An open space is not a vacant space. All too often when we think of open space we think of vacant space and therefore the desire arises to occupy it, to misappropriate it, to grab it somehow…By ‘open’ we mean openness to change and accommodation… These spaces are open not only physically, but also metaphysically, spaces that allow imagination and invention, dialogue and dissent, and above all, plurality.
If you look at the world in which we live, the basic problem are the ‘others’, whoever these others are -- linguistic others, religious others, intellectual others, creative others... The problem is, what to do with others. You cannot create a little ‘aranya’ somewhere, and withdraw from the world, away from the ‘others’. Most of us neither have the time nor the desire nor perhaps the inclination to withdraw from the world. We want whatever we want within this world. We want open space in this world. So let us look at what is the state of spaces in some of the more important sectors of human endeavour.
Is our parliament an Open Space? Constitutionally and theoretically, it is supposed to be an open space. But parliament is in fact at the moment closed, enclosed by forces which are unparliamentary – forces of the market, forces of ‘free’ society.
What about the much-talked about media, custodian of our liberties? In many ways it is open, but look at the phenomena of paid news, their utter indifference to music, dance, theatre, visual arts… They will publish a photograph of Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma performing in a park, but what the deuce he performed, the quality of what he performed, not a word about that. It’s only a handsome pundit under a Yum Yum tree... Reducing understanding to this level is closing the space. There is indifference, trivialisation and sensationalism in writing about the arts. The media has almost systematically closed the space which spiritually and intellectually was supposed to be open space. If you don’t have the money, you can’t walk into that space, howsoever important you may be.
Is our economy an open space? It’s a free economy – yes of course it is free. It is free to exploit, it is free to grab land… You have an economy which is completely by-passing the poor, the exploited, the suppressed, and we claim to have billionaires and our rate of growth is 8.5, which is one of the highest rates of economic growth in the world. But it is an economy which is growing at the cost of billions of people.
Is politics an open space? Indian politics is no longer concerned with values of any kind. It is a sector of management. If you recall the big leaders who became very famous in the last 10 years, they are all really managers, who manage very well. Values are no longer an issue and each one is vying with the other to give concessions and facilities to the market forces.
Religion? That’s a very safe area where there must be all open spaces? No. All religions in the world today are regressive and violent. Without exception. They are not only intolerant of other religions, they are intolerant of their own plurality.
So this is the story of the open spaces that exist in India. Actually, this is the story of the absence or the shrinking of open spaces. Now since I am a poet and a shameless promoter of Indian arts, I am going to make a fervent plea about how arts and literature in this country have at least retained some of the aspects of open spaces. I wouldn’t go to the extent of saying that they are the only open spaces, but they are at least some of the more open spaces in our situation. But they cannot remain open for long if politics, economy, spirituality do not allow or sustain openness. Their openness is contingent on openness elsewhere. And at the moment I have a feeling that they have an adversorial relationship with our own society which has turned so violent, so non-pluralistic that it is increasingly being pushed to close spaces.
In fact my contention is that today the real opposition, if you like, the real political opposition, exists in literature and the arts and not in politics. Because it is there that the plurality has been embodied, sustained and followed with vigour and with dedication.
Why do I say that the arts are open spaces? They allow the plurality of visions, styles, approaches, idioms, the kind of variety, the multiplicity that you have – there’s no single dominant trend. And this sometimes disappoints many because we want to call it a Marxist phase, an anti-Marxist phase, etc. etc. If we are not able to generalise, we say “Oh the scene is very confusing.” The scene is confusing to those who do not want to understand.
Indian plurality, open space, cannot be enclosed in a generality. Plurality is also a generalization, I am aware of that, but plurality is at least a generalisation that allows for this openness which other generalisations won’t. So in literature we have any number of Marxists and we have people who are not Marxists. And both exist, furiously fight, would like to poison each other’s coffee but they survive merrily in the literary arena. Literature is that space where either/or co-exist – you know Oscar Wilde famously said “Artistic truth is one whose contradiction is also true.” Now you can’t claim this in religion – either you believe or you don’t believe. In politics either you are with me or you are with my enemy. In all areas, the either/or situation operates…but literature, the arts, make you ponder. Literature and the arts are not concerned with truth. Actually, truth itself, according to me, is a dictatorial concept. It demands perfection. Literature and the arts are concerned with reality, which is much more chaotic, admitting of contradictions, and democratic reality and ultimately question the dictatorship of truth. And everyone who has destroyed the world either through ideas or through armies, has been one who has laid the claim that “I know the truth.” The moment someone says “I know the truth”, he becomes a danger to humanity because humanity has not given unto any one of us to know the truth – we are imperfect beings, dreaming of perfection and knowing fully well that we shall never reach the threshold of perfection. That is the essence of being human. That is the human truth.
So why can the arts and literature never be a closed space?
By their very nature they have to be open. If they are closed in some particular circumstances, sooner or later, they will break it open. Nazim Hikmet was jailed in Turkey because he was a communist. There used to be shit up to his chin. He started composing poetry in his head, and remembering it, because there was no other way. Here is an example of a man put into an absolutely closed and guarded space but he finds a manner in which to free himself. The Jews – I have been to Auschwitz in Poland – they had no instruments, with their nails some of them wrote sentences, some of them made pictures… So ultimately, you might be put into whatever conditions and confines, the arts will find a way of opening that enclosure and bursting out sooner or later.
And why is this possible? It is possible, for instance, because these truths – I am using this term in a more general sense having earlier attacked the idea of truth altogether – the truths that literature and the arts propose, or embody or enact, are half-truths. Which means this – you have to add a bit of your own truth to that to make it complete. And this is the radically democratic nature of the enjoyment of all arts and literature. If you are a dumb, unmoving, uncontributing person you may be good for many other things (and there are a whole lot of people who can spend a perfectly meaningful life without literature and the arts and no harm done,) but for those who have the unfortunate choice of having to respond, or to read or to witness or to enjoy art, they cannot do it unless they participate in it in some way.
In the western situation, when the performance or concert is taking place, there is light only on the concert platform, there is no light on the audience. You are all kind of frozen there. And in the beginning, since we were imitating the west, the minute Kumar Gandharva or Malik Arjun Mansoor came to sing, the lights would be dimmed and the musicians would specially ask – please, put on the lights, because they wanted to see the faces – in other words, unless you are in some way participating in the act of making music, music will not be complete. So this nature of making you a participant in the creative act itself, is the permanent guarantee in a manner of speaking, whether you have a social or political or economic guarantee or not, it is a kind of a spiritual guarantee that this space will remain open and vulnerable.
Now let us look at these spaces which are open, but which are not vulnerable, and so they are to that extent, a little less human, a little less for our purposes. We need spaces which are both open and vulnerable. And these spaces created by the arts and literature have some very strong lessons embedded in them – whether you learn them or not is besides the point -- and one of them is that we have a human responsibility towards others, that we cannot exist without others. And these ‘others’ do not mean only other human beings – we are responsible to other beings, other forms of life, to nature, to the environment, and we are also responsible for what has gone before us and what will come in future.
You know, now-a-days you are being made to live in an eternal present. As if, in a civilisation which is 5000 years old, public memory has become so short that they do not even remember what happened 25 years ago. Take the case of Babri Masjid, which we thought was a momentous event in Indian politics, post-Independence -- there have been ‘n’ number of comments in the newspapers recently after the judgement where young people have said that they did not know what the Babri Masjid was. What happened? I’ve been very fond of saying that the cat doesn’t recall that there were cats in the 17th century; a dog doesn’t recall that there must have been dogs in the 10th century. But we, Homo Sapiens do recall, given an opportunity, that there were human beings 5000 years ago or 7000 years ago. And part of the riches that we have got are languages, and memory. And there is a global conspiracy to, in a manner of speaking, make us forget. Everybody should forget his past… Let us move forward… Forget about this, forget about Partition, forget about that, forget about Babri Masjid, forget about Gujarat! Let us go ahead. But one of the functions of literature and the arts is to remind you that you should NOT forget, to remind you that you are responsible, that you cannot get away, just by saying “Bhai let’s go ahead. It’s none of our business, you know we didn’t do it.” Yes of course we didn’t do it: Given an opportunity we would have done it.
This is what literature, the arts tell you, that ultimately, we are them, and they are us. This is the big lesson: that there is no difference. Well, yes, there are differences but why do we read novels that are completely out of our experience and yet we are moved by them? Because ultimately, they are us and we are them. This is the ultimate opening of all the spaces. And as long as we realise that we are them and they are us, these spaces shall remain open.
But look at what’s happening today. Hussain painted both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – the only painter in recorded history to have done so. And that same painter cannot show in India, and if he shows, the exhibition will be vandalised, it has to close, and whatever. Now there is also a group of young painters in Baroda who painted something which was quite atrocious, not particularly pleasing, but that can’t be the reason for closing down that exhibition, and in fact the Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts was suspended and remains suspended because he allowed such an exhibition. Take the book on Shivaji -- the courts have said that the ban on this book was unjustified, and there have been people who have said “No, even if the court says that book should be published, we will not allow the book to be sold.” What happened to Salman Rushdie’s book – it was Congress in power when Satanic Verses was banned and remains banned. Muktibodh’s book remains banned… In other words, nobody has been able to ban all those people who demolished the Babri Masjid, who created riots in the entire country, they remain free but a poor book is banned – and mind you, the religion is not important: Satanic Verses is about Islam, Hussein’s pictures are of Saraswati, Muktibodh’s comments were about Mahavir . The point is that they are all being systematically enclosed.
Indian modernism was defined by two spokesmen – Vivekanand who said “A Christian should not become a Hindu, a Hindu should not become a Christian, a Muslim should not become a Hindu etc. – they can remain whatever they are, yet reach whatever it is that they want to reach through religion.” And Gandhiji who was asked a question: “If all religions lead to the same god, why should there be so many religions?” and answered that all religions are true but they are all imperfect and that’s why we need a plurality of religions... The Hanuman Gadhi in Ayodhya is opened every morning by a Muslim chowkidar. We have had a long tradition of living together. Equally we have had a long tradition of fighting -- but we did not close the space. We kept these spaces open in terms of conventions, rituals, but once the identity bug comes, then one has to assert that I am more Hindu than others, I am more Muslim than others, I am more Christian than others, and whatever. That creates a problem.
If you look at the Babri Masjid judgement, it’s not a legal judgement because how can a court decide whether a god was born at a particular place? It’s absurd. So at one level, you close the space of possibility – the mythic possibility that Ram may have been born at Ayodhya is being closed because you are making it into a fact, pinning it down. But at the other level, the judgement divides the space into three – therein lies the opening of the space. So every open space has the possibility of closing something. Just as each closing of a space has the possibility of opening some space. They don’t cancel each other out – it’s not as if you are saying that if this space is opened, all other spaces are opened. The opening may actually involve some closing. And the closing may indicate a way to some opening. Therefore we have to take a little more complex view of the open spaces rather than a simplistic view dividing them into either/or.
Let me finish with this very interesting thought: Everything that exists, can also not exist. Thought, music, nation… Let us remember this -- that which exists, may not exist. If today open spaces exist, tomorrow they may not unless we are alert, unless we see that these open spaces don’t close up, are not allowed to be closed, that they remain vulnerable and therefore open and therefore human.