If you are a creative person, then India is perhaps one of the most indifferent societies in the world to practice your craft. Given the size of our population, one would think that India provides a vast audience for whatever your creative endeavour might be. It doesn’t.
We have a situation now where more and more people are producing art but hardly anyone is consuming it. People obsessively go on creating new work with no context that supports it.
Bands continue to issue new albums. Poets get their volumes of poetry published. They are doing this for themselves and a few friends. No one else give a pig’s bum. Since one cannot exist in a vacuum, lonely artists create artificial contexts for themselves.
This leads to the formation of stifling ghettos. There is no breaking out of the circle, reaching a wider audience, the unknown reader, the unknown listener. The audience is other fellow practitioners, sometimes not even that. It takes some doing, this thriving in a vacuum.
The lack of response and interest can lead the artist to crippling self-doubt, where she stops producing. One’s talent turns in on itself and commits harakiri.
To avoid this tragic outcome, creative Indians drown themselves in self-promotion. It’s to tell the other that Hey, I’m doing fine, but everyone knows the truth. You are talking only to yourself.
Alternatively, it can give one an exaggerated sense of one’s own achievement. No one understands me here. But the world loves me. The truth is that the west is just not interested in you. The only Indians who succeed in the west are those who happily peddle exotica.
If you are an Indian writer writing like an American writer about the self, they will not read you. If you are an angsty Indian band singing your soul out, they will not listen to you. No wonder that Indian fusion bands and writers who write about spices and poverty do well in the west. For them the Indian is an evergreen tribal, dancing for her dinner.
This unresponsive, stifling atmosphere makes people mean of spirit and pointlessly competitive. Bands that get the occasional chance to play abroad, play up the news locally. It’s to make rivals jealous. But what’s the point of boxing in a ring in an empty arena. It’s not that the tent you played in was full of white fans, who’d been converted to your music in droves.
Anywhere else in the world, it’s imperative that you make it in your own society. Only your audience really gets you. With the lack of an audience here, the odd Indian writer migrates to the west and spends the rest of her career writing explanatory summaries of India and passing it off as a novel.
So many writers. So many bands. Anywhere else, these are the guys who capture the zeitgeist, whom people look up to. The Indian audience lives in a kind of mental stasis. It’s all Lake Placid as far as the head is concerned. Nothing ruffles it. The mind is not open to anything. Once we’ve decided on a handful of actors, musicians and writers as our greats, it doesn’t change for decades. Gulzar will do for us, generation after generation.
One would think that a society of this scale would have room for everybody. It’ll provide those with imagination a vast playground to go out and play. It’s not the case.
Let me say this: everyone can do with appreciation. It’s a trait natural to human beings. What happens when this appreciation is not forthcoming? What happens when every new thing you produce with toil and labour, only hits a dead end, time after time?
Well, it makes you yourself an extremely unresponsive person to someone else’s art. If no one is interested in me, why should I be interested in anyone else? We don’t face this truth. We live in lonely capsules of vacuum and die a million horrible creative deaths. Since we don’t acknowledge our own, we spend our lifetimes looking to the west and consuming its cultural achievements.
As the punk band The Cribs sang: ‘You have to impress our bovine public/ you’d never exist without being generic.’
(The writer is the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India, published by Speaking Tiger)