Purananuru – 101
Not one day, not two
Having stayed with him for many days
When I come back
with many others
He welcomes us
as if it is the first day
We are here to receive gifts
who possesses elephants with ornaments
You may get it immediately
or it may be delayed
but like the rice ball given to the elephant
you will surely be given
don’t worry my heart
May he live long
Avvai sings this song about the chieftain Adiyaman Neduman Anji. There are lot of poems in Purananuru which praise the king / chieftain in order to get gifts from him. This is one such poems in a series of poems in which Avvai describes the generosity of Adhiyaman.
To me, this poem reads like a tragedy. The words that very clearly reflect the status of the poet are, “you may get it immediately / or it may be delayed”. The decision of giving gifts resides with the patron and the poet is in his mercy. The poem brings up the image of a meek poet after having arrived at Adiyaman’s residence, now waiting eagerly to receive some gifts, not sure what will be given. So Avvai has to assuage her feeling by saying, “Don’t worry my heart”. Not only when to give but the decision of what to give also rests with the patron. All the poet can do is to hope that something good will be given soon. This poem underlines the situation of ancient times vis-à-vis the artist. Those were times when artists needed patrons in order to survive. Things changed in modern times when the artist could set a price for his art.
Reading the poem throws up two important questions, the first of which is: Why does the society need artists?
Artists as entertainers have never been a problem for the society. They were always applauded and appreciated. (Unless ofcourse you were in a kingdom ruled by a despot who eschewed entertainment.) In the current times, entertainers are well appreciated and lucky ones belong to the richest of the rich circles. There has always been a debate on how much of entertainment is art and how many entertainers are actually artists but we will not get into that debate now. All I want to say is that true artists who were also entertainers had the backing of patrons and people.
The next set of artists whom the society accepts easily are those who are perceived to be ‘socially conscious’ artists. These could be the ones protesting against the evils of the society, protesting against the ruling class, protesting against religious orders, protesting against current social practices, so on and so forth. We need to make a small distinction here. These are people who are socially conscious in an obvious and direct way. Almost all artists protest in their own way but the ‘socially conscious’ tag is not given to everyone. Such artist s are perceived to the harbingers of change and are welcomed with open arms by one side and furiously rejected by another side. Whatever be the case, they feel a part of society and the usefulness of their art is not questioned. Once again I don’t want to get into the debate on how many are actually artist but suffice to say that there have been artist who have been explicitly political. Subramanya Bharathi is a good example.
Now we come to the troublesome ones. Here we have artists who want to develop their art and the public sees them as an esoteric set of people who don’t seem to care for anything other than their art. The question gets repeatedly asked: “What is the use of such art? It neither entertains or does it pave way for social change. So why should we encourage such art?” If you read the articles of Jeyamohan you will find him answering this question again and again with respect to literature. Jeyamohan many a times states that a great literary work captures the complexities of the society in a manner which a very straightforward portrayal cannot. If you were to read Byrappa or Raghavendra Patil you will understand what Jeyamohan says. They shun all binaries and bring to fore the interplay of various factors which go into making of history. Not only do great writers capture the complexities of the society, they also try and dig deeper into the human heart and try to relate the position of an individual vis-à-vis the society.
What was stated above seems to still be useful but what those which society sees as totally useless, like abstract painting say. Impressionist painters were rejected by the public and the critics alike for a long time. Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and other helped each other to tide over their financial crisis. The general public could not appreciate what they were trying to convey whereas the critics were harsh because they were not following the conventions of the day. So when such ‘new art’ appears it is seen by society as of no use at all. Yet great art gets accepted all while inspite of its strangeness. Why? The answer to the next question will provide us the key.
The second question which the poem evokes in me is : “Why?” This is the standard question asked nowadays if an intelligent teenager says that he / she is not going to pursue engineering but will instead pursue ‘art’. Suddenly the image of this poem appears before the eyes of the parents and this leads them to ask the question, “Why?” Why does one want to be an artist?
Rajan Parrikar, Hindustani music critic and harmonium player, once wrote these lines about Mallikarjun Mansur’s singing of the raga ‘Gaud Malhar’: “This manner of singing can only come to those in whose bones the daemon of ‘madness’ has taken refuge. This cannot be the handiwork of rational beings.” The best of the artist seem to be possessed by the demon of madness. They cannot rest until they do everything possible to get rid of this demon. The only way to do that would be to express themselves through their art.
According to me, at a very deeper level art is all about communication. An artist’s only aim is to communicate. The artist could be trying to communicate hes deeper understanding of the human situation, her superior insights into the social structures or her new ideas which expand the boundaries of art. The more artists expand the boundaries of art the more the channel for communication between human beings. These channels could in form of language, in form of sculpture, in form of paintings etc. All of these are devices which artists invent time to time in order to be in touch with fellow human beings. For the true artist knows that all means of communication are by themselves limiting. Hence the constant need to challenge the current modes of communication and create newer modes of communication. When asked why he wrote such difficult prose, William Faulkner replied that it is the only way he could communicate his vision. For him it was not ‘difficult prose’. It was natural prose.
These changes perplex the society at first but slowly the new ‘language of communication’ gets accepted and in due course of time this becomes the standard mode of communication. You just need to look at how poetry has developed over the years to understand this phenomenon. (Paintings are also good examples.) This also answers the question we had asked earlier, “Why does society accept the art which it once rejected?” The Impressionists were lucky that towards their old age society slowly started accepting their art.
Let us now read Avvai’s poem from a different perspective. The poem does not talk about Neduman Anji. Instead, the poet is now waiting for society to give its gifts to him. For a true poet the gifts may be given immediately or later but as Avvai assures, the gifts will be given. In other words, the society will eventually accept, acknowledge and appreciate a true artist. Some are lucky because it happens in their lifetime. Some are not lucky enough to see that day.