BRINGING BACK THE CULTURE OF ARTS JOURNALISM

The death of Padma Vibhushan K.G Subramanyan, one of the greatest Indian painters and activist in the Independence movement, being relegated to a measly two-inch column in a remote corner of most national dailies was a shocking instance of media oversight.

I still remember the first time my college professor spoke to us about K.G Subramanyan. Full disclosure: not many in the class, including yours truly, were familiar with the name.

“You are an intellectually starved class,” sir had declared that day, visibly disappointed with us.

K.G Subramanyan (Photo via Scroll.in, Image credit: Bishan Samaddar)

And who can blame him? That we knew little about perhaps the most important artist in independent India did not speak highly about us.

During the course of our discussions, we had learnt quite a bit about the world arts in general. Make no mistake, we did nothing but barely scratch the surface, but that in itself was a revelation.

It still baffles me that I had not heard of most of the artists we spoke about in class. But when I go back to my laptop in the evening, and search about them, I’m often flooded with information. So why have we not heard about them? Why are they not a part of the rigorous school syllabus or the daily newspaper discourse that we adhere to religiously?

For it appeared to me half-hearted to discuss the famous Manipur ‘Indian Army, Rape Us’ protest without speaking about Sabitri Heisnam. The protest, which saw 12 Manipuri artists strip naked in front of the 17th Assam Rifles office with a banner that said ‘Indian Army, Rape Us’, was inspired by a scene from Sabitri’s play ‘Draupadi’, and is one of the most vibrant examples of a work of art influencing real life, when usually it is the other way around.

And yet, there is not a word of any of this in our school books. We mug up the names of Mughal kings with nary a thought for the Mughal musicians or art forms. In our lessons about India’s independence, is there any mention of independent India’s iconic artists like Tyeb Mehta or M.F Hussain? Who is to blame for this selective celebration of our country’s character?

In this culturally challenging time, it is imperative that we acknowledge the power of art as a tool for expression. A good work of art is not one that just “looks good”, it is one that makes you feel things — it speaks in multiple languages and is open for inference. This dynamic nature of art is precisely why we need it to be open for discussion in the public eye.

Ironically, in this time of need, most of our newspapers have sold their serious arts pages to the daily drudgeries of food, fashion and films, or the three Fs as they are referred to. Curiously enough, films seem to have managed to survive the stigma of being “unapproachable by the masses”. The quality of the discourse may leave much to be desired, but that there is a platform for discussion is in itself not a small feat. Where once we had Satyajit Ray, we now have the likes of Salman Khan and ‘spotted in the airport’ pictures dotting the film supplement pages. But I will not complain as long as I spot an Anand Patwardhan or Girish Karnad amidst these.

The New Yorker cover for October 10, 2016 titled “Miss Congeniality,” by Barry Blitt

Besides, the plummeting quality of the “soft news” pages in newspapers is not hard to discount when you realize that the major dailies in the country all lack an arts editor. When the New Yorker’s October edition came out with a cover story on Donald Trump, it was its Arts Editor of 23 years, Francoise Mouly who was at the helm of it. Not a political editor or a business analyst, but an arts expert.

Every development or change, political or otherwise, is a part of the society and its culture. It is a manifestation of the changes that the community of people goes through.

An arts page does not mean bland interviews to promote movies or announcements about the next fashion week. It is a platform for serious discussions about the developments in the nation and the world, the governments, society and life in general. It goes beyond asking a musician “What colour kurta will you be wearing this season?”

Like all disciplines, it requires expertise. It is high time that we stop considering our art journalism as a hobby or one less important than hard-hitting political journalism.

A good art editor can read the trends in the country and predict where it is heading to just like an economist can read the implications of Brexit before it happens.

Today morning, as in every other day, I fished out the newspaper from under the car. With a mug of coffee in hand, I settled on the cushion on the floor, spread out the papers and open the supplement. Under the ‘Movies’ section, the headline screams “SPOTTED: Kareena Kapoor Khan’s baby bump”. I glance at the pictures splayed across and digest this fascinating piece of news.

After all, if a woman’s body undergoing changes when she gets pregnant isn’t news, what is?