Culture, culture on the wall...


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CULTURE is a word that quakes and trembles today. People in their forties and fifties are worried about it. They talk of culture as if it has caught a cold, gone tubercular or just attended a biopsy. I love the fear and trembling model of culture. It smacks of nostalgia. It reminds me of my grandfather.

My grandfather oozed high culture and wrote a book on the ‘Grammar of South Indian Music’ that would have made any Calvinist or Brahmo happy. He had trained his yawns to emanate as ragas and when he yawned at night, children knew it was time to hide. He willed his grandchildren his prized stradivarius. Not one of them accepted the offer and I believe a pair of mice eventually lived happily in it.

It was not the ‘strad’ we objected to, it was my grandfather. But in my mind both were intertwined: the classical power and that whiff of authoritarianism. This culture was what you did in drawing rooms. It was exquisite, fragile, well-behaved, even a shade brahmanic. It was official and it reprimanded all those who read comic books. I loved comics and Shakespeare. I would recite reams of Macbeth, but Donald Duck and Tom and Jerry were characters from my midsummer night’s dream.

References to culture sounded sonorous. I still remember President Radhakrishnan defining the purpose of culture as ‘to educate, to entertain and to elevate the spirit of man.’ It was only later that I discovered that culture was anything you did and thought. It was not just an anthropological definition for tribal societies but for the tribal in me. I found it tremendously liberating to have Shakespeare and Mad Magazine cheek by jowl. But I must admit that this classic notion of culture had strengths. Officially, it was painful but domestically it was fun. Culture was something everyday from the rangoli or kollam you did (no one went to finishing school), the food you cooked (Tarla Dalal would have been a non-event), to the music you learnt. You just grew with it. It blended with religion, ritual, food and festival. I still remember Bismillah insisting his shehnai didn’t sound right till it had the flavour of kebabs in it. Maybe this culture was horribly gendered. Remember it was a world where boys did science and girls home-science. The icons were clear-cut – Tagore, Ravi Shankar, MS, DK, Balasaraswati, Semangudi.

There were no special music critics. Every consumer was his own discerning critic, citing chapter and verse from earlier performances. The folklore of music was as refined as that of cricket. Every performance of MS had its followers, its lore as detailed and obsessive as that of cricket. I can still hear my father talking of the first time MS sang as a young girl at a marriage festival. He was assigned the task of bringing her to the pandal.

Culture like politics was consensual and culture like the Indian National Congress had its greats. One knew them, lived them, recognized them and respected them. The nadaswaram at the temple, the Nehru cap, Hamlet, the Conjeevaram sari, the veena and the sitars – each had its immaculate, iconic place. There were minor disturbances. The nouveau riche still entered at the wrong time and clapped at the wrong places. These were minor irritants becoming jokes which were passed again and again like the story of the socialite who asked the scientist C.V. Raman, ‘Believe you have something to do with diamonds?’ True it was also elitist. We were ecstatic about Bharatnatyam after Rukmini Arundale had poured antiseptic on it and we knew little about the mythic power of Terrukoothu.

Today all this sounds like nostalgia but remember nostalgia is a particular kind of ritual. It mourns that which isn’t fully dead. It is not death that nostalgia mourns but demographic decline. But nostalgia also kills because it refuses to recognize and understand the new. When it hears the new raga of Iliya Raja, it mourns for the lost record of Pattamal. Nostalgia is not the grief for the old but the dirge for the new which in turn is tone deaf to its grief. Talk nostalgically of T.N. Krishnan’s first music academy performance and the new generation belts out ‘Who wants yesterday’s newspaper?’



In some ways, there are strange similarities between the classical culture and the Congress. Both of them were happily contradictory and encouraged mixed and parallel economies. You went to the Gwalior festival, listened to Lata Mangeshkar, and vibed with Ellington and the Beatles. They were rituals for separate places and you also had coping rituals. You were dismissive about Hindi movies but could not resist seeing them a fourth time. Nargis and Madhubala were still pristine faces. Filmfare dismissed them but you merely went to see what the excitement was about or you justified it by saying Vyjanthi had classical Bharatnatyam training. Or you saw Sholay for the eighth time to see how Sippy had imitated Kurosawa. A few ritual japams to Kurosawa excused your enthusiasm for a tall, young star with a classical baritone. But even there one asked, wasn’t he Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s son and hadn’t he acted in the Shakespeare society plays?



The classical culture had its own theory of violence. The Mahabharata was the paradigm but it was the attitude of spectators rather than warriors that was relevant. Sanjaya more than Karna or Arjuna was the hero, the first detached commentator.

The old ‘culture’ lost to a new consensus, which was more open and tolerant. No one today can ignore the democratic role of the Hindi movie. Dismissed for years as populist, sentimental, surreal, fraudulent, imitative, the Hindi movie offered the first real frame for cultural democracy. It merged classical and folk, it stole from Hollywood and yet made fun of the English. It upheld law and order but realized that love went beyond it. It upheld the myths of upward mobility. It recognized the intellectual death of village and the power of the city long before our social scientists and politicians. It was the classical upholder of ethnic identity and yet defended the citizenship of Amar, Akbar and Anthony.

In fact it was the newspaper, the English ones, that were both elitist and official. The newspaper as landscape protected official frames and categories. For example, The Hindu was the greatest exponent of Science, State and Nation. Science was central; the folk arts were confined to Sunday supplements. The Hindi movie editorialized from a plurality of perspectives. Its theory of doubles would accommodate the dualisms of urban/rural, criminal/legal, official/unofficial but the newspaper through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s reflected the statist consensus committed to modernization, nationalism and security.

The English newspaper was the official mask while the Hindi movie played the happy unconscious ready to engage with any contradiction. Laughed at, laughable, it represented the cultural consensus of a democratizing society when the brahmanic idea of culture was turning repressive and arid. What was utterly fascinating was the Hindi movies’ approach to violence. It saw violence as a ritual of culture, as a consequence of the feud, an act of revenge. Hindi movies never took class violence seriously. Marxism was a poor theory of revenge, a poor narrative about the recovery of honour. Secondly, by ritualising violence it controlled it, like the stylized fight or the ritual closure as the police arrive on the scene.



But even the Hindi movie with its Roberts and Amitabhs, its Latas and Burmans was incapable of coping with the emerging global paradigm. The work of Rahman or Rakesh Roshan were desperate innovative leaps which show that the consensus is broken, that the NRI has taken over from the Indian citizen. The myth of the diaspora, the story of successful Indian migrants winning prizes at everything from banking exams and spelling bees to science quizzes reflects the end of the Hindi movie as consensus. The Hindi movie is a celebration of nostalgia. The innovations of Ghai and Desai can no longer provide the mythic consensus that democracy and mobility need.

I feel the Hindi movie will collapse like the Indian Congress. It can no longer provide something for everybody. Its constituency will fragment like the Congress – the Dalits, Muslims, OBCs each finding their own form of political entertainment. The cinema theatre will be a thing of the past and it will be put to better use in other real estate exercises. Maybe as a video centre, cybercafe, a fast food joint or even a pool table. Today’s cinema audiences will split into a series of entertainment constituencies. The A.R. Rahmans and Rajiv Menons will have to produce designer movies for separate niches.

Just as the magazine trade is niching into separate readerships, the movie world also will also fragment. The India Today equivalent of the movie will be difficult to invent. The mythic power of the Hindi movies will be taken over by soap opera TV, stage shows as happenings, cricket matches. What we now face is a world where neither elite culture, nor mass culture nor folk culture is alive and thriving.



Neither classical culture or cinematic culture have a paradigm for the emerging violence. It is the relation between the new kitsch and violence that we must understand. Violence here offers no resolution or redemption. It cumulates in a fragmented form without ritual control. Let us also be clear that this is not the violence of fascism. It is fragmentary violence that cumulates geologically and behaves tectonically. It is a violence hidden by our boyscout sentimentality or security management concepts.

Violence in the city is like fragments in film, but the city overall is an unfilmable film. The forms of violence juxtapose each other. There is the communal riot, rape, incest, disaster, displacement, the sheer survival of slum. No myth holds all of them; only kitsch can and does and kitsch is debased myth. What we face are a new cast of characters – fundamentalists with MBAs, terrorists in finance capital, diasporic revivalists, paramilitary cultural groups, NGOs and mercenaries, cops applying draconian laws along with the incendiarism of unemployed youth and Ph.D plugged to cyberspace. It has a boyscout adolescence. Kitsch celebrates the new violence of the city struggling under old myths. The statistics are there in cyberspace but the cyber relief stops there. Westside Story in Hindi or Kung-fu rituals or even older cinematic criminality has little to say about this violence. There is no theory, no frame holding it.



The fragmentation one sees, the transit subcultures, the desperate hybridizations are all a part of this anomie. Filmi space was a whole that cyberspace as a mindset has broken. We face today an insurrection of constituencies without a powerful mythic consensus. The fragment is all and the fragment is celebrated as a totalizing icon till the next release. Central to the recovery is a new imagination for the city that must work for the new idea of culture to work. Hybridized or hyphenated music, the cybercages are all transient experiments. The city will have to invent varieties of cultural entertainment as homes will get smaller, transport more difficult, energy more expensive. The city will be caught between boredom and violence and our cultures have no response to this urban violence.

Nostalgia, religion, shuffling of cultures, rise of new sects or fascist cadres might provide alternatives to the movie and the newspaper. At a time when we need consensus most, the newspaper, the Congress and the Hindi movie will fail us. Our belief that Indian civilization will digest this new invasion, will add to the crisis. Maybe involvement in violence or authoritarianism will provide new forms of involvement.

It is this wider picture rather than the idiocies of Gulshan Kumar, TOI supplements, music mixes, empty socialites, the idiocy of fashion shows, that frightens one. The transit cultures of today have no answer to this cultural anomie while living off it.