Art Institutions

Published in Triveni, January - March 1974, pp. 53-59

There is a phrase of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which has almost become a cliche in our time, describing the poet as “the unacknowledged legislator of mankind.”

The fact that Shelley felt constrained to define the writer's position in this manner was due to his apperception of the rights of a sensitive private individual against the contempt of society and the then growing encroachment of the State on the freedom of the individual. As everyone knows, Shelley himself had been expelled from Oxford and was so much despised for his dangerous thoughts in 19th century England that he spent the best part of his life on the continent of Europe.

His poem “The Revolt of Islam” sums up fairly clearly the position of a free spirit of the period of the industrial revolution, when the English middle class achieved supreme power in the home country and a good deal of influence abroad through the expansion of the British Empire.

The essence of Shelley’s gospel is that, though the writer serves as the conscience of humanity, precisely because he utters the deepest truths on its behalf, and thus appeals to the hearts and minds of men, the State, as the expression of organised society, always tends to inhibit the poet’s felt realisations, to choke his voice in the name of the establishment and a conformist orthodoxy, and to suppress criticism, because, it says: “Those who are not with us are against us.”

The poignancy of Shelley's struggle lies in the fact that he was an intellectual, who grew up in the midst of a comparatively free, liberal, middle class and not under a dictatorship.

So it is clear that if the conflict between the State and writer arises even in the so-called democratic States, it is inevitable under the dictatorships. There are quite a few obvious reasons for the natural emergence of this conflict in almost all known societies.

First of all, the laws of society are made by ordinary men for ordinary men. And the poet, generally being the more sensitive and weaker, but extraordinary creature, who plumbs into the wells of loneliness and brings up unsuspected truths, is not despised and feared. He will say the most outrageous things, in words which describe feelings, emotions and thoughts felt by him as well as by other people but which he alone has the courage to say openly. In so far as he thus shows up the hypocrisies of other people, he is not a very pleasant fellow to contend with. And, furthermore, because he reiterates his faith in the real life as against the shame, subterfuges and shibboleths of the existing order, against rigid dogmas, pompous of stuffed up hardened 'strong' individuals, from the point of view of the tentative, the weak and humble folk, his priggish insistence is unwelcome to those who would rather not face the truth not known to them, the complex inner truth of literature which even the poet himself may not be able to explain because it comes from the deeps inside him.

In the second place, it is true of all organised States which have so far been known in history, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and that all governments are, at their best, bad governments, from the very nature of their control, by politicians who must maintain themselves in power somehow or the other. In this context, the law-givers, from the author of the Arthasastra to Machiavelli, left no doubt whatever about what feudal princely regimes ought to do to keep the people down. The whole tradition of Roman Law, on which are based most of the modern systems of jurisprudence, rests on the foundations of the principle of “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's”, without showing much obligation on the part of Caesar to render unto people the things that are the people’s. And, in the development of the modern capitalist State, into Fascism on the one hand and Stalinist tyranny on the other, whatever pretences may be made in the name of the people, the power State has grown more and more omnivorous and comprehensive in its control of thoughts, and thus of the thinker, who is, from the very nature of his being, different from others, perverse, if you like, but certainly relentless in the pursuit of reality.

Thirdly, in the present tensions, produced by all those complex factors, and generated by the various cold and hot wars, the long arm of the State has tightened control on the press, and publishing everywhere (through both indirect and direct means), and, with the help of commercialism, dammed up the distribution and flow of new and genuine creative works between nations and nations. Thus truthful utterance finds difficulty in being expressed. And the men of truth are either brought up by privilege and money, or by those who own the means of mass communication, so that they speak half-truths, or quarter-truths, or are put on the shelf as safe men and women, knights or prize-winners or members of the upper houses of the State.

The “crisis of conscience” which we see before us resides, then, mainly, in the situation about the treatment of almost all original thought as “dangerous thought.” All opposite opinion is supposed to belong to the enemy camp, in the intolerance generated by fanatical sectional, orthodox minds, obsessed by the rightness of their own dogmatic religions, condemning others for differences of opinion based on caste or race or colour. In recent years, we have seen various States denying visas to those who say there shall be no war, thus preventing enlightened individuals from meeting, lest they might influence each other about such fundamental truths and values as can be held in common by private individuals.

If what has been said above approximates to any extent with the actual situation subsisting between the writer and the various States, then the less control there is by the State on the intellectuals the better it is for both of them.

For, it may be possible that the way for the writer is to enjoy maximum freedom, even if this freedom makes him oppose the tenets of a particular State, because, so far, much of the intellectual advance which has been made by humanity is through the free thoughts of the freest minds of every particular age. And, though the State has seemed always to win in the immediate present, it always earned enough obloquy after the event. Nobody condemns Socrates for his loose talk, but everyone resents those who made him drink the hemlock; hardly anyone has a good word for those who killed Galileo; and there are few, even among the Fascists and the Communists, who will condemn the crimes of Hitler and Stalin against the intellectuals. Thus, the intellectual tends to be justified by posterity, for what was once supposed to be wrong but was really more right than the routine popular opinion, or habitual thinking as the future proved it to be.

The far-sighted vision of the writer should, therefore,mean the sanctioning the widest liberties for him. And those who love liberty should not be frightened of license. Nobody should be held criminally responsible for writing a work of imagination in which metaphor and imagery dominate, where nothing is literal, and where the author creates many characters who often say things which the author himself may or may not believe qua author, but which represent the new flow of a freer age.

It might be alleged by the apologists for the State that, as the ordinary laws apply to all other individuals, they should apply equally to the intellectual, and that social responsibility is as much part of his obligations as it is of the ordinary citizen.

I believe, that, as the laws of the modern State are mostly based on several antediluvian and obscurantist hypotheses, relevant to societies with quite different economic and social relations and moralities other than those we ourselves need, these laws are often not binding up ordinary individuals. They must come under constant criticism in a democracy, so that they can be reformed and brought up-to-date to meet the contingencies of an evolving humanity, where the breakthrough between the imagination of men to men, for creating understanding and contact, and for future psycho-social growth is important. The fact that a man's hand can be cut off in punishment for the crime of stealing, even today, or that a hostile look in the eyes of a person can be punished with liquidation by a dictator, or that a traveller has to give finger-prints on entering a country, or an untouchable burnt for stealing some coins are all obsolete survivals of the age of the witch-hunt, which cannot stand the test of intellectual scrutiny. And as already in the 19th century, the most enlightened thinkers tended towards the doctrine of the ultimate withering away of the State, as the only civilised solution of the conflict between the individual and the State, all steps which lead in that direction ought to be accepted as minimum starting points, in any new State much as a own Indian socialist democracy with distinction. And, by this token, the intellectual, who will be in the vanguard of this struggle to achieve the intensest consciousness, should enjoy the greatest liberty, and not be judged from the point of view of the Public Prosecutor, whose tests are generally legalistic fictions and who cannot be expected to understand literary metaphor, symbolism and fantasy, or the freer future built on new concepts of equality and expansion of consciousness.

Unfortunately, however, the suggestion that the State should have as little control over the writer as possible in a technically backward emergent society, is not easily practicable. I realise that even the existence of a new State created by revolution against feudal and Imperial rule, is under the threat of subversion by remnants of the ghosts of the dead orders. There are various functions which the State under the new conditions of the post-freedom period, like those obtaining in India, has to fulfil in creating the mechanics of culture.

As the Central Indian State was first led by a man whose benevolence and tolerance distinguished him from many of the other world politicians, and the direction of our Government-sponsored institutions has been, by and large, towards autonomy, the widest collaboration has been ensured between the State and the writer. The most effective check, however, against the several attempts of this direction may be in achieving full autonomy for these institutions, provided the badly lacking finances are always available from the State without political strings attached. In order to ensure adequate growth to these bodies towards autonomy, independent commissions should be set up, from time to time, to examine their functioning and to secure their integrity.

The creation of other autonomous private organisations of intellectuals, at least for discussion and exchange, may help the academies rather than hinder them in their growth, because the amateur and the professional groups, who are not eligible to the academies, for one reason or the other, can express their urges and achieve recognition for their ideas by the State-sponsored institutions, as also help to extend the range of these institutions.

Similarly, the coming of the National Book Trust does supply the mechanics for the production of books on a mass scale, which no private initiative can bring about under the conditions in which the language and literature of India were left by alien rule. This depends, however, on the spirit in which the National Book Trust functions, that is to say, the extent to which it can involve the private publishers and benefit them with assured, small, reasonable profits, without discrimination, and thus promote the pecuniary interests of writers and publishers.

One of the areas where the Indian State has intervened arbitrarily is in regard to alleged obscene books, paintings and films. Both the Centre, and some of the States, have banned works which have been allowed to be published in several countries of the world. The reason for these shameful actions often given is that the Law of Obscenity which applied under foreign rule has not been revised. But, beyond that lame excuse, is the fact that the standards from which even people in our country often judge works to be obscene are outmoded survivals of our feudal past, when the attitude towards sex was governed by the fear of rape, torture and assault of invaders from outside. The resulting subjugation of women, and the denial of the beauty of sexual relations, and of tenderness between the male and the female, through arranged marriage to guard virginity, has led to a national psychosis in which all frank talk of sex is supposed to be obscene. The puritanism of the Christian Church has also rigified the obscurantist attitudes of the local orthodoxies. The recent discussions about allowing “kissing” in films, if this is organic to the theme, has shown that even the intelligentsia is being offered to justify the ban of kissing in the country which produced the tenderness of the classical art of Khajuraho and Konarak, and where Vatsyayana wrote the Kama Sutra.

The alliance of the establishment with the conservative religions is utterly reprehensible and unworthy of the heirs of Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti and Bhartruhari. There is obvious in our whole country a lack of dynamic in the minds of men for the creation of a new way of life. This dynamic can only be produced by the high pressure, bold thinking and writing of contemporary intellectuals, aware of the subtle and long-range influence of enlightened ideas on the body politic. Without making culture subservient to the State in any manner, it could, in fact, be made the primary concept in which the projects of the plans would figure as an important part. For, after all, the development of the individuals shouldbe the inspirations behind planning, and not the making of the State power more important than it is at present.

At the moment, there is hardly any mention of culture even in the Education Commission Report, and what mechanics of culture have been offered as those which are inevitable to the bureaucratic concepts of culture which can decorate power and glory. An organic cultural development demands, for instance, that the mechanics of theatre, culture-centre, museum, and such other forms, be immediately multiplied by the State, so that culture may grow healthy competition. There is, however, as yet little realisation among the planners that in the modern age the processes of culture are as essential as bread and water, or more essential in view of the inroads made by advanced technologies on the life of the individual. The framers of our plan seem not to be aware that if there are no checks and balances through the cultural evolution against the inevitable coming of an industrial society, then the horrors of the commercialist West may be visited upon our own people in a far worse form than in Europe and America.

It is unlikely these and other criticisms of the direction can be made unless the intellectuals themselves take up the struggle for the fundamental right of free expression, embodied in our Constitution. The intelligentsia seems negligent, frightened and busy with internecine warfare for power, money and position. For this reason, whatever the difficulties of finding a balanced relationship between the writer and the State, this relationship has to be built by those who believe in free expression, on the basis of absolute independence and mutual respect in the absence of fear of discrimination and revenge in case the writer’s ideas turn out to be wholly critical of the State and even antagonistic to it. And some responsive connection for generosity and nobility from both sides, the State and the writer is asked for. Certainly, the present situation requires courage from the writer.

Published in Triveni, January - March 1974, pp. 53-59

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