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Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019

Artists and the art of politicking

After years of insisting that culture is entertainment and entertainment is apolitical, the politics of culture and its practitioners are in the spotlight

mumbai Updated: Apr 13, 2019 23:24 IST
Deepanjana Pal
Deepanjana Pal
Hindustan Times
Actor Vivek Oberoi, part of the Nation First Collective which released a statement on behalf of “907 artists and persons in the field of Literature”, declaring their support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this week.
Actor Vivek Oberoi, part of the Nation First Collective which released a statement on behalf of “907 artists and persons in the field of Literature”, declaring their support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this week.(Anshuman Poyrekar/HT Photo)
         

Towards the end of the play Arms and the Man, when he has to prove his worth in order to get the girl, the hero Captain Bluntschli wades into a hilarious bit of chest-beating.

BLUNTSCHLI: How many tablecloths have you?

SERGIUS: How the deuce do I know?

BLUNTSCHLI: Have you 4,000?

SERGIUS: No.

BLUNTSCHLI: I have. I have 9,600 pairs of sheets and blankets, with 2,400 eiderdown quilts. I have 10,000 knives and forks, and the same quantity of dessert spoons.

(In case you were wondering, Bluntschli is not the emperor of Switzerland, as some characters in the play suspect, but the proprietor of luxury hotels.)

I was reminded of this scene when earlier this week, Nation First Collective released a statement on behalf of “907 artists and persons in the field of Literature”, declaring their support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This came in response to statements from 600 theatre practitioners, 100 filmmakers and a similar number of visual artists appealing to the Indian voter to vote out divisive politics from power. It’s as though the Nation First Collective took its cue from Bluntschli and decided it’s a number game and they’re going to show the other artists who’s boss.

If the names of those urging people to vote for secular forces are predictable, the 907-strong list is a thing of wonder. Who’d have thunk there would come a time when luminaries of Hindustani classical music like Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar and Pandit Debu Chaudhary would be clubbed with actors Gufi Paintal and Sudesh Berry? Yet that apparently is the demographic which Nation First Collective is looking to swing – the voter who can’t decide whom to vote for and turns to Pandit Jasraj and Koena Mitra for direction.

After years of insisting that culture is entertainment and entertainment is apolitical, the politics of culture and its practitioners are in the spotlight. From selfies that are circulated enthusiastically to the lists in which hundreds of signatory artists support one political party or another, these are campaigns targeting a demographic that usually dismissed for being apathetic. This time, however, theirs are the loudest voices, particularly if you listen for those critical of the establishment. Maybe they’re amplified by the echo chamber of social media, but you can only amplify something if it’s there in the first place.

Earlier this week, someone painted “Who will watch the Watchmen???” on the Mahim pipeline. The graffiti acknowledges the current conversation regarding watchmen (or chowkidar), while drawing upon American pop culture (the phrase has been used by Star Trek and the film Watchmen) and quotes a Roman satirist named Juvenal from 100 AD. In a month, the white paint will dull and fade, but for now, the almost 2000-year-old question gleams brightly against the dust and grime of a 21st century world city.

The best part is that Juvenal appears to have been a bit of a sexist homophobe who was anti-immigrants – just the sort of gent you expect would be for a National Register of Citizens, for example. Yet here in Mumbai, his words are being used to attack that very world view. That’s the trouble and beauty of art. Despite the best intentions of its creators, art tends to have a mind of its own, moulding itself upon the needs of the hive mind of the audience and artists who keep it alive.

First Published: Apr 13, 2019 23:24 IST

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