Keshav Malik essays

Let me say at once that the sub-continent stands out in sharp contrast to the world outside. The myriad Indian faces, excepting in the rarest cases, will betray themselves at a glance to even the alien of average intelligence, on any foreign shore. Granting this, and much more, regarding local physical characteristics, it will be not less than a back-breaking exercise to discover the truth about the ‘Indianness’ in the art of the day. Qualities, one knows it well, are caught only when found in contrast. May one not therefore asseverate that ‘Indianness’ could only be objected, let’s say, for instance, against the hypothetical quality of Englishness? In the same way have not the regional characteristics of, say, the Bengali versus the Punjabi and so on become known? Indeed, the conceptualization of experienced temperamental and idiosyncratic traits of masses of people or objects is not insurmountable. Nevertheless one is a trifle apprehensive that the consciousness of such essence or the need for a people to discover such essence for itself in no great way practically helps out in the tasks of self-identification or the self-establishment of self-hood. I really think, (even if this comment and the one that follows side-track the question of ‘Indianness’) that the obsession with ‘Indianness’ in art is academic; most absorbing to be sure, but in the way a cross-word puzzle is.

Pointing a finger at the separate traits, quirks, customs, mores, or the geographical and climatic features and socio-cultural tell-tale marks will not, I think, quite ferret the ‘Indian’ from the wood-pile. So also in questions of national art. And to mix metaphors abysmally, if there is an ‘Indianness’ it is like a needle in a haystack. It may be felt but may not be gotten to, and, to top it, the complexity of our country makes exercise doubly formidable, even futile.

With the reader’s permission, I must digress again by suggesting that the adjectival essences can only be discovered either in those who have ceased to be among us or amongst the vast insentient beings and the witless anonymities of mass, number and so forth. Thus the Indianness (rather the Indiannesses) multiplying in past times could be enumerated with some labour. But the Indian as he drifts, gropes or else purposefully accelerates ahead from a present into the mist of the future is only a half made man, and to that extent he is invisible even as a forest is to you when you are in it although the trees may not be so invisible.

One more digression may be allowed, as I bring in the question of urbanity and the so-called democracy. Democracy, somewhat as we know it, first grew in the city states of Greece. This meant, that it shed, although not to satisfaction, its tribalism; that it adopted the self-making telos as its instrument of re-making the spiritual. Hence its strongly individualist art. Such psychic condition is obligatory on the socio-spiritual arrangement known as democracy, where having shed the relationship of blood and of ancestor or village-god worship men develop or devise a new inter-personal system. From here on the direction of life-energies is laid down more by individual perception than regulated by the simpler, tribal-family norms. The growth of the urban city helps in a manner in the making of selves, in good times in any rate. In other words, the one centralised focus of the tribal order, with its jealous gods at the centre, somehow and with painful process, is recast to have the god out there, in the market place, become the god within each citizen. But in this case only a potential god, not to be born till much brain and heart work is done on its behalf. With the consequent proliferation of selves (who develop through much cogitation, much homework, plentiful dialogue of I and Me with Thou) there is no idol of the market place more to worship, instead there are directions to follow, hills to climb and a self-discipline to impose on the underlying naïve self, which still, in moments, follows the warm embrace of collective-hood and its unconscious unities. Gradually the oneness of a childhood is lost, to be replaced by the fresh arrangement, of privacy and therefore plurality, complemented by the sentiment of social selves which are nurtured only by understanding a kind of order which places much store by calculation and discussion; a psychic condition which disallows excessive personification of the sacred. Here then the traits and characteristics which go to make up God or gods are divided into things which are Caesar’s and those which are not. To Caesar are given our ears - this bit of the shared remains to-date and is unlikely to vanish in the face of man’s social existence and the fact that man is born and dies in a physical continuum. A man ignores this aspect of his being at great physical peril but also at the price of self-delusion. But what are the things that are not Caesar’s? Those individual powers and propensities which were found even as the customary tribal life even as the customary tribal life came to a close. Then was lost the make-believe or illusion necessary to collective self. But this, a Pandora’s box happening, also brought out some hope, the freedom of the mind to explore, to be other than as one customarily were. It is in this condition that the human soul has flirted, and not with a major few mishaps, ever since the passing of the closed, happy society. The things not Caeser’s then are things which are no concern of Caeser’s (or nation’s) and only concern individuals who are still trying to become selves - i.e. those who have not yet exhausted the mines of their experience. It is they who are led to fresh image and invention and so on. This social condition logically is fluid existence, it leads to an impossibility of easy spiritual identity even though outward identification marks maybe plentiful. Given, moreover that the hallmarks of urban existence are those who have not exhausted the mines of their experience. It is they who are led to fresh image and invention and so on. This social condition logically is fluid existence, it leads to an impossibility of easy spiritual identity even though outward identification marks may be plentiful. Given, moreover that the hall-marks of urban existence are those wrought by homo-sapiens and homo-faber, universality of experience becomes a near foregone conclusion. The conscious intellectual mentality is not the one of undifferentiated group mind. Yes, universality, but not uniformity, which is more the attribute of the basic unconscious stuff of physical existence, than of the states of the wider awareness and response expressed by the self-liberating among the generality of mankind, i.e. true artists.

Thus we come to the dreadful thought, that art and even individuals are at their best have nothing in common except physical characteristics, which can be characterised with relative case. Given a true condition of atrulydemocraticsociety selves are likely to proliferate; and only in nominal democracy there will be an attempt to ‘pretend’ the self - a tribute to individuality even though the true condition here will be conformity, (as opposed to the innocent unity of tribal existence).

Thus when we look for common attributes in our art of the day, we hope, we are not searching for the common denominator. Nationality bristles with heterogeneity. Art historians and anthropologists could easily establish types of faces or castes. But then at least the former, i.e. the arts, will cut across all national boundaries, especially so in our own day. The complexity of temperament, environment and endowment cannot be simplified. If one must abstract, one would say -- this is one kind of art, that another; but still it would be far from answering the mooted question of ‘Indianness.’ ‘Indianness’ is likely, as implied, to be ‘Indianness,’ and that without causing much harm to the body politic or to the health of the civic community. Indeed, even the civic community thrives on common interest, so to say, the celebration of the artistic Indianness by the separate selves which only gives them the more genuine reason for being. Expression through the arts is above the area of mundane interest (at least as far as the public is concerned), even when the creature in the artist may happen to rue pecuniary advantage.

Thus, minus the artificial cultural unity of an Indian in the making, but given a common purpose to make India, the Indian artist heads away from an automatic unity in uniform styles towards the ocean of the uncharted and little understood phenomenon or noumenon. Here then, given the need to search and explore, there is no readymade image of God or gods to express. Only there are states of mind or states of being to be expressed. Indeed only where there is an iota of the unmade or in the head or the heart does art become what it has become in our day; and so, even in an India essentially a nation of farmers, with minds couched in too-well-recognizable life symbols. Perhaps, in the end ‘the Indianness’ will be discovered in the country’s folk art. The use of the symbols of the other life styles, other cultural conditions based in other social and mental conditions by the painters of our day (of those who are classified as ‘tantriks’ etc.) cannot be termed as Indianness. For the uses to which they have put these symbols are individual and, at the same time, the ends to which they have put them are entirely disparate from the art of the psyche-searching and occult-meditating forbears.

Even, this art, then, (with evident Indian symbols) has ‘Indianness’ merely by virtue of a technical coincidence. And what of the varieties of art being practiced by our artists today as also by artists in a hundred other countries? -- if any art has come to this condition it is plastic, or space art. Neither Indian music nor Indian classical dance have changed that much; they appear more fixed, with possibility of growth but within the basic regulation. But in painting and sculpture and so on the occasionally solipsistic or hallucinated and yet self-sufficient artist depends on his own inner sources or resources; he learns and makes his own rules; he lives in the really circumscribed community; he makes and breaks and commands only as long as he is innerly free. Otherwise, as I implied he invokes purely ‘spiritual’ motifs to mark aesthetic entities. The essential, and ideal condition (given his robustness, and given the ethos in which he lives) willy nilly prods him towards newer modes of being and which, in one word, is the child of choice. Choice and the health of freedom, but also its obverse, sickness of licence, both have come to India with the society, rather than only as an imitation of the occident.

These are the tests of integrity; if the artist has no God, master or village community, if he works only to please himself, he does so carelessly at much cost. Inherent in freedom is the duty to create a self-sustaining centre, as I already implied. This is to be the pole-star of both the unvillaged urbanite as also of the vertically searching artist or savant. Without it, mere brilliance or sensation kills both; rather, it limits their life expectation. Only that life has longevity which has vine-grape-thick clusters of rich inner value. But then this sort of thing, under democracy cannot be made to order, nor a richness in value be expressed in one set style. Here then is the place of the novel, the unexpected, the mystery in things of art, as those in personality. Artists must be left to themselves without undue self-consciousness -- as artists -- and without undue obsession with the outer husk of self, viz. ‘Indianness.’ In doing so they mysteriously perhaps engender an atmosphere of creative freedom. In such creative freedom is centred the freewheel of choice, and freedom is another name for intelligent choice. By example, to demonstrate the reality of freedom is to ensure its existence; this is the only way.

It is for the reason plastic art of value to the changing Indian body-politic; it does not set out to create or express ‘Indianness’ but only to express search, devotion, meditation on the mystery and the form of the world. But in doing so, and only incidentally, as if by a paradox, it creates a vitality or pulse of life in the community. Truly, life works by paradoxes. Only a community that does not impose its own image or demand that it is given it. Such a community is secretly trusted and loved.

I would not say we have yet such a community or such an articulation among our artists. But such a community, as we started out in the forties, was the general idea. We have failed in much and so, the question of our ‘Indianness’ nags us to no end, as in the plastic arts, so in literature. Those of us who are not aware or those who have not forged this self-remaking self-look for outer pegs to hang their doubts. But pegs in the changing society there are none, and none will be found as time passes and technology redeems us or takes us by the throat.

What we have to be certain of, and to live by, is the deeper conviction that is still so incoherent. If only our mental house, of things Caeser’s and thing not Caeser’s, were in better order, we the artists and critics, would not be helplessly rolled between the tumultuous waters of traditional or revivalist self-assertion and the overpowering forces of the occidental maestros. The problem is how to use our own minds, and which activity, I concede, is easily prescribed than indulged. But only then can insecurity of self end. But insecurity cannot be ended by words like these but, once again, by courageous search and truthful expression.

Published by Lalit Kala Akademi, September 1980
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