An alternative analysis of India’s bhandralok society?
A bourgeois society, of course!
Well I am usually a very affable and genteel individual with lots of interests and curiosity but one only have to tolerate my cultural elitism!!! Elitism here in the sense of an ideal to be aspired for and yearned, a frame of reference which would inspire behavior and conduct amongst all sections of society. This kind of elitism is not something of a social and cultural closure, a mechanism to exclude sections of our society who are under-privileged and deprived. My close reading of Weberian sociology has made me alert to specific mechanisms of closure and denial of opportunities for participation to marginalized individuals. There are enough instances in our Indian and particularly in Bengal history of individuals who were not privileged but attained great heights of cultural achievement in arts, music, literature and performing arts.
For some this is a kind of antiquated bhadralok snobbery, for me is an ideal, ethos and values to be lived for which I kind of defend with renewed vigour and fervour since feel it is worth the turf war, and this stance is very ideology or theory-neutral but more based on the notions of genteel civility. If on top of that we have the lucrative topping of glamour then all the more better, the ice-cream garnished topping of a brown chocolate cake!! One of the best instances of Bhadralok living is the concern for others who are in distress, being polite and nuanced even when upset and enjoying a nice weekend evening of theatre or art-film or a session of book-reading.
A tragedy of our times is the constant justification and defense required of refinement, elegance and sophistication of thought and conduct. Media has succeeded in projection a misguided notion of a sophisticated refined habitus as being a product of cosseted socially-advantaged upbringing while encouraging rampant luxurious consumption. It never ceases to amaze me the endorsement and legitimacy of ostentatious display of wealth and material luxury which is steeped in inequity and indicator of social and economic deprivation like the ‘launch’ parties in super-luxury apartments. There seems to be no moral qualms of flaunting wealth amidst poverty but staging of a complex play where the language is not easily comprehended or a poetry session which is rich in metaphors and sensibilities will raise heckles and invite ridicule. Accord any special respect to a poet, historian or a thinker the society will cry foul of unfair treatment. This egalitarian brigade encourages economic and social inequity as long as the cultural depravation is allowed unfettered, the illusion of a fair society where the rich and poor celebrate life with ponderous taste and emotions.
I can’t defend this with grand theoretical statements and neither I have the academic brilliance or capability but surely I know or rather sense instinctively a pleasant evening book launch replete with individuals possessing gravitas and elegance. It is more an innate sensibility and can explain more with instances of individuals rather than specific empirical attributes. As a matter of fact my living in Germany and close mingling with the intellectuals in social platforms hardened my resolve to expound the role of aesthetics and elegance, which often is seen as a superficiality in German context and not something genuine and sincere.
I lived in the town of Wuerzburg and Frankfurt where the liberal humanities have a strong academic heritage and there existed a vibrant cultural and intellectual life centered around the university with lots of students and what disgusted me most was this constant desire to be ‘aehlich’ or candid and serious which often meant sheer belligerence. Then my tenure in Brussels was a whiff of fresh air with the strong Francophone influence in its intellectual and cultural life where I worked with an arts and culture foundation. I know for sure an evening in the Francophone part of Brussels is far more enjoyable and pleasurable than one in Frankfurt though the latter might be more academically enriching.
From my European experience I learnt the pernicious influence of ideology and defined lines of thinking in the sphere of culture. There is no space for an ideology-neutral position in the world of arts and culture, even if one adopts a neutral stance it is usually a statement against a certain political line of thinking. I recollect vividly a conversation with a classical pianist who mentioned how she feels confused to vote since the conservative right perceives classical music as an indulgence and waste of public resources since there is no market while the left derides it as a mainstream music which is not appreciated by the marginalized. What about if I criticize grandiose weddings as a profanity on the basis of aesthetics?? Does that make me a critic of free-market and socialist?? Where is the role of aesthetics and sensibilities in our interpretation of reality?? Often I feel it is an offence to imply people who are engaged in the enterprise of business and free-market economy as being proponents of high-life and big spending lifestyles.
As a matter of fact I had the wonderful opportunity to witness the launch of a musical CD on Kazi Nazrul Islam and his songs at the South City Mall with the Kolkata cine artistry including Mamata Shankar and several others and it epitomized for me the best aesthetics cultural offering can portray in contemporary Indian society. In many ways I feel contrary to popular perception Bengal society is closer to the French model than the British notwithstanding some of the urban architectural similarities; particularly this role of aesthetics and cultural intelligentsia in public life and their widespread admiration is only possible in Paris and not so much in London!!
Bhadralok values hold relevance in contemporary times and need a resurrection through ideology-neutral apolitical platforms, apolitical in the sense not being driven by motives of political gains. They need to be recognized, acknowledged and offered a place with respect and regard by our society. The Bhadralok has to be seen beyond the confines of conventional class-based rhetoric of being elitist in nature.
Very ironically and interestingly many people in India wonder if I picked up this discerning taste in Europe but contrarily rather much closer home in Kolkata while growing up, then Calcutta. I had the confidence to look at Germany, Belgium and UK through a Bengali Bhadralok prism rather than an adopted one unlike most of my Indian friends, who unlearn everything they acquired here back home. Surely I did not have the privilege of attending prolifically events and soirees in Europe to acquire refined taste and aesthetics. I find this hilarious when I mention my dress code and expectations of good culinary service people feel its my hangover of being a NRI though Kolkata offered me some of the best instances of fine dining and refined poetry.