State of Art

The Indian legend has it that goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswathi respectively bestow wealth and learning to the humankind, though they would never bless the same earthly soul. What’s worse, such was their supposed mythical rivalry that each would deny the one under the other’s patronage and the folklore tales of the rich merchants and the poor pundits were the manifestations of the goddesses at odds. As these tales go, the merchants accumulated wealth, though contributing to the commerce, and the pundits, themselves impoverished, enriched society through their knowledge. Whatever, the merchant and the pundit alike seemed to have reconciled to the enmity of their respective patrons in heaven as they got their share of recognition on earth.

This divine separation of the Mammon and the Muse that was the norm till the recent past was the source of the enrichment of the latter on the Indian soil. As there was no money to be made in the pursuit of the arts it was the talented that embraced it with passion to embellish it with devotion. It was thus, avoided by the ill-suited, art, blessed by the Muses was wedded to the genuine. In that happy conjugation while art found its true means of self-expression, the artist felt self-enriched by the appreciation of the knowledgeable.

Leave alone the classical arts; this art-talent union manifested itself in the modern medium of cinema when it arrived in India. Only those with passion for acting made it to the sets braving the stigma attached to the performing arts by the then prevailing cultural orthodoxy. And same is the case with those who pursue theatre arts with passion in spite of the dwindling public patronage for the same.  Likewise, a young R.K. Narayan was passionate about his writing even at the risk of being a parasite on his family. Well, the list of those artists who pursued or are pursuing art for the sake of art could be exhaustive but the story is not about the artists but it is about the state of the art, indeed the society, in India today.

When Mahatma gave the call for freedom, those that joined the fray came prepared to forgo. Politics was not a paying proposition then and sacrifice was the credo of the freedom fighters. And what talent the struggle attracted is reflected in the galaxy of statesmen we have had then. Nowhere in the annals of the world history, had mankind produced as many exemplary men in a generation or two as did India in those years - that happened only because passion wedded purpose. But what if expediency replaces passion in the political marriage is a public knowledge now. Though not so apparent, this is the case with the state of art as Lakshmi, the harbinger of wealth and Saraswathi, the progenitor of knowledge, seemed to have made up in the heavens. And ironically that occasioned the dichotomy in the theatre of arts on earth.

Let us examine the literary scène to start with. When the masters rendered those classics of yore, literacy of the times was limited to the core. Invariably, that confined literature to the connoisseur and kept it away from the masses. But paradoxically, it is the increase in literacy that caused the degradation of literature! With the multitude of the educated abounding, publishing appeared a fetching proposition to the enterprising. After all, business acumen is all about catering to what the market demands, isn’t it? Understandably though, the masses demand but commonplace reading for easy comprehension! The induced demand for time-pass reading required a customized writing and that insensibly pushed the frontiers of literature to the doorsteps of wordsmiths. In due course, authoring ideas gave way to replicating the in-vogue writing. That made Narayan, the doyen, lament that what was going in the name of writing is but mere documentation.

In order to penetrate the book market, the publishers came up with the stratagem of promotional campaigns bringing authors into the media fore. This insensibly glamourized authors thereby attracting the aliens into the arena of writing though publicizing the book is one thing and promoting the author is another. Not to miss out on the new openings in the book trade, some of the opportunists in the west came up with courses in creative writing for aspiring authors thereby putting art   on the assembly line and successfully at that! The net result is not hard to imagine what with everyone throwing his tailored manuscript into the publishing ring.  And to cope up with the author rush that they helped create, the publishers would need an army of editors, which of course, the economics of publishing wouldn’t permit. The corollary is the need to offload. 

The newfound job-work opportunity in book manufacturing created the species of literary agents. Thus the literary agents took it upon themselves to sort out the publishers’ mail and the face of book publishing assumed a new dimension. The editorial judgment of yore gave way to the phenomenon of influence peddling as the editors conceded their literary ground to literary agents. While the system bred laziness in the editorial department, it empowered the agent who could well boast that getting his nod is as good as being published! After all, the agents are aware of their ability to make the editors lean towards the manuscripts they canvass for. One could imagine the scope of the trade what with hundreds of thousands of manuscripts making the rounds. It is but natural that a spurious agent would surface sooner than later to fleece the gullible writers. Though the agent system buttresses the western mass publishing industry, yet the bulk of the published books go into oblivion notwithstanding the publicity buzz and covered though by the jackets of premier publishers!

Let us see how things stand in the arena of Indian writing. If we were to go by the citations of the National Sahitya Academy, it is possible that some of the best writing comes from the less literate areas like Orissa that is Odisha. No wonder since in less aware areas, the absence of publicity keeps the imposters away from literary pursuits leaving the literary arena for the genuine to pursue writing as a means of self expression. But when it comes to the Indian writing in English, it appears that the media’s penchant to glamourize the writers doesn’t seem to help the cause of literature. The well-intended book promotion tends to degenerate into promoting the author instead, so much so that the book gets pushed to the backburner. The media focus centers on the persona of the author without touching upon the nuances of his writing. It’s as if the book is but a launching pad to catapult the author into the orbit of fame.

Well, persona centric publicity could be the raison de tre of show business but the literary truth is that it is the worth of the writing that is at the core of an author’s existentialism. No one seems to complain though about the state of things and thanks to the coverage in the magazines, many may recognize the Indian writers in English even in a crowd. But how many would answer the call to confirm they had read their books? This author-as-a-glamour-boy phenomenon promoted by the media has made many to fancy their chances by chancing with their laptops. It is the documentations that emanate from their leisure time, which inundate the Indian publishing arena for the most part. As a logical follow-up for stardom, these maneuver their mediocre works into the book jackets of the obliging publishers. 

Ironically the limited Indian market size seems to help these literary pirates to hijack the publishing agenda to have their way into the media. The market dynamics being what they are, the publishers have for long reconciled to breakevens through safety measures. Since nothing would sell beyond a nominal number, why not settle for the time-tested stuff is what seems to be the Indian English publishing formula. The market dynamics of ‘nothing much to win’ and ‘not so much to lose’ tends the publishers to settle for the known hands instead of scouting for the unknown talent. What if the Indian English market were to be one-hundred-thousand if a given book wins public favor? That is when the publishers would look beyond their friends and acquaintances in the hope of roping in the best sellers! 

The limitations of the publishing arena seem to serve the ambitions of the imposters of writers what with the penchant of the publishers for inducing the celebrities-of-sorts to write, and for them to hype. All this might help the ‘pet’ writers to become ‘known’ authors but that hardly helps the cause of literature. Given these constraints, the lady editors and the marketing men at the publishing houses must be finding it hard to find some publishing space for the genuine authors, who come up with something original that might otherwise deserve their consideration. Wonder whether the editorial positions at the publishing houses are not lucrative enough for men to seek or the powers-that-be prefer not to suffer male egos that the editorial desks at the publishing houses are manned for the most part by women! Wouldn’t this all women editorial team take away some of the objectivity in book selection? But publishers seem not to care!  

If the Indian literature suffers in want then plenty afflicts the Indian cinema. The mass adoration as opposed to the ostracism of yore accords the cine-star a preeminent position in the society for the influential to make it to the silver screen. This naturally leaves the potential thespians languishing in the shadows while the hams rule the roost in the film world. Here again, in societies like Kerala, where the craze for films is less frenzied in comparison, the genuine actor has some chance to get a break. It’s no wonder that the national film honors, for the most part, go to the Keralites, while the also ran on the cinema mad Tamil and Telugu silver screens find themselves nowhere in the picture. As it appears, it’s the fate of art to be hampered when fortune chases its imposters. The only silver lining appears to be the Indian painting scenario embellished with M F Husain, Tyeb Mehta and a few such. Even here, while their paintings might rake in millions in Christie’s auctions, the average painter would consider himself lucky if the sale would fetch him the cost of the canvas. That is the reason why Indian painting hasn’t come into the domain of the fame seekers but still radiates in the shades of genuine talent limited that it might be. 


More by :  BS Murthy

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