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Masks of untruth

Haven’t we been a culturally responsive society which enriched the creative consciousness of its literary and artistic community? Sadly, we now negotiate with a hegemonic socio-political order N. MANU CHAKRAVARTHY

The mark of maturity and dignity of a society is when it conducts debates, cultural or political, with fierce conviction and intensity without slandering those involved in them. But it would not be quite out of place to offer a few examples of cultu ral debates to underline the relationship between art and social and political order The great writer Joseph Conrad was so committed to his vision of life that he declared quite vehemently that the works of Dostoevsky seemed like the barbaric howls of a prehistoric monster, and also went on to declare emphatically that there was not a single sincere line in the writings of Herman Melville. While none would endorse the views of Conrad, by no stretch of imagination would anybody attribute malice and envy to him. T.S. Eliot for instance announced that D.H. Lawrence was rotten and was rotting others.

Vibrant tradition

One can come across several such examples where musicians, painters, dancers have been dismissive as regards productions that were at variance with their own. For a serious student of art and culture all these constitute a great living tradition where diversity of opinions and ideas enriches the consciousness of artists. It also symbolises the absence of a hegemonic socio-political order that imperiously determines the validity of cultural productions. The film maker Istvan Szabo in his film “Mephisto” deals with the great turmoil and anguish of artistes during the rule of the Nazis. What Europe went through during different phases of fascism are all part of our understanding of the relationship between art and social order.

India has gone through such phases quite often, if not with the kind of intensity of European nations. But there have been ominous signs of such a phenomenon becoming a vital part of our reality in the last decade or two. The attacks on artistes, writers and activists who do not subscribe to a dominant religious or political order have been increasing quite alarmingly. What is most distressing is the fact that there are writers and artistes who become accomplices to such fascist tendencies and ideological positions. Quite astonishingly their works fully endorse fascist beliefs. Any attempt to challenge such cultural or ideological productions is denigrated in the most horrendous fashion. What happened at the art school at Baroda is a point of reference.

The present controversy over Ananthamurthy’s remarks on S.L. Bhyrappa’s novel “Aavarana” is one among several malicious public debates that Karnataka has witnessed in the recent past, which, for a believer in freedom of expression is only symptomatic of what India as a nation has been going through in recent years. Disregard for the sanctity of the individual self, contempt for ideas, violation of democratic principles mark these debates converting our public realm into an arena that can only nurture venomous personal attacks and pernicious social gossip. Debates on the border issue, the medium of instruction, status of Kannada as classical language, role of the corporate sector – to mention a few – have all used such extremely undemocratic methods that one wonders if Karnataka, as society/culture, has lost its democratic intellectual/political vitality. These tendencies indicate a gradual movement towards right wing conservatism shaped by a systematic convergence of certain political and economic forces that annihilate democratic consciousness. The debate over “Aavarana” is an opposition between genuine socialist aspirations and reactionary ideas. What complicates the issue is the tragic fact that some individuals who parade themselves as liberals join in the debate and the relish for personal vendetta of such self-styled liberals has vitiated the atmosphere in Karnataka, more effectively than the reactionary forces have been able to. Ananthamurthy, in particular, has been the target of vicious attacks of groups and individuals. However, it is necessary to focus specifically on the “Aavarana” debate to extrapolate the argument that right wing conservatism is rising in Karnataka, as elsewhere in India. What was Ananthamurthy arguing for/against when describing Bhyrappa as a “debator” and not a great “creative writer”? Was it merely literary criticism at work or were there theoretical implications about culture/history behind his assessment of Bhyrappa. It is a pity that a serious intellectual discussion became a public spat.

The full text of Ananthamurthy’s speech makes it clear that a thinker/creative writer was probing into the worldview of another writer, transcending personal prejudices. Ananthamurthy’s opposition to Bhyrappa comes from a creative vision of life which cannot endorse reductionist rightist views of history. Without any slight on Bhyrappa’s integrity, a serious reader would see in his works a reductionist view of society/history, that, in cultural terms is a narrow “hindu” position. Such a “hindu” view is monolithic and not an open engagement with the plural and contesting Indian philosophical traditions. This view becomes aggressively militant/fascist when it intertwines with history, particularly when dealing with historical phases when the “hindu” position was dominated by an “alien” religious/political power.

If most of Bhyrappa’s earlier works were negotiations with Indian Culture/hindu way of life (“Vamshavruksha”, “Dhaatu”…) “Aavarana” is, as the author himself declares, a text that is “historical” seeking to unravel the masked truths of history – in this case it is “truths” about what Islam/Muslim rule have done to Indian social/cultural life. There is indeed an apriori judgement of Muslim location in India which the work establishes as ‘experience’ and ‘knowledge’. The sources used by the writer are towards this particular end. He challenges critics to read his sources without realising that the same texts could uphold another perspective. Moreover, there are other extremely profound books on Indian Philosophy/Islam which Bhyrappa is not even aware of.


“Aavarana” unilaterally validates Bhyrappa’s reductionism. It is precisely this that Ananthamurthy categorises as a “debator’s view”. As he says, a great creative work goes beyond the writer’s consciously held worldview which Bhyrappa fails to achieve. The attack against Ananthamurthy is an open manifestation of the might of right wing conservative forces that turn to history to engender emotions of hatred and revenge – especially against Islam and Muslims.

The emergence of a work like “Aavarana” is not an isolated fact. Behind its arrival is a collective consciousness that, in the name of history, philosophy and religion, legitimises the oppression and tyranny of the consumerist middle class which believes in the economic order of capitalism. The popularity of Bhyrappa’s works can be related to the desires of the middle class with all its consumerist notions of spirituality and culture that every now and then, needs to rewrite history to posit an enemy.

Those who value Justice and Equality must contextualise Ananthamurthy’s criticism of Bhyrappa and not interpret it as the personal comments of a writer about another. If Bhyrappa truly desires to seek truth, he needs to go beyond the bloody mire of history. Writers would do well to listen to voices of sanity of fellow writers rather than lend their ears to shouts of a crowd driven by thirst for revenge.

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