A significant role in fostering the fine arts

On its pages for the arts and culture, The Hindu has explored many thought-provoking subjects

Recently, curating a centenary tribute to Carnatic vocalist D. K. Pattammal, I came across the fact that the film Tyagabhumi (1939) was banned by the British Raj for sedition, but not the nationalist songs Pattammal had rendered in it. However, a gramophone “plate”, with her song for the film Lavanya (1951) bears the stamp “BANNED” across the disc.

Independent India has not been backward in banning films and books — of course, for political, never artistic reasons, with moral policing by self-appointed custodians of culture.

The question is: if governments and establishments fear art and culture so much, how is it that they remain in the margins? Why are they “soft subjects” in the media for little-read supplements? Why are the arts seen as mostly a splash of colour on the page, “light” relief between hardcore news? Why does television never rise above the dull and the shallow in covering art?

True, the past was no paradise for the arts, though newspapers did take culture more seriously in the pre-Internet era. There were more small/niche publications offering serious analyses on the arts and cultural issues. The regional press often excelled in informed critical writings on books and performances. National dailies employed experts on their staff, or commissioned them to write regularly. Whether Subbudu or Amita Malik, the critics came to be identified with the publication they wrote for. They were not totally free from prejudice, but they did have knowledge, discernment, experience. No cub reporter was sent to interview an M. F. Husain or a Shombhu Mitra or an R.K. Narayan.

Moreover, their editors knew instinctively how to get the best from their writers. Arts editors like Shanta Gokhale, Sadanand Menon and S. Kalidas were themselves experts and made their pages reach an international level in depth and range of ideas. K. Narayanan who was News Editor, The Hindu, had an uncanny feel for meaningful areas beyond the routine beat, encouraging writers on culture to examine little-known and less glamorous but more thought-provoking subjects. Reviewing had pride of place, as many newspapers and magazines took their roles seriously in promoting the arts, in educating readers through regular critiques of performances, films, books and other art-related events. No one likes adverse criticism, but in general, the artists respected the knowledgeable reviewer, knowing that criticism was not panning, it was discerning evaluation. Pandit Ravi Shankar actually told a reviewer that he was right in detecting a particular flaw in his own performance.

Illustration by Keshav

Illustration by Keshav
 
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For obvious reasons, films continue to get attention. The main change is that today most publications have stopped reviewing music, dance, books. Theatre is the forgotten stepchild. The Hindu continues to be an exception, though it has started inviting citizen reviews as well. Sadly, probing, diagnostic art criticism has all but vanished in mainstream media. Every artist has become a holy cow and what you get are puff pieces profiling newcomer and veteran with the same breezy superlatives, using the same language for a T.M. Krishna and a Shah Rukh Khan. The trend is also to ask for comments from a heterogeneous group that may not have the stature or the knowledge to express opinions.

Any unfavourable criticism unleashes a storm of protest on social media, harsh, even abusive. Many writers take refuge in vague description rather than sharp analysis, for which they are perhaps not qualified. Most newspapers seem no longer to invest in specialists. Previews have replaced reviews, as publicity replaces evaluation.

Writing, broadcasting and telecasting on matters of culture have an invincible competitor, a new model to follow: Twitter. Everyone is a critic, commentator, analyst and expert. The barrage of tweets and blogs and Facebook comments bring you merely personal reaction, not evaluation. You can read endless “reviews” on the net without knowing anything about style or school, whether an artwork displayed innovation and originality, or even whether it was good or bad.

Sounds negative? But there is an upside. If art is so universally accessible, the idea of the writer on the arts too has to change and evolve to meet the demands of a new kind of existence, in a world where more than ever before in the history of humankind, a tap of the finger can unleash all the cultures of the past and present. And critical vocabulary will have to catch up.

I wouldn’t be surprised if The Hindu found a way to achieve that, as it has refused to stop publishing critical analyses and reviews in its special supplements for the performing arts and literature.

Gowri Ramnarayan was a Deputy Editor with The Hindu. She is a musician, playwright and columnist.

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