The Role of Art, Literature and the Media
By : Justice Markandey Katju, Judge, Supreme Court of India
“Gulon mein rang bhare baade naubahar chale
chale bhi aao ki gulshan ka karobar chale”
Today India is facing gigantic problems. In Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, etc. farmers and weavers are committing suicide regularly. Prices of essential commodities are sky rocketing. Unemployment has become massive and chronic, the educated youth can see only darkness in their lives. Water and electricity shortage is widespread. Corruption and fraud are seen everywhere, even in the highest places. Medicines and medical treatment have become prohibitively expensive for the masses. Housing is scarce. The educational system has gone haywire. Law and order has collapsed in many parts of the country where criminals and mafia are calling the shots.
* The above sher (couplet) of Faiz really means that the objective situation is ripe for thinkers, artists, writers and other genuinely patriotic people to come forward to help the country.
In this situation the role of art, literature and the media in India has become of great importance. An attempt has therefore been made to analyze them.
The Role 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, and they are not meant to propagate social ideas. If art and literature is used for propagating social ideas it ceases to be art and becomes propaganda. Proponents of this view are Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot in English literature, Edgar Allan Poe in American literature, Agyeya and the ‘Reetikal’ and ‘Chayavadi’ Poets in Hindi literature, Jigar Moradabadi in Urdu literature and Tagore in Bengali literature.
The other theory is that art and literature should serve the people, and help them in their struggle for a better life, by arousing the people’s emotions against oppression and injustice and increasing their sensitivity regarding the people’s sufferings. Proponents of this school are Dickens and George 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 Erich Maria Remarque in German, Cervantes in Spanish, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Gorki in Russian, Premchand and Kabir in Hindi, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and Kazi Nazrul Islam in Bengali and Nazir, Faiz, Josh and Manto in Urdu.
Which of these two theories should be adopted and followed by artists and writers in India today?
Before attempting to answer this question it is necessary to clarify that there have been very great artists and writers in both these schools. For instance, Shakespeare and Kalidas can be broadly classified as playwrights belonging to the first school i.e. ‘art for art’s sake’. Their plays serve no social purpose beyond providing entertainment and understanding of human impulses and motivations. Though he was basically a realist, Shakespeare had no intention of reforming society or combating social evils. Yet undoubtedly Shakespeare is an artist of the highest rank. One is simply amazed by his insight and portrayal of human psychology and the springs of human action. Whether it be his Tragedies or Histories or Comedies, one is amazed and wonderstruck by his depiction of human nature and human motivations. Be it Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Falstaff, Julius Caesar or Iago - these are all characters so full-blooded that we can recognize them from our own experience as actual human beings from real life.
Similarly, ‘Meghdut’ of Kalidas is nature and love poetry at its highest. The depictions of the North Indian countryside which Kalidas gives, is astonishing in its sheer beauty. Even Wordsworth, the English nature poet, cannot come anywhere near it. Nevertheless Kalidas has no social purpose in his works.
On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw writes his plays almost exclusively with a social purpose in mind – to combat social evils and reform society. Whether it is ‘Major Barbara’ or ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma’, or ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ or `Misalliance’ or Captain Brassbound’s Conversion’, his plays are a powerful denunciation of social injustices and evils. Similarly, Dickens in his novels attacks the social evils in England in his time e.g. the terrible conditions of schools, jails, orphanages, the judicial system, 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 which is closest to thought – is distinguished from other forms of art (e.g. painting and music) by the greater emphasis on thought content as compared to form. On the other hand, an art 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 ‘khyal’ has hardly any thought content (since very few words are used in it), but it has an almost unbelievable power of creating a mood and arousing 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 personally more fond of ‘megh malhar’) which can make one feel that it is raining, or the morning raags like ‘Jaunpuri’, ‘Todi’, ‘Bhairav’ etc. which gently wake you up, or night raags like ‘Darbari’ or ‘Malkauns’ (called ‘hindola’ in Carnatac 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, or a large variety of other raags which create other types of 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 ‘khayal’. However, there is no style or raag in North Indian or Carnatic classical music which arouses the emotion of fighting against social injustices. It is pure art for art’s sake, and yet it is undoubtedly very great art.
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. As regards romanticism, the emphasis in it is on flights of imagination, passion and emotional intensity.
Both realism and romanticism can be either passive or active. Passive realism usually aims at a truthful depiction of reality without preaching anything e.g. the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot or the Bronte Sisters. In this sense it can be called socially neutral. However, sometimes, passive realism preaches fatalism, passivity, non-resistance to evil, suffering, humility, etc. An example of this is Tolstoy’s depiction of the meek peasant Platon Karatayev in ‘War and Peace’ who humbly and cheerfully accepts his fate, or in Thomas Hardy’s pessimistic novels (e.g. ‘Tess’, ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, etc.). Some writers were initially active but later became passive, e.g. Dostoyevski who in ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘Brothers Karamazov’, ‘The Idiot’ etc. powerfully expressed the rebellion of the individual against the forces fettering him, but ended up by calling ‘proud man’ to humility. On the other hand, a writer like Tolstoy was a fatalist in his earlier novel ‘War and Peace’, but became a social reformer in his later work ‘Resurrection’.
Dickens, Victor Hugo, Maxim Gorki, Sharat Chandra, etc. belong to the school of active realists. They oppose fatalism, passivity and non-resistance to evil, and instead inspire people to fight against social evils. For instance in ‘Mother’, Gorki describes the transformation of the oppressed. In it men and women of the Russian common people straighten their backs, purge their souls of the traces left by centuries of oppression, and of everything that suppressed or distorted the sterling potential in human beings which was only waiting to be liberated. Pavel Vlasov and his mother are such people. Similarly, in the stories and novels of the great Bengali writer Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya we find a powerful attack on the oppression of women and against the caste system (see `Shrikant’, `Brahman Ki Beti’, `Gramin Samaj’, etc.).
The strength of passive realism lay in its exposure of human motivations and social evils, but its weakness lay in its lack of positive principles or ideals (see the works of Zola, Taine, etc.). This literature was valuable because of its truthful approach to reality, concentrating on meticulous description of the visible and real (e.g. Henry Fielding’s `Tom Jones’, which is regarded as the first realistic novel) but it showed no way out to the people. It criticized everything but 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.
Passive and active realism can both serve a social purpose. But whereas passive realism often preaches fatalism, pessimism and uselessness of endeavours to improve society, active realism is optimistic, characterized by its solicitude and concern for the people, inspiring them to strive against their plight and improve their social conditions.
In great writers like Shakespeare, Balzac, Tolstoy or Mirza Ghalib it is often difficult to define with sufficient accuracy whether they are romantics or realists. Both trends merge in their works, and 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 pure 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, fairies, etc. who exist in a world of make believe (as in the novels of the Hindi writer Devki Nandan Khatri e.g. `Chandrakanta Santiti’, `Bhootnath’, etc. which were very popular at one time). Much of the ‘reetikal’ Hindi poetry, which was mainly written to please kings and princes, and which deal with subjects like beauty (shringar) and love, belongs to this category. Passive romanticism thus hardly serves any social purpose.
Active romanticism, on the other hand, attempts to arouse man against the evils in society, e.g. Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’, Heine’s ‘Enfant Perdu’, Gorki’s ‘Song of the Stormy Petrel’ and the poem’s of the great Urdu writer Faiz. It thus 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’ are good examples of this school.
It may also be mentioned that ‘art for social purpose’ may be expressed not always in a direct way, but also sometimes in an indirect, roundabout, or obscure way, e.g. by satire. In this connection, reference can be made to Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver Travels’ or `A Tale of a Tub’, Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Cervantes’ `Don Quixote’, Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ and ‘Zadig’ etc. Much of Urdu poetry, which mostly serves a social purpose (as it attacks oppressive customs and practices, like the poetry of Kabir) is expressed not in a direct, but in an indirect way, e.g. the works of Mir, Ghalib, Faiz, etc.
Similarly, ‘art for social purpose’ can also be in a religious garb e.g. much of the Bhakti poetry in Hindi.
We now come back to the question posed earlier. Should artists and writers in India follow the school of ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘art for social purpose’? As mentioned earlier, both schools have produced great artists and writers. What we have to think of, however, is which school would be more beneficial to our country in today’s historical situation. Thus the question who is greater as an artist, Shakespeare or Shaw (I personally think Shakespeare is greater) is not very relevant in India today.
In my opinion in a poor country like India it is the second theory (‘art for social purpose’) alone which can be acceptable today. Our country is facing the tremendous challenge of abolishing poverty, unemployment, inflation, ignorance, casteism, communalism, and other social evils, and hence artists and writers must join the ranks of those who are struggling for a better India, they must inspire the people by their writings, and write against oppression and injustice.
However, what is the scenario before us today? The truth is that there is hardly any good art and literature today. Where is the Sharat Chandra or Premchand or Faiz of today? Where is the Kabir or Dickens of today? Today, there seems to be a total artistic and literary vacuum. Everything seems to have become commercialized. Writers write not for highlighting the plight of the masses but only to earn some money, for the TV or Films.
Some Hindi writers complain that Hindi magazines are closing down. Have these people ever thought why? Evidently, no one is interested in reading what he or she write 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 step onto the streets of Russia he used to 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 a Hindi writer say that the same thing happens to him when he steps onto a street in India? When writers get out of touch with the people and live in a world of their own it is no wonder that no one wants to read what they write.
Today the people in India are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about the people’s real problems it will spread like wildfire. But are our writers doing this? If not, why do they complain that Hindi magazines are closing down? 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, Chernyshevsky and Gorki in Russia and Sharat Chandra and Nazrul Islam in Bengal they must inspire people to struggle for a better life, a life which can be really called a human existence and to create a better world, free of injustices, social and economic. Only then will the people respect them.
The concept of `art for social purpose’ in its active sense that is in the sense of using art and literature for reforming society, is largely of recent origin. It could hardly arise prior to the Industrial Revolution because upto the feudal age the thought that men could improve or change their social conditions by their own effort was rare. The belief upto the feudal times was that whatever has existed or will exist in future is ordained by God or Destiny and man has no role in this connection. It was only after the Industrial Revolution that the thought that man can change his social conditions with the help of science and scientific thinking could arise. Hence almost all art upto the feudal age (e.g. Sanskrit verse and drama) was art for art’s sake, or else art for social purpose only in the passive sense, that is, for preaching that man should accept his lot ordained by God or Destiny.
This was because upto the feudal age, production techniques did not change (or changed extremely slowly) for centuries or even thousands of years. Upto feudal times society was predominantly agricultural. Agriculture was done by backward techniques e.g. the tilling of the soil by the bullock in India and the horse in Europe. The cycle of production kept repeating itself again and again for centuries e.g. the kharif crop in the monsoons, the rabi crop in winter, then again the kharif crop next monsoon etc. On the other hand, modern industrial society is characterized by the revolutionary nature of modern industry. After the Industrial Revolution, which began in Western Europe in the 18th century and gradually spread all over the world, the method of production is constantly changing, due to new scientific discoveries and inventions. Thus while society was broadly static upto feudal times, it is dynamic and fast changing after the Industrial Revolution. This changed situation has given rise to the idea that now man can change and improve his social conditions. Earlier this idea was impossible or Utopian.
Now that the scientific age in the true sense has dawned, and man can change his social conditions by his own efforts, art, too, should help in this great endeavour. Art for arts’ sake in poor.
This was because upto the feudal age, production techniques did not change (or changed extremely slowly) for centuries or even thousands of years. Upto feudal times society was predominantly agricultural. Agriculture was done by backward techniques e.g. the tilling of the soil by the bullock in India and the horse in Europe. The cycle of production kept repeating itself again and again for centuries e.g. the kharif crop in the monsoons, the rabi crop in winter, then again the kharif crop next monsoon etc.
On the other hand, modern industrial society is characterized by the revolutionary nature of modern industry. After the Industrial Revolution, which began in Western Europe in the 18th century and gradually spread all over the world, the method of production is constantly changing, due to new scientific discoveries and inventions. Thus while society was broadly static upto feudal times, it is dynamic and fast changing after the Industrial Revolution. This changed situation has given rise to the idea that now man can change and improve his social conditions. Earlier this idea was impossible or Utopian.
Countries like India in which the vast masses live in poverty and other terrible social conditions, really amounts to escapism.
I would like to appeal to writers in Hindi, Urdu and other Indian languages to use simple language. Hindi and Urdu should both come closer to Khariboli (or Hindustani), which is the people’s language. Often when reading a Hindi book one finds it difficult to understand what is written because it is in very 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? Great literature is in simple language, like the war time speeches of Winston Churchill or in the stories of Premchand and Sharat Chandra.
Having dealt with the role of art and literature we may now consider the role of the media.
The Role of the Media :
What do we see on TV these days? Some channels show film stars, pop music, disco and fashion parades (often with scantily clad young women), astrology, or cricket. Is it not a cruel irony and an affront to our poor people that so much time (and money) is spent on showing cricket, film stars, disco dancing and pop music? What have the Indian masses, who are facing terrible economic problems, to do with cricket, film stars, fashion parades, disco and pop?
I am constrained to say that the Indian media (particularly television) today is largely acting irresponsibly and is not serving the Indian people in its struggle against poverty, unemployment, and other social evils, as it should. Instead, its main aim seems to have become to make money for some people and/or manipulate peoples’ minds in the wrong direction, away from the real issues facing the people.
Historically, the media was born as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. In Europe, the media played a major role in the transformation of feudal society to a modern one. Everyone is aware of the great role the print media played in preparing for, and during, the great British, American and French Revolutions. The only media at that time was the print media, and this was used by great writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Junius, John Wilkes, etc, in the fight of the people against feudalism and despotism. Everyone knows of the great stir created by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet `Commonsense’ during the American Revolution, or of the letters of Junius during the reign of the despotic George III.
The media became a powerful tool in the hands of the people at that time because the people could not express themselves through the established organs of power since these organs were in the hands of feudal and despotic rulers. Hence the people had to create new organs which would serve them. It is for this reason that that the print media became known as the Fourth Estate. In Europe and America it represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the feudal or despotic organs which wanted to preserve the status quo in society.
In the 20th century other types of media have emerged e.g. radio and T.V. (the electronic media).
What should be the role of the media? This is a matter of great importance to our country today when it is facing such massive problems of poverty, unemployment, corruption, etc.
To my mind, in underdeveloped countries like India the media has a great responsibility of fighting against backward ideas like casteism and communalism, and help the people in their struggle against poverty and other social evils. Since a large section of the people is backward and ignorant it is all the more necessary that modern ideas must be brought to them and their backwardness removed so that they become part of enlightened India. The media has a great responsibility in this respect.
Underdeveloped countries like India are passing through a transitional age, between feudal society and modern, industrial society. This is a very painful and agonizing period. A study of the history of England of 17th and 18th Centuries and of France of the 18th and 19th Centuries, shows that the transitional period was full of turbulence, turmoil, revolutions, intellectual ferment, etc. It was only after going through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. India is presently going through this fire. For instance, the barbaric `honour killings’ in Western U.P. districts like Meerut and Muzaffarnagar of young men and women of different castes who get married or wish to get married, etc. show how backward we still are, full of casteism and communalism.
Our national aim must therefore be to get over this transitional period as quickly as possible, reducing the agony which is inevitable in this period. Our aim must be to create India as a modern, powerful, industrial State, for only then will we be able to provide for the welfare of our people and get respect in the world community.
Today the real world is cruel and harsh. It respects power, not poverty or weakness. When China and Japan were poor nations they were derisively called `yellow’ races by the Western nations. Today nobody dares to call them that as they are strong industrial nations. Similarly, if we wish our country to get respect in the comity of nations we must make it highly industrialized and prosperous. For this purpose a powerful cultural struggle, that is, a struggle in the realm of ideas must be waged by our patriotic, modern minded intelligentsia. This cultural struggle must be waged by combating feudal backward ideas e.g. casteism and communalism and replacing them with modern, scientific ideas among the masses.
Art, literature and the media all have an extremely important role in this cultural struggle, as already mentioned above. But are they really performing this role?
No doubt the media sometimes refers to the farmers suicide in Maharashtra, the price rise, etc. but this occupies only a very small part of its coverage (may be 5 to 10 per cent), while most of the coverage is given to cricket, film stars, astrology and disco dancing.
The sad truth is that today in India there is a total disconnect between the mass media and the mass reality. I am giving below a few facts from a speech delivered by Mr. P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of `The Hindu’ and Magsaysay award winner, on September 6, 2007 in Parliament House in the Speaker’s Lecture Series.
The mass reality in India (which has over 70% people living in rural areas) is that rural India is in the midst of the worst agrarian crisis in four decades. Millions of livelihoods in the rural areas have been damaged or destroyed in the last 15 years as a result of this crisis, which is because of the predatory commercialization of the countryside and the reduction of all human values to exchange value. As a result, lakhs of farmers have committed suicide and millions of people have migrated, and are migrating, from the rural areas to cities and towns in search of jobs that are not there. They have moved towards a status which is neither `worker’ nor `farmer’ but many of them end up as domestic labourers or even criminals. We have been pushed towards corporate farming, a process by which farming is taken out of the hands of the farmers and positioned in the hands of the corporates. This process is not being achieved with guns, tanks, bulldozers and lathis. It is done by making farming unviable for the millions of small family farm holders, due to the high cost of inputs (seed, fertilizer, power, etc.) and uneconomic prices.
India ranked 4th in the list of Dollar Billionaires but 126th in human development. This means that it is better to be a poor person in Bolivia (the poorest nation in South America) or Guatemala or Gabon rather than in India. 83.6 crore people (of the total of between 110 to 120 crore) in India exist on less than Rs.20/- a day. Life expectancy in our nation is lower than it is in Bolivia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. According to the National Sample Survey, the average monthly per capita expenditure of the Indian farm household is Rs.503/-. Out of that Rs.503/-, 55% is spent on food, 18% on fuel, clothing and footwear, leaving precious little amount to be spent on education or health. The world report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations shows that from 1995-97 to 1999-2001, India added more newly hungry millions than the rest of the world taken together. The average rural family is consuming 100 kgs. less than what they were consuming earlier. Indebtedness has doubled in the past decade. Cultivation cost has increased exorbitantly and farming incomes have collapsed, leading to wide scale suicides by farmers.
While there were 512 accredited journalists covering the Lakme India Fashion Week, there were only six journalists to cover the suicides in Vidharbha. In that Fashion Week programme the models were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew the cotton were killing themselves at a distance of one hour’s flight from Nagpur in the Vidharbha region. Nobody told that story except one or two journalists locally.
Is this a responsible way for the Indian media to function? Should the media turn a Nelson’s eye to the harsh economic realities in which over 75% of our people are living, and concentrate on some `Potempkin villages’ where all is glamour and show biz? Is the Indian media not behaving like Queen Marie Antoinette who, when told that the people did not have bread, said that they should eat cakes?
No doubt sometimes the media mentions about the farmers suicides in Maharashtra, the price rise in essential commodities etc. but the coverage for this is at most 5 to 10 per cent of its total coverage, whereas the bulk of its coverage goes to showing cricket, the life of film stars, pop music, fashion parades, astrology, etc. Is this not really trying to divert the attention of the Indian people from the real issues which are basically economic to non issues like film stars, disco dancing, cricket, pop music and fashion parades?
Some channels on TV show cricket day in and day out throughout the year. In India cricket is really the opium of the masses. The Roman Emperors used to say, “If you cannot give the people bread give them circuses”. This is precisely the approach of the Indian establishment. Keep the people involved in cricket so that they forget their economic and social plight. What is important is not price rise or unemployment or poverty or lack of housing or medicines, what is important is whether India has beaten New Zealand (or better still, Pakistan) in a cricket match, or whether Tendulkar or Ganguly have scored a century. Is this not sheer escapism?
To my mind, the role of art, literature and media in our country today must be to help the people in their struggle against poverty, unemployment and other social evils and to make India a modern, powerful, industrial State.
For this purpose, scientific thinking should be promoted, as in my opinion science alone is the means for solving our country’s problems. And I may clarify here that by science I do not mean physics, chemistry and biology alone. I mean the entire scientific outlook, which must be spread widely among our people. Our people must develop rational, logical and questioning minds, and must abandon superstitions and escapism, and for this purpose the media can and must play a powerful role.
Many TV channels today show programmes on astrology day in and day out. In my opinion, astrology is superstition and total humbug. Even elementary common sense can tell us that the movement of the stars and planets can have no rational connection with our lives and cannot determine whether one will become a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer or will die at the age of 40, 50 or 60. Astrology is totally unscientific, but many TV channels actively propagate it, which is in my opinion against the national interest.
The nation is today passing through a terrible socio-economic crisis. Artists, writers and media persons must start acting responsibly and help the people who are suffering terribly in solving their problems. And this they can do by focusing on the real issues which are basically economic and not by trying to divert the attention of the people from the real issues to non issues like film stars, cricket, astrology or disco dancing.