In India, art for art's sake amounts to escapism. Art should serve a social purpose
The Jaipur Literature Festival, which is regularly held in our country, appears to me to be nothing but a big tamaasha, in Shakespeare's words, "full of sound and fury signifying nothing". There is hardly any worthwhile literature to be seen nowadays and there was certainly none at the festival. Everything has become commercialised. Writers often write only to earn some money, and there is hardly any artistic value in what they produce.
There are broadly two theories of art and literature. The first is called art for art's sake, and the second is called art for social purpose. According to the first theory, art and literature are only meant to create beautiful or entertaining works to please and entertain people, and they are not meant to propagate social ideas. If art is used for propagating social ideas it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda. Proponents of this view are Keats, Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Edgar Allan Poe, Agyeya, the "Reetikal" and "Chayavadi" poets, etc.
The second theory is that art and literature should serve the people and help them in their struggle for a better life, by highlighting the socio-economic problems in society and inspiring people in their struggle. Proponents of this view are Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Victor Hugo, Maxim Gorky, Balzac, Stendhal, Schiller, Goethe, Cervantes, Pablo Neruda, Kabir, Premchand, Sarat Chandra, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Faiz, Josh, Manto, etc.
Which of these two schools should the Indian writers follow?
In my opinion, in a poor country like India, it is only the theory of art for social purpose which is acceptable. Today, our country is facing gigantic problems of poverty, malnutrition, price rise, lack of healthcare and good education, casteism, communalism, superstitions, etc. Hence writers must join the ranks of those who are struggling to make India free from these great socio-economic evils, they must inspire people by their writings, and write against oppression, injustice and backward mentality which are widespread in India.
However, what is the scenario in India today? The truth is that there is hardly any great art and literature in our country today. Where is the Sarat Chandra or Premchand or Faiz of today? Where is the Kabir or Dickens of today?
Today, the people of India are thirsty for good literature which will help them improve their wretched lives (for 80 per cent of our people). If someone writes about people's real problems it will spread like wildfire. But are our writers doing this? Art and literature must serve the people. Writers and artists must have genuine sympathy for the people and depict their sufferings. And not only that, like Dickens and Shaw in England, Rousseau and Voltaire in France, Thomas Paine and Walt Whitman in America, Pushkin, Chernyshevsky and Gorky in Russia, and Sarat Chandra, Nazrul Islam and Subramania Bharati in India, they should inspire people to struggle for a better life, a life which can really be called a decent human existence, and to create a better world, free from injustice, social and economic. Only then will people respect them. In my respectful opinion, art for arts' sake in today's historical context in India only amounts to escapism.
In Jaipur, there was a discussion on Kamasutra and sex, as if this is a pressing economic problem in India today. Ashis Nandy's remark on corruption created a furore, just as the Salman Rushdie episode did last year. Some panellists in a discussion said that China is unlikely to be the next superpower (which is of course an important matter in literature). A lot of journalists narrated their experiences. There was a discussion on the rise and fall of empires. The Indian "elite" descended on Diggi Palace from far and wide, along with filmstars, musicians, and of course foreigners who taught us about literature when there is hardly any great literature today in their own countries, the Dalai Lama (who is no doubt a great authority on literature), etc. And all this was dished out in the name of literature and faithfully lapped up by the 90 per cent!
(Published in The Indian Express on 2nd Feb, 2013)