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The Uselessness of Art


I had just sent out a few emails to friends, requesting support for the Covid-19 fund we had set up for marginalised artists when I received a probing email. “Are you being parochial trying to take care of just your own ilk?” a friend enquired. “Daily wage earners, labourers, homeless and so many others need help, but you have specifically looked only at the artist community. You speak so often of inclusiveness, a boundary-less society … are you not drawing lines, especially during a crisis?” he thundered. It is another matter that we were working on a couple of fronts: one that tried to address the needs of migrant workers and another of the artists who required support. But the question still held.

It made me reflect on the instinct that prodded me to look out for artists, and question my relationship with the arts and artists. Truth is, all of us think in concentric circles. The closest and most intimate is our immediate family and the one farthest is humanity as a whole. The circle closest to us is the biggest spur to action. Therefore, thinking about the condition of artists was a natural response for me—an artist. It was important that a friend fla­gged up this “personal stake”—of this sense of “our community” and the need to protect them first. We have to be alert to this inherent self-centredness because, driven by the need to earn social capital within own kinship, we may act unethically.

Yet, even on normal days, artists are neglected, rarely coming into focus. And in a crisis like the present pandemic, they have been entirely forgotten. This failing is not new—it is born out of a systemic and social lack of concern. So, perhaps, it behoves us to examine what support structures mean for the arts and artists.

Patronising Art

There is a national discourse about cultural diversity, our richness of art and craft, the innumerable patterns, movements, tones, shapes, fragrances, and textures that our people conjure up. In the pages of magazines and dailies, we read about design styles, textiles, the music, the dances, and the mythological tales painted on the walls of homes. The list is truly endless. All this would lead us to infer that this is a land that celebrates its art traditions, where artists are at the very centre of the government’s cultural vision. Nothing could be further from the truth. Irrespective of who has been in power, governments have cared very little for the arts or its practitioners. If anything, the latter have survived in spite of sociopolitical apathy.

But how do we, as a society, view art and artists? The upper castes and others from upper sections of Other Backward Class (OBC) communities control cultural ideas and policy in this country. In their mind, art forms that are significant or that need attention have always been those valued by the upper castes (cutting across religions). This control group defines cultural and aesthetic values. It is the arts, crafts, and artists that the upper castes certify as worthy that receive support.

Even here—in what is perceived as the “high arts”—there are limits. In the Indian middle-class, upper-caste psyche, “the making of art is a service, not one from which the artist must economically benefit.” Making money is a mere accident, a by-product upon which the artist must not place importance. Artists belonging to the same social bandwidth have bought into this philosophical tenet. Consequently, remuneration in art has always remained well below that of any other area of economic activity. Art, in fact, is hardly ever referred to as
economic activity.

There are, of course, anomalies to this in the form of super-rich painters or performing artists. But you will find that, in many of these cases, the money came from outside the country or from wealthy businessmen. Individual artists and their art objects become a tool to add value to someone else’s social standing. This results in significant financial gain for an individual, but in no way changes the system. Within the world of art, such artists are accused of having sold their souls. Folktales about artists who refused to succumb to financial offers made by kings are never-to-be-forgotten moral lessons. The lesson being, frugality and limited needs are prerequisites for a sincere, serious artist. The artist is expected to be a quasi-ascetic. Of course, most impresarios, patrons, and aficionados who applaud this trait live a life of relative affluence. If we remove the superstars and the ascending stars from the equation, we will find that a large percentage of artists who practise even privileged art forms live a lower-middle-class or middle-class life, unless, of course, they come from affluence.

If this is how art held in high esteem by the upper-caste cultural policymakers fares, what, then, of art forms that exist on the very rim of society? At the launch of my book Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers (on mrdangam1 makers), Member of Parliament Thol Thirumavalan said something that has stayed with me. The mrdangam is an instrument played primarily by Brahmins but made predominantly by Dalits. Thirumavalan asked: “When mrdangam makers, whose creations are played by Brahmins on Brahminical stages, have been invisibilised, what will be the socio-economic state of the Parai artists (an instrument made and played by Dalits).”

We have always used artists on the lower steps of the social hierarchy, living with very limited means, as “showpieces” to display the heterogeneity of India. In reality, the state has cared very little about them or their lives. And we must challenge this not merely in terms of economy but also since it is emble­matic of India’s jagged and unequal sociopolitical–economic landscape. Most performing arts are geography- and culture-specific, and depend on non-privileged and socially confined audiences. This means that the survival of these artists depends on how their societies are constructed and evolved. Without engaging with the socio-politics of the region and art form, it is impossible for us to comprehend the struggles that engulf the artists themselves. Many performing arts are bound by caste obligations—a caste duty towards those who may control the concerned temple or social ritual. And, in most cases, the practitioners too have internalised this violent structure.

Prejudiced Aesthetics

Art associated with the marginalised castes is described as folk, rural, raw and ethnic—words that seem to express appreciation, but simultaneously damn them with faint praise, signifying them as unrefined and inferior artistic expressions. The arts of the upper castes are venerated in the belief that they require greater intensity, discipline, and sophistication by people who have never truly entered the aesthetic spaces of any of the “other” art forms. This condescension is casteism masquerading as aesthetic evaluation and sophistication.

Recently, as a response to Sebastian & Sons, a few comments were made about mrdangam makers. The tone and content had callousness written all over. Mrdangam-making, the argument went, was not inherently complex or intricate. Critics claimed that most of what the makers did was a result of trial and error, implying that not much thought goes, or needs to go, into the making. Most of the innovations, it was said, were a result of the inputs given by the mrdangam artists. In other words, the makers were only physically skilled, with little or no mind. Other than being factually wrong, this argument is also deeply disturbing. Only when the privileged shed our intellectual arrogance will we understand the genius in the maker’s work. This inability to wholeheartedly respect and admire their work comes from inherent (even unconscious) casteist tendencies that are buried under the sensitive liberal exterior. What is worse is when this is paraded as objective intellectualism.

In some responses, so-called upper-caste liberals were uncomfortable that the book had created equivalence between the making of the mrdangam and the artistry involved in its playing. While I have not actually done that, the fact that the book was read in such a manner and that it troubled some readers was revealing. In order to remain liberal yet demolish even a remote possibility of equivalence, they reasoned that it was not necessary to compare the two (making and playing). As long as we respect each activity for what it is, there is no problem, one person said. This is a dangerous argument that cleverly circumvents the reasons for disrespect, marginalisation (social, aesthetic, and intellectual) and surreptitiously establishes upper-caste intellectual superiority.

When this is the cultural attitude of even the liberals among the dominant, how is an artist practising a non-privileged art form to achieve economic comfort or social significance? Their poverty or near-poverty is normalised because it is believed that the art they practice does not deserve any better—no matter that this will never be publicly said. This is exactly why governments pay even mid-level “classical” artists 10 times more than what they pay senior “folk” artists. Their worth is calculated by discriminative powerful minds.

This has led many artists to move into agricultural and daily-wage labour. The nurturing of cultural practices, especially when practised by and among people who are marginalised, requires the state to take proactive action that comes from respect and admiration, and not as a product of the “saviour” syndrome. The Indian government has only engaged with margi­nalised art when it is declared to be “dying.” Even in such situations, it has done little to revive local cultural environments in the places where these art forms are cradled.

The area of textiles is an interesting case of how the privileged saviour could queer the pitch. Reviving diverse traditional ways of fabric colouring, designing, and production has been a mission for many individuals and non-governmental organisations. This has led to natural fabric and handmade clothing becoming a symbol of Indianness, elegance, and sensitivity for upper-caste Indians. For this to have happened, activists re-choreographed the designs and texture of these fabrics to suit the taste of the upper-caste elite. This palette of colours and designs is so well-established today that it has become a universal aesthetic aspiration. Keeping cases of exploitation aside, this has definitely resulted in more money in the hands of weavers. Some may still argue that the percentages are skewed towards the big labels and outlets that make them available to people in India and abroad.

But it is another question that bothers me, one related to aesthetic discrimi­nation. We have asked the weavers to alter their sensibilities to suit the “new” market or found ways of making the old contemporary. All this is rightfully justified as necessary for capturing the imagination of the moneyed middle- and upper-middle-class urbanites. Weavers and artists have always changed their ways to cater to new customers, but we cannot ignore the fallouts from these specific transformations. First, we have passed judgment on the aesthetic choices of the people who produce these fabrics. We told them that their taste was not good enough or needed a facelift. Second, we have distanced handmade clothing from its home town or village. In many cases, prices have increased, making it unaffordable for the local person. In other words, the cultural environment was sidestepped, even ignored.

When women in small towns, villages, and in the backstreets of cities wear synthetic sarees, we consider it lowly and ugly. We forget that, not long ago, we had emb­r­aced synthetic fabrics. Now we have moved back to the handmade because it has been positioned as the new socio-aesthetic stamp of refinement. There is no doubt that traditional textiles, weavers, and dyers needed support. But the question I am posing is about the modus operandi. The revival has been on our (privile­ged) terms. Handloom fabrics are no lon­ger widely worn in the villages and towns where they are made. Activists will say that synthetics are cheaper, but that is an excuse.

Whether it is homemade textiles, woodcraft, or metalwork, it is imperative that we, as a society, work towards ways of supporting art practices such that they remain grounded in the place where they are made or cultivated—even while all social boundaries are broken. Otherwise, we are inducing another measure of discrimination. Our current methods of engagement toy with the marginalised, making sure their lives remain uncertain and they, eternally grateful.

A lot of this comes from the way we situate art in our society. Art in all its expressions is not considered essential, and artists are viewed as mere entertainers. But art is much more than eye candy. It helps us make sense of our existence, reflect, imagine, hope, change, discover, and reinvent ourselves. The arts are emotional murals. Through art, we give form to all that we receive through our senses and locate ourselves in this world. Without art, we will wither. When artists create, there is a selfless affirmation of being, realisation of a larger purpose. This is what the artist means when they say the applause, the smile, that one word of appreciation is their reward.

But since we cannot quantify the artist’s reward, the audience’s joy, and the impact art has on people, we relegate it to the non-economic, low-priority category. Art is a rare form of economic activity that has an impact on every other human endeavour without ever proclaiming its influence. Until we realise that art in all its dimensions and manifestations is indispensable to keeping our society emotionally intelligent and true, we will remain cultural tyrants who control, manipulate, use, and discard artists.


1 The root word for mrdangam is mrd (meaning earth, clay, soil). The sound of the letter “r” in this word is somewhere between “mru” and “mri.” Thus, “mr” rather than “mri” is the appropriate spelling for the instrument mrdangam. This is also closer to the way this sound is represented in the diacritic system.


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Updated On : 11th May, 2020
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