We have to arise, or the dance will still

We must understand and embrace our heritage in its myriad hues and resist all reductive impulses

We have to arise, or the dance will still

Leela Samson

It is the artist—folk, martial, tribal, classical and ritualistic, under the very gruelling circumstances of past and present day society and with a degree of sacrifice— who has carried the various expressions of India’s tangible and intangible arts through to the present day.

This alone has undoubtedly afforded the crucial links that modern or contemporary expression in India, has built itself upon. And it is because of their sacrifice that we can continue as a nation to boast of our great cultural traditions.

Secularists must accept the plurality and multiplicity of India’s traditions, including the multiple religious faiths that our soil is blessed with. Our traditions are precious. Not to be wiped out of educational curriculums only because they have a certain religious colouring.

I may not be Hindu by birth, but may certainly be Hindu in my expression of art, in my celebration of utsavas that mark the Indian calendar. I may not be Muslim by birth, but the Muslim arts grew unfettered on our soil and have enriched our land and people in ways unimaginable.

I am more secular, in the most universal way possible, because I have grown up under multiple influences all around me. This is possible because I am Indian. What an opportunity we have to share the languages and cultures of so many groups of people.

I accept that the assimilation of European scientific, economic and political thought contributed to the creation of a national freedom movement in India and is, therefore, one of the important elements of Indian national consciousness. Does that negate all scientific, economic, political and cultural thought that may have existed before our freedom movement and that continues to have relevance to our lives today?

There was a time in the not-distant past when the Western world viewed us as primitive. They were quick to label our systems as ‘backward’. They may have been right. They were often wrong though and we do not have to agree. Everything Western is not good either. Our heritage must not be negated in the fight for rational thinking. We have much to learn from many nations. And they, from us.

We have been privileged to listen to the great artists of our time; loved their music, their dance, their godliness; for the traditions they upheld and tenderly passed on to their children and shishyas. These are the traditions, the past and the history of every child in India. When are we going to say this with pride and take ownership of them?

What is it that makes us so different, but that one prays at a mosque and the other at a gurdwara or church or temple? We love the same melodies. Play the same ragas. Beat out the same rhythms on the same drums.

We share the same daal-roti, know the same secrets of a good paan, love the same cricketers. The very same lyrics that appease my soul bring a smile to his. And when there is a pandemic we are there for each other— ‘Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai’; we are then too sick to notice the difference.

What is this price we are paying for the fragile ‘secularism’ we boast of ? If we do not see the dangers of this situation, our house will surely crumble.

If we do not begin to teach a universal dharma in our schools; if we do not stop insisting on surnames on every application that we fill up; if we do not stop reserving seats for more and more categories of so-called underprivileged people; if we do not stop using microphones to shout out our prayers; if we do not all celebrate the unique character of our multiple religions and identities; if we do not begin to sing our national anthem with more vigour, then we are doomed as a country, as a people.

We have to arise, else the dance will ‘still’ and the music ebb from our lips and hearts.

A firm but loving voice of sanity is missing in our lives. And it has to be our own. The greatest men, the gentlest of souls have spoken and left our world. One wants to tell oneself that what is happening today does not matter. But it does matter. It shakes our foundations. It affects our priorities. The only thing that really matters at the end of the day is the glow of trust in the eyes of every child.

What matters is that beauty is appreciated and traditions respected. That every religious leader asserts that there is good in all faiths and that every man believes this to be true. That as long as there is tolerance, as long as there is an appreciation of another man’s suffering, of nature’s unfair hand, there is hope.

The government has little patience with the all-India nature of our arts. It does not seem to grasp that it is our diversity that gives us strength and vigour. It would have us think that ‘what is good for the majority is good for all’. This vision is flawed. We must remain sensitive to the needs of all. Space must be made for the democratic exercise of people’s right to expression, faith and privacy.

Political independence would amount to little if Indians do not have an education that develops their cognitive faculties, their ethnic sensibility and their sense of history. Recent events suggest that we are investing in the profit-making segment of higher education with no concern for knowledge creation from the down up. Central institutions are being used to advance narrow political agendas.

How are we going to live down these aberrations? When will we claim our arts? Does no politician understand the potential of India’s soft power? Is GDP the only parameter of growth?

(The author is a Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer, writer and actress)

(This article was first published in the National Herald newspaper on Sunday.)

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Published: 14 Aug 2022, 10:00 AM