The Jaipur Literature Festival is being held at Jaipur from January 21st to 25th.
As usual, it will be a big tamasha, contributing nothing to literature. This is what happened last year ( see my article in this connection on my next post ), and this is what is likely to happen again.
In Shakespeare's words in Macbeth, it will be " A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing ".
I had some time back written an article about the role of art and literature, which I am reproducing. If anyone so wishes, print outs of this article may be distributed at the Jaipur Art Festival
The True Role of Art and Literature
. By Justice Markandey Katju
Today India is facing gigantic problems . In some States, farmers and weavers are committing suicide. Prices of essential commodities are skyrocketing. 50% of our children are malnourished. Unemployment has become massive and chronic. Water and electricity shortage is widespread. Corruption and fraud are everywhere. Medical treatment has become prohibitively expensive. Housing is scarce. The educational system has gone haywire. Law and order has collapsed in many areas, where criminals call the shots. Discrimination against women, scheduled castes and tribes, and minorities continues.
One may ask : what has all this to do with art and literature?
To answer it will be necessary to delve into the theories of art and literature.
There are broadly two theories about 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 artists themselves. They are not meant to propagate social ideas. If art and literature are used to propagate social ideas, they cease to remain art and become propaganda.
Some of the proponents of this view are Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot in English literature; Alexander Dumas in French, Edgar Allan Poe in American; Agyeya and the ‘Reetikal’ and ‘Chayavadi’ poets in Hindi; Jigar Moradabadi in Urdu; and Tagore in Bengali.
The other theory is that art and literature should serve the people, and help them in their struggle for a better life, by arousing people’s emotions against oppression and injustice and increasing their sensitivity to the people's sufferings. Proponents of this school are Dickens and Bernard Shaw in English literature; Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck in American literature; Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and Victor Hugo in French; Goethe, Schiller and Enrich Maria Remarque in German; Cervantes in Spanish; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Gorky in Russian; Premchand and Kabir in Hindi; Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and Kazi Nazrul Islam in Bengali, Subramania Bharathi in Tamil, and Nazir, Faiz, Josh, and Manto in Urdu.
Which of these paths should artists and writers in India follow?
Before attempting to answer this question, it is necessary to clarify that there have been great artists and writers in both schools. Shakespeare and Kalidas can be broadly classified as belonging to the first school, of ‘art for art’s sake.’ However,their plays serve no social purpose beyond providing entertainment and an understanding of human impulses and motivations. Though he was basically a realist, Shakespeare had no intention to reform society or combat social evils. Yet he is an artist of the highest rank. One is amazed by his insights and portrayal of human psychology and the springs of human action, whether it be his tragedies or histories or comedies. His characters are so full-blooded that we can recognise them from our own experience as actual human beings.
Similarly, Kalidas’s Meghdoot is nature and love poetry at its highest level. The depictions of the north Indian countryside that Kalidas gives are astonishing in their beauty. Even Wordsworth cannot come anywhere near it. Nevertheless, Kalidas has no social purpose in his works.
On the other hand, Bernard Shaw writes his plays almost exclusively with a social purpose – to combat social evils and reform society. His plays are a powerful denunciation of social injustices and evils. Similarly,Dickens in his novels attacks social evils in England in his time, and the terrible conditions of schools, orphanages, jails, etc
Shakespeare or Shaw, who is greater as an artist? The first represents ‘art for art’s sake’, the second ‘art for social purpose.’ We shall attempt an answer, but a little later.
Literature – the art of the word, the art that is closest to thought – is distinguished from other forms of art such as painting and music by the greater emphasis on thought content as compared with form. On the other hand, an art form such as classical music may be almost entirely devoted to creating a mood rather than arousing any thought.
For instance, the main form of serious North Indian classical music, which is called Khyaal, has hardly any thought content (since very few words are used in it). But it has an unbelievable power to create a mood and arouse aesthetic feelings — whether it is the raag of the rainy season called Malhar (there are many varieties of Malhars, the main one being Mian ka Malhar, though I am more fond of Megh Malhar), which can make one feel it is raining; or the morning raags like Jaunpuri, Todi, Bhairav and so on, which gently wake you up; or night raags like Darbari or Malkauns (called Hindola in Carnatic music), which gently put you to sleep; or a raag like Bhairavi, which can be sung (or played) at any time and in any season and is astonishing for its sheer beauty. There is a large variety of other raags that create different moods. There are other styles of North Indian classical music like Thumri in which there is more thought content, because they use more words than Khyaal. However, there is no style or raag in North Indian or Carnatic classical music that arouses emotions to fight social injustices. It is purely art for art’s sake, yet it is undoubtedly great art.
Similarly,dancing styles in India like Bharat Natyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Odisi, Manipuri,etc are only for entertainment or aestheticpleasure, but serve no social purpose.
Art critics often regard the two basic trends or tendencies in art and literature as realism and romanticism. The truthful, undistorted depiction of people and their social conditions is called realism. In romanticism, the emphasis is on flights of imagination, passion, and emotional intensity.
Both realism and romanticism can be passive or active. Passive realism usually aims at a truthful depiction of reality without preaching anything. The novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte Sisters are examples. In this sense it can be called socially neutral. However, sometimes passive realism preaches fatalism, passivity, non-resistance to evil, suffering, humility, and so on. An example is Tolstoy’s depiction of the meek peasant Platon Karatayev in War and Peace, who humbly and cheerfully accepts his fate. Some writers were initially active but later became passive. Dostoyevsky is an example of this.. On the other hand, Tolstoy was a fatalist in War and Peace but became a social reformer later in Resurrection.
Dickens, Shaw,Victor Hugo, Gorky, and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya belong to the school of active realists. They oppose fatalism, passivity, and non-resistance to evil. They inspire people to fight against social evils. In the stories and novels of Sharat Chandra, we find powerful attacks against oppression of women and the caste system.
The strength of passive realism lay in its exposure of human motivations and social evils, and its weakness in its lack of positive principles or ideals. This literature was valuable because of its truthful approach to reality, concentrating on the meticulous description of the visible and the real. But it showed no way out to the people. It criticised everything and asserted nothing. And it often viewed man from a fatalistic point of view, as a mere passive product of his surroundings, helpless and incapable of changing his social conditions, as in the novels of Thomas Hardy like 'Tess', 'The Mayor of Casterbridge', etc
Passive and active realism can both serve a social purpose. But passive realism often preaches fatalism, pessimism, and uselessness of endeavours to improve society. Active realism, by contrast, is optimistic, characterised by its solicitude and concern for the people — inspiring them to strive against their plight and improve their social conditions.
In writers such as Shakespeare, Balzac, Tolstoy, and Mirza Ghalib, it is often difficult to define with sufficient accuracy whether they are romantics or realists. Both trends merge in their works. In fact, the highest art is often a combination of the two.
Romanticism, like realism, can be either passive or active. Passive romanticism attempts to divert people from reality into a world of fantasy or illusions; or to a fruitless preoccupation with one’s own inner world, with thoughts about the ‘fatal riddle of life’ or about dreams of love and death. Its characters may be knights, princes, demons, or fairies who exist in a world of make-believe e.g. in the novels of Sir Waltrer Scott ( ' Ivanhoe', Waverly Novels, etc ) or of the Hindi writer Devki Nandan Khatri ( Chandrakanta Santiti, Bhootnath, etc ).. Much of the Reetikal Hindi poetry, mainly written to please kings and princes, and dealing with subjects like beauty (shringar) and love, belongs to this category. Passive romanticism hardly serves any social purpose.
Active romanticism, on the other hand, attempts to arouse man against social evils. It clearly serves a social purpose. Active romanticism rises above reality, not by ignoring it but by seeking to transform it. It regards literature as having a greater purpose than merely to reflect reality and depict existing things. Rousseau’s novels Emile and New Heloise, Schiller's play ' The Robbers ', Gorky's poem ' The Song of the Stormy Petrel '.etc are examples.
‘Art for social purpose’ may be expressed not always in a direct way, but also sometimes in an indirect, roundabout, or obscure way, for example, by satire e.g. Lewis Carrol's 'Alice in Wonderland ', Jonathan Swift's ' Gullivers Travels ', or Votaire's ' Candide 'or ' Zadig', and Gogol's ' Dead Souls '
Much of Urdu poetry, e.g. of Mir, Ghalib, Faiz, Josh, Sahir, Majrooh, etc serves a social purpose (as it attacks oppressive customs and practices, as in Kabir’s poetry), though it is often expressed in an indirect way.
‘Art for social purpose’ can come in a religious garb too such as the Bhaktikaal poetry in Hindi, e.g. Kabir, Sur, Meerabai, etc
Now, we go back to the question: should artists and writers in India follow ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘art for social purpose’? Which would be more beneficial to the country today? The question, ‘who is greater as an artist, Shakespeare or Shaw?’ is hence not very relevant.
In my opinion,In a poor country like India, it is the second school (‘art for social purpose’) alone which can be acceptable today. Artists and writers must join the ranks of those who are struggling for a better India. They must inspire the people through their writings against oppression and injustice.
However, what do we see today ? Today there is hardly any good art and literature in India. Where is the Sharat Chandra or Premchand or Faiz of today? Where is the Kabir or Dickens or Manto of today? There seems to be total artistic and literary vacuum. Everything seems to have become commercialised. Writers write not to highlight the plight of the masses but to earn some money.
Some Indian writers complain that magazines are closing down. Have these people wondered why? Evidently no one is interested in reading what he or she writes because they do not depict the people’s sufferings, and do not inspire people to struggle for a better life.
When Maxim Gorky, the great Russian writer, used to stepped out on the streets of Russia, he would be mobbed by the people, because he was so much loved by the people as he wrote about their lives and championed their cause. Can an Indian writer today make a similar claim? When writers get out of touch with the people and live in a world of their own, no one wants to read them.
Today the people in India are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about the people’s real problems, poverty, unemployment, malnutrition,farmers suicides, healthcare , etc it will spread like wildfire.. But are our writers doing this?
Art and literature must serve the people. Writers must have genuine sympathy for the people and depict their sufferings. They must inspire people to struggle for a better life, a life that can be really called a decent human existence, and to create a better world, free of injustices, social and economic. Only then will people respect them.
The concept of ‘art for social purpose’ in its active sense, that is, in the sense of using art and literature to reform society, is largely of recent origin. It could hardly arise prior to the Industrial Revolution because up to the feudal age the thought that men could improve or change their social conditions by their own effort was rare. The belief then was that whatever has existed or will exist in future is ordained by God or Destiny ( hoi wahi jo Ram rakh raakha ), and man has no role in it. Now that the scientific age has dawned, and human beings can change their social condition by their own efforts, art, too, should help in this historical endeavour.
In my opinion, in poor countries like India, art for art’s sake only amounts to escapism.
Before I conclude, I appeal to writers in Hindi, Urdu, and other Indian languages to use simple, colloquial language. Hindi and Urdu should both come closer to Khariboli (or Hindustani), which is the people’s language,and written Tamil should come closer to spoken Tamil ( at present there is a great gulf between the two ). Some Hindi books are difficult to understand as they are written in difficult (klisht) language. The same is true of some Urdu writers. But if what is being said or written is not even comprehensible, what use is there for such literature?
It is true that a great Urdu poet like Mirza Ghalib wrote often in highly Persianized diction, and was strongly of the view that poetry should not be in the language of the common man. Ghalib had a horror of the commonplace in writing poetry.
However, Ghalib, etc wrote for elite audiences e.g.for mushairas in the Court of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Today's writers must write not for elite audiences but for the masses. And for doing so they must use simple language which can be understood by the masses..Great literature can be in simple language, like the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill or the stories of Premchand and Sharat Chandra