Degeneration or Democratization ?

Hardly can one day pass by without reports from nostalgic and dreamy eyed commentators regarding the degeneration of the ‘culture’, be it in music, cinema or any of the other arts. They pine for the days of Raj Kapoor, Satyajit Ray, M. S. Subbulakshmi and wonder what is happening to the quality of the arts today. ‘Commercialisation’, they scream, is moving artists to seek money rather than concentrate on the quality of their art. How true can one say such a situation is ?

Looking back, the patrons of the high arts even in the mid-20th century were largely urban, middle-class, educated people. Brought up seeing and listening to music and cinema which was made by artists patronized by people largely like themselves. One required an acquired taste, a certain erudition to appreciate what had largely become ‘elite’ art. It would be too much to ask of an average citizen to be put through the torture of listening or seeing something that she cannot comprehend just as it would be too much to ask of even the erudite Carnatic connoisseur to appreciate the nuances of HipHop (assuming, of course, that HipHop can claim to contain such nuances).

As the purchasing power of the lower classes increased, and they started flocking to cinema theatres and music concerts expecting to be entertained, they would obviously want something interesting, understandable, and that made way for the present range of films and music. One can definitely see a rise in number of films made and albums produced as more and more people joined the ranks of a exploding middle class. Even though most of these artistic endeavours were complete disasters from any point of view, the point was that the entertainers had to respond to the needs of a people with different idioms, different tastes from their earlier patrons. How can changing with the times be called a degeneration of art cannot be comprehended. Most people do not have the motivation nor the patience to finish a B.A in Music to appreciate their music. One can hardly find a Hindustani music listener gyrating to the rhythms of the tabla, just as it is extremely hard to find a person not jumping out of his seat (if rock concert organisers provide one!) when Iron Maiden takes the stage.

The rise of new genres of music and cinema, with their attractive rhythms, loud and colorful sets, unimaginative storylines, shorter and shorter durations, reflect the fact that more and more tastes which do not belong to the elite are being given due consideration. It is hard not to identify the distinct workings of a democracy in such changes. Showing the struggling, poor hero rising and challenging a large businesshouse may echo the dreams of a people who see inequality paraded in front of them, not being able to do anything about it.

Therefore, what some perceive to be a degeneration in the quality of art in the recent times due to commercialization or westernization appears to me to be a failure to understand a form of cultural expression, being far too removed from the roots of its inspirations and aspirations. This works the other way as well, with Classical music being derided as too boring.
So, before you go about shooting your mouth off about philistine Punjabi pop or old man’s Carnatic music, remember that you don’t understand the other well enough to do so!

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