Ideology, a driving force of history

By Chandran T V| Published: 31st December 2021 12:03 AM
Vishakandan Theyyam performing at Kolachery Chathambali Vishakandan Temple in Kannur. (Photo | A Sanesh, EPS)

Romila Thapar says, “There were, in pre-modern times, a conglomerate of communities, identified by language, caste and ritual, occasionally overlapping in one or the other of these castes but rarely presenting a uniform, universalising form. What is often mistaken for uniformity, namely Brahmanical culture, was only the culture of the elite.” It is again the same elite Brahmanical culture, quite self-conscious about its status privilege that comes to dominate the cultural front today by levelling down the religious ‘others’ that manifest themselves in various folk-ritual cultic practises across the country. Distorting the original meaning, indigenous cultic practises are now mostly performed as Hindu festivals.

Search for the original meaning or message is by no means rooted in the atavistic or antiquarian romanticism but in the deep-rooted interest in looking objectively at our own past and present as well. But the past is not always there to continue the way it was once, not because it is enshrouded in oblivion (though that might be the case generally) but more significantly because the real condition of the invented past may still remain hidden beneath some ideological laundering. Without decoding the ideological meaning ingrained in any social form of behaviour of the past, the real condition submerged will never emerge.

However, every period has been engaged in constructing its ideology, a system of ideas or beliefs and values that seeks to dominate the mind of an individual or a social group. This gives rise to an “unconscious attitude” (Louis Althusser). As the core of a natural object is hidden beneath its surface layer, ideology is thus latent or concealed content but present in every form of cultural product like myth, concept of God, art, language, morality, law, etc. “Ideology speaks of and from a social order, and ideas can be used to justify or legitimise the particular order…” says Romila Thapar. “In many early societies, ideology is incorporated into religious beliefs but articulated in ritual. If ritual is tied to the social order, however, then it can also be seen as the questioning of that order.” Therefore, it can be viewed that ideology is not a pale reflection of reality; rather, it is the reality. In other words, ideology always operates to construct reality and so there is no such thing as ‘free’ from ideology. In this sense, what Althusser says in his exposition on ideology is worthwhile to note: “... ideas or representations that seem to make up ideology do not have an ideal or spiritual existence but a material existence.” But the question is, whose material existence does it ultimately serve? It has generally been argued that more often than not, it seeks to gratify the material interest of a dominant group in society. Through an ideological construct or “imaginary representation of the world” found in an ideology, the dominant group seeks to naturalise its ideas and conceals behind it the real intention. The lesser groups in society would also come to accept it, although the fact is that they indeed have their own ideological conception of the world. Often, it happens so when the conduct of the lesser group, as Antonio Gramsci says, is not independent and autonomous, but submissive and subordinate. Later in the course of a historical process, there would emerge a lack of concord between the ideology and its affiliation with the dominant social group, which finally results in heightened conflicts between the dominant and subordinate social groups. Thus, as Romila Thapar observes, “ideology can, in certain circumstances, become the driving force of history”.

One who attempts to reconstruct our cultural past by studying myth, ritual or any form of art like music, sculpture, architecture, painting, film, popular prints, posters and so on must bear in mind this driving force of history; he or she must be aware of the “authors of ideological mystification” (Althusser). Otherwise, for instance, documentation and classification of myths and explanation of their thematic content by falling back on syntactical and etymological search or iconographic description and aesthetic evaluation not only reduces those efforts to the fetish of scholarship, but also helps sustain and reassert the ideological mystification of the past. Unfortunately, this is all but happening predominantly in the field of art historical research on various manifestations of Indian sculpture and architecture. It equally applies to the field of research on contemporary art practice that has widened its sphere beyond painting and sculpture, effacing the divide between art and life. Traditional forms of folk-ritual painting or dance are no exception to this line of research. My attempt is, therefore, to analyse the myths (thottams) of a few theyyams in order to foreground new arguments against the way in which they are generally interpreted by the scholars. Keeping pace with it, in the second phase I will be discussing a few remarkable sculptures from Indian history to locate them within the specific historical context in which they served not only artistic or religious function but also the aesthetics of power. We shall see it in the following columns.


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