In December last year BJP’s state president Dilip Ghosh, while addressing a gathering at Joka in south Kolkata, attacked Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee saying “she is acting like a bastard” and trying to convert Bengal into Bangladesh by raising the ‘Joy Bangla’ slogan. Last month, one of Ghosh’s footloose remarks at the India Today Conclave in Kolkata in which he glorified Lord Ram came to be interpreted as denigrating the Hindu goddess Durga, which sparked off a furore. A few TMC supporters tonsured their heads in Hooghly district’s Sreerampore in protest against Ghosh’s remarks demanding an apology from him. A day after the BJP chief JP Nadda’s convoy in West Bengal was attacked in December last year, Mamata Banerjee trashed him thus: “They have no other work. At times Home Minister is here, other times it’s Chaddha, Nadda, Fadda, Bhaddha. When they have no audience, they call their workers for doing nautanki,” Banerjee said.

At a rally at Hooghly’s Dunlop ground in February this year, Banerjee launched a personal attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah ~ as Mark Antony did during the funeral oration over Caesar, whom Brutus had helped kill (“Brutus is an honourable man”) ~ taking potshots at them without naming them: “I don’t want to malign the post of the Prime Minister. But two men from Delhi are visiting Bengal and spreading misleading words. One is hodol-kutkut (an overweight pot-bellied man) and the other is kimbhut-kimakar (grotesque).’’ Recently, at a rally in Purulia, Ghosh lashed out at Banerjee’s style of campaigning sporting her bandaged leg since she incurred a leg injury ~ “She wants to show her plastered leg to everyone. Why doesn’t she just wear a pair of bermudas?” Though the social media took Ghosh’s comments to task for being “sexist and inappropriate”, nary a day goes by when one does not hear him speak and rant in gay and careless abandon, with hardly a thought spared on any canon of political correctness.

Such inanities are almost daily in a state that was once witness to a great social, cultural and intellectual upheaval that happened from early 19th century to the late middle of 20th century in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent and from Ram Mohan Roy to Satyajit Ray. But if that period of history was the apogee of Bengali culture, it is very difficult to say if it is the very nadir or if the worst is yet to come.

But the culture that magnifies the lack of taste and extreme vulgarity or kitsch, born as offshoots of a sub-culture, is but a part of an increasingly globalized mass-culture from which one can’t detach. If one rues the debasement of taste and vows immunity from it, he/she cannot remain untainted by its contagion in the long run even by a resolute will. If sound is an agent (loud caller tunes, amplifiers and boom boxes), so is the ubiquity of social media. But above all, the mongrelization of popular taste has thrived on the subalternization of the social milieu. Popular culture was a price, so thought the conservative critics of the 1950s such as Clement Greenberg, Ortega y Gasset, T. S. Eliot, Ernst van den Haag, and Q. D. Leavis at another remove, for the goodies of a democratic system to harvest. This transition from snobbery to frippery, from the ivory tower to the public space is both a class act and an act of subversion.

The American commentator George Will pointed out to how adults are decreasingly distinguishable from children in their absorption in entertainments and the kinds of entertainments they are absorbed in ~ online games, hand-held games, now films and web series on the OTT platforms and so on. To borrow from George Will further, that we’re living “an increasingly infantilized society” is evident from our obsession with lowbrow fluff.

But the counter-argument is that mass culture is growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year, little evidence of which is manifest around us. At least going by its dumbing down in this part of the world, mass culture is risible. What is called progress is, in fact, more sophisticated, and therefore more prurient, delivery of stupidity.

The garish format of reality shows, the dazzle of arc lights falling on a dancer or singer with the participants belting out some popular song, or pirouetting into an impossibly arduous acrobatic move to the accompaniment of some peppy background music might be said to represent this inyour- face popular culture in Bengal today.

They come with a promise to catapult one from provincial, artisan-class obscurity to become a figure of power and influence. One gets to see these kinds of platforms cropping up in many regional television channels. The avant-garde that depended for its audience on “the rich and the cultivated,” who cowered in the face of the mass media and the popularity of kitsch is on its way out, or so one thinks, because the patrons are on the decline. The way we love to engross ourselves in the popular parlour debates on television, splitting hairs on bytes that range from the inane, the exotic, the histrionic to the crude and the vulgar, we have lost ourselves to what Jean Baudrillard calls “the ecstasy of communication.”

And when this obsession is supplemented by social media, our virtual walls and posts become a kind of anonymous monitoring screen of the hyperreal expressed through the scenic repetition of disembodied sounds and images, an addictive process of acting out that is located neither in the actor nor on some remote stage.

The new emerging trend of popular culture in politics is the rise of a brazen crop of political mercenaries who switch sides without any ideological trappings, either in exchange for money, or in search of power, either out of a sense of ostracization or driven by a lust for lucre. If recent political developments of West Bengal on the eve of the state elections are anything to go by, shamelessness is the new form of degeneration. Even our intellectuals have been seen to be far more willing to align with political parties, than with the causes and ideologies. Righteousness has been replaced by opportunism.

The arriviste, waiting at the gates, might come up with a different culture. The cultural anxiety hanging in the air about an infusion of the cultural habits, religious practices and glorified diktats of enforced vegetarianism, the entrenched feudalism and other social mores popular in the cow-belt and the northern India into the social fabric of Bengal with its eclecticism, its culture of gender relations, its musical and sartorial traditions, its plurality, secularity and a gentrified but still nurtured flair for high culture is real. The threat of an alien culture swamping these parts of Bengal ~ sometimes in the forms of saffron stormtroopers breaking into the Indian Coffee house, sometimes India’s oldest science research institute being reprimanded for not doing enough to meet the Hindi language targets, sometimes weaponizing a religious slogan as a tool for shrill provocation and cultural intimidation ~ might well point to a new form of colonialism under a new dispensation.

But we need not worry for culture, we’re told, is not concerned with ‘high’, ‘universal’ values that are static or independent, but random, ephemeral, and historically determinate. It is futile to “insist on aesthetic and moral standards hitched to permanency, durability, perennity”, warned historian Reyner Banham in his seminal article “Vehicles of Desire” way back in 1955, when we care more for the “noisy ephemeridae” of dailyness.

But whether we choose to revel in the lowbrow, resigning ourselves to the spirit of the age and allowing it to subsume us, or resist the morass, whether to drift with the detritus or hold on to our cultural artefacts will determine and define us. (Concluded)