Culture is cuisine
Zia Mohyeddin column
Our cultural outlets are limited; the spectrum of cultural activity ranges form qawwali and pop concerts to organised sing-song at private gathering and the mujrahs performed at weddings. I have no statistics but if I were to hazard a guess I would say that you will find the largest gatherings at cinemas and at the increasing number of festivals and melas. Mushairas do not have the same attendance today that they had forty or fifty years ago. Ours is not the only country where culture is given a short shrift. Culture in the third world is considered to be the preserve of the elite and an unaffordable luxury.
The fact is that a large number of people (in the cities) go out in the evening in search of cuisine and not culture. The old hierarchy of taste that put the classical forms at the top of the pyramid and mass entertainment at the bottom has given way to a mish-mash of styles. We now eat pizzas to the accompaniment of taped rock music in psendo-art-deco restaurants.
On a broad definition of what constitutes our culture today, watching television would be the most popular, meelads a close second and play-going the least popular. There has been a steady growth of appetite for the guitar-based bands who sing local songs in the mode of Western pop groups, but people haven’t yet acquired the habit of buying tickets for these concerts which are usually held in clubs and hotels. Classical music concerts are a token event held once or twice a year. They are organised by influential art lovers. Unfortunately, the majority of the audience, totally oblivious to the etiquette, blithely walk in and out of a recital. Not only that: they chat to each other, crack their nuts and clap incessantly. For a sensitive listener it is an agonising affair.
The theatre exists in our country as well. The snag is that its artistic value does not satisfy those who have its interest at heart. The impresarios who run it feel that what the public doesn’t pay for, the country can do without. This is sound capitalist thinking. The serious play, as it is known to you and me, is anathema to those who are well-entrenched in the running of what is now called ‘commercial theatre’. In a climate ridden with the long and unending debate about the nerve-ends of our existence as a state, the talk of legitimate theatre may sound like idle thoughts of an idle dreamer, but we are a people who are passionate about dramatic events and, ultimately, it may be the theatre which restores a degree of sanity and, dare I say, maturity to our being.
We have never conducted a survey to determine why people attend a certain event and what their wider interests are. If there was one, I am sure we would learn that rock concerts and the hell-raising, gory American movies are the province of the young, while movies are more to the liking of young and middle aged women. Age — as well as class — turns out to be the determining factor in what makes an art lover. There is only a handful of people who go to an arts event specifically for the purpose of becoming uplifted.
A general tendency in our country is to encourage people in the belief that the main purpose of going to a concert or a play is to forget about day to day life. The arts are thus presented to us to be about escape and not reality. This is one of the main reasons why our dramatic output has not developed beyond the naïve farce it has been for decades. The audience for a thought-provoking play consists largely of friends, cousins and the well-wishers of the cast.
We have been led by the politics of the 20th century to the conviction that the Arts should be for every one. We would like Art and popular entertainment to be the same thing but in practice they are not. When I look upon the state of our television, by far the most popular pursuit in the country, it is hard not to be affected by a feeling of abject despair. So much seems to be wrong and so little seems to get better.
Since the Arts do not flourish in our part of the world the question is not ‘what is the relationship of the Arts to Broadcasting’ but ‘what is the place of Broadcasting in our country?’ There is an enormous hypocrisy when it comes to television. No one wants to admit that it is a commercial enterprise whose primary aim is to make money. In the state-owned (commercial) television, the government owns the majority of shares. The people responsible for running the organisation, work on the principle that their allegiance lies first and foremost to the government and not to the viewers. The programme making is, therefore, not dictated by market research but the whims and caprices of the party in power and its policy makers.
The other channels not directly controlled by the government exist solely to make money. Their first obligation is to the advertisers and not to the audience. It seems to me that their objective is not to make programmes which may therefore attract an audience, but to rely on market researches who tell them to make programmes which fit the shape of the required ratings.
Television will be good if those who run the networks have a respect for it and a desire to make it work on its own terms, not a surrogate for any other form of art or journalism, but as itself, confident, imaginative as distinctive. It’s a pity that they don’t realise that the motivation to make money is not incompatible with making intelligent, adult programmes.
The fact that we have not built any theatres or concert halls shows our perversity to the professions related to the performing arts. And yet, inspite of their absence, a cultural redefinition is taking place in our society. The number of people who have become weary of the stock diet of the movies and the stale smell of television soaps, is rising. They may not be dedicated concert-goers or committed playgoers but they rove through various art events as casual observers in search of some form of sublimation. They go to theatrical presentations with a high degree of expectation. It is this discerning, albeit small, audience that we must cater for. It is they who have kept creative and artistic activity alive in every part of the world.