Archive for March 23rd, 2010

From Greek Tragedy to Bollywood…

Some years ago, an Arts Centre in Midlands promoted itself with the slogan “Everything from Greek Tragedy to Bollywood”. 

It’s an interesting dichotomy. This arts centre wished, no doubt, to promote itself as inclusive, as an organisation that caters for both ends of the spectrum, and, by implication, all that lies between. But which spectrum? On the one hand, there is the spectrum of East-West (with the West referring to Europe, and the East, presumably, to the Indian subcontinent rather than to, say, China or Japan or Korea); and on the other hand, there’s the spectrum that is defined by high culture at one end, and popular culture at the other. But the slogan they chose – “Greek Tragedy to Bollywood” – conflates the two spectra, and aligns them. And this alignment is along entirely predictable lines: the West provides Greek tragedy – among the loftiest peaks of human achievement; and the East provides Bollywood – pure mindless kitsch. Except one should not say so openly, as that would be insulting to those millions from the Indian subcontinent who, poor devils, don’t have anything better. 

Maybe I made too much of this. Maybe it’s a pure accident that this arts centre came up with “From Greek Tragedy to Bollywood” rather than, say, “From Boy Bands to Sanskrit Drama”. Let’s be charitable on the point. And let us be charitable also to the organisers of the BBC Proms – the world’s largest classical music festival – who, last year, represented Western music with Handel and Haydn, Mozart and Mahler, Schubert and Schoenberg, and Indian music with … well, with Bollywood. Again. Years ago, when the Proms showcased Indian music, they would invite – as was and still, I think, is, reasonable for a festival of classical music – musicians of the Indian classical traditions. But the idea seems to have taken hold now that, in all contexts – even that of a festival of classical music – India is best represented by Bollywood. And so, in the midst of all the Bach and Beethoven, we were treated to the sort of pop concert that, to judge by the posters I see around Hounslow or Southall, is already performed quite frequently in Britain. And once again, the formulation is similar to the slogan of the Midlands art centre: the West provides the quality, the East provides the kitsch. 

These thoughts came back to me in the last few weeks when I received a few e-mails asking for my support for the campaign to save BBC Asian Network (“Asian” once again denoting “That which originates from the Indian sub-continent”) which is currently threatened with closure. I must confess that I did not sign the petition to save the channel. Quite apart from anything else, I am rather indifferent to the issue: I do not listen to this channel, and, should the campaign to save it succeed, I do not plan to listen to this channel: it does not broadcast anything that interests me. Of course, I don’t speak for everyone here: plainly, there are many who are interested in what this channel broadcasts; but it seemed foolish to add my support to an issue on which I, personally, am utterly indifferent. 

But, to be honest, the reasons for my reluctance to sign the petition went a bit deeper than that. This channel had set out on a strictly populist agenda: those who run this channel are as reluctant as the organisers of that Midlands arts centre or the organisers of the Proms even to acknowledge the existence of anything in the cultures of the Indian subcontinent more elevated or worthwhile than Bollywood and bhangra. If this channel really were representative of the music of the subcontinent, where, one may ask, are the ghazals? Where is the music of the various folk traditions? Where are the classical ragas? Where are the Rabindrasangeet? None of this is represented – not even in the form of a token gesture. Admittedly, Bollywood and bhangra are likely to be more popular than the more worthwhile aspects of Indian cultures, and those who care for the classical traditions of Indian music are very much in the minority; but it nonetheless seems somewhat ironic to me that those now talking about the importance of serving minorities had never for a moment given a thought to the minorities within their own ranks. 

But even if we were to put aside all of this, the basic fact remains that if a station that sets out doggedly to be populist cannot even command sufficiently high listening figures, then it has no reason to continue to exist. And that’s the case here: this station, from the very beginning, outlawed everything other than the most populist of elements; and yet, its listening figures are well below targets, and, from what I gather, dwindling. Campaigners claim that this channel deserves to survive because it serves a minority community that would otherwise not be served: under the circumstances, that sounds, I fear, like insulting humbug.