By Abhishek Jha:
Sahitya Akademi awardee, Javed Akhtar has called for an official body to censor lyrics, demanding that ‘vulgarity, obscenity, and perversion‘ be kept out of the realm of music. Akhtar, who locked horns with music companies over the issue of copyright, surprises us with his advice, which if heeded could only stifle a lyricist or musician. Regulation is necessary for creating and upholding a society. Democratic societies, in particular, come into being when they agree upon a set of norms and values. In such a society, a ruling on the violation of a norm not shared by everyone can be arrived at, only after the subjective evaluation of the particular scenario. The norm will have to be debated in the context of the particular violation. Vulgarity, obscenity, and perversion are fluid abstractions that vary from door to door. In the cultural amalgamation that is India, this is even more likely.
In February 2013, the first all-girl rock band from Kashmir disbanded not because they were being threatened but because “they respected the cleric’s decision“, as told by a band member to CNN-IBN. A year earlier, in 2012, Salman Rushdie called the Muslim leaders who protested against him, “religious extremists“. He was disappointed most by “decline in public standards, and in the liberty of ordinary Indian citizens to engage in discourse, to hear differing points of view“. It is an instance of how far disjunctive the notions of propriety of two people can be even though one might like to lump them together on grounds of ethnicity, caste, class, or nationality. A society which agrees on a democratic framework for justice will allow these pluralities to co-exist, not hammer them out of existence. But such subjective evaluation of particular cases poses a problem for the state, which has to go into overdrive to protect such pluralities. The British Government provided Salman with the best security possible, while allowing demonstrators to protest against his book. If instead, it could be decided by a law acceptable to both the parties whether The Satanic Verses was vulgar or not, the state’s work would have been much simpler.
Therefore, it would not be surprising if the state asked for such a regulatory body for censoring songs. It would make its task simpler. There would not be any conflict because anything that could be disagreeable to anybody would be either emended or expurgated.
I ask Varun Grover- whose work in movies like Gangs of Wasseypur, Katiyabaaz, Aankhon Dekhi, etc. has been appreciated both by the public and the critics- to clear a few cobwebs in my brain. A lot of people feel patriotic when they listen to the national anthem; some may not, but even when they dislike it, they are engaging with it. We engage with songs on a daily basis, extolling or berating them as we please. When it does form a part of our life, I ask, would it not be good if art was reformatory? He nails it in almost a single sentence: “Art is a personal expression“. If you have been paying attention until now, that should sum up everything for you. However, generous as he is, Varun explains in a manner that is both intelligent and lucid: “An artist can have purpose, and every artist is free to choose his own purpose (reform, money, fame, expression, madness, anarchy, etc.) The whole confusion is when people call an artist’s purpose as art’s purpose. Art is abstract, it’s a concept. Even when it turns into a painting or a film, it remains abstract in the sense that it could mean different things to different people. And to assign purpose to art is like trying to find amoeba that look like elephant.”
When we assign value to any artistic endeavour, we bring in our context that determination, our lives and our experiences. How then can we have an overarching meter for it? One may suggest, for a compromise, having a body with equal representation from all communities. But here we are not talking of just arriving at an evaluation of a text, where the result obtained can still be debated by other people. Even such an equally-represented board can only perpetuate the majority; the obscene swept under the rug, the minority does not get any right to become the majority. How can it be decided that a text will not be available to anybody unless everybody has evaluated it for himself/herself? How can one hold the text from posterity? In fact, Varun says its stupid even to criticise something for being lewd, “I don’t think any song can be criticized for lewdness. They just make us look like fools a few years later when the standards of society change. ‘Sexy sexy sexy mujhe log bolein’ was banned in 1994. In 2007 film ‘Cheeni Kum’, a 6-year old girl was called ‘Sexy’ throughout. Nothing is lewd enough (or even original enough) in absolute terms. We need to learn to let go or accept, whatever is easier. Whatever gets created (music, cinema, lyrics) is not coming out of a vacuum — it’s being created by people who are living in our times and they must have had some experiences, and we can debate their IQ and quality of their sensitivity that resulted in these particular specimens of art and culture. If nothing else, these lewd songs or Honey Singh songs are a great timestamp for future generations. And that alone is reason enough to let them survive, flourish, or rule.”
Values not only vary spatially but over time too. They are not something set in stone. If there are people (there are a lot of such people) who think that any text can only be explored until aporia, after which it is just an entangled mess of contradictions, they can be lent maximum credibility with words that we use for denoting values. Such words (signifiers), everyone will agree, mean different things to different people. As Derrida would have it, words- which are what any value system is- not only depend on difference but also on deferring, thus becoming a function of everything that has been said or will be said, in addition to that of what is being said. These values or the lack of them are what Varun calls “an eco-system of centuries of ‘thinking’, of consumers and creators alike.”
The plague that Javed Akhtar is alarmed of could appear as a plague to a lot of people. It does not matter whether or not they are artists. If they wish to purvey their ideas, they can do so any which way they want. But what appears just and proper in his opinion will continue to be unjust in the other’s opinion as long as he continues to pride himself on creating the other. Artifice is practised by other myth making institutions like religion and the state to make the populace homogeneous, to keep societies intact. The people, who tend to poke at the boundaries of this homogeneous circle, happen to create anew. As a society gradually understands gender, oppression of particular genders, etc., we get back in time to the point where the new unspeakable is created. Once the propagandist shell of a word is broken, when it ceases to oppress a particular gender (by equal usage by all genders), I believe it is art to explore other facets of those words. Freedom is the key here. When everything is available, one will only choose what is best in the cornucopia. What is collectively known by everybody to be wrong will get inundated in the deluge of what is known by the homogeneous moiety as right. We gave little thought to people accused of terrorism, because we, as a whole, had terrorism before and collectively rejected it. As time moved forth, we ourselves have seen again that they can be as much a helpless victim as we are. Hence, ‘Human Rights Watch’. Our values changed over time to make us understand the context that could have made the person participate in terrorism. Bhagat Singh was a terrorist to a lot of people for a long time! We are fighting the binary divisions here that we are quick to settle for the sake of simplicity and ease.
To call for a music that does not reflect its audience is irrational. The artist is part of a society and does not have the singular identity of an artist. “Swear-words with misogynistic tones are not the problem; they are the symptoms of a much bigger problem. Just like Sheela ki Jawani is just one gaseous compound of an ecosystem which runs way beyond just the film industry,” Varun offers as a rejoinder when I talk to him about the aforementioned ‘propagandist shell’. The license to hold someone else’s freedom is about power and authority. Censorship will ensure that nobody fights for their right to power, nobody is allowed the right to promote their agendas to the public until a supreme body authorises it: hegemony is what we are talking about.
And, for the sake of myself and my fellow beings, I hope we, the audience, own a fair share of this power.