2 comments on “Some thoughts upon the death of Zarina Begum (and a few other notes updating past posts)

  1. This is fascinating Richard. Really sad to hear about her demise. However, pertaining to the point you make about “damage done by the marketplace”, I feel the damage done to performing arts in India stems more from the ideology of amateurism that governed the whole sector until recent times. As for the role of the bourgeoisie of the erstwhile protectionist state, their preoccupation in India was not so much about ‘money’ as was about a certain cultural capital which became their self definition. Needless to say, this cultural capital was also intrinsically linked to the questions of caste. The neglect of traditional artists in India at least, therefore stems largely from their traditional/communitarian origin. Moreover, the ‘patron’ of the performing artists in India has historically been the state rather than the market. This patronage, also governed by the ‘ideology of amateurism’ considers awarding ‘economic’ aid to the artists as demeaning. This is so much so that the empanelled artists receive honorarium rather than remuneration/salary for their performance. This is of course in continuation to the traditional pedagogy in performing arts where the teacher or guru receives guru ‘dakshina’ (an amount paid in obligation to the Brahmin priest), rather than ‘fees’ . While the dakshina varies with the level of fame a guru enjoys, that fame is also intrinsically connected to who the state deems ‘fit’ to patronize depending on the artist’s relation the ruling class. This ruling class in India too has until late, been a coalition of educated bourgeoisie, rural elite from the landed castes/communities and the bureaucratic elite. A Muslim and a woman like Zarina ji, would hardly fit into this picture.

    Also, thanks a ton for your kind words.

  2. Pritha, thank you for the interesting information that you have given regarding the (once) longstanding relationship in India between the state the nation’s artists. Admittedly, in my post, I did not touch upon the issue that Zarina’s fate was at least in part a consequence of the degradation of her caste. Here, I’m thinking not so much about the Hindu-based system of artistic patronage that you talk about as I’m thinking about what happened to the North Indian culture that was ruled by Mulsims. As I see it (based on reading a few very good books :) )…. The degradation of Zarina’s caste was a consequence of British imperialism and a strict kind of moralism that the state of India actually continued from Victorian values that were inflicted upon the culture in the late 19th century. In Mughal times, an admired tawaif would have fared much better economically and, at least in a certain way (if not others), in terms of social respect. (So, reminiscences about the “Last Mughal” are quite pertinent here.) The moral and economic fall of the tawaif was a direct consequence of the British anti-nautch campaigns and the failure of new imperialist rulers to understand the true cultural significance of respected courtesans (degrading such women to the level of “common prostitutes”). Some women did find a way out of this degradation via the marketplace (with the invention of the gramophone and then the rise of cinema), but that marketplace proved to be inadequate to sustain the well-being of many whom it first seemed to help so much. As I wrote the post above, I was thinking of all the ruined actors and some ruined singers from the film industry. As far as I can tell, their rise and subsequent abandonment were not the result of the inadequacy and/or peculiar attitudes of government patrons; they were the result of the fickle marketplace. And (as an aside), as you know, there were more than a few tawaifs or women with such a heritage who ended up in films. Zarina Begum’s mentor, Begum Akhtar was, herself, a film singer and actress for a while.

    Now, I couldn’t help noticing your use of phrases such as “until recently” and “until recent times.” What do you suppose has determined the fate of artists in more recent times? Can we now say that they are at the mercy of the marketplace? :)

    When I referred to “the natural consequence of a certain system that is always run by the bourgeoisie,” I wasn’t thinking as much specifically about how artists are supported (or not) in the culture as I was thinking about how much everyone’s fate and ability to live a decent life or even survive are determined by whether a person has money. The system run by the bourgeoisie is, of course, capitalism, and people will fall victim to the worst consequences of capitalism if they do not have or bring in money, unless there are significant safeguards put in place. As an American (who did for a time go without health insurance), I can certainly relate to the perils faced by someone who cannot afford healthcare. (Though I know that this problem, at least, does not generally exist in Western Europe or Canada – because of the social democratic safeguards that were put in place.) If Zarina Begum lived under a system that assured that everyone’s basic needs would be met and everyone could live with at least some minimal dignity (regardless of a person’s success or assumed individual value), then she never would have declined into the condition described in those articles a few years ago. And if she had not had to worry so much about her health (when she could not afford to save it), her survival, or the economic survival of her children, she probably would have been far less impeded in her efforts to carry on with her art.

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