(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
October 30, 2011
CULTURE & PEOPLE’S MOVEMENTS
‘Awaaz Do’: Legacy & Relevance of
Cultural Movement in
From Our Correspondent
wasn’t meant to be a
purely academic occasion, though there’s nothing wrong with
academics, of whatever political hue, discussing the relevance
cultural and intellectual movements, past, present and future.
Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) had invited a good number of
academics to a
three day symposium held in New Delhi
13-15, 2011, but the
gathering also comprised practising artists and activists,
many of them young,
and this gave a density and immediacy to the discussion not
often found in
learned assemblies. Most of the participants, while presenting
commenting on them, were moving constantly from the past to
discussing in the main what the radical movement, specifically
(Progressive Writers’ Association) and the IPTA (Indian
Association), did and how, but probing at the same time the
imperatives behind the movement’s decline and the
possibilities of time present
emerging from the promises of time past. There was a good deal
introspection and a certain affectionate remembrance of things
past, as is only
right and proper, but there was a palpable urgency in posing
questions of the
here and the now. The legacy of the progressive cultural
movement was viewed as
an active set of principles and values which are germane to
practices of the day, particularly because the crisis in the
liberties of the people has continued, and in some respects
worsened, in the
intervening years. There is a great deal to be done,
therefore, to record and
re-assess what the progressive movement promised and achieved,
and how it set
up a model for a representative relationship with the
people and their
organisations. This is precisely what SAHMAT had stated in its
and this theme came up again and again in the discussions over
the three days. Sohail
Hashmi, on behalf of SAHMAT, welcomed the participants on the
13th morning at
first session had four
senior speakers, a bit ‘star-studded’ as Mihir Bhattacharya
commented from the
chair. Prabhat Patnaik, in his paper, ‘Politics, Culture and
the story of transition from feudalism to capitalism and the
historically prolonged as the working people consciously
struggle for it, from
capitalism to socialism. A cultural revolution is logically
entailed in the
second instance, for the transformation of petty property into
property leaves open the danger of values and practices of the
old community –
the caste system, for instance, or the subjection of women –
lingering in the
new. This is the result of the historical failure of the
complete the democratic revolution and liberate the
‘What Is Progressive about the Progressive Cultural
precisely on the moment of this theoretical labour in the
array of concepts and
textual practices of the past and the present. The creative
moment is also the
political moment in the history of the movement, and this led
to heated debates
regarding tradition, some advocating a total rejection of the
following the logic of Lenin and Namboodiripad towards a
retrieval of what is
of the people and for the people in bourgeois and even feudal
culture. But the
primacy of the political often meant the subjugation of
cultural work to the
exigencies of strategy and tactics, making creativity largely
new situation in
Ahmad presented a
paper on ‘The Progressive Movement in Its International
Setting’, and started
off by reminding the audience that internationalism was a
fundamental value for
the progressive cultural movement. This value is manifest once
again in the
current radical movements sweeping across the Arab world, and
in the wave of
protests and demonstrations moving from southern Europe to the
crossing the Atlantic to the
Sashi Kumar’s paper was on ‘The exercise of hegemony in contemporary culture and media and the need for a counter-hegemony initiative’, offering an incisive analysis of the international scene in the ‘mediosphere’. The historical shift from classic capitalism to monopoly to finance capital entails a parallel shift in the media-culture confluence, realism to modernism to post-modernism being grounded on the technological move from the photographic to the cinematic to the electronic. One characteristic of this rapid shift has been a tendency towards ‘flatism’, the world of representation shunning depths and contours, and directing all gazes to surfaces and spectacles. The synchronic organisation of texts yields place to the non-linear. Consequently, the attention becomes habitually flitting and homogenised, parallel to the miscellaneous flow, or rather, the torrent, of images and sounds. The texts become self-reflexive, minimising their referential function, so that nothing outside the closed sensorium of texts disrupts the cosy feel-good quiescence of the great consuming public. But the hidden agenda of finance capital and the conniving state apparatus makes this sensorium a part of the surveillance ever-tightening its grip over the people, denying space to social desire, stifling access to inter-communication. The working of the Internet shows up the trend. The job of disruption and resistance falls therefore to the vanguard of the people who work in the interstices of the system to subvert its ends, and to those who physically come out to be together and tear asunder the magic web of media. The recent upheavals in the Arab world and elsewhere demonstrate the power of the radical tradition which seeks both to understand the world and change it.
second session on the
first day had four speakers, all involved in various sectors
Studies, with Sashi Kumar in the chair. Samik Bandyopadhyay
presented a paper
on ‘Defining Progress Culturally: The Aborted Project’,
bringing up a
particular moment in the 1930s in
Sadanand Menon’s concern was ‘Art as Resistance’, and his audio-visual presentation focussed on the fascinating figure of Harindranath Chattopadhyay, man of learning, classical singer, radical poet and composer, theatre-person, actor, choreographer, political agitator, member of parliament, spiritual seeker, man about town, and a great deal more. Harindranath wrote and composed in Hindi (Hindustani, more often than not), bringing his natural gifts and acquired expertise to bear on the new set of cultural tasks demanded by his left-wing politics. This was a sign of the times, for classical culture, folk forms and modernist experiments were all being accessed for the cause of the people, and even artists of less rigorous commitment like the young Ravi Shankar joined the ranks. The written word was important, but the visual and the auditory forms took precedence. The theatre and, later on, the cinema became important; music and dance thrived; the visual arts took off in new directions. The cultural scene was hectic with experiments in the thirties and the forties, and there was easy traffic between modernist experiments and the new people’s culture, the latter often aspiring to extend the horizons of the former. Harindranath was a central figure in that endeavour.
Ram Rahman’s illustrated presentation was titled ‘The importance of culture in direct political action: P C Joshi’s seminal influence on cultural practitioners through the words and photographs of Sunil Janah’. The detailed analysis of Janah’s path-breaking photographs and a reading of his meticulous notes point to the dynamics of a new visual culture which restores to the working people their central position in history. The versatility of his technique came from the photographer’s ideological position. Janah not only directed the viewer’s gaze to the new subject of history, the working people, but also invented newer technical means to accomplish the task. The cause was prime mover. The artist in Janah trained himself to be with the people and with other artists engaged in the same task. There was no reward, not even much recognition from polite society, but it was a happy ambience of creativity and commitment which made many artists and activists live together in a minimalist material environment. The commune was the preferred abode and working place of both the activist and the artist. P C Joshi, who had trained himself to be an organic intellectual of the working class, provided the leadership to this notable coming together of aesthetics and politics.
Sumangala Damodaran’s presentation titled ‘Singing Resistance: The Musical Tradition of IPTA’, traced the many dimensions of the rich musical repertoire of what she referred to as the ‘IPTA tradition’, comprising the IPTA itself and other organisations like the Kerala People’s Arts Club in Kerala and the Praja Natya Mandali in Andhra, which aligned themselves with the IPTA. Underscoring the fact that there was hardly any collection or analysis of music as a significant part of the progressive cultural movement in the 1940s and 50s, she argued that the actual repertoire demonstrates that protest music as a genre is not stereotyped by limited number of forms or styles, as is usually perceived. The sheer range in the repertoire across the country helps establish the legitimacy of protest music as good and rigorous music on the one hand and also as constituting a very significant element in the aesthetics-politics relationship on the other. She highlighted that in the Indian case as well, like in various other parts of the world, the protest music movement engaged with and threw up serious debates on the relationship between the individual and the collective, the ‘authentic’ and the ‘crafted’ musical form and between the simple and the complex. She also played clips of the IPTA tradition’s songs to illustrate her arguments.
The first session next day, on October 14, was dedicated to a discussion on the progressive movement and its tradition in Hindi and Urdu. While conducting this session, Murli Manohar Prasad Singh presided over it as well.
an overview of
the development of progressive movement in Urdu, Arjumand Ara
the changes in Urdu literature following the Great Uprising of
their logical culmination in this movement. At the same time,
she pointed out
the new questions and issues that have come up in Urdu
brief overview of
the history of progressive literary movement in Hindi, Rekha
Awasthi linked it
with the struggle between traditional schools and the new
that was already going on. Her presentation forcefully negated
the thesis that
the progressive movement was something foreign and an
Presenting a brief survey of the role of the progressive movement, Manmohan described it as the culmination of the renaissance that was already going on in the Hindi-Urdu region. He stressed, in particular, the role of the movement in placing realism at the centre of the creative process, in making the process of democratisation consistent and complete, forging the secularisation of our society, solving to an extent the question of linguistic nationalities, forging a critical relationship with tradition, forging counter-traditions, and in radicalising the whole atmosphere. At the same time, however, he pointed out how the movement lost its sheen and role in the changed circumstances after the country’s independence, stressing how the multi-class front which the freedom struggle had forged suffered a dissipation and how the progressive movement proved to be incompetent to deal with the new situation. In the end, Manmohan also underlined how the present juncture is different from the heyday of the progressive movement, so that the progressive movement cannot be revived and channelised in the same manner. He also drew attention to the changing situation when the growing discontent against neo-liberalism is creating the possibility for the progressive forces to forcefully intervene in the situation.
Taking Manmohan’s logic forward, Asad Zaidi underlined how the progressive movement was a movement for modernity. But at the same time he drew attention to its contradictions. In this context, he drew attention to the progressive movement’s failure to overcome the separate development paths in Hindi and Urdu after independence, and to the bitter reality that after independence the progressive current in Hindi has increasing moved towards the rightist position on the question of Urdu and its rights.
Anis Azmi presented a brief survey of the growth of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in the area of Hindustani, and its role in ensuring for the genre of drama a place of honour in society, as a cultural form, and making it an instrument of socio-cultural awakening. While stressing the achievements of the progressive movement, Chanchal Chauhan also drew attention to how it put the writer and not the writing at the centre of the creative process and how it suffered weaknesses like sectarianism.
In his concluding address, Murli Manohar Prasad Singh underlined how the progressive movement was the biggest socio-cultural churning in this area after the Bhakti movement of the medieval period and what multidimensional changes it did bring about in our society. At the same time, he stressed the necessity of unification of all transformative currents in accordance with the requirements of today.
fourth session was
chaired by Basudeb Chatterjee and had four speakers. Mihir
presented a paper on ‘Moment and Movement’, in which he
proposed that a
political movement of the people introduces a moment in
culture which acts as
something like a singularity, altering the configuration of
its dynamics, and
though the movement dies out, the moment stays, and works
often as a manifest
power in the construction and reconstruction of texts, and
sometimes as an
immanent force which enters into a relationship with other
progressive culture in
Anuradha Roy spoke on ‘Music as a Mass Movement: Bengal in the 1940s’, describing the innovative music of Jyotirindra Maitra, Salil Chowdhury and others, and holding that this had entered the political landscape in a limited fashion, rousing the elite among the activists to greater fervour but failing to reach the masses in general. The Communist Party had presumably faltered in declassing its cultural apparatus and politicising its supporters. The people in the countryside, in the main, were still immersed in ‘folk’ culture, which had an element of radical thought embedded in it. The creativity of the radical elite was hobbled by city-based techniques and traditions; that is the factor which allegedly inhibited the production of a play like Nabanna outside the limits of the city.
More read a paper
on ‘Progressive Movement in
Sunil P Elayidom’s paper was titled ‘Imagination and the Making of the Real: a critical reading of the progressive cultural practices of twentieth-century Kerala’. Progressive cultural practice in Kerala during the middle decades of the twentieth century was one of the finest examples of culture acting as a constitutive element of the real. It was a historic juncture where the domain of culture evidently attained the status of a determinant of the real, rather merely representing or reflecting the conflicts and contradictions of social life. Through explicit interventions in the making of the real, imagination established its own materiality, overthrowing the modern understanding of the function of art and ideas. The first part of the presentation located the materiality of the imaginary against the modern understanding of it, drawing from contemporary Marxist notions of the function of art. The second part summarised the history of progressive cultural practice in twentieth-century Kerala with an emphasis on the paradigm shifts that occurred in the domain of sensibility. The third and final part explained the challenges of the present and pointed to the urgency of developing a new perspective for progressive cultural practice, to address the emerging societal reality and to intervene in it.
fifth session on October
15, was in two parts. The first part was chaired by Geeta
Kapur, who started
with comments of her own on the artistic breaks which
punctuate the history of
radical art. The relationship of the visual to the visible is
mediated by the
means of artistic representation which have to be re-fashioned
juncture. Chittaprosad and Somnath Hore brought in the
austerity of an involved
gaze to transcend mere pity and terror which often aid the
pornography of the
visual. This part of the session had a paper entitled
Voicing Protest: visual art in solidarity with the “people”’
from Sanjoy Mallik,
which took people
reportage for the Party on the man-made famine of 1943,
culminating in a
publication titled Hungry
copies of the book were confiscated and destroyed by the
British as it was
critical of the policies that led to the famine. Showing
pages of the book on
the visual projection, the presentation discussed the
propagandist nature of
Chittaprosad’s satirical posters and gave a critical
overview of the imagery
therein. Mallik’s presentation also dealt with Somnath
Hore’s engagement with
similar issues through his early sketches, drawings,
portraits of peasants,
pulp prints, lithographs, and his book Tebhaga:
An Artist's Diary and sketchbook.
who first presented
Mallik’s paper (since he could not attend the symposium),
then added her own
comments on Chittaprosad. She sought a different approach to
artist, presenting six different drawings done by him on one
day (January 7, 1945)
The second paper of this part of the session was by Santhosh S on ‘Ramkinkar Baij: A Chronicle of Redemption Foretold’. Ramkinkar was an adivasi who had risen in the ranks of Santiniketan artists through sheer talent, but he never forsook his roots. The work that he did there, for instance, the large cement sculptures in the Kala Bhavan complex, points to the uprooting of the indigenous people from their habitat and to the defiance which the sinewy and graceful bodies articulate. He moved thoughtfully away from the graces of the Bengal School, not disowning the masters like Abanindranath and Nandalal and Benode Bihari, but placing a separate agenda for art next to their visionary invocation of India. In this effort he was right next to Rabindranath himself, who was delving into the dark recesses of a modernist psyche in his enigmatic and teratological universe. But Ramkinkar’s was a more historicised world, ravaged by time and torn by conflict, in which the everyday labour of women and men and their bonding through the graces of common life stand out in their dynamic plasticity.
The second part of the fifth session was chaired by Malini Bhattacharya. Moloyashree Hashmi made a presentation on ‘The Jana Natya Manch experience’, narrating the genesis and explaining the rationale of this particular street theatre movement founded by Safdar Hashmi and others. The aim was to reach out to the working people, and this was an overt and deliberate strategy to politicise the theatre movement in a particular direction. The technical transformation of the performance text and the over-all dramaturgy followed from this avowed political aim. The result had been a series of ‘entertainment’ events in the Brechtian sense, not just some political preaching with a bit of clowning added on, since Safdar’s – and Janam’s – enterprise was to reach that point in the working people’s consciousness which looked critically at the world. Janam has continued its work with a considerable degree of success, part of the serious left movement in India but not a mere appendage to electoral campaigns.
The second speaker, Lata Singh, spoke on ‘“Transgression” of Boundaries: Women of IPTA’. She narrated the point of departure for the women who joined left-wing movements in general and the IPTA in particular, defying familial and social taboos in place in all parts of India. The practical problems were well-nigh insurmountable, given the stigma that was attached to genteel women’s public role in general and appearance on the stage in particular. Sheela Bhatia, Dina Gandhi, Reba Roychoudhury and Rekha Jain, among others, went through both the agony of the wrenching of bonds and the ecstasy of liberation. But, significantly, though the women of the IPTA were held precious and greatly respected, their creative possibilities did not really find enough of an outlet in the organisation. They remained largely at the level of performers. The net gain was, however, in setting up a model for transgression, moving to a different gender culture and overcoming class boundaries.
Malini Bhattacharya made a brief presentation, pointing out that IPTA productions were not merely insertions in the continuing history of the Bengali theatre or music with a bit of leftism added, but attempts to disrupt the mainstream in terms of both aesthetic construction of texts and organisation of cultural events. A theatrical text like Nabanna (1944) brought in new stage techniques in the interest of a realist representation of the life of the peasant, but its authenticity flowed from its politics, which also demanded creating a new audience for the new drama, reaching out to the people in settings of large political gatherings in city as well as country. Nabanna was by no means confined to Kolkata; it went on tours as well, just as other cultural events moved with the squads from town to country. She referred to forms of performance of and by the rural poor, and the IPTA’s efforts to open up communication with these as a legacy that needs to be renewed.
Session Six was chaired by Saeed Mirza and Sadanand Menon. Kalpana Sahni spoke on the two brothers, Balraj and Bhisham Sahni, who had both disappointed their father by forsaking the family business in Lahore and joining up the IPTA movement in Bombay. Their families were involved, just as others were, for the IPTA of the thirties and forties was more a way of life than a cultural association. Impoverished but intrepid, Balraj brought his enormous acting and directorial talents into the new theatre and the new cinema, introducing ‘method’ acting in both. Bhisham was more into theatre and writing. This was the time of shoestring budgets when invention was spurred by necessity and the artist was a worker living with other workers in communes. The morale was high because they knew the importance of the cause and drew inspiration from fellow artists and audiences. This feeling of solidarity was largely due to the active support of the Party. That is why many were heart-broken when P C Joshi was removed from leadership and the squads broke up. The political and artistic values were not lost, but the tradition of working together for the people's cause became a casualty.
M S Sathyu spoke of his own association with the movement and with some of the stalwarts who had brought so much creative energy to the cause. The astonishing thing about the PWA and the IPTA was the extent of support which these organisations commanded all over India. Hardly any major language community or ethnic group remained outside their sphere of influence. In a sense, the progressive cultural movement was the first organised attempt at forging a pan-Indian cultural identity. And the spread was swift, the scope very large. Even after the organisation was wound up the vitality of the movement was not lost. One must look at the whole of India, not just Maharashtra or Bengal, to realise the extent of its impact. The cinemas of Karnataka and Kerala, for instance, thrived on the progressive impetus of the earlier movement and went on to carve their own space in the cinematic map of India.
V Ramakrishna presented a paper on ‘Left Cultural Movement in Andhra Pradesh: 1930s to 1950s’. He offered a detailed historical survey of the cultural scene against the political and economic background of the region, and explained the meshing of culture with politics in the anti-colonial struggle and the Telangana People’s Movement. Two significant things happened. Some of the established writers – Sri Sri, for instance – were drawn to the progressive cause and contributed seminally to the forging of a new kind of literature and drama, in which the people’s cause would be foregrounded. The other was the transformation of some of the traditional rural forms – Burrakatha in particular – into an artistic vehicle of progressive thought. This drew many talents from outside the educated middle-class into the creative pool and deepened the base of the movement. The Andhra experience shows how the people themselves, the labouring poor from the villages, the ordinary citizens from the towns, women from all classes, would be active agents of cultural change and would take part, as conscious political subjects, in the struggle for emancipation. The Party organisation helped the cultural surge, but the latter had a momentum of its own. The visible success of the progressive movement might have been limited, but its impact has been long-lasting.
Biswamoy Pati read a paper titled ‘Imagined Realities: The left-wing cultural movement in Orissa, 1930-47’. The Orissa scene was not really conducive to a sustained cultural movement of the kind witnessed in some other parts, but the impact of the anti-colonial struggle was deeply felt by the intellectuals and the artists, and the surge of popular movements turned some of them in a progressive direction. The New Age Literary Forum was set up in 1935, giving a coherent direction to the collective self-awareness of committed artists, and one can see how a socially felt demand was met by authors like the Panigrahi brothers, Kalindi Charan and the short-lived Bhagavati Charan. The progressive turn was also pivotal in the works of Sachi Raut Roy and Nityananda Mahapatra, and later on, Gopinath Mohanty.
Prachee Dewri presented a paper on ‘IPTA and the Music of Assam’. Her paper focussed on the music that was composed during the 1950s, with special focus on the works of Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnuprasad Rava, who were two people who worked as partners in most of their artistic endeavours during this period. Prachee began with noting that these two artists had already begun experimenting with music in the thirties, moving away from the classical based music of people like Lakshmiram Baruah, and exploring the ‘folk’ genres of the region and used this music in their plays and films and had also recorded them. Agarwala and Rava also theorized on art after their involvement in the IPTA. She linked up how their theorizing on performative arts, like Agarwala’s “Shilpir Prithivi” and Rava’s “Asamiya Krishtir Samu Abhash” was manifested in their creations. The work of many more musicians who entered the fold of the IPTA during this period, some of whom were discovered by Agarwala and Rava, such as Bhupen Hazarika, Dilip Sharma, Sudakshina Sharma, Anandiram Das and Pratima Pandey Barua and who sang in diverse genres such as the Borgeet, Bongeet, Kamrupiya Lokageet and the Goalpariya Lokageet, was also traced briefly through playing some musical clips. Specifically, Prachee’s paper also focussed on how the IPTA promoted lesser known genres, and how these genres themselves influenced the composition of new music in the subsequent decades.
One would like to think that this was not a symposium of the ordinary kind, which are a dime a dozen in season, particularly in New Delhi. The rationale of this particular exercise was an exploration of the Marxist view of culture, particularly people’s cultural movements, and that surely entails something like a paradigm shift, transcending, but not necessarily denying, the established values of academic discourse. The activists and creative people who joined the discussion, the political workers, the media professionals, the younger crowd which stayed throughout -- all these people brought perspectives which helped place the movement in its setting, and pointed to directions which progressive culture has to move towards in order to solve its current problems and renew its pledge to the people. One remembers in this connection the two occasions in Vivan Sundaram’s house in Kasauli, the first in 1979 and the second a couple of years later, when a closely knit group had met to discuss similar issues, and which had resulted in the birth of The Journal of Arts and Ideas. Some of these people were present on this occasion too. The level of commitment and intellectual rigour was very much in evidence more than three decades later, with newer and younger people joining in. As expected, the three days of the symposium saw the core crowd stay together late into the evening of each day, with SAHMAT showing some of the best films of the progressive movement, Dharti ke Lal, Neecha Nagar and Komal Gandhar, before a late community supper. The discussion, needless to say, continued till the end.