An Artist's Date With Good

Every single day, for the last week, I pause at the top of the page. No, not time yet. I am referring to the things that I do outside this blog, and some of what is shaping up is really, really gratifying. Not only am I more than halfway into my 2015 targets on most fronts, I am also on my way to fulfilling a few dreams that are more than a decade old on the drawing board. But, wait, I can drop broad hints. Creative arts. Tea. Music. At a studio. Someplace nice. Soon. Out of my page now.

The fun thing about spontaneous writing is that what is most pressing tends to pop right out, whether you want it to or not, and right now – top of my mind – it is to continue exploring the question of reading, judgment, and the social responsibility of the artist. God. That is going to take a while. That is also going to be a whole lot of crib. Tea is ready. All rise.

Over the last few years, we have been actively seeking out and associating with creative communities, mostly writers, artists, filmmakers, poets. The purpose of this is to build up a network of people who will contribute to putting art back where it belongs, among the people. In the process, I am encountering various kinds of artists. Some of my encounters are extremely heartening. Some are downright shocking. Yet through it all, they are instructional. They help me understand the criticality of non-judgement, and help me accept the truth that all of us have a right to coexist meaningfully. Since I write more than draw or dance or sing, I can reflect on how I relate this with the need to judge when writing (or reading, knitting, whatever).

The world of contemporary creative writing, especially in India, is a divided one. On one hand you have the writers whose works need a footnote for every sentence. On the other, you have writers who write about irrelevant inanities and keep pinging you on the social networks to “like” their marketing pages. In between these two extremes, you have a silent majority who put out their work in journals, blogs, and self published books, much of which stands out for their mastery of the craft.

In all of these categories, there are those too who have scant respect for the elegance of language, the thrill of storytelling, or the preciousness of the relationship that a work of art builds between creator and patron. I have seen, read, and turned away from many such works. I have always tried to keep an open mind regarding such work, wanting to believe that each of us are where we were meant to be, and that if an author is creating such literature, it is because he or she was meant to. There is another very important factor at play here, which is the commodification of literature. With the advent of global marketing and the huge markets that books still rule over, it is only natural that business will dictate what is produced. In addition to the pressure of being a commodity, there is also the pressure created by what is most needed by the society of our time.

Take the case of Star Wars. If there is one reason for its success, it is the fact that the western world had depleted its currency of myths. Myths help us explain our being, the being of forces that we are servile to, and the being of a greater purpose to things. With the gradual erosion of traditional family values and religious practices, we were suddenly growing up in a void. King Arthur and his knights were boring hogwash, and Santa was a suit that was worn for two weeks in the year. Star Wars, the Star Trek saga, Harry Potter and films like The Matrix, the superhero franchises and the extremely competent adaptations of Tolkien reintroduced the myth to modern times. It gave us a frame of reference for the eternal questions of life, in very contemporary, almost futuristic terms. The same erosion of traditional values can be seen in contemporary India. And this void is quickly being filled by literature revolving around mythology. Not all of it is misplaced, but the success of this format has led to a glut of me-toos, and some of it is outright puerile.

But then, that is my opinion. The millions of copies being lapped up by the market would seem to contradict it. I see it a little differently. The plethora of populist writing that assaults us wherever we turn is a good thing. It sets a very low bar against which serious writers have to pit themselves to get into the ring. For starts. It also sets up a qualitative contrast for good writing. If we did not know how one could read an entire novel, captivated by its twists and turns, and at the end of it, come out unchanged, then we would not realize the value of a story or a poem which changes you completely. And who is to tell that the writers of these works are not going to go on to write great works that will stand the test of time and create positive change in society. In the last few months, one can hear Indian men and women of varying ages, education and maturity speaking relatively openly about submission and domination as recreational choices. These discussions go on at book launches, bloggers' meets, and at litfests, in a defiant rainbow of greys. If this is not progress, what is? A society where poverty, disease and illiteracy have been wiped out? You get what I mean.

This is where the need for creating awareness of great literature comes in. If the reading public does not know the economy of Dickinson or the expansiveness of Whitman (concise crap too), if they cannot discern the irony of Swift or the social comment of Wodehouse, then they will not seek literature that makes them think about their destiny. How do we achieve that awareness? How do we address the question of great literature versus populist writing without making populist writing look like the villain of the piece?

The easiest way is by creating communities of literature lovers. If you have watched Dead Poets Society, you will immediately know what I am talking about. Take it beyond literature to include the whole gamut of art. The focus of this series so far has been on writing, so let us consider groups of people who write, who love to read and who wish to use literature as a springboard for personal and collective growth and healing. Create a regularly scheduled time, when this group can meet and share in great literature. This can be structured reading or a book club or a meeting where people share what they felt upon reading a commonly agreed upon piece of writing. Ask serious writers and students of writing to come and speak about the deeper intent and mechanisms of literature. Encourage members to write, and to measure their writing with the yardstick of greatness.

It is very difficult to sustain the interest of such a group with only the principles of sharing, learning and appreciating. So the next step is to generate a more tangible take-away. This could be in the form of collaborative publishing or organizing a literary festival, one that will not be restricted to academia and intelligentsia but easily accessible to the public. Don’t host it at locations where you need your own transport to get there, but where the common man can take a bus to. Don’t call the media. Wait for them to call you.
Literature evolved out of the spoken word and bardic traditions. Initially, it was a practical way to preserve tribal or collective memories. These activities were deeply rooted in the community. People gathered around to hear tales of their heroes and mythologies, and the writer went from place to place singing his poems. Over generations, this writing evolved, and technique and device were taken to the next level. All of the ancient literature we have are really the result of thousands of years of refining, all of it in the oral tradition.

And all of it in the public space, among the people and by the people. The people expressed their approval or disapproval of variations in the storytelling. The popular one survived. That is how the Ramayana and Mahabharata got codified. That is how the Iliad and the Odyssey got written down. Not in one review by the editor of a publishing house, or thanks to a literary agent, but by generations after generations, iteration after iteration, of spoken art. The epics across all cultures are testimony to our taste as a civilization. They are proof that we can reclaim poetry and the written word and use them to add glory to our future.

Once again, not at all sure if I have been able to say what I needed to, or if I ended up going where I had set out to go. But then, the rules of the game were clear and with each successive day, they are becoming clearer. Write from your heart and not your brain. Write to encourage. Provoke change. Edit only as you write. Do not revise. Write for your reader. Strive to create value.

Postscript (after reading what I wrote): Offences intentional. Apologies not forthcoming at this point. “Crazy love of reading” gets in my way.

In the series so far:
An Arist's Date With Self Doubt
An Arist's Date With Laziness
An Arist's Date With Great Good
An Artist's Date With Writing
An Artist's Date With Tea
An Artist's Date With Reading
An Artist's Date with Good

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