I got a chance to do an art story, I was more than happy. I was rebellious in certain ways still I liked the way Tarun Tejpal and his team pushed the limits. The Tehelka tag gave me some kind of elation but I was looking for the right opportunity to quit. Insubordination came from my side on two occasions. One, when Amitabh Bacchan, who was said to be one of the board members of Tehelka (or honorary advisor, I don’t remember), visited office. Everyone jostled around to take a photograph with him. Some tall guys in the office even went near to him on some pretext to measure their heights with him and feel that secret happiness of matching with his tallness. Finally there was a group photo opportunity. I refused to stand in the group and take a photograph with the great actor. Tarun noticed it but did not say a thing.

The second occasion was a bit more serious. I used to get irritated when some of my stories got sidelined or severely edited. Arun Bhanot and Kajal Basu were the editors. They were really helpful. But I was getting restless. One night, I came back to the office a bit drunk. I screamed at Kajal Basu. He gave me his cool smile. In a huff I walked out. Next morning, Tarun called for a meeting of all staff members. I knew it was a judgement day for me. But Tarun did not say a word about my misbehaviour. He just said to all this much: We expect some sense of dignity and decency from all members in the team. I hope all will remember this. The meeting was over in a few minutes. I didn’t know whether it was a corporate strategy or an indirect way of asking me to leave. I wanted to walk out on the same day if it was what he wanted. I spoke to Geetan and she said Tarun did not find me offensive at all and in office situations such things happened once in a while. My respect for Tarun increased though I left Tehelka within a few months after they came out in light with the West End operations.

When I read about Tarun’s stepping down from the chief-editor’s post, in Hindustan Times’ report, my first reaction was, ‘wonderful’. Here is an editor whom I admire for his courage and straightforwardness, has taken done something only Gandhiji could have done in the present day scenario. Later when I spoke to some of my journalist friends, they also said the same thing about the news. But, in the evening when I realized the gravity of the situation, I was literally shattered. I am not interested whether Tarun is protected by the Congress or opposed by the BJP for their political ends. But what pains me today is the fall of a man from his own standards and ideals. I do not even doubt the sincerity of his apologies not only to the victim and the managing editor but also to the whole world. But beyond all apologies, the sour truth of misusing power and position persists and that renders Tarun a fallen man and predator in the public eye though even his bitterest detractors tend to believe otherwise.

A man having multiple affairs or indulging in consensual sex is not a great crime. Forget the age difference; love and sex could happen at any age. But the problem arises when a person like Tarun Tejpal forces himself on a helpless woman who is not only incapacitated by her lower position in the organisation but also by her proximity with the predator and his family and all those moral and ethical problems attached to it. The gravity of the crime increases when it is attempted twice both times with violence, force and threat. Tarun can save face only by surrendering himself to law and its consequences and that could perhaps save him from his ultimate doom. A politician can stage a comeback even after committing several crimes including molestation and rape because people accept it as the routine of cut throat political realty. But journalists with a public face are the check dams of the final erosion of social and political values. If dents appear in them, people will not pardon even if they do, they will not forget. So long as they do not forget, even if Tarun comes out unscathed from this case, his words will carry no weight. What a tragedy for a writer like Tarun Tejpal.

Today, the media’s morally agitated reactions against Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Choudhury do not stem from this case alone. This is the release of an anger and irritation that have been suppressed by many so far. If you see the pattern of the unveiling of the story and the debate in news channels, it is very clear that the anger is not ‘exactly’ on Tarun but it is ‘spot on’ Shoma Choudhury. It is not just because Shoma tries to protect her ‘boss’ through constant changing of statements but because everyone feels that it was not Tarun but Shoma who has been calling the shot in Tehelka and its ‘highlighted’ self righteousness. Shoma has been vocal of gender politics and she even qualifies herself as a ‘feminist’. Though you may say that finally, as fitting to a male dominated society I am shifting the burden on Shoma’s shoulders, I do not mind saying that Shoma’s claim to fame is Tehelka brand, publication house and now the Think fest in Goa. Sincerely speaking, when it comes to socio-political or gender issues, I as a reader, have never referred to this journalist’s writings or views because I know there are real feminists and activists out there than Shoma Choudhury.

The anger that the media feel towards Tarun is routed through Shoma. Slowly, she has become the real culprit who has made attempts to perpetrate the crime by shielding Tarun. Her actions may be driven by her sincerity in protecting her organization, protecting her position or even protecting her personal feelings. In this effort, she has become the real villain. When I think that it was not hardcore journalism but the capitalist dream of liberal economy through democratic facade that had led both Tarun and Shoma, I feel bad. I feel how a just act could have a nefarious plot. However, I do not believe that Tehelka’s ideals were wrong in the beginning. All what it had done in terms of sting operations and exposes were inspired by responsible journalism, social justice and political correctness. Along the way it has lost it all. Tarun’s act is emblematic of that fall and the illusionary belief of invincibility that power provides. Still I wonder, what would be the reaction of Mathew Samuel?

Post Script: A few months back I met Tarun Tejpal in a private party. It was after almost twelve years that we met first. I thought he would avoid me as I had quit from Tehelka without citing a reason. But he was very cordial and spoke to me for a few minutes and to my surprise he knew what I have been doing all these days. Tarun may not bounce back as an ethical journalist. But I am sure his atonement lies in a prolonged underground life and staging a coming back with an autobiography; a book of confessions.