The artist’s uncertainty
Surely you’ve heard the quote from playwright Bertolt Brecht: “In dark times, will there also be singing?” Yes, there will also be singing. About dark times. If luckily you didn’t, I need you to pretend you did because I’m about to start bitterly complaining about songs in dark times.
On May 11, Gujarati poet Parul Khakhar published the poem Shab-vahini Ganga to talk about the massive tragedy of the pandemic and the government’s inaction. It went viral and was immediately translated into several languages. She was also criticized and viciously trolled, but Khakhar, a popular poet who apparently doesn’t write much about mainstream politics, seemed unwavering. Reportedly recently hailed as âthe next great icon of Gujarati poetry,â she quickly wrote a second poem on silence.
In June, the president of Gujarat Sahitya Akademi, Vishnu Pandya, wrote an anonymous editorial in their newspaper, Shabdsrushti, describing fans of an unnamed poem as literary Naxals, and said the poem was being misused for anarchy. After being introduced as the author of the editorial and then confronted with Gujarati writers for his censorship, Pandya admitted that he spoke about Khakhar and his best-selling poem.
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In his editorial, while reminding the poet that she could win back the favor of the establishment, Pandya also reportedly made a startling statement: “The poem is bad although the poet is good”, a position he reaffirmed ( although less vigorously) after being exposed.
Pandya has been firmly and rightly condemned for attempting a dictatorial act on Gujarati literature. It is a true indicator of our wheat-colored age that literary critiques appear in the political pages and political discussions take place in what remains of the pages of the books. But have our book pages ever said something as drastic as “the poem is bad while the poet is good”?
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When Pandya accused Khakhar fans of bad intentions, one can’t help but think of all the writers whose intentions have recently been called into question. Contemporary artists of all stripes must feel that they are sending their work and themselves to a world that currently demands more justice from art than politics. The despair experienced in the political world has in a way transferred to a greater demand for the good conduct of cultural objects and their creators. The ghost of the cancellation culture can make performers scared, resentful, or defensive. If artists ignore the end of political correctness, but contemplate speeches that basically ask you not to be a jerk, it may even be useful for their art. It’s a good balance, but better than sulking.
It can be confusing to discuss culture cancellation when you live in a world where your art or social media post could send you to jail or viciously trolled or lynched. It could give you insane influence or get you fired. And in a highly hierarchical world, that has little to do with the quality of your work. But one of the less talked about side effects of living in a culture without humor and freedom is that you’re supposed to love art for all the wrong reasons. The artist is good therefore the art is good.
Take this poem. I don’t read Gujarati, but I have read horrible translations that made me think of the nauseating results of mixing good intentions with art. In the Hindi translation, at least, the poem has a catchy quality, ideal for recitation and textbooks. But he showed no sign of wit or memorable imagery. The latter is somewhat forgivable, as it does the simple job of commemorating one of the most tragic images of our lives.
Never mind my extra-deep thoughts on this poem though. Once a cultural artifact achieves runaway success, it lives on a high mountain that requires a special OTP for entry. Shab-vahini Ganga, shared hundreds of thousands of times online and translated into many languages, is well on its way to climbing the mountain. late losers. Also, have you ever watched her beautiful hands as she performed for her global tribe of affect-loving young women?
Ever since the stories of the bodies floating in the Ganges came to light, I have thought of the Malayalam phrase for the unclaimed corpse, Anatha Pretham– the orphan ghost – and felt a new burst of sadness. In a highly polarized nation, serious artists must work hard to rise above being admired for political propaganda and reclaim the Anatha Prethams of truth and beauty – a job that is wonderful when done but boring to do. It doesn’t give you endless endorphin levels from social media metrics.
I have gone through many iterations of Pandya’s vague thesis in my head. The poet is good. The poem is bad. The poet is bad. The poem is good. The poet is the poem. I was getting closer and closer, I realized, to Wendy Cope’s poem, The poet’s uncertainty, which begins with âI am a poet. I like bananas a lot â, and concludes:â I like bananas a lot. Am I a poet? Bananas, everybody, bananas.
Nisha Susan is the editor of The Ladies Finger webzine and the author of Women who forgot to make up Facebook and other stories.