Responses to Where are the culture warriors?

Feb 12, 2010

Dear Ms. Anita Ratnam,

While googling info about a book called Culture Warriors, I came across your thought provoking article 'Where are the Culture Warriors?' It is most interesting that this appears to be a global phenomenon. The balance between the liberal “anything goes, everyone is equal attitude” to the conservative traditionalists view of “my way or no way” is a losing battle. Change, evolution, is inevitable, but we should all hold ourselves to the highest standards, otherwise we risks dilution and dissolution. The question is who’s standards?

Who are the patrons? Why blame the gurus, writers, journalists, editors, curators for creating sad conditions for Indian Classical Dance - they are just trying to make a living. Why not put the blame on the parents and the students, or the audience - the patrons?
Students should question, but they should respect those who have paid their dues, who know something, who have achieved mastery. Students should attempt to surround themselves with masters.

Some students want short cuts. Some students think they are the master after a few years of learning, may open a school, may suddenly become a choreographer without any real training or knowledge of the craft. Nowadays, young contemporary dance artists who become popular on the world stage are considered masters. Good dancers maybe, but masters?

One of the problems is people don’t like to be challenged. They like hype-filled packages, boxes, neatly wrapped, labeled, pre-packaged fast food, shopping malls, convenience. Some of the more difficult to understand and master aspects of classical Indian dance, like upaj, in Kathak are being lost because they don’t fit neatly in these packages. There are no short cuts in classical dance and music. Can a musician get away without practicing? Why a dancer? Critics should be more critical, journalists more curious, gurus more caring, students more conscientious and parents more discerning.

But there are some gurus out there insisting on “maintaining the pathways into knowledge and taste.” Ultimately, they will prevail, and the students who don’t go for the short cuts or convenience.

The culture warriors are out there, challenging themselves, the audiences and the tradition, innovating within tradition and fighting to preserve and promote the art, but most importantly, insisting on meaningful, relevant art that challenges the tenets of mediocrity.

Thank you for sites such as yours and views such as yours that allow for diverse voices, substance, and context to help us mentor the next generation and elevate classical Indian dance regardless of who you are or where you come from.

- Charlotte Moraga
Director, Chhandam Youth Dance Company

January 28, 2010

Dear Raajyalaxmi,

Since you quoted my comments as well, I guess you liked them so much that you would welcome even this, longer response.

I thought you had forgotten about the Friendly Fire column on your site. I am addressing you as Raajyalaxmi as this name reflects your nature the closest: you have the courage to tread on eggshells, to write from your gut, and you are devoid of obsequiousness. Like a Maharani, you accommodate various viewpoints on Surprisingly, though, you would like us to believe that we are living in a "democracy." I thought we still live in a feudal society, and the Gandhi family are still the ruling clan here, and the Bush-Clinton clans still reign in America with their unabashed plutocracy.

The warriors, cultural or military, have always been merely actors that followed - knowingly or unknowingly - the guidance of the powers that are behind the stage. These powers shun any foolish idea of democracy, and are organized in a hierarchical order: there are the higher and there are the lower, the greater and the smaller, the lighter and the darker.

If Menon said that there is no objective arts criticism left in India, he should have told us when this "objective arts criticism" existed. To give the reading and viewing public an objective dimension of the arts, the cultural warriors must get rid of their petty egos (ahamkar) so that their consciousness would become a universal conciousness, and would see all contradictory viewpoints from the right perspective. Those who have this consciousness are able, for instance, to read other people's mind (lipi). Without this consciousness, we will continue to sift artistic production and responses through the prism of our own idiosyncrasies and our personal envies. The very first step towards this consciousness is to be able to detach oneself from the workings of one's mind and to observe it.

Without enlightening their consciousness, those who would vainly imagine themselves as "the custodians of culture," "stewards of civilization" and "mentors to the next generation," have often perpetuated the very low standards, ahistoricism, vulgarity and trendiness they think they were guarding us against. Luckily, very few people listen to them. And if the Economic Times no longer publishes articles on philosophy, cockroaches or Bharatanatyam, it's because the editor finally became aware of the title of his newspaper and what it is about: economy.

In Kali Yuga, the end of which was ushered in by the Devadasi Abolition Act, the knowledge and tradition have been almost completely lost, and we have absolutely no idea of the high standards set by the past practitioners of art such as Madhavi of Silapathikaram, leave alone Urvasi. Thus, at present the adolescent cultural novelties are justly entitled to put away the past, the past few centuries of the degradation. The "traditions" that are 50, 100 or even 200 years old can hardly be called traditions.

The "guardians" of intelligence and wisdom have lost the knowledge of the 22 srutis and of the 108 karanas, and many buffalo-looking dancers performing the roles of Laxmi or Manmadhan have often been praised by the "guardians of beauty."

Nandini Ramani, for instance, says that it is only now (!) that she can show the "true beauty" in her "dance." "Nobody offered me opportunities to dance when I was young," she keeps telling everyone. Those critics who as enthusiastically review hip-hop as Bharatanatyam have no right to say they are the guardians of tradition and wisdom, and they have no right to impose their aesthetic views on the public. If they are well-paid to say that "there is no hierarchy in aesthetics," their "democratic" views are as good as Michael Jackson's.

Luckily, "a blanket order from the media to muffle any independent point of view" and the "militant behaviour of the dance mafia" are both successfully thwarted by the uncensored Internet. Unfortunately, most writers think that it is enough "to say that he or she DOES NOT LIKE a particular performance." They rarely go as deep as to explain why they didn't like it, what exactly didn't they like there, and how they assessed the performance itself. Low standards of classical dance reviews of the Friday Review resulted in the loss of readers who actually used to read the reviews. Now they read these elsewhere. The Friday Review team think they can work as if they lived in the seventies, when The Hindu was still THE newspaper. Now we have many newspapers and TV channels. Democracy.

Long live commercialism, the engine of progress!

Best wishes,

Where are the culture warriors?