Michael Jackson, Pina Bausch, Tyeb Mehta all died this week. A couple of weeks ago Ali Akbar Khan passed away in his Los Angeles home. A little more than a month ago, Kamala Das died alone in a hospital at Pune. Barring Bausch, the others were well past their glory days. Michael Jackson was living Kabuki mask; Tyeb Mehta was virtually blind and deaf; Kamala Das was bedridden; Ali Akbar Khan was, well, old. But they were all still legendary and for those who have grown up with them, these past few months have been chilling reminders that Mr. Reaper is out and about. To misquote Tennyson, an old order is passing and New Order has already hung up its boots. Whether the young guns can fire or not isn’t the concern of the hour. It’s the fact that in the age of the Heckler & Koch MP7, our trusted favourites are still A-Bolt rifles (and you thought I couldn’t follow a metaphor through to its logical end).
For some, the anxiety is about whether the current crop can match up to their predecessors. Is Judd Apatow the Woody Allen of the noughties? Will Radiohead overtake the Beatles? Is Jeff Koons’s kitsch the contemporary equivalent of Pablo Picasso’s cubism? Is the melancholy wonderland of Haruki Murakami (somebody please, please, please translate “IQ84” soon) the next stop after the magica-realist world of Gabriel Garcia Marquez? National boundaries are, fortunately, becoming increasingly irrelevant. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the writhing girl in a club like China House from the backup dancer in Akon’s latest video. More importantly, thanks to the internet most of us can reach across and access whatever we want to. Where you live and what is available in the stores aren’t crucial factors anymore. You don’t have to be defined by what your country produces, which is a relief for me personally since currently Mumbai seems to be defined by “New York” and “Kambakht Ishq“. This blurring of boundaries has been a brilliant thing for many of us but it’s also made us lazy. It’s made it easier for us to be incompetent and illiterate. We don’t need to make the movies or write the criticism; someone else, possibly with an Ivy League degree or its European equivalent, will do it for us.
Since we’ve been popping out babies like tennis ball machines, we’re a young country, unlike the aging populations of Europe and America. We’re constantly reminded of this. The fact that the youth is also frequently idiotic and irritatingly banal worries many. India’s shining alright, but it’s the glitter of sequins and disco balls. What I wonder is whether this generation, this new order, cares about understanding and evaluating the old folk. Do they even care and are they capable of it? Would our young culture vultures take on the task of defining Tyeb Mehta and his compatriots’ artistic oeuvre, without taking recourse to the syrupy polysyallables that the obituaries will drip with? Would I trust them to put Tyeb Mehta into perspective? (Ans: I might.)
Especially in the case of modern Indian art, being young has been an excuse we’ve clung on to desperately. Does Indian art have a distinct visual language? It’s too soon to gauge this. Has Indian art developed its own set of aesthetics? It’s only just coming into its own. Will the auction-house hotties have a place in the history of Indian art? It’s not possible to say for certain because the past is so close to the present. Is the idea of “Indian art” simply a category developed on the basis of the birth certificates of certain artists? It’s too early to tell. But Tyeb Mehta’s death is an indicator that it is no longer too soon or too early. In fact, it’s now time. It’s time to get into that sticky, treacherous quicksand of being critical; of deciding how important the artists of the past were to the development of contemporary Indian art; of taking some sort of stand on who was good, who was better, who was overrated and who should have got the champagne and canapés at their opening instead of chai and cheese sandwich (if that). This means studying, making mistakes, figuring out those mistakes and, if Jonathan Jones is to be be believed, trusting your instincts (provided you have good ones, of course. If you have bad ones, well, then you’re probably already a critic). If we don’t do this, not only will the ones of the past who deserve recognition not get their due but the contemporary artists will suffer as well. Because until we’ve figured out the past, the present will only be as good, as respectable and as credible as the press releases that gallerists circulate.
EDITED TO ADD: Girish Shahane has posted a lecture he gave on Tyeb Mehta’s art last year. Don’t be deterred by the length of the piece. It’s excellent.