Friday, May 14, 2010

Where are the Cultural Warriors ?

Where are the cultural warriors? Where have they gone? Have they abdicated their responsibility of being the prism to sift artistic responses and give the reading and viewing public an objective dimension of the arts?

I speak of the much talked about group. The liberals. The custodians of culture, the people who serve as stewards of civilization and mentors to the next generation. They who maintain the pathways into knowledge and taste- the school curriculum, cultural institutions, and cultural pages in newspapers and magazines – guarding them against low standards, ahistoricism, vulgarity and trendiness. If the pathways deteriorate, don’t blame just kids and parents too much. Blame, also, the teachers, gurus, writers, journalists, intellectuals, editors and curators who will not insist upon the value of knowledge and tradition, who will not judge cultural novelties by the high standards set by the past practitioners of art, who will not stand up to the adolescent announcements like “It is time to put away the past. It is childish to look backwards”. It is they who have let down the society that entrusts them to sustain intelligence and wisdom and beauty, and they have failed the youth who can’t climb out of adolescent behaviour on their own.

The well known story of Rip Van Winkle is very relevant at this time. Asleep for twenty years, Rip wakes up to a changed America where the new leader is a President and not the Englishman and the new system is democracy and not colonialism. Rip struggles with the seismic shift in values and attitudes and fails in negotiating the new power structures.
Gurus of knowledge are grappling with the new society where students are unwilling to be scolded and lectured to without a reasonable back up explanation. Attention spans are short and earning opportunities aplenty for the youth. Information is everywhere and tech savvy teeenagers are turning the tables on their seniors who have crowned the venerated untouchables.

In the sphere of dance, we had the most prestigious national awards announced in February and nobody even noticed. The media paid no attention and only clamouring from the artistic community forced the media to carry small reports buried in the back pages. Granted, dancers have done it to themselves with holier than thou attitudes and over reacting to any criticism from the most senior and balanced of critics. Pages for the arts have shut down. Dancers and their cronies are to blame. Meanwhile we have an explosion of teaching, learning and performing. But what kind of dance are we seeing? What is classical, neo, modern, contemporary, experimental? Who knows as new avatars are created everyday. We now have Accro-Natyam, Cabaret Natyam, Military Natyam, Cine Natyam, Sufi Natyam, Neo Natyam, Yesu Natyam, Eelam Natyam Everything but Bharata Natyam the way many of us learned it decades ago. Should it be changed? OF course it will, whether you and I like the change or not.

I return to the question of standards and how we judge the best from the rest. Not sheer numbers in the audience or the quantity of performances. Popularity does not always equal excellence. However, as the medieval Spanish priest says in his seminal help book written secretly in the 12th century,

Let us not imitate Rip Van Winkle and wake up too late, look around the moan for what we could not delayed or resisted. Let us speak, write, argue, shout, lecture and talk about what we really care about. Excellence in dance. Nothing else will do.

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