02 October, 2003

THE NECESSITY OF IMAGINATION
SUSHMA JOSHI

Middle class people from Kathmandu, well versed in critique, seem to agree on one basic issue: the level of discourse in Nepal, from literature to the arts, from social sciences to journalism, has been shimmering gently at the same level of mediocrity for about the last two hundred years. Newspapers bore us with their editorials on pollution. The INGO and NGO reports bore us with their bland litanies on gender and poverty, hashed out year after year by the same class of Western educated all-but-disseration clones. Funny rants in hip papers of the Kathmandu elite bore us because they sound alarmingly similar to the rest of the whining about Nepal as a broken-down, hopeless basketcase. The arts bore us, with top notch artists of Nepal churning out abstract or expressionist or impressionist products, but missing the conceptual handle of ideas, the intertextual dialogue with knowledge that has been crucial to post-modern art movements globally. Literature is stuck somewhere between pulp fiction and the weepy, distraught narratives of lost love broadcast over the airwaves on late afternoons. Music, perhaps, is the only medium that seems to thrive and replenish itself with syncretic changes. Folk music, always popular and perhaps the only viable mass literary form in Nepal, has thrived in recent years, never losing its grounding as it has mixed with guerilla anthems, bollywood, disco, jazz, rap and even hip-hop.
So what is to be done about the mediocre intellectual and creative landscapes in Nepal? Can one argue that the stagnation of the intellectual sphere is partly due to the stagnation of the creative sphere? That this annihilation of creativity is responsible for the current lack of imagination about political solutions in Nepal? That the social change that is inevitable but seem stuck like a butterfly half imprisoned inside its sticky cocoon can only burst forth along with a flowering of the creative imagination? Civil society is built on political and economic institutions, but it is also built on something more fundamental than that. It is built on the foundation of a society's imagination, their ability to project a world before it is even born, their abilities to imagine limitless horizons before it is visible at the present moment. The Maoists understand this clearly - cultural programs featuring satire, singing, dancing and performances are one of the most popular venues for mass gatherings in the People's War.
Fear of change has always been the underlying foundation of Nepali society. This fear imprisons not just the social, but also the creative limbs of our national body. This fear in manifested in our "safe" and shoddy paintings, stories, journalistic reports, social sciences research and performative arts. It is reflected in our safe ideas and our safe boundaries of knowledge which never stretches beyond Ring Road, or beyond Kathmandu, or beyond purbha or paschim. Anybody caught creating anything else than safe knowledge, arguably, is at the danger of being socially isolated, ignored, or worse, thrown in prison. This fear, applied to all levels of society, and keeps people in their own boxes, caste, class and gender-wise. As long as you do not think differently, you are safe, is the message emanating from every direction.
If the arts are a mirror for society to check its mental health, Nepal's stagnating arts world is a reflection of repression that operates not just at the political, but also the creative level. While a fraction of traditional artists and performers have managed to maintain their cultural distinctiveness through old channels of funding, new arts, and new artists, have received little attention or encouragement, and even less appreciation. Our under-funded, under-appreciated, under-noticed and over-worked artists are besieged - struggling to continue their art on one end, trying to make a living on the other. To ask them to innovate, to create individualistic works, to be politically active, to keep up with global ideas is asking too much from a group already spurned by an indifferent society.
So what is the solution? More funding for the arts, like they do in the rest of the world? That would be a start. More funding from expatriate communities in North America and Europe? This has already been started with groups like the Kala Manch in New York, a group of artists who hold events to recognize the work of established artists from Nepal. More opportunities to include art in schools? Private schools have already taken this up, but the unfortunate hierarchy of science, social science and humanities in Nepal means that the "Arts" are still treated with contempt, and reserved for SLC students who pass in the Third Division.
We can change this only by changing our approach to the arts. We need to make room for creativity; to recognize its necessity to human existence, and its role in fulfilling basic need, just as crucially as we acknowledge engineering and medicine. All of this is a step in the right direction. More fundamentally, we need to recognize the centrality of the arts in the process of social change. We need to recognize that nurturing the creative spirit is more than a luxury - it is the fundamental process through which people start to see the limitlessness of their own imaginations, and to create worlds which at present they do not possess.


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