How polarised responses miss nuanced precariousness of art and life

Deccan Chronicle.  | M.R. Venkatesh

Nation, Current Affairs

But the authentic pursuit of any art form is not for winning prizes.

Thinking Aloud - Reflections on Emerging India, by Prasoon Joshi Roopa Publications India Pvt Ltd., New Delhi, 2019, Rs 500

CHENNAI: Why the lukewarm response among the high society literati when poet-lyricist Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”?

Well known writer, lyricist, marketing ‘Guru’, communication specialist and Padma Shree awardee, Prasoon Joshi, in his latest collection of essays, “Thinking Aloud - Reflections on Emerging India”, is not surprised at two kinds of responses to the above question that he himself had raised vis-à-vis Bob Dylan’s Nobel.

Prasoon describes the emotional pendulum beautifully thus: “At one end, people lamented the ‘come down’ of the very definition of literature and scoffed. At the other, they exhorted Dylan - a generation’s voice of social protest- to not let a prize that’s founded on a wealth of armament, define him.”

While the concept of ‘high art’ - a term including painting, sculpture and other works that adhere to the accepted theories and practices of art - as the author puts it, has dominated “intellectual discourse”, the educated elitist bias has always run down ‘low art’ or popular culture “such as that found in contemporary mediums or mass media.”

But the authentic pursuit of any art form is not for winning prizes. Mozart for instance, Prasoon, points out “though a practitioner of classical music, frequently wrote music that was intended for the enjoyment of the common folk and was considered populist, much like Shakespeare, who in his era wrote for the popular audience and for profit.” At the long-end of an often self-mortifying artistic life, a prize may or may not come, just as scientists are not seeking to discover new things with a Nobel in view. Many practitioners of art have literally died unsung.

When Prasoon presses for “our folk arts which are replete with philosophy” and argues that “tough standards” must apply for both contemporary and popular art as well, the author’s is a humanistic plea that labels like ‘elitist’ and ‘popular’ should not be linguistic hooks to exclude entire life-worlds.

“Culture and counter-culture should co-exist.” As in Prasoon’s words, “arts and literature are ultimately created for the purpose of expressing, pontificating, mystifying or at times decoding life - to connect the art, the muse, the artist and the audience-.” The author pleads against any hierarchy of art forms, yet in the real world there is lot more intolerance when any critical reference to a traditional cultural icon is booed out as, leave alone ignorance, sacrilege!

The basic conceptual insight that Prasoon Joshi offers in the first section of seven essays under the heading ‘Cultural Layers’, is the complex interplay between raw and sensuous ‘nature’, man’s primary medium of coming to terms with the ‘other’ and the ‘world’, and what he calls a ‘vantage point’; the latter are multi-layered filters that include metaphors, symbols, myths etc., through which various experiences are made sense of in man’s life. That is the second realm of ‘culture’.

In fact, one underlying theme of this entire collection of 28 essays - written over the last decade in various leading Newspapers and magazines- that imparts a thin line of continuity is Prasoon Joshi’s conviction that given this constant interplay of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, any polarized perception badly misses the nuances of art and life, the many shades of grey that make and unmake life!

Prasoon’s canvas is the ‘Emerging India’, the big Indian middle class that is increasingly taking vocal and moralistic positions on almost all life and death issues, thanks to new modes of empowerment. It is partly the empowerment that comes through higher literacy and democratic institutions, partly through technology with over 50 per cent of Indian mobile users being smart phone users now, to modes of expression, whether it be art, cinema or literature. All scale new heights, as a new middle class in the new millennium, as he puts it, earns and spends much more rapidly than any previous generation of Indians ever did.