Monday, February 25, 2013

Lessons from Bollywood

At the end of a hectic seminar day on art education in India, as friends and colleagues sat for a relaxed chat, I asked a very senior respectable art historian and critic, “ At the time of Indian independence movement, there were two distinct aethethic schools that dominated Indian art scene. The progressives on one hand and Bengal and Shantiniketan school of art the other. It is evident that India chose Progressive way and where we are today is the choice we made as a nation in adopting the aesthetic destination. Had we chosen the other two schools as a preferred aesthetic model, do you think we could have much different story? An art practice rooted in its cultural history which in turn could have led us to stable art market than today?”

Erudite as he is, he answered in a typical cautious tone that I expected.” It is really hard to answer a hypothetical question like this... but I do understand from where your question is coming from.”

My question was coming from a simple observation and noise that was clamoring in the art world why there is so much of lack of enthusiasm in the art market in-spite of repeated efforts to booster the art market in terms of investment talks by corporate honchos.

Lately an article published in e-journal, one of the gallery owner of contemporary art complained of the prolonged state of depression in current art scene, that forced him sell his business and take up a job as a paid salary worker at his own gallery- further sparked the rumor of deteriorating business of art in India. Indeed some galleries have quietly shut shop. Some are counting days. There is palpable gloom and doom in Indian art market. As a result this has given rise to all sorts of insecurities, paranoia , rumors, immoral trading, cartel practices, and verbal slugfests. Are these first visible signs of collapse of order in art world?

Art world is an ecology, composed of artist, art schools, dealers, gallery-ists, alternative platforms , collectors, art critics, art historians, museums, auction houses, publication houses, art fairs, biennales, triennial's etc. Etc., and last but not the least art viewers. If the artist is the foundation of this structure it is the art viewer who completes this structure. If the structure has to be solid every component has to perform its role in best possible manner. If we feel today market is in doldrums then something is wrong within the structure. Either some elements are not performing its role or are simply missing.

One of the serious problem faced by today's contemporary art world is in the fact when it comes to art and culture; government has no policy in place even today after 66 years of independence. Any art practice, be it films, music, visual art, performance art or any other form of art was never a priority for the government. How can government pay for the entertainment of few rich people when there are millions starving in our country is a convenient argument plastered on the face of those who have argued in favor of funding for arts.

Considering , economic political environment in India, if any cultural practice has to survive and flourish it has to find its own method and model of economic sustainability.

And has any art form found that key to success?

Yes, Bollywood did.

Today bollywood is the most successful product of India that has captured global market. It is essentially an INDIAN cultural product replete with song, dance, melodrama, a predicable story line and kitschy dialogues. And yet the world consumes it with same interest that of Mcdonald burger with french fries and cola as a combo meal.

Bollywood must have done something right when it comes to understanding its market. I am not an economist nor a bollywood historian to give facts and figures of the industry to map its graph of success . But I do understand its cultural positioning since it was part of my growing . I can say this as a lay person how bollywood worked for me- because it told stories that I could relate to, I could comprehend and I could identify. Not that I liked all that I saw, and not that I agreed what I saw, yet I ( we) would go to see a film and talk about it. Argue. Critique. Reject. Enjoy, feel Happy. Sad. Angry. Humiliated. Elated... you name it and every emotion was captured through a memory of bollywood flick. I know of stories that people would skip a meal for the family ( because they were so poor) but not a bollywood film. Such stories make you believe, somewhere bollywood understood its market correctly.

Today in market economies the countries that have biggest market rules the roost. It is no secret that all the top countries are queuing outside India, China, Brazil only because of its strength of market. And yet why the art market in India is in doldrums, in-spite of having such a strong market at their door step? There must be something seriously wrong the way art world is functioning today.

So if bollywood has done something right and art world has done something wrong in understanding its market what could it be? Because both are cultural products.

This is where I want to propose the issue of visual literacy. To give a simplistic definition of visual literacy- for me is it is a learning that takes place through visual data that he/she accumulates in the process of life. It is part of informal learning, gathered over a period of time of his or her life and meanings are generated through the visual symbols and motifs that are part of his or her cultural contexts. Most of the cultural practices that precede text are aimed on educating masses through visual imageries there by developing a visual grammar specific to its cultural landscape. This is the basis of visual literacy. Thus you may be illiterate but (every sighted being) cannot be visually illiterate in a given cultural contexts.

I would like to go back to bollywood roots to see how Bollywood used the visual literacy in developing the market.
Raja Harishchandra the first Bollywood film made by Dadasaheb Phalke was an adaptation of popular theater genre, of the time . Mythological themes were most popular subjects for entertainment and were accessible to all literate and illiterate people of India. Thus Dadasaheb preferred to tell stories what people knew , could identify and relate to. He introduced masses to a new media without intimidation of its new technology by giving the comfort of familiar. And yet new technology of film did enhance the experience of entrainment enlarging visual vocabulary of the audience. Once the audience confidence was gained and a loyal patronage was established, bollywood could develop a various film genres over a period. My point is , Dadasaheb capitalized on the visual literacy of the masses to entice audience for film media and eventually a dialogue was forged between the audience and film makers. Had he adopted Hollywood style cinematic narrative, would he have got the same response as he did with Raja Harishchandra? I doubt

Various genres such as social cinema of Raj Kapoor, patriotic films of Manoj Kumar to mythologicals of Ramanand Sagar, noir films of Guru Dutt, romantic flicks Of Yash Raj films to bollywood style wild western of Ramesh Sippy and others to suspense and gangster dramas of Ram Gopal Verma so on and so forth each director added a new genre of bollywood movies gradually educating masses for a varied aesthetic taste.. Bollywood film was thus a partnership between its audience and film makers developing an unique aesthetic language what is known today as 'Bollywood style' or 'masala films'. Besides these there was alway space for niche fim makers like Satyajit Ray and others who practiced art film making. Every one has its own space and their audience. When it comes to film making India is a well developed market.
The dharma of masala film has alway been Box office or people. Amir Khan one of the most successful and powerful Khans of the current bollywood stars in his interview at Oscar nomination of his film Lagaan said “ I will never make a film aiming to win an Oscar. My first and foremost priority is my audience in India whom I make films . My stories are specifically made for my audience Yes, i would be happy if I win an Oscar . But that would be just incidental not my primary aim.”

It is true that till today no bollywood flick has won an Oscar award. It is alway accused for highly stylized and formulaic structure totally aimed at pure entertainment value, thus compromising on the standards of quality cinema. Similar allegations are also leveled against the contemporary Indian art, as western art critics think it is formulaic in nature and highly indebted to western art history hence lack the original thought and characteristic.

At this point one may argue how is bollywood success story be comparable to visual art history in India. There are far too many differences between two practices. While masses are the direct consumers of films , art is a niche market. It is more expensive commodity and can be bought by only rich patrons.

True. Contemporary art needs a very different infrastructure. Its process are different. Its production are different. And so is its practices. and its reach. All over the world art market is far smaller market to film market. However, my question is about developing audience for its product. Audience is the first step to developing market. If there is no customer there is no market.

As said, lack of governmental support and not many museums dedicated to contemporary arts, reaching out/educating masses to contemporary art practices is totally absent . This is one of the biggest structural draw back of Indian art world. The onus of supporting the contemporary art market lay on the shoulders of private galleries run by individual entrepreneurs. Private galleries are not meant to perform a role of a museums. They neither have the logistics nor the funds to envision a program that can integrate mass education. Galleries have specific agenda dictated by profit margins. It is no surprise that art sold through galleries is catered for a specific elite class and their taste. Thus these sanitized white cubes generate tastes that suits a section of aspirational class that is aiming at a particular lifestyle. Aesthetics that evolve in such spaces is highly skimmed through theoretical discourse . Masses can not identify with such aesthetics nor they are interested in it. Thereby remain alienated from contemporary art practices. The contemporary indian art market in current condition remains a limited scope of expression catering to small segment of people. In its current format its scope of expansion will remains marginal unless some corrective measure evolve that will integrate the confidence of masses to come and see art, discuss. debate. argue. and feel part of it. Or else this is going to a long winter.
In short if you want to grow a tree plant its seed in the earth.

That brings me to my original question....

had art world in India chosen a model like bollywood that catered to aesthetics of the masses eventually developing its own style, grammar and a language would it have a different story to tell? And thus a more vibrant art market to experiment with?

But then this is just a hypothetical question.... a question that has no answer.

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