There is hell to be had

The Filter

People are mostly helpless, mostly tangled and messy. Irresponsible with our lives. With others’ lives too. We repeatedly falter. This, our human condition. This word—irresponsibility, and its consequent aftermath: failing, is what art concerns itself with. Not all art. But some—the majestic ones, which also respect immediacy of experience. I mean the full panoply of experience, warts and all. Mostly warts. Festering wounds, jetsam of our deviancy and our punishments. Majestic because only such art is able to bridge the gap between the fantastic and the material. In such forms, our dreams and nightmares get stitched with our hourly slavishness, our moments of hard toil. Those who are immersed in this endeavour—artists and connoisseurs, may seem detached and unmoved at first glance. But actually their canvasses throb with life—with life’s abandonings, ennui, and its brute moments.

And then sometimes, only sometimes, a heroic rising from that sense of acute pessimism by letting oneself and one’s creations pass through the abject. Always by passing. There is no shortcut. This passing is like a purgatory, a filter if you like. This is a streak—in Aeschylus and in Dante, in Gauguin and Ramkinkar we see this work. When it was alleged his plays revealed the Eleusinian mysteries, Aeschylus took refuge in the altar of Dionysius. And The Libation Bearers would announce: “But, as a beam balances, so/Sudden disasters wait, to strike/Some in brightness, some in gloom.” In Muktibodh and Binoy Majumdar, in different ways, we witness a distilled version that emerges after traversing life’s purgatories. Taslima Nasreen, with her many failings, will live because she squares her sense of social justice with an equal sense of squeezing out the last drop of life’s bounties. A full life and a fuller expression of that living. Her poetry is a particular case in point: “The toll of life, bearing this talent-sin/This trudge, dislodging stone after stone, every single day.” A real artist will square with herself, with a restlessness that develops out of a sense of being always at historical and personal crossroads, which at times is also a performance of sorts. You do not commit treachery with this urge to square.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A real artist will square with herself, with a restlessness that develops out of a sense of being always at historical and personal crossroads[/pullquote]

The fallout, the art object that arises out of such a steeling process, is where reality shimmers with a certain incandescence. It appears suddenly in front of us in its grandeur and ugliness. Stark. That is what disturbs all order. The starkness of Antigone’s acts. Or Blake’s Laocoon, when its re-coding of the struggling contortions and agony, bursts forth into that terrible prophecy. There is no distortion of historical reality in such art—just a refracted form of it, with an excess force that is hard to map, but its power felt and striking. For the social sciences, which consist of responsible people, fairness is the chief concern. Even when one deals in social and political unfairness—the issue of justice is hard to avoid. It is a significant concern, but it falls short of addressing our relentless, inevitable back and forth between what is social and what is asocial, antisocial and finally cosmic.

The Institutions

No way can one justify the pursuit of art with any form of success. So, first of all let us keep that aside. Unambiguously. As I have said, art and literature nourish a dogged pursuit to fail, dwindle and vanish. To be with those who are destined to lose. This drive affects art, even while indulging in more surpassing moulds of pleasure (catharsis, jouissance). Institutions, on the other hand, will always have a sense of success and responsibility imbued within them, howsoever public and democratic their raison de etre might be. In the West, that starts with Aristotle’s Lyceum—which had a serious social aim.[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]great visionaries who have given a lifetime to the creative imagination—Tagore, Ivan Illich, Romain Rolland[/pullquote] There are similar aims in other great visionaries who have given a lifetime to the creative imagination—Tagore, Ivan Illich, Romain Rolland. The Medicis or the Habsburgs in Vienna have been exemplary in this regard. Or at a slight remove, even Lenin or Nehru in the last century patronized culture. On a more subterranean level, the influence of royal, princely aesthetics and a cosmopolitan ‘collector’s sensibility’ on Indian cinema, tourism and popular culture has been enormous. So, at one end of the spectrum, the politics of art is connected with a certain kind of institutionalizing of art. Chapels and temples and sangharams and their patrons have tried to harness the artistic impulse. Universities, libraries, theatres and coffeehouses made art polite, rational, virtuous and therefore, detached from its gravity and levity alike. We have moved at best from churches to charitable foundations and endowments. These changes did secularize things and made the ‘discourse’ critical but the price of that very criticality has been to look askance at art’s power, which is actually political in a far wider sense.

Pronounced social aim, paradoxically, has often diminished art’s excesses and silences. The whole edifice stands on a singular idea: commitment to culture, which has little to do with art. For instance, rhetoric as a political tool is vital for any litterateur or an orator. This, an ideologue might overlook or be suspicious of. Art is not a discourse or a field where we intervene, save in a very limited sense. See, artists are often poor people—literally. So they need patrons—state or market or plain philanthropy. The financiers have their own motive—responsibility, commissioning, profit, display. We cannot so easily be judgmental about money or fame. In fact, many great artists knew exactly how to do well in life—Shakespeare being the greatest example. He bought multiple houses and further property in and around Stratford. Competition and social climbing among artists is a given just like in any another conglomerate. We really have to be careful before we get on the high horse of political righteousness. But politics is about taking a principled partisan position regardless, not plain expediency. It is also not about personal enmity or grudge or scheming.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]artists are often poor people. So they need patrons—state or market or plain philanthropy. The financiers have their own motive—responsibility, commissioning, profit, display[/pullquote]

In this context, the word poverty also comes with a different kind of valence, as a very powerful metaphor. You cannot fall in love unless your heart is insolvent, naive, giving. Bereft of pettiness. Yes, most of all, pettiness of thought. Political art, first of all, is direct and large in antagonism, chiseled by sieving oneself of verbiage and flab and our egotistic selfhood. Poetry, epic, romance—all these genres ferry us to the mandala of destitution. This great motif of poverty is to cleanse and detach ourselves even as we extract pleasure or fight our way through life. And by doing so, we actually steel our heart and soul for other, more worldly battles. That is the first step toward becoming political.

Why? Because no antagonist can touch you then, which often includes our friends and kin. To fall in love or to give oneself to one’s God are supreme forms of an inverse snobbery, a pride that blazes in times of more mundane political battles. Art takes us closer to the political by such routes or independently, with an equally strong belief in art itself. This is the first step. Elder Cato had reminded us, rem tene verba sequentur—grasp the subject, words will follow. So, the foremost political thing is to make a mental crossover from the logic of the institution. One has to evade the logic even if one works within institutions. One has to queer it from within. Other things will follow: like having a sense of how circuits of patronage or gaming work within structures and institutions and taking appropriate decisions. Or one can go out to the world in search of other artistic associations and alliances in response to the institutionalization of art. Those are part of our outward, more strategic dealings, the contours of which shall keep on changing. But the starting point is stepping aside. A most difficult act.

The Wayfarer

It is only then that we can talk about art and the political in a more everyday sense. On one hand, the idea of statehood and the political is an ancient trope. From this perspective, one cannot be political without the polis. A cursory look at shantih parvan and anushashan parvan in Mahabharata shows us how significant the idea of rajadharma has been to the literary imagination. Some great Indian classics have found ways to relate art and politics through the ideas of disciplining and governance—Visakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa is a good example. Or, if one reads Kalidasa’s Kumarsambhava as a political allegory, one gets a taste of the spiritual and temporal usage of power. The idea of power has morphed in different ways but governance remains a powerful force to conserve and harness the disruptive social forces in art. Till date.[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]if one reads Kalidasa’s Kumarsambhava as a political allegory, one gets a taste of the spiritual and temporal usage of power.[/pullquote]

But we had begun by talking about abjectness and failing, running counter to power and success. That requires another kind of political imagination in art. Poverty has also been a powerful metaphor in developing the kind of magisteriality as I was referring to earlier. Hieronymus Bosch’s Haywain triptych and the Rotterdam tando are representations of such an idea. Unquestionably there is a moralizing element in Bosch about sin and accumulation, a reflection on a hostile world through which the wayfarer travels. It was a Christian setting and Bosch could not have avoided a certain asceticism of his times. But if we leave that bit aside, we shall see how the theme of poverty can act as the robust bulwark against all that is passing, all that falls into the groove and structure. In each case, the harried figure is dressed in ragged clothing, carrying a walking stick, fleeing from the attacking dog while turning back to watch it. Here is a fugitive, an everyman upon this earth. And he has taken voluntary poverty. It sets the typology for affliction in Western art.

We have known such masterful artists in the contemporary world too, those who understand art in such a manner. It is there, lurking, in different cultures. John Coetzee is one obvious instance. Akhtaruzzman Elias is another. Francis Bacon could be a third. The list could be augmented. But we are not here to establish a canon. Quite the contrary—we are simply marking a fundamental trait in the political artist. There are a handful of artists in that pedigree in India too, at least in ambition and temperament—some of them you will identify in your own respective regional languages.

Let me conclude by relating a poem, culled from a collection called ज़िल्लत की रोटी. The poet: Manmohan.

Art’s First Moment

It has often happened

That in the pain of your temple

You have been left on your own


And, instead of the pen


Beneath the pillow or in the drawer
You have looked for the painkiller


Doubtless, the pain is not yours

But not to let it take its own course

Is also not always possible


Often, an ungainly word

Not fit for a poem

But meant for telling someone

Somehow affixes itself to your palate

And no one is around you at such times


Often, not any word

But a face one recollects

Or a bygone evening


And for a few moment

You depart to live in another place


Brother, every time it is not possible

To seek or create an image

Sometimes only this much can happen

That the heart is immersed in poison

And eyes just turn bitter.


Why do we need to deepen this overlapping realm of modernist restlessness, medieval mendicancy and a deep sense of classical restraint? Because what we are seeing right now is a foe who is none of the above. This foe fails to understand the grandeur of losing or the abjectness of those who have lost. And therefore detests this drive. Our contemporary political foes are utilitarian fixers. They constitute a crafty, marauding band. Mushrooming like festering weed, they are particularly severe on all forms of political art. All art finally. But our institutions have lost a sense of taking them on since at the bottom institutions that deal in the humanities work on a common ground: this attempt to make art and literature responsible and thereby overlooking its duel powerhouses of majesty and poverty.

The crossover, foremost, is in our minds. Step aside before you engage.



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Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English in Delhi University and edits Humanities Underground

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