Honestly, I was quite disgusted to discover that George Michael, Beverly Hills Cop and Guns n’ Roses were a prominent part of my preoccupations. Then again, you have to make concessions for teenagers. On the other hand, I’m quite happy about the fact that I had already noticed rampant inequality in my surroundings. Now, that economic discrepancy has simply got out of control. Official statistics reveal that roughly 80 percent of Indians—836 million of them—live on Rs 20 (around 50 cents) or less per day. In contrast, the Forbes list of the ten richest people in the world has four billionaires of Indian ethnicity. When people call India the world’s biggest democracy, it seems like the cruelest of all jokes. It’s more like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
Superficially, urban India looks a lot different from what it was two decades ago—cell phones, flyovers, swanky cars and shopping malls. An air of arrogance is palpable. People seem to have whole-heartedly accepted the media propaganda about how well the country is doing. The fact that thousands of farmers are killing themselves doesn’t register on those enjoying the ‘sweet life.’ Scratch the surface and a country full of anxiety-ridden people are revealed. High school students killing themselves before and after exams with clock-work regularity. A billion people jostling for space, a desperation feeding corruption.
It’s probably foolish to accept the older generation’s lament that corruption is a post-independence phenomenon. Seen dispassionately, corruption set in thousands of years ago when one section of our society usurped all privileges in the name of caste and heaped scorn on the weaker lot In everyday practice, the grandiloquent ancient Indian civilisation is a farce. We pray to the Goddess but kill as many unborn girls as possible. Even though our ancient art celebrated nakedness, our contemporary sense of sobriety is violated by the very same attribute. We pay lip service to Gandhi and turn a blind eye to his lessons of frugality and non-violence. In the guise of various para-military units, India hides one of the biggest armed forces in the world. How else do you keep such an enormous disgruntled population quiet? The absurd economic disparity is not limited to India; it’s a worldwide phenomenon.
There are people in the U.S. who aren’t able to afford a bus ticket out of an imminent hurricane. Haitians are eating mud biscuits because a combination of bio-fuel cultivation, climate change and exorbitant crude oil has thrown cereals out of their reach. An average person in the developed world throws away more than a quarter of the food piled on his plate. The richest 500 people now own more wealth than all the poorer half of the world population put together.
There has perhaps never been a time since the Middle Ages when there was such an absurd consolidation of wealth. Then again, the Middle Ages were blessed with ignorance and the notion of divine kings. How are we going to get away with the situation in the age of Internet and ‘improvised explosive devices?’ Terrorism seems to be the natural consequence of globalization. Consolidation of wealth has also meant consolidation of media. Millions can pour into the streets in protest but the consent for baseless wars are still being manufactured. The media is too busy admiring the emperor’s new clothes. One only has to remember what Rupert Murdoch said in support of the Iraq war: ‘It will give us $20 a barrel of oil!’ The Indian media’s pet whipping boy is the communist party. The communist MPs are by far the cleanest, whether in terms of wealth, criminal record or public debt. News coverage in the media doesn’t give a hint of this fact. In fact, it propagates an opposite image wherein every problem of the country is blamed on the communist party. And art only gets mentioned in the Indian media, either for record prices or if it violates public morality.
The other dramatic change that has taken place in the world in the last two decades is the information revolution. A vast amount of data is now in easy reach. A new breed of back office jobs have now become India’s largest export. As an artist, one feels that never in history was such a comprehensive database of our heritage so readily available as now. You’re a click away from the world’s oldest book: the Rig Veda. Sadly, even scholars can’t decipher its true meaning. Somehow the burden of history is being felt in the arts. Unlike the hard sciences, history is a working element of the arts and the baggage just piles on by the day. Even without the baggage, being an arts practitioner is fraught with problems.
If the cold eye is an artist’s real gift, he is duty bound to reveal the truth which anyway doesn’t endear him to society. Society is a flock of sheep. From the very beginning, the basis of civilisation has always been fear. Initially, we feared the beast of prey.
Over time, that fear has been transformed at various times into the fear of the barbarians, the huns, the infidels, the natives, the communists and currently Islamic terrorists. In the short term, we offset our fears with entertainment; in the long run, our insecurities drive us towards surplus, wealth and power.
If art was supposed to illuminate, it necessarily needed to point to the fear in man. Ironically, throughout history the artist has had to depend on the most insecure for a living. It’s like asking to be paid for slapping someone awake.
Naturally, society regards artists with a degree of hostility until such time that they have become elements of nostalgia. The sad truth is that society doesn’t get art, it fawns at big price tags.
In my city, New Delhi, if you take away alcohol from the equation there would be no art audience. Then again, the artists are also in the vicinity of a billion people jostling for space. The anxiety to be noticed transforms them into showmen, clowns. Artistic output becomes a novelty no longer concerned with empathy. Artists project a sense of community but they are actually cartels in disguise. A smaller sheep herd within a big flock.
The location of wealth and poverty is closely linked with climate. Posterity will recognize the gulf stream as one of the architects of the modern industrial epoch. Apart from availability of water, the biggest factor of development must be temperature. If they are not ports, hot and humid places are invariably poor. Yet mankind seems oblivious to the extent of its dependence on climate. At some level we may be sensing what’s coming but we respond by gulping down a lot of medicines and blabbering on the phone. Big pharma and telecom giants are laughing their way to the bank. Only the insurance companies know they have been paying up for climate-related damages for some time now.
In 1989 I thought life was vague, but not anymore. I think we are ball-dancing to a romantic waltz on the deck of a sinking ship. We just don’t want to acknowledge it. When I was 14 years old I was content with everything. Now it’s the exact opposite. I know too much to be content. Living in one of the richest pockets of an essentially poor country was never going to be easy, especially being an outsider artist, since art is essentially moving into a new discomfort zone. At one level, success is failure, but then failure is not always success. One does notice that not having kept up with the Joneses, the number of ‘friends’ has dwindled. One should have foreseen it coming, having pursued art in earnest.
I probably sound too pessimistic but where I come from they have enacted a law to protect parents from their own children. Reason: escalating real estate prices. The kids can’t tolerate their parents for sitting on the money. They want to splurge, seek excitement, and they want it now. When you’re young, excitement seems precious but the passage of time proves it to be a big distraction. The diamond-water paradox reveals itself with age.
As the world becomes faster, we seem to be losing our human qualities. We are becoming smaller people. We try to package ourselves cleverly and ignore our core qualities. Consequently, even in the art world, novelty seems to be winning over depth. I don’t think art can change the world. In the same way as history teaches us nothing. Yet each of us is unique and we can leave behind a document on ourselves. If our observations are acute, they’ll touch a universal tone. To the discerning, it will betray an account of our times. As acute accounts go, they’ll probably resemble other remote accounts. The faint humming of the rhythm of life will be felt. Yes, I still believe in gods being present in the Western skies as much as in the East. Yet perhaps the sky is a distant proposition. If the maker made you, the fingerprints are bound to be found within. Although given our current restlessness, the chances of our finding those fingerprints are getting increasingly remote.
New Delhi, 2008
Essay “Young Life in India” appears on page 4. Art appears on pages IV, 2-3, 5, 6-7, 19, 35, 89, 103.
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