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Descent into kitsch~I

The CPI-M‘s ‘slide‘ towards ‘bourgeois decadence‘ was the talking point quite a long time ago. West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee is witness to degradations and abnegations consuming us almost daily, which is ironic for, at a personal level, Miss Banerjee has always remained a great enthusiast and patron of all forms of art and literature


The other day, while listening to the Symphony No. 104 in D major, that happens to be 18th century Austrian composer’s Joseph Haydn’s final symphony, and also feeling smug about my ‘high’ taste, I rudely woke up to a cacophonous popular Bengali song (‘Tumpa Sona/Duto hampi dena…’ roughly translatable as ‘O Tumpa darling/ Won’t you give me a kiss or two!’) being played out somewhere in the vicinity. I was surely peeved over the onslaught, least of which was due to the distraction, but due more to the sluggish thought that ‘high’ culture was eventually giving way to the lowbrow. The passing thought that I was being elitist in nursing such subliminal snobbery did also cross my mind as the traditional oppositions between high and low culture, and the popular and avant-garde have been raging for decades. I reasoned that it was an instance of the marginal becoming the mainstream.

Upon reflection, this brusque appeal to osculation seemed time-tested. Kiss is now very much part of the popular culture that has broken into tradition and practices of romances even of traditional societies. As traditional canons of art and aesthetics are being challenged ~ they always were in human history ~ who am I to feign shock over the overall ‘decadence’, expressed often in high-decibel boom boxes, car stereos and what have you on the pretext that I don’t like them, however much I recoil or bristle inside at this ‘low’ culture.

The popular perception that it was the CPI-M that was the upholder of the high culture of Bengal might be contradicted if one recalls how a ‘culture clash’ ensued over an extravaganza popularly known as ‘Hope ’86’. It was a song-and dance show organized to raise funds for flood relief in 1986 in Kolkata, by state transport minister Subhas Chakraborty (and Mithun Chakraborty’s one-time mentor) of the Left Front in 1986, with Usha Uthup as one of the ace performers, between Jatin Chakraborty who led the orthodox camp and Jyoti Basu helming the ‘progressives’.

The matter came to such a head that Uthup brought a defamation suit against Chakraborty for a number of remarks made about her. The RSP minister ranted that he wanted to defend the state’s traditional culture from what he described as “cheap, disco, perverted culture.” ‘

Hope ’86’ is popularly perceived to be a milestone for the ‘infiltration’ of popular culture in Bengal in more senses than one. It was attended by the Bollywood biggies of the time such as Amitabh Bachchan, Jeetendra, Raj Kumar, Rekha, Dharmendra, Sridevi, Sanjay Dutt and Kumar Gaurav. The Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata was full to the brim with one lakh people lustily cheering to the hit songs sung by Kishore Kumar, and to the energetic performances put up by Mithun Chakraborty and Rekha. But the debate about what constituted ‘apasanskriti’ (decadent culture) never really wore off since. For instance, former WB chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Subhas Chakraborty clashed over a stage show of Hrithik Roshan in 2000 in the corridors of Writers’ Buildings nitpicking on what constituted ‘decadent’ culture. As per reports, a high-minded Bhattacharjee who had translated Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Vladimir Mayakovski’s poems into Bengali, with a well-documented distaste for pelvic thrusts and violently heaving bosoms, a spectacle common to a Hindi potboiler, was generous enough to concede that there was no criterion for ‘decadent’ culture.

But he was unconscionably squeamish to be seen as his government part sponsoring such events alongside ‘Coca-Cola or Pepsi’. “Does culture mean only Bengali songs sung by Bengali artistes?” Chakraborty was holding forth on his part, “do Hindi songs sung by non-Bengali singers indicate decadent culture?”

The CPI-M’s ‘slide’ towards ‘bourgeois decadence’ was the talking point quite a long time ago. West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee is witness to degradations and abnegations consuming us almost daily, which is ironic for, at a personal level, Miss Banerjee has always remained a great enthusiast and patron of all forms of art and literature. One might also argue that under the TMC, the change of the class character in the quality of participation in politics and those who came to the vanguard might partly account for the cultural ‘downgrade’.

While some recent Bengali films represent Bengalis as extremely culture-minded, westernized at times, their lives filled with so much kitsch that it might appear fake and spurious, on the ground, lasting cultural struggles have been raging between the educated practitioners of high culture against most of the rest of society, rich and poor, who roots for popular cultures driven mainly by the mass media and other consumer goods industries. What is the proof of such cultural struggles to happen on the ground? Even Rabindra sangeet played out at important street junctions of Kolkata, not at the mofussil towns, came to be interpreted as an imposition of canned culture upon the unschooled, or to those who simply couldn’t relate.

And a fair measure of subversion in counter-culture against what is perceived as elite ‘high’ culture exemplified by the rarefied milieu of Rabindra Sangeet was evident with the rise of a singer who not only relished in distorting songs of Tagore, the cultural icon for Bengalis of all ages and talisman of high culture, but also literally going to town with his expletive-laden oeuvre. At many places, including Visva- Bharati University, which was founded by Tagore himself, and at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University, which is part of the Tagore’s ancestral home, young participants either vigorously cheered to the singer’s parodies or had the lyrics painted with ‘Gulal’ on their bodies. If in doubt, the singer’s YouTube channel still warrants his ‘popularity’.

How the political discourse has corrupted is evident the way political leaders are attacking each other in poll-bound West Bengal. “Khela hobe” (literally “game is on”) is the catch-phrase this election season, which owes its origin to TMC spokesperson and general secretary of its youth wing, Debangshu Bhattacharya who originally wrote the lyrics for ‘Khela hobe’. Going by the opening lines of the song “Baire theke bargi ashe/Niyom kore proti mashe/Amio achi, tumio robe/Bondhu ebar khela hobe!” the TMC seeks to project the BJP as outsiders, with the ‘bargi’ being a reference to the several Maratha invasions of West Bengal between 1741 and 1751. But the catch-phrase has almost become a battle-cry in the game of attrition between the TMC and the BJP with grim connotations. Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, taking cue of the call said at a rally in Kolkata on March 7, “TMC ka khela shesh. Khel khatam, vikas shuru” (TMC’s game is over. After the endgame, development begins). The CPIM, on its part, made a clever parody of “Tumpa Sona” number that became the party’s official February 8 Brigade rally campaign, coming heavily down on the BJP and the TMC, even suggesting a nexus between the two parties with the portmanteau coinage ‘Bijemool’ (BJP+Trinamool).

But these are rather innocuous instances. For the last few months, body shaming, misogyny, slangs, downright vituperations, memes, online trolls, calling names, skewed rhyming by way of nomenclature, fake news, propaganda, garish road-shows, parodies of peppy songs, or the songs with generous appeal to the petty and the frivolous had been the toast this election season. Inability to survive through all these might make one a social misfit like the decadent hero Des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884) mourning over the prospect of continuing his life of refined corruption and rarefied aesthetic tastes because the kind of society that fostered such tastes has all but ceased to exist, lost to a new world presided over by “the jovial bourgeois,” who “put[s] his trust in the power of his money and the contagiousness of his stupidity. (To be concluded)