| Separate spaces
Using his column in a Delhi broadsheet, Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member from Bengal, recently made some cogent points about the ominous spreading of American cultural hegemony across the world. Taking off from the UNESCO endorsement of the Convention of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, Com.Yechury celebrated the fact that the US was recently beaten back by a massive vote when it sought to create a space where 'cultural products' could be treated 'within the ambit of trade and services regulations under the WTO'.
Using well-known examples of American cultural imperialism such as Hollywood, Disney cartoons and the Valentine's Day industry, Shri Yechury made a pretty lucid case as to why we should do everything we can to push back the twinned predators of American 'mass culture' and American commercial/ideological interests. In his piece, Mr Yechury connected Karl Marx, the nature of modern advertising and Clintonite academic David Rothkopf ('It is in the'interest of the US that'if the world is being linked by television, radio and music, the programming be American') to create a mini-map of the grave dangers facing us if we do not safeguard our own indigenous cultures with a hawk-like ferocity. Reading the esteemed Comrade MP's column over my morning coffee I felt very good. For about five minutes.
After a few moments, though, the excellent swadeshi caffeine kicked in and the Argumentative Indian or, perhaps more accurately, the Angry Bengali in me woke up. I cannot speak with any authority about the CPI(M)'s other chief area of influence, Kerala, but as the poisonous dismantling of Bengali and Calcutta culture over the last 25-odd years unfurled again in my head, I found myself livid.
Even before the complete and massive failure of party-led socialist politics that contributed significantly towards allowing the Hindu fascists to inflict Ayodhya, Pokhran-II and Gujarat on us, we had the slow, relentless rape of rural traditions in Bengal. The vote-hungry, local, 'Boys'-Club culture' with its cruel philistinism, coupled with an active disdain for anything not deemed 'progressive' by narrow-minded CPI(M) mandarins in Calcutta, meant that huge and lasting damage was caused to all sorts of irreplaceable performance and crafts traditions across the state. This, in turn, went hand in hand with the unceasing, corrupt, bulldozing of Calcutta, both as a human city and whatever remained of it as a culturally thriving metropolis.
Defenders of the Baam-Phront will no doubt offer two linked gambits with alacrity. Apropos rural Bengal they will point out that land redistribution and the provision of basic amenities were priorities, and difficult enough to achieve without the government being distracted by issues of 'culture'; as for the city, they will say, 'But people like you always argue that the government should keep its nose out of culture, that ministers have no business inaugurating film festivals and suchlike. Well, now, surely you can't have it both ways, castigating the authorities you want to see stay out of culture for not taking an interest in fostering culture' After which they will say, 'But, nevertheless' and promptly point to Nandan and one or two other things that the Baam-Phront has done over nearly 30 years and call them great achievements.
The point is, the Baam-Phront has always had a politically venal, and therefore schizophrenic, attitude towards the villages and Calcutta. Risking a repetition of what most people know, the rural areas were where the Left Combine got their votes and Calcutta was where they could never win a majority of seats. Therefore the combine had a kind of obsessive concentration on the villages, but one in which issues of culture were regarded as not even a secondary but a tertiary concern. Simultaneously, the Baamists developed a habit of treating this ungrateful wretch of a city (full of Bengalis and Abangalis that didn't vote for them en masse) as a kind of step-child who occasionally needed to be thrown scraps of food (read 'infrastructural attention').
Now that the worthy Comrades realize foreign investment in the state is directly related to how quickly Japanese and Korean suits can get from airport to hotel to office to bar, restaurant and night-club within the metro, they have turned their tender attentions to urban renewal. But this 'renewal' too, is a certain crude, ugly, space-murdering, instrumentalist kind of effort geared towards the wealthy, whether they be residents or visitors.
The party-people 're-planning' Calcutta, even as they milk the construction-extortion revenue, may be dreaming of a new Singapore or Hong Kong complete with those cities' famous 'work cultures'. But what they may actually get is a somewhat less desirable cultural manifestation, as in the worst of Los Angeles and today's Paris. This will happen because, the world over, people aren't designed to put up with ghettoization, whether the ghetto be semi-rural or semi-urban, old bamboo and mud or new tower-block. And, if one were to look at the idea of ghettoization not just as a matter of material space and geography but also, equally, as referring to an alienated and brutalized mental and psychic space, then, in five years' time, rural Bengal could be sitting on a rather large time-bomb, and greater Calcutta on a lit Molotov cocktail the size of a city.
Even as he rails about the commodification of culture, Sitaram Yechury seems not to be aware of the crazy quagmire into which his eastern comrades have got the people of their state. And the chilling irony seems lost on him that almost every component of the Nava-Kolkata if not the New Bengal, whether fly-over, shopping mall or helicopter-padded hotel and hospital, owes its provenance to a typically American way of thinking. But, even as we witness the grotesque privatization of a once great city, even as we walk around the ceaselessly falling rubble from so much that was beautiful about Calcutta, the question repeats itself: what should or should not the Left Front government have done during its rule from 1977 onwards' There is not enough space here, even to ask all the questions at length, much less provide a detailed answer, but let me attempt a brief suggestion of a reply.
It's not required of the government that it has its finger in every cultural pie (and in Bengal the Baam-Phront actually does have too many fingers in too many pies), it is required that a government actively aids and abets the creation of different cultural spaces and then lets the people using those spaces get on without ministerial or babu interference. It is not necessary that the government have strict control of cultural activities, either by active censorship or the disfavouring of certain forms, (as happens both in Calcutta and Delhi), it is necessary that the government helps provide an atmosphere in which genuine and diverse creativity can take place. One analogy could be that the authorities need to provide a basic level of foodstock to people, not tell each household how to cook its meals; what has happened in Bengal is, culturally, the Left Combine has built a few untenable kitchens and then insisted on sending down weird recipes to the people without ensuring the food supply.
As a result, Bengal is not gurgling beatifically in the lap of some great secular and progressive era as the Comrades would have us believe, it is a simmering pressure-chamber in which the forces of the religious right and forces of the most ruthless of capitalisms are waiting to pick on the carcass of the CPI(M)'s legacy. What will follow once this Baam-Phront goes will likely be horrible and devastating. Our only hope then will be that the competing shark-schools, of the VHP and the mullahs on the one side, and the straight-ahead Globalizing money-suckers on the other, manage to draw some blood from each other. In any case, by the end of it Comrade Yechury's and this writer's common tragedy may be that we are both desperate for a bit of nasty American culture to come and save us from an even deeper hell.