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Aesthetics and Politics
Subha Prasad Nandi Majumdar IPTA, Silchar Unit
Introduction Entire question of aesthetics and politics of our performances can be brought down to the never-ending debate on form and content that appeared in IPTA and its fraternal organization since the day of their inception. From Bengal to Kerala, all the state units wherever progressive cultural movement could make its presence felt through performances, this debate stirred the internal environment of the organisation. Looking back at History, one cannot infer that the debate weakened our movement. Although many a stalwart joined and left our organization as a fall out of this debate. Ultimately the debate strengthened progressive cultural movement in this country, not by defeating the opponent camp of preachers of separation of art and politics, but also by allaying the confusion among the ranks of progressive camp regarding over emphasizing on contents and belittling aesthetics of protest culture. We cannot claim that the confusion is completely over. Therefore, a fresh look in to the debate will further strengthen our understanding of people's art. Moreover, battle was not always between the camp of 'art for art's sake' and their opponents, fierce debate ensued on the way of translating the ideal of people's art in to our creations. It would not be out of place here to mention about some of past instances of the debate mentioned above. In the meeting of commission on music in Bombay Conference of IPTA, difference of opinion arose between two exponents of people's culture, Hemango Biswas and Salil Choudhury. Hemango Biswas, who was setting most of his lyrics to folk tunes, was in favour of relying only on folk tunes for mass songs with an eye to take it to the peasant masses. Salil Choudhury, on the contrary was of the view of blending folk tunes with harmony of western music. He went to the extent of making oblique remark to Com. Biswas to give up traveling by train, as that is a gift of western civilization and accept bullock cart that is used by the peasant masses. Com. Biswas, in reply accused Com. Choudhury of propounding formalism in people's art. During later part of his life, however Com. Biswas could realize shortcoming of his position and went on to compose mass songs with diverse experimentation. It may be mentioned here that during the debate in Bombay Conference, both Com. Biswas and Com. Choudhury touched upon certain important aspect of people's culture, which was not dealt with till then, but ultimately entire exercise ended in personal accusations. Later on, in the late forties of last century Sambhu Mitra and others got involved in yet another fierce debate on the nature of theatrical productions of IPTA. Sambhu Mitra opined in favour of putting up finished performances in the stages like New Empire and other theatre houses and his opponent, while highlighting the agitprop character of plays of IPTA, stood in favour of mobility of IPTA productions. They emphasized on the purpose of people's theatre activists. Ultimately, Sambhu Mitra broke away to raise a new slogan of 'Nabanatya' against 'Gananatya'. Here also, some important issues of people's culture were in the backdrop of the debate, but a possible healthy debate ultimately died prematurely getting shaped in to battle of egos. In Kerala, furious controversy developed regarding relative primacy of form and content. EMS, in his article from underground under the pseudonym 'PS',
fought the battle in favour of primacy of content. The debate took the shape of battle between 'perfect form' and 'perfect content'. Later EMS realized and commented that during debate of 'perfect form' and 'perfect content', both himself and his opponent, Prof. Joseph Mundassery were incorrect. He commented: " It is fact of life that a truth emerges out of a conflict between two wrongs. The development of society is through contradictions. Thus the Roopa Bhadrata (Perfect 2 Form) argument, which arose out of our conflict, was wrong, in another sense it was correct too. Evaluating the worth of literature we should never confine ourselves to content alone. Mundassery was correct in insisting that form too is to be evaluated... We accept that we were wrong on that count....We looked at literature through political eyes. So we did not pay sufficient attention to the artistic structure of literature. That was our mistake......they viewed form and content as two separate categories and argued for perfection in both. That was their theory. In fact form and content are not so separate or conflicting categories." Aesthetics and Politics Debate existed regarding priorities, in case of form and content. Anyone seeking to emphasize on forms of a particular art piece was seen as a person indulging in aberrations and persons focusing only on content was accepted as great revolutionaries. Truly speaking, to separate form and technique in to two watertight compartments has been an unfortunate practice in the progressive cultural movement for long. When form or aesthetic part of a cultural piece is seen in isolation from content or politics of the context, one is led to take inferences where by all the endeavour becomes a mechanical exercise. Change in aesthetics over the long period of human history is effected by the on going changes in the politics. On the other hand, denuding aesthetics or form of a particular art piece of politics is utterly unhistorical. Novels, sonnets, ballads, operas, even Khayal or Dhrupads etc. emerged at different juncture of history in different political systems in response to the aesthetic needs of a particular society. An art form, which came in to being in a particular time cannot be replicated in a time essentially different from the time of its origin. A song of protest of present time can never be composed in the format of Khayal or Dhrupad. With the change of time a cultural geography undergoes spectacular transformation compelling the language of art form to be different. History can inspire new productions, but an art piece of yesteryears can hardly be replicated. At different point of history, artists turned to past to draw inspiration, as it happened in case of artists of Bengal School in our country, but whatever came out of that endeavour was actually a contemporary version of past. A new dimension in the form of interpretation did get added to them. Hence it is understandable that aesthetics and politics of an art piece can never be seen being divorced from one another. One not only determines the other, but also sometimes gets overlapped. It so happens that a particular art form becomes synonymous with a particular period of history. With the change of time, internal dynamics prevalent in the art form effects changes in it too. Our collective experience It is true that the IPTA movement, since its inception in the forties of last century, unleashed a powerful cultural movement in the country that sought to liberate the
world of creativity from the stranglehold of the ruling classes. But in the process of building an alternative to the traditional pattern of hegemony gave room to over centralization in the structure of organization as a result of which IPTA productions of latter years lost life and became stereotyped. Songs of protest heard like the marching songs, plays invariably ended on most occasions with the have-not's holding aloft the banner of hammer and sickle, visual arts depicting the grim-faced toilers throwing fist in the blue. Any departure from these formats was viewed as liberalism. These songs, plays and other controlled creativities never touched the masses, remained alive in the refuge of a committed few. While making the above remark on the stereotyped nature that ultimately dominated most of the IPTA productions, one never forgets the golden contribution that the movement of IPTA made in the realm of creativity in the country. If we limit our attention to the cultural scene of Bengal also, then the impact of the movement of IPTA can be noticed in the radical changes in the language of art in different art forms following emergence of IPTA. Bengali literature, film, modern songs and other art pieces took a different 3 trajectory after emergence of IPTA, but the movement itself lost its track and ultimately got distanced from the hub of Bengali culture. It is therefore urgently necessary to restart the discussion on the aspect of aesthetics and politics of the cultural pieces that we do create, especially at a time when a strong cultural resistance is in the process of taking shape against the menace of globalisation and fundamentalism today. Tradition and cultural movement While dealing with the tradition of our country, our strategy, earlier was to accept the traditional art form only, keeping the content of the tradition at bay. This understanding, although never stood in the way of creations of some of the brilliant cultural pieces in the history of IPTA, but whole thinking suffered from myopia. Two oversimplified conclusions followed this. (a) Traditional art form was assumed to be separable from the traditional content. (b) In case of content, anything traditional was arbitrarily portrayed as reactionary. It is a mechanical proposition to think of separating the traditional forms the content of the tradition. A particular art form does emerge to articulate a particular content in a given cultural milieu. Erecting a wall artificially in between form and content leads us to incorrect understanding of the question. Secondly, to accept tradition as a monolithic structure of reaction would be an example of wrong understanding of history. Tradition is essentially the product of the struggle of opposites inherent in it. Despite the stranglehold of ruling elites, instances of popular resentment and even, popular protest may be found in tradition too. Progressive cultural movement can hardly overlook this aspect of tradition, especially when the forces of right reaction are recasting our tradition to carry on their hegemony. Our performance of protest must identify those areas in the tradition where the saga of people's resistance is hidden. While tapping the enormous potential of the traditional form, reinterpretation of tradition must also be taken up. In order to build up a strong cultural movement, localization of ideology is utterly important. This can be done by searching for the heritage of popular resistance in the tradition and by redefining our movement as the successor of the glory of struggle in the tradition. Exercise of localisation of
ideology was always accepted at theoretical level, but now it is high time to translate it in our creations. Dilution of aesthetics To many of us in the progressive cultural movement culture is something, which is related to agitprop only. Reducing entire exercise of the cultural movement to agitprop is to confine the ambit of cultural movement to a narrow contour. In the process dilution of aesthetics is propagated as the cardinal feature of progressive art piece and in the name of simplicity, ultimately what is produced is nothing but a variety of mediocrity. It is not to infer that agitprop should not figure in the agenda of cultural movement, but making it be all and end all of the movement, would distance performance of protest culture from the centre of creative activities and push it to periphery. If we look at our folk tradition, then innumerable instances of art pieces can be cited, which are appreciated by common people since time immemorial despite its aesthetic quality being not so dilute. In the name of approaching common people, to make a restriction on aesthetics is actually an example of petty bourgeoisie dilemma. Kabir's doha or Lalan Fakir's folk songs espoused high philosophy which urban middle class is yet to decipher and interpret, but poorest of the poor of our countryside had been its connoisseur for centuries. Kabir or Lalan never found it difficult to take their songs to the heart of common people. All the historic artworks attained greatness, basically because of popular acceptance. Those became great because they passed the test of time. So underestimating people's level of appreciation is in a way amount to underestimating people's power. Relying on people's political power and at the same time. underestimating their level of appreciation of art cannot go together. It is erroneous to stand for diluted aesthetics on the plea of people's appreciation level. It is a kind of mediocrity which progressive cultural movement can hardly practice. Conclusion Philosophically speaking, it is not possible to conclude the discussion on this question because any conclusion on this would not only be unhistorical, but will land us in a situation where openness, the feature of all creativities would come to an end. But we can conclude this attempted paper with two quotations, both of them relate to Com.EMS, the most outstanding scholar to have dealt the question. First, is an article by Com. P. Govinda Pillai on EMS's contribution to the study of art and literature. “..He (EMS) asserted the unity and complementarity of form and content and rejected as un-Marxian the dichotomy of form and content. Form is the mode of existence of content and content is what is contained in the form. Though it is quite legitimate for us to consider form and content apart for the purpose of analysis and study, it would be absurd and unscientific to tear one from the other as irreconcilable categories." (In the Literary and Cultural Arena: P. Govinda Pillai; The Marxist, Jan-June, 1998) Second is a quotation from EMS's essay on Marxism and Literature quoted in the above-mentioned article by P. Govinda Pillai. " Class struggle is, of course, relevant and crucial to aesthetic production and appreciation, as it is to every other form of social activity. This is a truth worth repeating and emphasizing, since it is denied by non-communists. It should be clearly borne in mind, however, that the class struggle manifests itself in the field of aesthetic production in a way different from other field, and that aesthetic
production and appreciation have their own laws independent of, though related to, laws in other fields."
Paper was presented at a seminar on ‘Aesthetics and Politics’, organised in connection with All India Meet of People’s Theatre Activists at Guwahati on June 2003 .