Why do urban dwellers want inauthentic rural representations?
The seven-day Folk Festival held under the aegis of the Punjab Council of Arts at the Open Air Theatre at Bagh-e-Jinnah concluded earlier this month. It followed a set pattern.
Whenever the announcement of initiating such a programme is made, the hunt for performing artistes, singers and theatre personnel – who are supposed to represent the lok culture of the province – begins. They come to perform for a primarily urban audience, in their jazzed-up rural attire, against a set designed to appear reminiscent of their rural surroundings. There will be a haystack in one corner, murhas (straw stools) and charpoys in the other, a well painted, added somewhere to the background – in some cases even a charkha or madhani/chaati plonked where women are supposed to be churning butter. There may also be a half-built, half-crumbling mud wall by the side.
This is supposed to represent real culture or something which is authentic against the urban which is considered a vulgarisation of the real thing. The audiences come supposedly to touch base and to be rejuvenated by this reliving of what they were supposed to be, but have unfortunately deviated from. Portrayed as wallowing in nostalgia, it is a reminder of the loss that this generation has been experiencing.
The roots of it all lie in the perception that developed over centuries about the binary between rural and urban existence. Since the Industrial Revolution and the romantic reaction to it all, the pristine countryside and its natural beauty have been perceived to be the abode of truth and beauty rather than the slums that the early cities of the nineteenth-century urban environments characterised. Except for the rich neighbourhoods the rest were slums, shantytowns and undignified sprawls that dehumanised their residents. They were seen to be artificial and wrenching humankind away from the lap of nature that the rural environment provided.
This binary was transposed on to the colonies and the divide was held sacred by many a writer, including those belonging to the Progressive Writer’s Movement, who saw more authenticity in the countryside than in the cities. The latter represented viles and the evils of the capitalistic order. Innocence was lost in the cities and most of the literature written and films made were on the tragedy of the yokels, losing innocence in the harsh, inhuman conditions of urban existence.
But while one is seeking authenticity it is clear that the culture as it existed in the early part of the twentieth-century is all but lost. The present face of rural culture is also very different from the one that existed a few decades back because technology has not been limited to the urban centres but has penetrated deep to rework the material that was there in a relatively more pristine form. Or so we think. It is very possible that someone from the nineteenth-century would have lamented over the great change brought about by the impact of colonial rule and the easier means of communication as symbolised by the railways and the telegraph.
Much of what one imagines as the authentic culture became raw material for films and the appetite of film industry could not be satiated for it was ever-growing with a huge outreach. Most of the traditional melodies were reworked for the new medium and the changes were made accordingly. The limitations of the medium and the expectation of the audiences were all transformatory elements of the plot, characterization, melodic structure, instrumentation and diction.
There is no visual or aural documentation of rural culture but for the fact that it evolves and changes all the time. The recording, both visual and aural is only a little more than a hundred-years old and there seems to be no benchmark against which to judge what is authentic and what is not. Or how much it all has changed.
People in the villages are keen to adopt the ways of city dwellers. They are skeptical about tradition as they consider it something which has held them back. There is hardly any romance for them in sticking to their traditional ways. The romance, if any is nurtured by the urban dwellers that feel a sense of loss and yearning for the real thing, possibly as an escape from the rigors of their daily chores.
As it is, all art carries a vast quantum of the desire to live a life that is different. Call it whatever, but it is the urge to expand the horizon of experience. A few hours spent in the cultural ethos of the village is a kind of a throwback to the past which can only be imagined, but never recreated nor brought back. The ever-changing nature of lived experience defies any absolute definition and a perfect delineation of what is ideal or what is not.