The idea of a nation—however hifalutin and to whatever degree a composite, both stable and dynamic, of a plurality of views, even opposing views—is never really driven by vision alone. It’s never or rarely ever a pure visual/conceptual project. Nor law, which undergirds our social life. Even when a nation is at the crossroads, where one set of ideas seems tired and unable to cope with changing circumstances, and a new set of ideas holds more mass appeal, it’s not really the ideas per se but what they relate to in our emotional field, our subjectivity, that matters.
For, the ‘collective’ is always an aggregation of what is felt and desired, what is spontaneously celebrated, in countless individual minds. An infinite multiplication of small particles of emotional matter. A song here, a dance form there, a book of fiction, a play or even a work of non-fiction that catches everyone’s imagination, a speech that resonates, a line of poetry that speaks to you, a film or a larger-than-life actor, a sporting hero. It’s the relatablity of a persona, an event or a thought that animates it on the public stage—it’s in our relation to it that we, more often than not, derive our identity from. The intangibles we own rather than the tangibles we gain or acquire. Not the GDP-to-growth ratio, the Sensex, export statistics, or socio-economic indices. But, a story heard in childhood, an anecdote, the sweet tonalities of a language an older generation spoke, these live on in the crevasses of memory, and it is to them that we turn when we go in search of identity.
A Himachali shepherd boy’s song or an Annapoorna Ashtakam by Subbulakshmi, a Santhal dance seen in childhood or a languid Odissi setpiece by Kelucharan Mohapatra or Sanjukta Panigrahi. A Balasaraswati...or a razor-sharp Rahat Indori. An NTR or MGR or a Rajini film, a masterpiece by Adoor or Ray, a Premchand story, an ecstatic Tagore song on seeing a dark adivasi beauty, or Manto fantasising about a fisherwoman. Mahasweta’s Basai Tudu, a Balwant Gargi play or URA’s Samskara. That is what we are, a Jai Maa Kali here, a Jai Siya Ram there, a Saranam Ayyappa elsewhere. Azaans floating in the air on a Ramzan evening, a Syriac psalm in Kerala. That what’s made us.
Of course, the particular instantiations change and evolve. A song may disappear from our canvas, a K C Dey or a Padmini-Ragini will recede to the archives, poetry may be heard now on YouTube and not at live recitals, a river may die and a natural lake turn into a landfill, like a satire turning darker. ... But what stays constant is the emotional matrix within which these forms dance their alluring waltz.
For policymakers, technocrats and for those who win and lose elections by dint of government provisions—promises of a roof over every head, or direct cash transfers to every BPL account—the aggregations may be of a different sort. But those material calculations don’t touch the imaginative selves of people. What engenders a sense of belonging is not two-rupee rice, but that crisp dosa at your favourite haunt, or that haleem your aunt used to make.
We may argue till the cows come home—right now, they’re out chewing up crops in Uttar Pradesh—on what constitutes nationalism or how it’s different from patriotism. But we won’t progress unless we include in our search what animates the common Indian—the fruit-seller, the insurance salesman, the techie, the anonymous troll. How do people become ‘a people’? What do they relate to? What do they want to own in the existing iconography and inheritance? Why does it seem like we are in a moment of collective iconoclasm?
This sudden impatience to claim a change, a desire to impetuously reject and disown the past, was again on display—some of it spontaneously, some programmatic, all of it dramatic and demonstrative—after news broke of Girish Karnad’s demise the other day. His plays were deconstructed to show that what he had written was essentially a distortion of myths and classical stories—and hence ‘un-Hindu’. The capacity for creative and critical engagement—the bedrock on which Indian civilisation and its thought culture stands, an aggregation of mutually dissenting philosophies—seems to have left us. We forget, or perhaps do not know, what an institution-builder does, how seminal his or her role can be. Some recalled on Twitter how it was Karnad’s intervention in an otherwise reluctant interview panel that saw a pockmarked Om Puri get admission into FTII. Later, he ensured his debut. There’s another story few know of, a subtle masterstroke. The FTII students were on strike.
As director, he naturally wished to end it. Crackdown? Police? Media calumny? No, he called up Shyam Benegal and asked him to give a break to an angry young radical named Naseeruddin Shah. Strike over. Manthan, Nishant, Bhumika resulted. Think Om Puri, think Naseer, think Indian cinema, then rethink Karnad.
Do disagree with Karnad’s public position if you want, but don’t throw away his legacy in the process. A large tract of land, called cultural memory, will go with that. It behoves us to disagree with new Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, who once told a batch of IFS freshers that nothing has happened in the last 70 years. Those years are us.
Resident Editor, Karnataka