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The true role of art and literature – Justice Markandey Katju

 

In poor countries such as India, art for art’s sake amounts to escapism. The people are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about their problems, it will be popular.

India faces gigantic problems today. In some States, farmers and weavers are committing suicide. Prices of essential commodities are skyrocketing. Unemployment has become massive and chronic. Water and electricity shortage is widespread. Corruption and fraud are everywhere. Medical treatment has become prohibitively expensive. Housing is scarce. The educational system has gone haywire. Law and order has collapsed in many areas, where criminals call the shots.

What has all this to do with art and literature?

Two schools

There are broadly two schools in art and literature. The first is ‘art for art’s sake.’ The second is ‘art for social purpose.’

 

In the first, art and literature are only meant to create beautiful or entertaining works to please and entertain people and artists themselves. They are not meant to propagate social ideas. If art and literature are used to propagate social ideas, they become propaganda. Some of the proponents of this view are Keats, Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot in English literature; Edgar Allan Poe in American; Agyeya and the ‘Reetikal’ and ‘Chayavadi’ poets in Hindi; Jigar Moradabadi in Urdu; and Tagore in Bengali.

The other theory is that art and literature should serve the people, and help them in their struggle for a better life, by arousing people’s emotions against oppression and injustice and increasing their sensitivity to suffering. Proponents of this school are Dickens and Bernard Shaw in English literature; Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck in American literature; Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert and Victor Hugo in French; Goethe, Schiller and Enrich Maria Remarque in German; Cervantes in Spanish; Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Gorky in Russian; Premchand and Kabir in Hindi; Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and Kazi Nazrul Islam in Bengali, and Nazir, Faiz, Josh, and Manto in Urdu.

Which of these paths should artists and writers in India follow? Before attempting to answer this question, it is necessary to clarify that there have been great artists and writers in both schools. Shakespeare and Kalidas can be broadly classified as belonging to the first school, of ‘art for art’s sake.’ Their plays serve no social purpose beyond providing entertainment and an understanding of human impulses and motivations. Though he was basically a realist, Shakespeare had no intention to reform society or combat social evils. Yet he is an artist of the highest rank. One is amazed by his insights and portrayal of human psychology and the springs of human action, whether it be his tragedies or histories or comedies. His characters are so full-blooded we can recognise them from our own experience as actual human beings.

Similarly, Kalidas’s Meghdoot is nature and love poetry at its highest level. Depictions of the countryside that Kalidas gives are astonishing in their beauty. Even Wordsworth cannot come anywhere near it. Nevertheless, Kalidas has no social purpose in his works.

On the other hand, Bernard Shaw writes his plays almost exclusively with a social purpose – to combat social evils and reform society. His plays are a powerful denunciation of social injustices and evils. Dickens in his novels attacks social evils in England in his time.

Shakespeare or Shaw, who is greater as an artist? The first represents ‘art for art’s sake’, the second ‘art for social purpose.’ We shall attempt an answer, but a little later.

Literature – the art of the word, the art that is closest to thought – is distinguished from forms of art such as painting and music by the greater emphasis on thought content as compared with form. On the other hand, an art form such as classical music may be almost entirely devoted to creating a mood rather than arousing any thought.

For instance, the main form of serious North Indian classical music, which is called Khayal, has hardly any thought content (since very few words are used in it). But it has an unbelievable power to create a mood and arouse aesthetic feelings — whether it is the raag of the rainy season called Malhar (there are many varieties of Malhars, the main one being Mian ka Malhar; I am more fond of Megh Malhar), which can make one feel it is raining; or the morning raags like Jaunpuri, Todi, Bhairav and so on, which gently wake you up; or night raags like Darbari or Malkauns (called Hindola in Carnatic music), which gently put you to sleep; or a raag like Bhairavi, which can be sung (or played) at any time and in any season and is astonishing for its sheer beauty. There is a large variety of other raags that create different moods. There are other styles of North Indian classical music like Thumri in which there is more thought content, because they use more words than Khayal. However, there is no style or raag in North Indian or Carnatic classical music that arouses emotions to fight social injustices. It is purely art for art’s sake, yet it is undoubtedly great art.

Art critics often regard the two basic trends or tendencies in art and literature as realism and romanticism. The truthful, undistorted depiction of people and their social conditions is called realism. In romanticism, the emphasis is on flights of imagination, passion, and emotional intensity.

Both realism and romanticism can be passive or active. Passive realism usually aims at a truthful depiction of reality without preaching anything. The novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte Sisters are examples. In this sense it can be called socially neutral. However, sometimes passive realism preaches fatalism, passivity, non-resistance to evil, suffering, humility, and so on. An example is Tolstoy’s depiction of the meek peasant Platon Karatayev in War and Peace, who humbly and cheerfully accepts his fate. Some writers were initially active but later became passive. Dostoyevsky is an example. On the other hand, Tolstoy was a fatalist in War and Peace but became a social reformer later in Resurrection.

Dickens, Victor Hugo, Gorky, and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyaya belong to the school of active realists. They oppose fatalism, passivity, and non-resistance to evil. They inspire people to fight against social evils. In the stories and novels of Sharat Chandra, we find powerful attacks against oppression of women and the caste system.

The strength of passive realism lay in its exposure of human motivations and social evils, and its weakness in its lack of positive principles or ideals. This literature was valuable because of its truthful approach to reality, concentrating on the meticulous description of the visible and the real. But it showed no way out to the people. It criticized everything and asserted nothing. And it often viewed man from a fatalistic point of view, as a mere passive product of his surroundings, helpless and incapable of changing his social conditions.

Passive and active realism can both serve a social purpose. But passive realism often preaches fatalism, pessimism, and uselessness of endeavors to improve society. Active realism, by contrast, is optimistic, characterized by its solicitude and concern for the people — inspiring them to strive against their plight and improve their social conditions.

In writers such as Shakespeare, Balzac, Tolstoy, and Mirza Ghalib, it is often difficult to define with sufficient accuracy whether they are romantics or realists. Both trends merge in their works. In fact, the highest art is often a combination of the two.

Romanticism, like realism, can be either passive or active. Passive romanticism attempts to divert people from reality into a world of fantasy or illusions; or to a fruitless preoccupation with one’s own inner world, with thoughts about the ‘fatal riddle of life’ or about dreams of love and death. Its characters may be knights, princes, demons, or fairies who exist in a world of make-believe. Much of the Reetikal Hindi poetry, mainly written to please kings and princes, and dealing with subjects like beauty (shringar) and love, belongs to this category. Passive romanticism hardly serves any social purpose.

Active romanticism, on the other hand, attempts to arouse man against social evils. It clearly serves a social purpose. Active romanticism rises above reality, not by ignoring it but by seeking to transform it. It regards literature as having a greater purpose than merely to reflect reality and depict existing things. Rousseau’s novels Emile and New Heloise are examples.

‘Art for social purpose’ may be expressed not always in a direct way, but also sometimes in an indirect, roundabout, or obscure way, for example, by satire.

Much of Urdu poetry, which mostly serves a social purpose (as it attacks oppressive customs and practices, as in Kabir’s poetry), is expressed in an indirect way. ‘Art for social purpose’ can come in a religious garb: much of Bhakti poetry in Hindi is in this genre.

Acceptable purpose

Now, back to the question: should artists and writers in India follow ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘art for social purpose’? Which would be more beneficial to the country today? The question, ‘who is greater as an artist, Shakespeare or Shaw?’ is not very relevant here.

In a poor country like India, it is the second path (‘art for social purpose’) alone can be acceptable today. Artists and writers must join the ranks of those who are struggling for a better India. They must inspire the people through their writings against oppression and injustice.

However, today there is hardly any good art and literature. Where is the Sharat Chandra or Premchand or Faiz of today? Where is the Kabir or Dickens of today? There seems to be an artistic and literary vacuum. Everything seems to have become commercialized. Writers write not to highlight the plight of the masses but to earn some money.

Some Hindi writers complain that Hindi magazines are closing down. Have these people wondered why? Evidently no one is interested in reading what he or she writes because they do not depict the people’s sufferings, and do not inspire people to struggle for a better life.

When Gorky stepped out on the streets of Russia, he would be mobbed. He was so loved by the people as he wrote about their lives and championed their cause. Can a Hindi writer today make a similar claim? When writers get out of touch with the people and live in a world of their own, no one will want to read them.

Today the people in India are thirsty for good literature. If someone writes about the people’s problems, it will be popular. But are our writers doing this? Art and literature must serve the people. Writers must have genuine sympathy for the people and depict their sufferings. They must inspire people to struggle for a better life, a life that can be really called human existence, and to create a better world, free of injustices, social and economic. Only then will people respect them.

The concept of ‘art for social purpose’ in its active sense, that is, in the sense of using art and literature to reform society, is largely of recent origin. It could hardly arise prior to the Industrial Revolution because up to the feudal age the thought that men could improve or change their social conditions by their own effort was rare. The belief then was that whatever has existed or will exist in future is ordained by God or Destiny and man has no role in it. Now that the scientific age has dawned, and human beings can change their social condition by their own efforts, art, too, should help in the endeavour. In poor countries like India, art for art’s sake amounts to escapism.

Writers in Hindi, Urdu, and other Indian languages should use simple language. Hindi and Urdu should both come closer to Khariboli (or Hindustani), which is the people’s language. Some Hindi books are difficult to understand: they are written in difficult (klisht) language. The same is true of some Urdu writers. If what is being said or written is not comprehensible, what is the use of such literature? Great literature is in simple language, like the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill or the stories of Premchand and Sharat Chandra.

By Justice Markandey Katju
former Judge, Supreme Court of India   
 
Disclaimer: The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not reflect the views and policies of the PakistaniStories.com.
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