Shrinking cultural space in urban India

Narendar Pani | Updated on January 16, 2018

Aggression today: Out in the streets

Artistes are increasingly being forced to reflect the majority’s view. This could trigger social isolation and individual aggression

For those old enough to have lived in an Indian city in the seventies, the change in our attitudes to culture will be difficult to miss.

In that decade the urban cultural scene was beginning to become extremely sensitive to issues that were a concern to only a minority of the population. The so-called parallel cinema explored political and personal concerns with a degree of sophistication that did not always have popular support. Similar explorations of the uncommon were also seen in theatre in cities across the country.

In contrast, the cultural mood today is overwhelmingly for the majority view of society. Movies are much more concerned with depicting what the majority is expected to endorse, especially in the box office. And in case the box office cannot be trusted to enforce the majority view, there is political mobilisation in favour of banning films that are seen to be against the general mood.

When official bans are not viable, there is always the possibility of enforcing bans through other means.

Quality of life

This transition from exploring the unusual to celebrating a majority endorsed view of the usual cannot but have its costs. There is a price to pay within the realm of culture itself.

When markets, governments and mobs place restrictions on what artistes are allowed to create, it will necessarily limit their imaginations. Without the opportunity to live in a world where, as Rabindranath Tagore would have liked, “the mind is without fear and the head is held high”, it is unlikely that Indian creativity can reach its full potential.

The greater costs could, however, go well beyond the realm of culture to affect the very quality of life in our cities. The role that cities play in the development of our culture is not to be underestimated. The success artistes seek is closely linked to the number of people who appreciate them, whether or not these numbers can be translated into financial figures.

Dramatists in a predominantly rural India did move from village to village offering their plays to a large number of people. There are also remarkable exceptions such as the village Heggodu tucked away in the Malnad region of Karnataka that has a strong theatre tradition: people come to watch from a large number of villages and, indeed, distant cities. But these are exceptions. With the coming of cities the audience for modern instruments of culture is largely urban, and creativity too needs the right urban environment to grow.

Curbs on the growth of creativity will have its impact on this important cultural component of urban life.

Alternative spaces

The real costs, though, may not simply be in the cultural dimensions of our cities. India has for decades used cultural instruments to capture the political imagination of its people.

The Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu may have used film more extensively than most, but even before that there was the Leftist theatre of the Indian Peoples Theatre Association. These interventions used the cultural domain to discuss political issues. There was thus a cultural sphere in which to state political differences.

While these differences and conflicts could still spill out onto the streets, culture at least provided an alternative arena to confront political choices.

A less understood impact is on the social challenges of urban living. A cinema that is largely escapist does not relate to the more personal trauma of urban living that at least some of the film-makers of earlier generations addressed. As the pressures of urbanisation break down traditional social networks, individuals are often forced to face the challenges of urban living alone.

This can prove quite difficult for those, particularly housewives, who do not work outside the home. They do not have access to alternative work-related networks that can act as support groups.

Underestimated problem

The extent of this problem for housewives may well be underestimated, if the suicide data of the National Crime Records Bureau is anything to go by. While there is much legitimate concern for the high suicide rates of farmers, what has not got adequate attention is the fact that the category of housewives has even higher suicide rates. While there are undoubtedly multiple reasons for this unfortunate reality, the fact remains that these women do not have access to a cultural domain that would at least help them relate their problems to larger social phenomena.

The absence of a meaningful cultural domain to link an individual to society at large can also contribute to widespread aggressive individualism. Without an effective set of culturally determined social norms to fall back on, individuals tend to aggressively push their own agenda. Our cities are full of multiple forms of individualistic aggression ranging from road rage to vigilantism. And we are fast losing our ability to use the cultural domain to help make our cities at least a little less threatening.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on October 21, 2016

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