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Art & Music
Monday, November 1, 1999
Set in the deep recesses of the civilization, as evanescent as the brushstrokes, is the three-headed god, the striking pantheon, and a unique and profound world view which is a blend of pre-Vedic and Vedic culture. Then came the Mughals. Their Persian instruments – like sitars and tablas –would later create a genre of music, internationally recognizable as Indian. As Hindi-speaking merchants meshed with Persian speaking soldiers, Urdu – the “camp” language – was born. This, blended with the deeply artistic cultures of both, would spawn some of the world’s most exquisite poetry. Then came the British. And they brought with them the language of the world. English, the language that one day more Indians than Englishmen would speak, introduced India to the rest of the world.

Swami Vivekenanda, who died early this century, had traveled to the conference of world religions, and exposed the West to the deep cultural heritage of India. But it was Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, who was instrumental in forging Eastern and Western ties. Tagore wrote primarily in Bengali, but his English translations dazzled European readers and put India firmly in the artistic arena.

As the freedom movement thundered across every haveli, it fired the single minded devotion of Indian artists. Poets, writers, and philosophers contributed whole-heartedly to the ideological and creative energy behind the movement. It would take another twenty years for Indian artists to capture Western spotlights. Ravi Shankar, who is noted for teaching the Beatles to play the sitar, became a pop culture icon in the 1960’s. He also played at Woodstock and Monterey. Multi-dimensional, psychedelic, religious art was to become commonplace during the ‘60s, and the American counter-culture and Civil Rights movement fell in love with India’s pacifist philosophies.

Popular art, by far the most influential form of art in the 20th century, surged in India concurrently. Some hundred years ago, someone handed an Indian a camera, and the country went crazy about film. One of the most important and interesting artistic acquisitions was in terms of medium, not style. Bombay produces a thousand films a year, more than any other place in the world. Bollywood is India’s Hollywood. And though the average Hindi film is remarkably unremarkable as a work of art, it is certainly amazing as a cultural phenomenon.

The Hindi film – a mish-mash of melodrama and fantasy, of song and violence – became a unifying factor as it provided a national catharsis. People from every walk of life, destitute rickshawallas in Bombay and multimillionaire NRIs abroad, all drummed their fingers to the same beat — that indispensable part of the Hindi film, the Hindi film song.

Popular art, in India, is living art. It cannot survive in a glass case, dispassionately staring back. It lives in the quaint and the mundane that greet our daily lives. From the small, garlanded paintings that adorn the inside of most three-wheelers, to the caricatures of politicians and symbols of political parties plastered on public walls during election time, every day art has flourished in India. Religious sentiment, a cornerstone of Indian life, found a prolific medium in calendar art. The inexpensive, thinly papered portraits of Hindu deities became a popular part of devotional expression.

Along with the more popular forms of art, Indians have also made significant leaps in serious academic art. There are Booker prizewinners like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Midnight’s Children and A God of Small Things have taken the literary world by storm. Indian writing in English stands its own ground today thanks to the works of prolific writers like Shashi Tharoor and V.S. Naipaul. R. K. Narayan put the delightful, fictional town of Malgudi on the literary map. Directors like Satyajit Ray have gone beyond Cannes to legitimize Indian artistic cinema in the international scene. The Vedic age espoused the primary function of art as evoking rasa, or taking aesthetic pleasure to a divine realm. Nowhere else in the world does the divine and the mundane merge together to create a rasa that’s as priceless as a Monet.
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