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Posted at: Jul 16, 2019, 6:44 AM; last updated: Jul 16, 2019, 6:44 AM (IST)

Tale of a decadent culture

Avijit Pathak

Avijit Pathak
Popular mass entertainment is taking society away from arts, aesthetics
Tale of a decadent culture
Danger mark: When patriarchy, consumerism and mass culture are integrated, the devaluation of womanhood becomes complete.

Avijit Pathak
Professor of Sociology at JNU 

Indian asceticism is not a mournful gospel of sorrow or a painful manifestation of the flesh in a morbid penance, but a noble effort towards a higher joy and an absolute possession of the spirit. — Sri Aurobindo 

Honey SINGH is popular; and this is precisely the reason why we ought to be worried about the prevalent mass culture, and the psychic/aesthetic decadence it symbolises. As we witness yet another controversy — this time the Women’s Commission in Punjab has expressed severe objections against the singer’s latest song ‘Makhna’, it becomes clear that the sort of cultural product he sells is gross, vulgar and anti-women. Yet, we know that he is everywhere — from YouTube to wedding parties; college festivals to birthday celebrations; and it is not uncommon to see men and women, and boys and girls dancing to his music. This is frightening.

I might be condemned as an elitist or a puritan, devaluing people’s choices. Yet, all that appears to be popular need not necessarily be regarded as positive and life-affirming for our aesthetic elevation and cultural fineness. Instead, the massive growth of ‘entertainment industry’ in modern times has often degraded the finer values of aesthetics. An average consumer in the age of television soap operas, bestseller romantic novels, Bollywood blockbusters and ever-growing music industry is induced to experience the ‘thrill’ of the spectacle; and with a mood of instantaneous consumption, he or she is driven to look at sex, body and desire as something raw and gross. Moreover, when patriarchy, consumerism and mass culture are integrated, the devaluation of womanhood becomes complete. A woman is reduced to an object of desire, a commodity for masculinist consumption. Honey Singh — known for his another ugly song ‘Main hoon balatkari’ — is essentially a manifestation of this culture industry. No, it cannot be justified in the name of people’s choices or ‘cultural relativism’.

A cultural product of this kind desensitises us, and makes it difficult to cultivate faculties like mindfulness, contemplative sadhana and patience which we need for becoming intimate with finer/deeper/higher cultural and aesthetic values. So, for an average consumer, a glossy soap opera is more interesting than, say, a Satyajit Ray film; Honey Singh music is more thrilling than Bhimsen Joshi’s raga merging into the infinite; or a dance in tune with the imagery of a commodified woman excites more than a Bhupen Hazarika song invoking the Brahmaputra, and recalling the ups and downs of a civilisation. While the classical is condemned as boring, the folk is forgotten because of mass migration, urban anonymity and increasing rootlessness. In the absence of the rigour of the classical or the fragrance of the folk, what prevails is all that is continually disseminated through 24x7 television channels, smartphones and WhatsApp or Facebook ‘shares’.   

Although I understand the anguish of the Punjab Women’s Commission, I have no hesitation in saying that the phenomenon called Honey Singh cannot be fought merely through legal measures, or registering a criminal case against the singer. It has to be understood that Honey Singh exists because we have almost internalised him. As a matter of fact, for a true awakening, we need an elevated form of cultural/aesthetic education right from childhood. The techno-hallucination that characterises our times has often diverted the youngsters from living intensely, and relating to nature meaningfully and aesthetically. I stress on nature because it is the ultimate tutor of existence. Imagine that your child is encouraged to see the amazing sunset while standing on the terrace of the house, or feel the rhythm of every drop of rain as it falls on the leaf of a tree. This way of seeing or experiencing is likely to make her more closer to, say, a song of Tagore: I feel the tenderness of the grass in my forest walk/ The wayside flowers startle me. Or, imagine a child being continually encouraged to wonder, and ask questions; it would not be difficult for him to take a guitar, and sing in tune with Bob Dylan: How many roads must a man walk down/ Before you call him a man?  

In fact, art is grace in life; art is heightened sensitivity; art is about the ability to see a deeper meaning in the everydayness of life — the wrinkled face of your grandmother, the life-energy of your young daughter, the melancholy of a rainy evening, the ecstasy of the moment when in the mystery of darkness the lover and the beloved become one. Body, desire, love, pain — nothing is denied in the fineness of culture; instead, good art breaks the binary of the profane vs the sacred. 

It is sad that we are losing this sensitivity fast. We are equating noise with music, hyper-real sexuality with love, and stimulant TV serials with literature. Even children, as the ‘reality shows’ demonstrate, are encouraged to sing ‘adult’ songs amid laughter and clapping, and become instant stars.  The celebration of this vulgarity is seen everywhere. A political speech becomes nothing but loud rhetoric; a celebrity baba becomes as fancy as a popular film star; and a TV newsreader begins to look like a perfect model. In such a world, it is really challenging to create the possibility of a new cultural sensitivity. But then, as John Lennon’s enchanting song inspired us, we have to ‘imagine’...

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