The disappearance of choice

There was a time when India’s different cultures could benefit from each other by sharing their best art. A Kannada poet could learn from a Bengali poet, a Marathi sculptor could learn from a Tamil sculptor, and so on, and so forth. That which was worth sharing with others in one culture, then, used to stand up all by itself to such a great height that every other culture would take notice. It was ultimately left to the recipient cultures to partially or fully accept the novelty, or even reject it entirely. True, everything so shared was not necessarily good for all of humanity; and true, the recipient cultures did not always exercise caution in accepting the novelty. But you still had to have done something exceptional in art for your work to travel.

One easy example is Valmiki’s Ramayana. Its fame spread so far and wide that it is very difficult to imagine how it could have done that at a time when there were no modern means of transport or communication. The epic had a profound impact on cultures not just in today’s India but also outside it. Of course, it underwent several changes over several centuries to suit host cultures, but there is something exceptionally brilliant about it which gave it wings. It did not have only good effects wherever it went, but that’s not the point here. The point is, one had to be a Valmiki for one’s art to travel across the subcontinent.

Today, not only is art of the caliber of a Ramayana missing, but all art is arguably on its deathbed everywhere in India. Yet physical flesh-and-bones people travel and settle down wherever they want in India. Unfortunately, these people outnumber and outshine any remaining art from their home cultures that could deserve to travel more than them. Dry economic and political factors give these people wings today, and the host culture doesn’t have the choice to reject them; that would be unconstitutional. As a result, cultures no longer have the choice of what they import from other cultures.

The first problem with this is that it destroys culture everywhere. People can no longer distinguish between good and bad, beneficial and harmful, what’s worth exporting and what’s worth importing. Cultures that were used to evaluating foreign art before accepting or rejecting are now being forced to accept foreign flesh and bones, and this forced acceptance dilutes them further. Even the cultures that send out these flesh and bones are losing sight of the importance of art. There was a time when they used to send out the works of Valmikis, but now they send out people with no food or work, let alone art, and this seems to them to be a valid way to interact with other cultures.

The second problem is that migrants physically replace natives. This is a war-like situation because the natives are increasingly robbed of their right to the basic necessities of life and gradually, life itself. This creates a further barrier between cultures through which art finds it impossible to travel. More dangerous are the walls of hatred that get built because of imposed suffocation and consequent resistance. Nor are the fountains of flesh and bones coming anywhere close to containing themselves any time soon. The very fact that they can physically spread out dilutes the reason to contain and yet, those who are being forced to accommodate are the ones who are family-planning themselves out of the planet.

All this, ladies and gentlemen, is due to Indian nationalism as conceived today. It must change.