A culture of politics

Mahim Pipeline, April 15 2018

Mahim Pipeline, April 15 2018

A concise version of this was published in the Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times.

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

PETKOFF: Raina is accustomed to a very comfortable establishment. Sergius keeps 20 horses.

BLUNTSCHLI: But what on earth is the use of 20 horses? Why, it's a circus. ... (He goes impetuously to the table and seizes the telegram.) How many horses did you say?

SERGIUS: Twenty, noble Switzer!

BLUNTSCHLI: I have 200 horses. How many carriages?

SERGIUS: Three.

BLUNTSCHLI: I have 70. Twenty-four of them will hold 12 inside, besides two on the box, without counting the driver and conductor. 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 eider-down 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 from George Bernard Shaw’s play when earlier this week, an organisation called Nation First Collective released a statement on behalf of “907 artists and persons in the field of Literature” in which they declared their support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This show of strength and numbers 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 spoken of in the same breath as actors Gufi Paintal and Sudesh Berry? Yet that apparently is the demographic that this list is looking to swing – the voter who can’t decide who 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 front and centre this election season. Don’t judge mainstream entertainment by the insane, plastic artifice of Student of the Year 2 (whose trailer, with its championing of polyamory, dropped last week). We’ve also got the tortuously-bad The Tashkent Files – possibly the first time a twirade (Twitter + tirade) has been adapted to film – and had the Election Commission of India not intervened at the last minute, Vivek Oberoi’s comeback vehicle, PM Narendra Modi, would have been playing at a cinema near you.

On the other side are comedians like Kunal Kamra, who stood in different parts of Mumbai with placards that read “Don’t vote for Modi” and “But also f*ck Congress”, and the live act Aisi Taisi Democracy in which comedians Sanjay Rajoura and Varun Grover attack politicians and the establishment with savage wit. Anand Patwardhan has uploaded his documentary Reason, a four-hour exploration into brahminical Hindu majoritarianism, on YouTube for easy access. Collectives like Karwan e Mohabbat are circulating short videos that remind us of horrific hate crimes and of the importance of political engagement despite the overwhelming sense of despair that plagues so many of us.

Open up your social media platform of choice, and you’ll find people sharing fact-checks, memes, quotes from campaign speeches and videos that range from appalling to sickening. Add to this mix the selfies that are circulated enthusiastically and the lists in which hundreds of signatory artists support one political party or another, and everything under the umbrella of culture is tinted by the politics of their creators. Whether this mood will last beyond May 23 is anyone’s guess, but right now, every song you choose to play, every film you watch, every book you pick up is a political choice. Not a choice for a political party, mind you, but a choice about what kind of ideology you support. The ascent of Hindutva is not limited to the workings of one political party.

While political leaders are wooing the bulk of India’s voting population with speeches that appeal to one set of anxieties and heartstrings in the immediate present, there’s a digital campaign targeting a new minority: The urbane, middle and upper middle classes. Usually, this demographic is dismissed for being apathetic, but this time, theirs are among the loudest voices, particularly if you listen for those critical of the establishment. Chances are they’re being 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 one sentence on the Mahim pipeline: “Who will watch the Watchmen???” A short gap away, written in the same white paint is “Daku” (dacoit), which is rather perfect for the watchman metaphor and may also be the artist’s signature, but I have no confirmation if this is indeed India’s Banksy at work again. Whether that painted question is a challenge, an empty threat, a prank or just vandalism depends on the eye of the beholder. By the time the elections are over, it’ll probably get dulled by fumes and grime, but for now, the almost 2000-year-old question gleams brightly against the shadow-coloured slums and dust-smudged skyline of a 21st-century city.

The unknown artist who is responsible for that graffiti is obviously making a cheeky reference to the current conversation regarding watchmen (which translates to chowkidar), while drawing upon American pop culture (the phrase has been used by Star Trek and the film Watchmen), but they’re also quoting a Roman satirist named Juvenal who coined that phrase around 100 CE.

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 worldview. 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.