Indians Rich in Erudition are Utterly Poor in Aesthetics
Why do Indians have such poor taste and what are they doing about it?
Defining good taste is difficult, and definitions or opinions are quite divergent, however, what is good taste? The Webster’s dictionary offers this among many meanings of the word. It defines taste as a personal preference or liking for something, the faculty of discerning what is aesthetically excellent or appropriate, and a manner indicative of the quality of such discernment. Immanuel Kant defines taste as the acute faculty of estimating beauty. He says that if we had to discern anything as beautiful, we do not refer to the object by means of understanding with a view of cognition, but by the means of the imagination and discern with the feeling of pleasure or displeasure. He says, “the judgment of taste is not a cognitive judgment and not logical, but is aesthetic and cannot be anything but subjective.” Have the Indians lost the faculty to be subjective or comprehend the abstract? Please bear in mind that imagination, to be productive, does not flourish in the realm of the literality, but rather in abstract metaphors! How is that Indians, so deft in mathematical abstracts, can be so poor in abstract intuitive and subjective judgments?
For all the wonderful qualities and civility the Indians have, and for all of the successes they have had in the international arena, the Indians are in a severe want of taste. To be utterly candid, Indians have the worst taste of any educated and affluent ethnic group in the U.S. and Europe. The lack of liberal arts education and the disdainful attitude of Indians, for the most part, towards liberal arts is one of the causes for this severe dearth of artistic inclination and the aesthetic faculties. I, particularly find this disturbing trend in Tech-degreed people, who think that arts is something peripheral in life that can be relegated to their sneers or sarcastic innuendos. Developing taste is hard work, but the benefits and enjoyment after the refinements of your senses is often ecstatic. With good taste life takes on meaning, and it can lived to the fullest. There is no short cut to developing one’s taste, it is a life long process of nurturing one’s senses to appreciate the infinitesimal nuances of refined beauty the surrounds us.
Recently, I was at the CSO (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) for a concert by Ravi Shankar and his adopted daughter Anuska. The galleries were packed with people, all of them white urban affluent, with tastefully decked ladies on hand. I only saw half an Indian couple there, an Indian woman with her white husband. Is it because of the ticket prices on the Fadim Balcony? Which could be upwards of $150 per seat, but then, Indians are loaded with money! For that matter, you can never find Indians crowding any stimulating destinations like the Art Institute of Chicago or the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Ravinia festival. While the Indian Carnatic music is subliminal, and the Bharat Natyam is devine, we only see them being performed in acoustically decrepit halls in the temple complexes by Indian girls in their pubescence, something most Indian parents force on their girls as a requisite part of “qualification” before marriage. “Our girl is well versed in singing and Bharat Natyam!” As if preparing a courtesan for some harem.
Art should be learned for its own sake and not as a prerequisite for bagging an Indian groom. Other than the weekly dips into Indian classical music for this vainglorious purpose, the rest of the time the Indian kids listen to crap. There is no better appellation suitable when referring to the Bollywood and Tollywood musical fare. Crap meant for utterly illiterate fans, who want a simple escape after their brutal toils of survival during the day. Music produced by the Indian film industry, is for the most part, for the labor class, then why is it being ingested by kids in educated households? The fault invariably lies with the parents. Latitudenally, from Morocco to Bali, Indian Bollywood music is consumed for its Michael Jacksonian beats to his lude gyrations of the groin. And if you take into account the erudition of this “belt” I referred to, you would understand what my point here is. While this happens north of the Equatorial belt, way farther north, classical arts and music is poured into the kids here in the west right when they are toddlers, they hear Mozart, Beethoven and Handel in many iterations. Music prepared for when they are inside their mother’s womb to when they are are barely two with “Baby Einstein” audiovisuals. Are there any “Baby Ramanujan” Indian versions in Carnatic music for the Indian kids?
One place where good taste had been bludgeoned to death are the Indian weddings, which have turned into ostentatious orgies of excesses and convoluted customs. These weddings are a sure sign of decadence than progress. Restraint is a concept devoid within the Indian mindset, hence the appreciation is nonexistent. In fact, they don’t understand the concept of luxury at all. Luxury, in Indian households, is defined by the weight of the 24 carat gold jewelry laden on a woman. Ostentation equates luxury for the average Indian family. The concept of restraint is as alien as Coco Chanel is to the Indian bride! Indian weddings are sadistic comic affairs, where bride grooms are brought off with dowries in a shameless display of warped traditions. In fact, the solemn ancient rites and procedures of the marriage ceremony have been transformed into cheap theater, rendering the whole affair comic, than a serious social ceremony. This is made more abhorrent with music from the Bollywood films as the audio fare blared at these circus acts. In fact, these surreal weddings are inspired by the Indian films. When it comes to the culture and the arts, India now shows off its Bollywood fare proudly, unoriginal, plagiarized from the west. Even the “great” SD Burman ripped off Mozart and others in the fifties and the sixties for his “classics.” The solemn qualities of the Hindu wedding ceremony had been irretrievably diluted and tainted by the injection of a Muslim dress code for men, the long and infinitely distasteful ankle length “Sherwani” for men, the antithesis to good taste, and a direct symbol of faith sanctioned misogyny.
In the mad rush to get oneself to become an MD, MS or an MTech, to get a job in the west or the far east, the young men and women basically crush their natural talents, god given gifts and rush head long into a rat race becoming a spoke in the wheel of mediocrity. Every person comes with something, some confluence of genes that carry a special gift, a special talent that is basically wasted. You can hear parents screaming: “I am sending you to school to become an engineer or a doctor…you want to do arts, which will never get you or us anywhere! Art is a waste of time…you want to be an artist and starve?!” This attitude pervades most Indian households, which leads to a severe lack of aesthetic sensibilities. With the specter of the future over their heads and with this kind of fatalist tunnel-visioned guidance, droves end up becoming mediocre engineers, chemists and doctors, slaving away for their suburban homes and their Hondas and Toyotas. What have they really accomplished in life?
I have also heard the argument that Indians are great at math, world beaters in chess, and have better IQs, what does that really mean? When your taste in music and films, with none at all in the visual arts, is the same as that of roasted corn vendor in Morocco or a fisherman in Aqaba or rickshaw puller in Trivandrum…what does it really mean? What it means is that your quality of life is no better than that of an illiterate in Meknes, Mogadishu or Moradabad. The west is where it is today not because of material things alone, it is because they have endeavored to become highly sensitive and acquire tastes in visual, performance and literary arts by polishing their senses, and by embracing arts in their lives, which incidentally keeps their creative faculties sharp and invigorated. For that matter, the Chinese and the Russians also have better math capabilities, but they also possess far better taste than the Indians can ever hope to have.
Let me explore this contentious issue of IQ that preoccupies Indian minds, particularly the Andhra folks. David Brooks, one of our renowned public intellectuals (new book out: “The Social Animal” published by Random House) had conjectured on what IQ really means and how it does not impact our lives in the long run. In his book he focuses on Science’s growing acceptance that it is impossible to study the person and the brain in isolation. Brains are embedded in bodies, and people are embedded in social networks and cultures- hence the predominance of the American culture, based on social interactions, which still produces the world’s best thinkers and doers. Mr. Brooks makes even a larger assertion: “Not only is intelligence not connected to social skill-its not connected to much of anything; once you get past some pretty obvious correlations (smart people make better mathematicians) there is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes.” Moreover, research selecting a group of high-IQ kids and tracking them over the decades have failed to identify future Pulitzer or MacArthur winners. For that matter, most American Nobel prize winners in science did not come from Harvard or MIT, and most of them are Jewish. You don’t see the Jewish folks making a big deal of their IQ, do you?
Brooks also cites a study that found no correlation between accumulating large wealth and high IQ. In that same study it was established that high earners with graduate degrees were no better or richer than the dumbest ones. He also cites that during the dot.com bubble the average investor lost money by trading in and out of the stocks, when one could have made money by just holding on to his positions and sitting tight. The frequent traders acted self-destructively by excessive faith in their own intelligence, this intellectual arrogance often results in bad decisions. This goes back to prove the importance of “non-cognitive” skills that become essential in navigating our lives. The ability to grasp abstract issues is paramount in becoming a complete civilized and inventive human.
Back in the 60s, when Folks were listening to Dev Anand songs from the film “Guide,” a butchered filmic concoction based on a classic novella by R.K. Narayan, I was given an opportunity by my father, to listen to the Mozart, Beethoven, The Beatles, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Santana and Carnatic music at my grandfather’s place. Exposure is the key for anybody, especially the kids, who are like sponges on two legs. I was fortunate to have a dad who put us through asymmetrical experiences. Experiences that refined our senses and shaped our taste. The ratio of foreign films to Indian films he exposed us to were often skewed towards former with Oscars. Films like “Lawrence of Arabia” “The Guns of Naverone” and “The Sound of Music” or “where Eagles Dare.” Movies that did not promote three hour foreplays between a man and woman, gyrating and prancing around parks and palaces wrapped in wet convoluted tales with subplots filmed in utter amateurishness. Film is a profound art, and I understood that when I was a teenager. There were anomalies in Indian films, like All Satyajit Ray films and films be Shyam Benegal, to some extent. And for that matter, I have never seen an Indian film be nominated for an Oscar in the “best foreign language film” category, which speaks volumes about Indian films.
The Film and literature canons can provide us a lists as to what to read and see. I would suggest Indians start there. One of the best to ways to assimilate into a society is to adopt the good parts of it into your own repertoire. Go see a movie like “King’s Speech” or rent “Babette’s Feast” or a “Cinema Paradiso” from Netflix, read a book by V.S. Naipaul or Cormac McCarthy or Hemingway. Better yet, get “The western Canon” by Harold Bloom and see the reading list in the back of the book. Untold joys await those who can develop the bitter sweet taste of asymmetrical beauty within themselves, and outside and around us. Unfortunately, Indians move about like Charlie Chaplin, at eighteen frames for second, jerky and comical as in a rat race to nowhere, in the process losing all their faculties to be that glorious human capable to enjoying the different patterns of mildew on the walls, the beauty and wonder of distress and age. Isn’t it a paradox that Buddha, a supremely restrained and reflective immortal, born in India, is revered as god In Japan, the birth place of Zen philosophy, and the Indians are anything but the antithesis to every Japanese notion of beauty and aesthetics. Japanese culture is the epitome of austerity and restraint, as far from Indian notions of the same. When it comes to taste, the populations Scandinavia, Italy and Japan are the most sensitively erudite in the arena of good taste, the anathema to any Indian idea of good taste.
I will close this didactive argument against Indian taste by simply suggesting that it is an imperative for the Indians to understand and learn the concept of “less is more” philosophy. That restraint and austerity are the hallmarks of sophisticated cultures, and these qualities are exhibited in the canons of their music, literature and other visual arts here. The arts, in any format, is the spice of our lives, and without good quality spice, life becomes rather a bland material display of banality and superfluity, leaving our souls fluttering about in vapid ostentatious airs. The best gift any parent can give their offspring is the inclusive, assimilative and redeeming gift of good taste, via exposure to great creativity from other cultures. The Bollywood culture is as putrid as the stagnant green water that you find around Mumbai chawls. And if you encourage your progeny to dip themselves in this putrescence, they will invariably stink in their taste for the rest of their lives. Therefore, our temporal existence makes it mandatory that we read, see and enjoy only the best in all spheres from various cultures, which will make our lives richer and leave us with a fulfilled soul at the end.
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