Only the citizenry can bring democracy back on track

Poet Ashok Vajpeyi muses on the sorry state of our democracy and the cultural riches we risk squandering today

The power of simplicity (photo: @ECISVEEP/X)
The power of simplicity (photo: @ECISVEEP/X)

Ashok Vajpeyi

Our democracy has never been self-sufficient or complete. The past decade has witnessed a noticeable slide. A combination of authoritarianism and political cunning has used some of its own procedures to distort democracy.

The current regime has made some of our basic rights seem like favours granted by the government, for which we must be eternally grateful. The institutions mandated to ensure that governmental and political-economic forces function within their Constitutional limits are defunct or have been defanged.

The government finds disagreement, opposition and debate offensive. By mixing religion with politics, the government has managed to tame most of the media. Large sections of the media choose to be silent spectators on questions uncomfortable for the government and instead, like fawning sycophants, dwell on non-issues.

Sacred sites have now become sites of political propaganda and aggression — moving miles away from their spiritual moorings. Culture has been reduced to a fanfare of religiosity. Practitioners of the classical arts are paying obeisance not even to religion but to the current regime.

Devaluation of knowledge is the norm. The attempt is to create a society that is not knowledge-based but steeped in ignorance and misinterpretation, allowed to neither question nor debate. Distortion and obliteration of tradition, history, culture are the norm. What passes for public art, ‘beautification projects’ on our streets, is crude, unsophisticated kitsch. We can only conclude from all this that democracy has strayed far from its lofty ideals.

Nirala, in one of his poems says, ‘Pray allow me to tread the straight path (seedhi rah mujhe chalne do).’ Democracy cannot return to the straight and narrow on its own. Only the citizenry can bring it back on track. The same citizenry is being fed a plethora of falsehoods, a media diet of hatred, violence, murder and mayhem.

We are at a juncture where the democratic conscience of citizens is severely tested. ‘We the people’ must decide whether we want to restore democracy, but cowed by threats, can we call upon our conscience and resist decisively, overcoming fear and hesitation?

It’s not just our democracy, Indian civilisation itself is threatened. Restoring democracy must necessarily include emphasising our civilisational values of diversity, tolerance and harmony.

The beauty of simplicity

I was fortunate to watch a recent Rajendra Panchal production, on acclaimed poet Suryamall Misran, at the Rang Habib festival in Delhi. Presented in Hadauti (a language spoken in southeastern Rajasthan), here too the whole troupe was seated on stage, a signature of Panchal productions.

Three musicians sat alongside. Panchal himself essayed the poet’s role. Actors from the troupe came forward to enact their parts in turn and return to their places.

The troupe maintains a musical backdrop throughout, a combination of alaap-like passages and choral music. Panchal’s dramatic idiom is characterised by music, limited props and dialogue — reminiscent of Habib Tanvir.

The message communicated is clear even though the entire play is in Hadauti. Panchal’s theatre is a contemporary reinvention of the ancient Indian natya tradition, even though he makes no explicit claims. It emphasises imagination and memory. Its simplicity foregrounds human dignity. It may not be grand, but its humanitarian values are persuasive.

After a long time, we get to enjoy unostentatious theatre — a humble, restrained presentation that draws you into dialogue. Its locale transports us back in time, but also transcends the barriers of time. The rendition of several poetic verses is impressive.

One becomes acutely aware of the maxim ‘minimal means, maximum effect’. In these times of ostentatious posturing, this gentle presentation provides much-needed relief, inspiring us to reflect upon our silences and verbosity alike.

It is noteworthy that this theatre troupe not only do theatre together, they stay together as a farming community in a village. Their art is deeply intertwined with their lives.

The author is a senior litterateur. A longer version of the Hindi original first appeared in The Wire

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