Meditations on Ganpati: Criteria of ‘freeedom of expression’ and its limits
(The incident that happened on 1st May concert invited a spirited debate. Many arguments and counterarguments came forward which enriched and enlarged the spectrum of debate. A good number of readers actively followed them. The debates examined in the process important issues and concepts related to culture, art, freedom, history, and politics. Interesting formulations and lines of reasoning were offered. This episode has provided us a good opportunity to revisit and reformulate our position on the relationship between culture and politics. In this series, Ravish has added a new dimension by inquiring the criteria of freedom of expression, possibility for artistic creativity, plurality of space and possibility to share our space with ‘Others’. )
BY Ravish Kumar Chaudhary
The event and the aftermath of MAY Day celebration in JNU has raised an intense and meaningful debate among comrades concerning basic notions of categories like “freedom of expression” vis-a-vis rights and responsibility of audience, the interrelation between Art, culture and politics and our approach towards them, the notion of “Our Space” and the possibility, extent and limit to share it with Others and lastly, the code of conduct on occasions of radical importance.
Though the debate has been initiated by someone called Apoorvanand for whom the act of stopping a performer in-between her performance with the larger consent of audience was indeed “Murder of Artistic Expression”, I am primarily concerned with the arguments and positions of my comrades in JNU who, I believe, are raising the debate to explore and understand these categories on an reasonable and realistic ground which is hitherto loaded with fiction and fantasies of idealist philosophers and are evaluated at the standard established by Bourgeoisies thinkers.
Since I was not among the audience to have a firsthand account of the event, I have no option but to rely upon the facts that emerged from the writings of comrades namely Meera, Kavitendra, and Martand who are not in disagreement as far as the facticity of the event is concerned. That, after a jubilant performance of Hirawal from patna, Tritha (a young singer and the local partner of LAAL Band) came to sing three compositions. The first two were classically inspired and received mixed response from the audience. The third composition again classically inspired had one thing in addition to its ‘sur’ and ‘taal’-the lyric was in Sanskrit and that too in praise of a hindu deity (Ganesha). The song was considered inappropriate for May Day celebration and Tirtha was stopped in-between her performance. Meera lamented in her first writing that no explanation was given for stopping the performance in-between. Sensing her pain and anguish, comrades appeared to give post-facto explanation and justification.
Before we venture to explore the notion of “freedom of expression” and its limitation let me point out a fact that all our comrades are in agreement that what was sung by Tirtha was indeed a Hymn on Ganpati. How do we conclude that it was a Hymn (stuti) and not a song (geet)? Only because the language of composition was Sanskrit or the Character/Hero of the poetry in popular conception is perceived as hindu deity? If yes, what space do we give to artistic creativity? How much we allow the artists to do experiments with ideas, concepts and images already available and to modify and alter them in new context and give it new meaning/sensibility/aesthetical expression? If no, on what ground our comrades concluded that although the first two classically inspired songs were bearable but the third one was not? Many of us having a firsthand reading of Indian Poetics (Kavya Shastra) know that ‘mangalacharan’ (prayer to deity and of-course a religious act) is performed at the start of event and not in the last. Tritha had not started her performance with Ganpati chant but was merely performing her last (and latest one, as informed by her crew member) composition expecting a proper evaluation of the musical experiments from the audience famous for having higher taste and sensibility towards various forms of arts. I really fail to understand the difference cognized between the first two and the last composition of Thritha by our intellectual comrades.
Some comrades have tried to understand the whole event in the binary of ‘matter and form’. They assert that our approaches towards rights of expression shall and must be determined by the matter and form of the expression. How appropriate the assertion may sound under the frame work of “dialectical materialism”, it is a void one for the simple reason that it arbitrarily pre-suppose the nature of so called ‘matter’ on its own (say free) will. It gives no rational explanation for describing the nature of the matter in question. In addition, It also reduces the ‘objective condition’ to ‘material condition’. The point is the ‘matter’ (here the hindu deity who was in the centre of the lyric) cannot be perceived as objective fact in isolation, it is the matter infused with form ( of expression) which gives it its objectivity. And if some decision is taken on objective conditions it has to do justice with the synthesis of matter and form and not matter or form in isolation. For example, The cry for having a democratic space for paintings of Hussain( he has also painted Ganesha) is not because his absolute right of expression but for the synthesis he has done in his art. Whether this synthesis suits to our taste or not, it gives it the objectivity as a modern form of artistic expression and validity to be in our social-cultural domain. Right wing politics miss this objective validity and therefore reject this expression of art in toto. The argument also holds for composition of Tritha. Therefore can it be suggested that it is not the arbitrary ‘right to sing’ of Tritha or the arbitrary right of audience and organisers to ‘reject and boo’ that resolves our understanding of rights and limits of expression in a given objective condition.
Some of the comrades think that the song is not that much culprit than its presentation on a particular occasion, for it was a celebration of MAY Day and the audience was expecting songs being capable to arose revolutionary sentiments. The innocent pain of one of the audience appeared in an article when it is being asked “Is singing ‘sohar’ also acceptable in-between some one’s ‘terhi’( rituals performed after death) ?” Clearly there is no analogy between the event in question and the hypothetical condition forwarded. However, this indicates the anguish of encroachment of some one’s space by others. The artistic space that was crafted to revolutionise the sentiments of audience, was unexpectedly occupied to demonstrate artistic expertise! What was meant to recall the saga of prolonged struggles against various forms of oppression was deviated to reach sublime! Should this trespassing not be intervened? Was it not justified to re-occupy “Our Space” and use it as per our design? How convincing may it sound in the first instant, it forced us to revisit the conception of “Our/My Space” and reflect upon the possibility, extent and limit of sharing this space with “Others”. More than the question of encroachment, it is a problematic of ‘limits of tolerance’ in a democratic society. What is our criteria to share our space (or reject it) with someone who do not share our world-view or do not uphold or remains neutral to the historical positions we think of greater importance? Surely no one with democratic and egalitarian sense will like a situation where only people with similar perception, idea, taste etc engage with each other repeating what we already know, celebrate and uphold. The prerequisite of any social engagement is that people with different positions come together and participate in order to synthesize and elevate what already exists. To say that an event must be performed in such a way that it gratifies our already existing ideas makes us a closed society. If something unexpected suddenly appears in our space we cannot prevent it to happen merely because it was ‘unexpected’. Kavitendra’s story of “Nose and Stick” is valid but what if the nose of the gentleman in the story is so long that it occupies all the space and left nothing for others. Given the situation should we cut the nose short or advice the man with stick to discover some other place (read some other gathering/society)? Is the encroachment of our space by Tirtha and her song more dangerous than our demand for an exclusive space pervaded with our ideas, our colors, our sentiments etc (even if it is a celebration of MAY Day)? To look for a possibility of sharing of space is not to say that all space is available for all. The point is we have to be very cautious and responsible while deciding the limits and grounds of sharing our space.
So the question is whether the decision to stop Tritha in-between her performance was politically correct? Does it expose our attitude of right wing kind Censorship having a difference only of degree? Comrade Sandeep humbly agreed that it would have been more democratic, effective and healthy if the organizers have expressed their discontent after the performance and had educated the singer regarding the context and aims of the event. More democratic would have been to give the singer an equal chance to put her position to audience. However what are being said is all about rules of conduct (civic) and not an explanation of a (political) act. On the larger question of the understanding behind this political act Sandeep and others propagate similar propositions. However the question is whether it was an act of hastiness based on ambiguity, confusion and not well perceived notions or an act of Censorship? Whether an act of stopping someone from expressing her/his views is Censorship or not has to be evaluated on the consciousness and politics behind the act which in turn has to do with our notions of operational categories. Right wing Censorship acts under the compulsion of its political framework which categorically deny all possibilities of existence of what does not fits in its structure, negates all that is not the component of its design, see everything ‘Other’ as unpleasant, a burden, a threat to its existence and purpose and treat them as enemy. On the other hand the politics that propagate democratic and egalitarian values limits/negates only those ideas which are subversive and oppressive in its inherent character and structure. The philosophy that guides acts of progressive politics suggests more assimilation and elevation than negation. Thus while religion as a structure of oppression must be negated, some of the images and icons that is till date a part this structure can be used as artistic expression under our democratic, secular and progressive domain.
What appears more discouraging than the act of stopping the performer that some comrades have post-facto tried to understand and justify the episode on empirical grounds and simplistic reason than with arguments of rigor for which they are known. The methodology adopted to evaluate an event on likes and dislikes; its inappropriateness on grounds of ‘demand’ and taste of audience, on the ground of incompatibility with occasion etc. operates in a structure having resemblance with right wing politics and must be discarded. This will ensure a clear distinction between what is right wing Censorship and reasonable limits to the ‘freedom of expression’.
Caution: The note is an attempt of self-clarification on the issue, the concepts it involves and on the methodology adopted by esteemed comrades in the analysis of the event.
Ravish is an engineering graduate and master in Sanskrith from JNU. He briefly pursued philosophy at JNU, and is now an engineering personnel with the ONGC, Mehasana. He has also been involved in the cultural politics.