Girish Karnad takes on Sir Vidia Naipaul at Mumbai Literature Festival

"Didn’t know what I was being invited for I was under the impression that it was a theatre fest. It was only later that I discovered it was Mumbai Literature Festival. I was given a whole hour and I didn’t know what one was supposed to be doing for an hour. It was only later that I discovered and it was a process of discovery of my life and my work.

Girish Karnad and Sir Vidia Naipaul

Girish Karnad and Sir Vidia Naipaul

I thought oh my god! How boring! Not for you but me to speak about everything one has lived through is an exercise in futility. But fortunately when I came here that Mumbai Literature Festival was awarding Mr. Naipaul and I said this is interesting because Mr. Naipaul is a literary figure who has long been on our horizons and it shouldn’t be allowed to go just with an award on the 1st day there is much to be said much more to respond to the phenomenon of Naipaul and the questions that the award evokes.

So I’m afraid what I’m going to do to fill in the one hour. I’m going to divide the hour in 2 half hours or 20 minutes. The first half will be my response to the award handed to Mr. Naipaul and to the personality of Naipaul and what he has given to us and the second half about theatre and whatever I have to say if at all that’s interesting.

Let me start with a general remark, you see we are aware that certain ages are characterised by certain art forms. Somehow those art forms define that age. You talk of Elizabethan age, you talk of drama, Marlow and Shakespeare and so on. The same English by the time you have come to the 19th century would be characterised by novels, although there were very good poets. You think of Jane Austen, Dickens, you know Thackray the whole lot.

19th century Russia for you, for one would represent novels of another order while Renaissance of Italy would represent architecture, painting, Michelangelo and so on.
So if one were to ask oneself which art form characterises contemporary India, the India that we live in at the moment. Many people have asked this question and the first response is to say films. But when you look at films you see that most people respond to films because of film songs. Most people remember films because of songs and great filmmakers of the 50s and 60s are adored because of the beautiful film music that they produce.

And so we arrive at a truth that I have after 30 years in films and theatre and so on which is that we live in the golden age of film music.

It is true to say I think that in the entire history of india, music has never been as resonant, rich and diverse as it has in our era. It has produced so many people; it has reflected everything most Indians as you know are defined by the musical leer. Most Indians as you know have a very poor sense of colour. They wear very bad clothes, they have no sense of architecture when you look at them. But if they are listening to a song and there is even one wrong note they will say “Ah, that’s a wrong note” because that is we were brought up in a whole culture of music from our childhood on.

Given then that music defines our daily existence, you find it in the streets, in the restaurants, in hotels and so on. You would expect only exploration of India to comment on that. Now Mr. Naipaul has written three books on India, three very big books and if you read them you will find that not one of them contains any reference to music. He has gone through the whole of India without responding to Indian music. Now I think that this only means that he is tone deaf. That’s my reading of the situation but then there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be tone deaf. It is a constitutional right we all have.

But what happens is that if you don’t understand music, if you don’t respond to music you can’t respond to Indian history because the real development of Indian culture has been through music. You see in the 6th century the Bhakti movement started in the South somewhere in Tamil Nadu and spread to Karnataka, to Maharashtra up to Mira Bai, Nanak, Chaitanya and so on. From the 6th to virtually the 16th century there is a whole wave spreading across India where music becomes a means of expression.

What these Bhakti poets did is that they rejected Bhraminism, they rejected rituals, they rejected any kind of false hindrance and approach towards god. They said if you want to approach God, sing and God will take you. And they took music in the heart of the house and parallely with what these Bhakti poets did, the Sufis did the same thing. It is supposed that the Quran forbids music, I don’t know. But certainly the Sufis didn’t think so and they used music and as we know that the real richness of North Indian music comes from the contribution that the Chistis made to it, so you have these two very rich streams, the Hindu music and the Muslim music if that’s how you want to put it. But the Bhakti and the Sufi movements very often overlapped and they brought music into the heart of the Indian name, you see if you have to understand Indian culture, if you have to understand how Hindus and Muslims and the whole historical process reacted, you have to know music. If you don’t know music, you cannot understand it and I think this is, let me state right-away at the beginning, this is one problem with Mr. Naipaul’s analysis of Indian culture.

He has no music and therefore no conception of what the Muslims contributed to our history. This concept of what the Muslims did in Indian history clearly shows that he has no idea of atleast the music bit. Now not having a ear for music deprives him of another chapter in his book. Really I might put it this way: You know there is a book called Indian music in the West, by Gerry Farrell. He was a scholar, he wrote for Oxford. Oxford has published it, unfortunately he died young, and Gerry Farrell traces the development of Indian music, an Indologist in the 16th century and he shows how from the year 1782 when William Jones published ‘ In the Musical Mode of the Hindus’ a certain attitude developed among the Indologists of the West. They came, they wanted to study Indian music and the first thing they discovered when they came to India was that they knew many ancient civilizations. They knew Egypt, Greece, Rome and so on. But the unique thing about India was that while these other cultures had lost their musical culture entirely, India hadn’t. There was a continuity of music from the ancient times to the present day which was very uniquely Indian.

They spent their time saying, Why is it so? What is so unique about Indian music and they came to the conclusion that at some point in the history of Indian music, it became corrupt. It was corrupted. It was taken over by people who didn’t understand it and they found the culprits - The Muslims
And this goes back as far as William Jones. The whole matrix was already there. The foreigners come, they look at Indian culture, they see pristine Hindu culture, they see that it’s corrupted and it’s corrupted by Muslims.

So you see, anyone who has read Naipaul’s book will immediately recognise this matrix, which actually he claims that he arrived at through himself but it is already there in any Indological study long before. Naipaul, nearly 200 years before he wrote his books, he writes for instance India was ravaged by the Muslim invaders. They ruled it severely, ravaged it for 5 or 6 centuries and they left nothing and they brought poverty to India and so on. Here is a villain, here is a person who became villainous despite living in India for 5 and 6 years, they remain invaders to the very end. Now I wont carry on with music because there isn’t very much of music in Naipaul’s writing. Anyway so it’s much more interesting to see what he has to say about architecture about which he writes a lot. Now again, what he says is predictable which is that the Muslims destroyed Indian architecture, that everything went to pot. They were the raiders , they were the destroyers, and you have to look at any building to see what happened during the Muslim regime. Now many people have argued with him , many people have said that its not so easy. you know that urmila thapar for instance has shown there was a great deal of exchange between hindus and muslims during the muslim era and how the muslims did contribute a great deal when naipaul has no time for it.

He says that she is a marxist and gives her vision which is completely wrong. The correct truth, this is his word, the correct truth is in which the invaders look at their own actions they were conquering and they were subjugating."

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