The Artist in Contemporary India: Reflections

I watched Vir Das’ performance with a sense of awe. His words were pure poetry, poignant and powerful. He had chosen each word carefully, with precision and perfection in every word, the essence of those words deeply disturbing yet patriotic. The video was equally communicative, and the loud applause followed by an eery silence at the end was extremely impactful, and it felt like a loud wail lamenting the loss of an India that had proudly welcomed diversity in its journey towards independence.

I am old enough to remember that we once celebrated diversity. The slogans that the state sponsored were all about unity in diversity. There was an attempt to accept and tolerate differences. The cheesy Hindi slogans that sounded forced and fake no longer connect with the homeland of my dreams. Can I get it back in my lifetime? I doubt as I see a concerted attempt at erasing differences of all kinds, as we progress at a slow yet steady pace towards a terrifying dystopia of a nation.

As the video of Vir Das ends we sense an unbearable sadness creeping into our selves. How do I express that anguish, that sense of loss? As a child, being an Indian, a citizen of this country, was all about the parade and singing of patriotic songs on Republic day. It was the sense of camaraderie between school kids from different schools as they rehearsed in the stadium in the bright scorching sun, it was the free rose milk packets and snacks distributed during the rehearsals, it was the harmony of voices rising and falling as the band played along, it was a beautiful moment when I felt a sense of belonging as we raised our voices in harmony and then get on with our lives on every other day, like a regular school girl coping with her life.

As Vir Das faces penal action I am forced to think of what it means to me now, being an Indian, being a citizen and it bogs me down with a heavy sense of foreboding about the fears, the terrorized gaze of the Other. There are constant reminders about my identity as an Indian in multifarious ways every single day, when a Muslim is lynched in the streets, when a journalist is shot to death, when eminent scholars stay in prison for years without a trial, when an old frail man is denied a sipper, when the cow science becomes too overwhelming, when I think twice before writing a critical statement, when friends tell me to be more careful, when I sense aggression and violence on the streets, when I begin to fear my neighbour, but above all, when I see the artist feeling the heat of  censoring, cautioning voices in her head.

Vir Das is one among the many creative citizens who are being admonished for speaking eloquently about the paradoxical growth curve of the new Indian society. Why can’t we accept this reality and be self-reflective? Is it because of the celebration of violence and intolerance in our society? The violence in private and public spaces is a frightening reality and virtual spaces offer the anonymity to express the toxic thought processes of an average Indian citizen. Or is it the sense of powerlessness among the population that terrifies them to aggression and apathy? Or is it the hegemonic powers exploiting the insecurities of a hapless populace? I wish I knew the answers. But I do know that when an artist is silenced, we are embarking on a dangerous journey, where we are abandoning the democratic values carefully nourished by generations of idealists who sacrificed themselves for a place they believed to be their home.

Swapna Gopinath, Associate Professor , SIMC, Pune

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