Monday, May 7, 2012

Between Black and White Artists- The Brown Ones’ Dilemma


My friend, artist, problem solver, mentor to many young artists and above all a great human being Somu Desai, who lives in Pardi, near the industrial city of Vapi, a border district of Gujarat with Maharashtra, asks me a very pertinent question: Why many artists are still enamoured by the White/Western world? Why do Indian artists need endorsement from the white world? When shall we stand on our own feet? Somu Desaid adds in his facebook message that he knows it is a sensitive issue to talk about but he is very keen to know my opinion about it. I am also aware of the fact that it would be a very touchy issue for many that certain observations from my side could even sound like coming out of a perennial xenophobia. Hence, I would like to be as balanced as possible while answering this question raised by Somu Desai.

The simplest answer to this question could come from understanding a phenomenon called the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. This is a strange and complex psychological situation in which a captive/hostage feels absolute sympathy and love for the captors. In a hostage situation, after spending a few days with the captors, the hostages develop some sort of bonding with the captors. The captives start feeling that they are made hostage for a justifiable cause and the captors are not criminals but true crusaders for a greater cause. This is a reverse form of trauma, which adversely affect a captive freed out of certain captured situations. If we look at our social relationships, we could see how this syndrome is operational in multiple ways.

 I could cite certain examples from our popular culture, which replicates the real life situations. In our popular movies, a young girl with a free flying soul happens to react to a certain situation in a very aggressive fashion. However justified her action is, as the audience is pushed to gaze at the situation through a pair of male eyes (refer the discussion on male gaze in movies by Laura Mulvey) and forced to feel that the exercising of her free will is totally unjustified. At this moment, the male/hero enters the scene, totally disgusted by her action (almost replicating the disgust that we as audience feel at this moment) and slaps her tightly. She looks at him with a sense of wonder. In the next scene or if the next scene is not a song scene that shows their growing fondness for each other, after a few scenes, we see the same girl now absolutely domesticated and obedient to the highhandedness of the male protagonist. In our daily lives too, women are subjected to male domination and they perpetuate this admiration for their male tormentors by doing rituals and pujas for the longevity of their lives. Similarly, old servants are seen so attached to the household and its male heads and they are even ready to sacrifice their lives for the well being of that family.

Both these cases are prime examples of Stockholm Syndrome. However, the powerful dominates you, you develop an affinity and respect for the mighty one (Politics and religion also thrive in this syndrome as the masses are made to believe in their raging and tormenting leaders and gods). When western colonialism came to India first as trade possibilities and then as governance of an ungovernable land and people, people started believing in the illusion that only the white people could govern well. Despite the heavy subjection, the subjects under this colonial rule thought that these white people were here for our common good. This was operational in socio-political and cultural and economic spheres very effectively because the relationship between the colonial masters and the subjects was always based on the binaries of existence and projected realities.

(Nature-Culture binary in Devdas poster)

These disparate and condescending binaries started off from the very separation of nature from culture. Nature and culture were pitted against each other as opposing ideas. While nature stood for all uncouth (uncooked/raw) and unrefined objects/behaviours, culture stood for everything that was cooked and refined. In a theoretical level, villages were viewed as nature and cities were viewed as culture. In the same way, women were considered as nature and men were taken for culture. So the colonial masters called their subjects as ‘Natives’, the unrefined people from ‘nature’ (natal, nativity, nature and so on have the same linguistic root that connotes ‘birth). As western colonisers were white in complexion, they infused this idea amongst people that all what was white was always good/culture and all what was dark was always wrong/nature. The white was the tamer because he was sophisticated, he had sophisticated weapons and was in possession of scientific knowledge. And the brown was the tamed who lacked in sophistication and knowledge.

That does not mean that the Indians were a pack of uncouth people living in a dark age when the colonial masters arrived. Indians too were sophisticated in their own ways, their world view was considerably different from that of the occidental guests. Their governance was developed enough to control and develop new kingdoms. The White colonial masters found that India was a country full of chieftains and kings fighting each other for maintaining their supremacy, often victimising the ordinary people who belonged to the working class, through heavy taxations. The British colonial system found this situation quite fertile enough to perpetuate not only their economic interests but also their political ideologies. That was how the British Empire too the charge of India from the East India Company. Taking the infighting between the local kings as a socio-political advantage, the British gained the confidence of people by offering them a peaceful life. The British, unlike the former colonisers in this land became a part of the general life of India, often imposing his presence through better knowledge, industry and power.

 (Indian Railways- A British Introduction)

The influence of Stockholm Syndrome starts at this juncture. The British had introduced rail, postal service, health services and so on. These positive measures imparted a feeling that the British were here for ruling us permanently and whatever they would do were the right things to be done. If you look at the change in dress code even in the rural areas from the late 19th century onwards, we could see that even the ordinary people wearing an overcoat and a cap. The British had consolidated power in India and they imparted the idea that the powerful was the right people and white was always right. White possessed better knowledge and skills. They prepared people thinking like white in brown bodies for the functioning of the British government locally, through an ideological educational system. Slowly, our mindset was transformed considerably. Despite all the subjections, we thought that the British was always good and white was right.

The power and influence that the British left on Indian psyche was so strong that after they left India in 1947, the new government of India literally perpetuated and replicated the very idea of British Rule in different ways. Our leaders started living in the bungalows that the British had left here. Our leaders started behaving like the British/White people in brown bodies. Despite the strong influence of Mahatma Gandhi, the majority of Indian population thought that British was right especially when the democracy was going to dogs during the post independence years. Like the hostages freed from captivity, many Indians thought that the British were far better than the Indian rulers. They nostalgically thought about British rule. They wanted to become the upholders of the western values because they thought that it was better than any other system.

(Rajnikant retaliates against the heroine by speaking English)

The colonial footprints are now not just fossilized imaginations or museum pieces. They are very strong even today. Our films have been very influential in perpetuating this idea of white being always right in many ways. When a ‘cultured’ girl offends the hero by calling him an uncouth person, the hero bursts into a long dialogue in English to the surprise of the heroine. This invites a round of applause and hysteria amongst the audience because, English language shows sophistication and power. If you speak in English, you have the power and you could say utter nonsense in accented English and get away with it. That’s why many of our artists who abroad for studying for six months or one year, come back with an affected accent. They think that the white is right and to be on the right side they should speak in accented English.

In fact, today we live in an absolutely different world. The borders are now porous though thanks to international terrorism migration has become a bit difficult. However, the internet has opened a different world for many people in the world. I always feel that chatting does not have an accent; it has only spelling mistakes or deliberate abbreviations. Yet, we have not come out of the colonial hangover. Even our media tend to call our artists ‘Indian Damien Hirsts’, ‘Indian Picassos’ and so on. It comes from the feeling that to be international or to be globally accepted you should be attached to a white western name. This comes from our colonial Stockhome syndrome. Many of our artists also believe that getting the endorsement of the white world is very important because he/she still believes that the power lies in white people. And indirectly he/she admits his inferiority as an Indian (it is a very personal complex and is not shared by all Indians) before the white people. That’s why, even a white backpacker is treated like a Richard Gere or Brad Pitt when he gate crashes in parties in India.

 (Brad Pitt)

Some may argue that in today’s world there is no white and black divide. But it is just an illusion. Unless and until the black/brown/yellow worlds believe that they are right in their own ways and the whites are right in their own ways, and none is superior or inferior to another, the white supremacy and the brown servility are going to remain there. I am not an advocate of fanatic nationalism. Love, sex and dhoka are beyond nationalism. And I believe love, sex and dhoka are the fundamentals of all creativity.

There is a misconception amongst the Indian artists that to be an international artist, he should emulate some art language created by a white Euro-British-American male artist. He does not understand the simple fact that the white man’s art comes from his own experiential and materialistic realities. Even if we say that now we have an ironed out world and the tastes and living realities are uniform all over the world, our experiences are difference as much as our realities are. We find an ironed out world only inside the malls, high end pubs, hotels, five star hotels, airport lounges and so on. And be sure people do not really live inside malls and airport lounges. During the boom time, many artists who were continuously jet setting took the illusion of living off suitcases in the airport lounges for their permanent reality. They suffer today and suffer acutely.

(Somu Desai)

I conclude this article with two more observations: First, be proud of what you are should be the first and foremost ethical value that an artist should inculcate in his life and practice. He should be political and spiritual at the same time. He should have a tongue to speak up when there is injustice around. He should have a spirit to meditate when his meditation would do greater good to a larger mass. And above all he should respect his own art. Two, veteran artist and scholar, K.G.Subramanyan, in one of his interviews says that being local is the most important thing to be international because whatever we call international is actually local in their own terms.

But unfortunately, Indian artists do not (most of them) listen. They still believe that a backpacker from the US is either Bill Gates or Brad Pitt in disguise. 


Very Deadly Kali said...

I agree with you that any art /culture flourishes in context to its immediate environment. That is culture can thrive only if it is produced /consumed /appreciated/ critiqued in the the environment where it is produced. And if any of these links are missing then such cultural forms cannot survive for long.

When we look at other Indian cultural forms such as music, film theater and english /literature we have “indianised' it enough to adapt to local sensibilities. I believe all these forms have been first aimed at the local audience though western audience is very much on the radar. These cultural forms have been judged by the so called 'ordinary' people of India. It is the local support that has made these forms such a powerful tool. Bollywood is case in point. I personally feel that “audience” is critical component to any art form and what is ailing the current Indian contemporary art scene is the support of local audience.

Weather lack of museums , government apathy for visual arts we have to look seriously why it has not reached out to our own people? Why indian visual artists do not trust the taste of 'ordinary' people and let them participate what they feel about their practice. I do not believe the man on the road cannot understand conceptual art or installation art of today. There might be various reasons for this trust deficit. The onus of reaching out to its people lies on artist/ gallerist and critics so that it compels people to come and watch the art. Instead contemporary art has remained elusive and exclusive club of rich and wealthy.

A recent TV interview of a famous Indian artist sums this attitude. The artist on a national TV bragged that 90% of his art is being shown abroad and he has not found any appropriate 'space' in India to showcase his art. I feel such a statement only reflects arrogance as well as well as disdain to his own art where he claims his roots are. This is where Bollywood/Amir Khan stands apart.

Muzammil Karim said...

Brilliant piece...loved reading it!!! Thanks for sharing :)