Art is the soul and spirit of a civilization

Art is the soul and spirit of a civilization
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First Published: Thu, Mar 25 2010. 08 09 PM IST

 Index: Ancient monuments such as the Ajanta caves are a mark of our civilization. AFP
Index: Ancient monuments such as the Ajanta caves are a mark of our civilization. AFP
Updated: Thu, Mar 25 2010. 08 09 PM IST
Let’s say Chandrayaan discovers more water on the moon. Let’s say that India’s next lunar mission uncovers something mind-boggling: That the moon is habitable, not only by astronauts in moon suits but by real people who can take on new avatars and live on earth’s satellite. Having discovered water on the moon, India gets first dibs on inhabiting it. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needs to come up with a “Moon list” of people who will be the pioneers there. He has decided that he is not going to get influenced by the lobbies or Lalu; he has decided that Mayawati with her garland of 1,000-rupee notes has no place on the moon. For once, logic and sense can and will prevail. Who’d go first? Before you answer, let us also assume for argument’s sake that carrying existing goods from earth is prohibitively expensive and has been deemed impossible. Civilization on the moon has to be created with what exists there. Given these parameters, who’d go first?
Index: Ancient monuments such as the Ajanta caves are a mark of our civilization. AFP
Naturally, it would be the builders and architects—people who can convert moon sticks and stones into the breath and bones of human habitat. We’d need farmers and food scientists who can lay out fields over the moon’s craters and convert its soil into palatable food for our plates. We’d need botanists to figure out how to plant trees, attract bees and organize sweet-smelling orchards that would grow in the moon’s climate. We’d need farmers to grow our maize, corn and cotton. We’d need weavers to weave this special cotton or linen from the moon’s cool fields into yards of something that we can drape over ourselves to preserve modesty. The charkha would be essential. Potters would have to mould moon soil into suitable cooking utensils; metal smiths would have to figure out how to bang, cut and carve the moon’s natural resources into usable tools. We’d need soldiers to guard against planetary invasions. After roti, kapda aur makan, after the tinker, tailor, soldier and spy, the moon would be operational. We’d need doctors in case people fall sick. Teachers and leaders would evolve. I suppose that at some point, the bureaucrats and politicians would want in; and that perhaps is the point when Moon-town begins to wane.
Civilizations developed this way—organically and gradually. Necessity became the mother of invention; and fear of the unknown and invincible begot spirituality, as early animistic religions prove. My question is: What about art? Why did the early man engage in art? After all, the early cave paintings and the later ones at Badami, Aihole, Ajanta and Ellora don’t serve any utilitarian purpose, except perhaps to announce to later civilizations that people lived there and they knew beauty. Neither do the pillars of Stonehenge, the colossal pre-Columbian heads of the Olmecs, the brass castings of the Benin people of Africa, or the jade sculptures from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Early art is a mystery. You’d think that early people, preoccupied as they were with the business of setting up civilizations, staving off beasts and enemies and figuring out how to conquer nature would have little or no time for art. But they did. Every civilization made paintings, sculptures and woodcut prints. Miraculously, some have survived to this day. We know little about the language and song of the early Benin people of Africa or the Mayans of South America. But we know their art and through it, we know their life and thoughts. To take this hypothesis to its logical next step, is there a place for art, beauty, music, myth and storytelling on the moon? Should our PM send artists there?
Bangalore, much like other Indian cities, is full of idealistic change-makers. They want to eradicate polio and poverty; they want conscious capitalism and good growth. They throw out numbers about employment and employability. My Indian friends in Singapore are obsessed with the India-China comparison: how China has built 40 airports in the time it took India to build two; how China’s highways and GDP growth have lifted half an India out of poverty; things like that. Sitting in such a left-brain atmosphere is somewhat dispiriting for a person like me because many of the things I care about aren’t easily quantifiable. How to put a value on sunshine and saplings; how to measure the depth of a folk song or story and its influence on countless young minds; how to gauge the weight of traditional crafts. How to compare the numbers associated with poverty alleviation, labour reform and market efficiencies with cave paintings, Mayan temples and calligraphy. One has a precise number attached to it while the other is either priceless or worthless. The numbers-people talk about pulling entire villages up by the bootstraps and getting them employed and out of poverty. I care about what is lost in that process—folk songs (as described in William Dalrymple’s book, Nine Lives), harking after shampoo when they need cookstoves (as espoused by social entrepreneur Harish Hande), music, art and a way of life that promotes both. Sure, China’s GDP growth is laudable. But it has come at a cost that is hard to quantify. Worse still, it was entirely avoidable. China has chosen to ignore its heritage and traditions in favour of embracing modernity. The Naxi and Yi tribes exist mostly in the Yunnan region and they are marginalized by the Han Chinese. Their songs, their clothes, their way of life is uniquely Chinese—except that you don’t see it in Beijing or Shanghai. Textiles and traditions do matter even if it is hard to enumerate their value. Beauty, art, music and storytelling are the soul of a nation. They civilize us. If a civilization ever comes up on the moon, it won’t have soul or spirit without heritage. Ergo, art. Ergo, music.
Shoba Narayan thinks looking at a Ming dynasty vase or a Tolita-Tumaco gold figure is a good way to reach God. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Mar 25 2010. 08 09 PM IST