Commodification of folk culture
By Kishor Kumar Kalita
An evening in the year 1977 – the cultural section of the Asom Sahitya Sabha session in Abhayapuri was going on. Dr Bhupen Hazarika was addressing the audience from the dais. He suddenly noticed someone near the stage and suddenly halted in mid-speech. The audience looked at where Dr Hazarika’s gaze was transfixed and saw an elderly person in his late seventies. Visibly moved, Dr Hazarika in an emotiol tone welcomed the old man to the stage and introducing him to the crowd, said -“You are felicitating me. But do you know him ? He is Rat Kanta Talukdar of Pathsala. Do you know what he is doing? He has brought out one of the oldest dance forms of Assam which was on the verge of extinction and tried to organize and dissemite it over mass media. Even at the age of seventy seven, he is traveling to every nook and corner to popularize the devdasi dance form. Actually it is he who deserves the felicitation here today more than me!” Shri Talukdar too was touched by this magnimity of Dr Hazarika. This mutual respect between two great artistes set off the ambience of the evening and added a different dimension to it. The audience gave them both a standing ovation. Thus that session of Asom Sahitya Sabha became witness to a rare show of recognition and respect exhibited by one great artiste to another artiste.
That was nearly four decades back. Though Rat Kanta Talukdar passed away in 1980, the enlightened society of Pathsala didn’t allow his lifelong efforts to die away. It has tried in its own way to keep the ‘Devdasi Xilpi Samaj’, which was established in 1964, afloat even today. Unfortutely, it was in this very Pathsala, considered to be sort of a holy land of culture for its efforts to rediscover near extinct art forms and establishing modern mobile theater, very recently, a cultural performer from the State, crossing all levels of decency and decorum, raised the absurd demand for making one of his now forgotten song as the State anthem! The very next day, another popular singer/cultural performer, after presenting a modified (or degenerated) version of a popular song earlier sung by his father, asked for this one to be treated as an anthem of Assam. The way in which these two performers, packaged as ‘heartthrobs’ by the local TV channels, hurt the Assamese sentiment by showing this kind of extreme disrespect to the State’s anthem by Laksmith Bezbaruah, hints at the kind of degrading times we are fast moving towards. The real question is — are these arrogant, self congratulatory actions on part of them mere cultural frivolity or is there are a hidden politico- cultural agenda behind this?
As a result of post liberal economic policies, it is observed that there have been two types of experimentations involving many elements of culture, including folk culture going on in various parts of the world. The first is the commodification of cultural elements and the other is standardization of traditiol folk cultural elements. The agenda of both these is to do away with all regiol or tiol distinctions of cultural resources and stch them away from the hands of the community to put at the disposal of the world market, while at the same time, very carefully, concentrate/transfer all the proprietorship of these resources into the hands of a few ‘celebrity’ artistes, private institutions and corporate houses. Linked with it is the issue of commodification. How this commodification of music has enriched the wealthy sections of western countries while decimating the other non- commodified musical traditions and margilizing the local musicians has been discussed by Timothy Rice, a researcher, in his book ‘Ethnomusiology : A Very Short Introduction’. He wrote, “Ethnomusiologists worry that commodification, coupled with the vast difference in wealth between the west and the rest, disempowers local musicians and may result in the disappearance of non-commodifiable musical practices.”
While commodification, in general, forces cultural resources, which find it difficult to survive in the cultural market, towards extinction, standardization provides recognition to select few from various forms of cultural resources as the acceptable one. Suppose, there are more than one variation in a performing art form, then the standardization process will try to impose a grammar or unchangeable formula through recognizing only one of them. As a result, only that particular form will be publicized and broadcast in the market and it’s total control/ copyright will be vested in the hands of a band of established artistes. Eventually it will be reduced to a saleable product. The other forms/variations not given recognition will be portrayed as rejected forms. Thus an inferiority complex will be created in the minds of those who have been performing such art forms without any inhibitions and as a birthright from generation to generation. While the form popularized and broadcast in the market, TV channels and other media will be glorified, others will be gradually elbowed out. We believe that in our State too, Bihu is facing a similar onslaught for a considerable period of time.
Parallel to commodification and standardization, two other tendencies are active in present society. First of these is collection/gathering of resources of folk music in the me of ethno musical studies or research. Such researchers travel to every corner of the world and acquire language, manners, performing arts, etc of an ethnic group or culture and in many cases appear to be trying to assimilate with that culture. The other is making fun of cultural symbols at tiol and regiol level in order to weaken the community resistance base. Those who lampooned the tiol anthem of the State, seem to be doing so consciously and in a much planned manner.
Now, the question is — are such veiled attacks on folk culture or community culture in the times of globalization inevitable or can’t be resisted? There has been much debate on these issues at different intertiol fora and quite a few resolutions about cultural rights of indigenous people hav been adopted in UNCTAD (United tions Conference on Trade and Development), WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), etc in recent times. In a convention organized by the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs in the year 2000, it was said, “Indigenous peoples’ heritage is not a commodity, nor the property of the tion-state. The material and intellectual heritage of each indigenous people is a sacred gift and a responsibility that must be honored and held for the benefit of future generations” . Special Rapporteur of UN Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimition and Protection of Minorities, Erica-Irene A Daes in 1995 in her report had appealed that tiol laws should be so drafted that patent or copyright systems of any resources of the indigenous people are done with their open consent so that it guarantees their ownership, control, use and benefit. In 1982, WIPO and UNESCO prepared a model document titled ‘tiol Laws on Protection of Expression of Folklore against Illicit Exploitation and other Prejudicial Action’. It was mentioned in these documents that if any performer intends to draw upon any resource listed as folk culture or make adaptations, then the performer must take consent of the community or appropriate authority. In addition, if such performance is for commercial purpose or outside traditiol or customary context, then it will be considered illicit exploitation. Unfortutely, despite there being such documents/commitments/charters at intertiol level — in countries like India, taking advantage of legal loopholes, distortion of folk cultural resources and illicit exploitation continues ubated. We are yet to realize that those whom our visual media are portraying as heroes actually are the regiol agents, in the garb of artistes, of such exploitation.
While speaking about those who ignore their own culture, Bishnu Prasad Rabha had written long back, “It is the deprived, exploited and poor peasant-worker Assamese who is keeping the traditiol culture and civilization vibrant, which makes us feel proud to speak of ourselves as Assamese to the world ! So the fate of the Assamese tion lies with those rustic, poor Assamese. Whereas those rich landowners, officials, capitalists and tea planters who mock at Assam’s traditiol heritage culture and get sadistic pleasure by taking them as objects of entertainment — are they really Assamese ? Or, even citizens of India? They are neither Assamese, nor citizens of India. They belong to that class of exploiters like those others from other countries, who have no tiolity, no country, but are only profiteers and black marketers.” When shall we be able to identify those black marketers and opportunist profiteers casting a long shadow on the cultural market in Assam today?