Art in the Time of Genocide
Originally published on TamilNet
The recent cultural tour of T.M. Krishna, a Chennai based Carnatic singer, in the Northern areas of the occupied territory of Tamil Eelam, was praised by quite some in the Indian media and the Sri Lankan media. It was reported that there was a substantial turn out in Jaffna, where the artist had performed solely in Tamil. While observing the “conflicting images” in the Tamil homelands and asking some moral questions to himself, the singer concludes with an apolitical message in an article published later in The Hindu that “Artistes don’t stand for elections, don’t fight on the battlefield but we offer to everyone the very breath of life —happiness.”
The following article is, of course, not a comment on the performer’s artistic talents, but rather an introspection of the politics behind the performance.
Those familiar with Marxism would agree that there is no art that stands above politics. This is all the more true when art is placed in the context of a nation facing structural genocide. Krishna’s performance in Sri Lanka last year was held in memory of the collaborator Neelan Tiruchelvam, a virulent opponent of the Eelam Tamil struggle.
Krishna was then sought out by the Indian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Ashok K. Kantha who requested the artist to do a tour of the northern regions so that there could be a ‘cultural revival’.
When the emissary of India, a country that backed Sri Lanka in its genocidal campaign against the Tamil people, marks out an artist to promote ‘cultural revival’ in their homelands, can this act and the performance be devoid of politics? And what sort of ‘revival’ can one expect when the performance is allowed by a state that is bent on keeping the Eelam Tamils in a condition of permanent trauma?
Before philistines point out that promotion of such performances proves the liberalism of the Lankan state and that there is no threat to Tamil culture, let it be stated that that Lanka allows these performances precisely because they pose no threat to the state.
Indeed, performances like these also serve the purpose of numbing the effects of trauma.
The reports that the audience in Jaffna was enthralled by Krishna’s performance are believable.
Considering that this is the first tour of the occupied homeland of the Eelam Tamils by an Indian Tamil musician since 1983, the enthusiasm of the people who participated cannot be doubted.
All the same, it should be noted that when such performances are disconnected from real politics of the ground – structural genocide in this case – they only serve the purpose of providing a false illusory relief to the subject.
And this is precisely what the governments of India and Sri Lanka would want – a Tamil art form without a spine to stand as a reflection of the social life of the people, instead an impotent abstraction that is tolerated by the Lankan regime as such an art is powerless to accomplish anything substantial in the political sphere.
A culture in abstract may give a people some sense of identity, but it neither has the substance to resist assimilation nor the power to combat annihilation. Which is why the liberation struggle led by the LTTE followed Ho Chi Minh’s dictum “culture at the service of resistance, resistance at the service of culture” – there was no more talking of an abstract Tamil culture.
Culture was concretized in the Eelam Tamil resistance and its finest, progressive aspects were filtered and deployed by the movement. A simple historical practice of the subaltern Tamil classes, like the veneration of ‘veerakal’, symbolic stones installed to honor heroes fallen in battle, was revolutionized by the Tigers.
The result was ‘Maaveerar thuyilidam’ – the heroes’ graveyard, which got the dimensions of a sacred but secular space.
The popular enthusiasm of the Eelam Tamil people to honour the fallen cadres, irrespective of their gender, caste, subcaste or religion, produced a horizondalizing effect on a formerly vertical society.
For all practical purposes, the Eelam Tamil resistance was the pinnacle of Tamil culture.
But while the Sri Lankan government systematically destroys these popular symbols, hunts down Pongu Tamil activists, and ensures that no cultural traces of Eelam Tamil resistance is left, it promotes those forms of Tamil culture and art that are completely devoid of revolutionary content, that can be easily accommodated. Then, it goes without saying that the adherents of this Tamil culture can only be ‘cultural’ at the expense of the progressive culture of the Eelam Tamil resistance.
So T.M. Krishna is wrong when he claims that these types of artistic performances would give the Tamils “more self belief, pride and faith in themselves and their lives.”
For art to be emancipatory it cannot and it should not ever soothe a people facing oppression. Rather, it has to make them conscious of their existentialist condition, of the nature of the oppression they face and provoke them to fight it.
While Krishna’s tour was on, the SLA encroached a hundred acres of farmland in Kilinochi, forests were destroyed and lands were grabbed in Batticaloa, and foundations for Sinhala colonization were strengthened in Mullaitheevu with yet another Buddhist stupa built on Tamil lands.
Art, for it to be a true expression of the socio-cultural life of the Tamil masses, cannot but address these crucial issues. Else, it will just remain an opiate of a minority of Tamil elites in auditoriums in Jaffna or elsewhere.
The struggle for Eelam Tamil liberation, like all such liberation struggles, was in itself the highest expression of national culture. It is important for all cultural activists in the homeland and in the diaspora to carefully preserve this tradition and to invent and reinvent art forms, like those tried in the Pongu Tamil uprising and Maanudathin Tamil Koodal, and to provide a culture of progressive resistance to a people subject to meaninglessness.
The diaspora in particular has great potential to interact with cultural groups from various peoples fighting similar oppression and infuse into Eelam Tamil art forms new contents that dialectically enriches both the particular aspects of the art in the context of the struggle and the universal message it holds.
It goes without saying that for this, the political understanding of those dealing with culture must be rooted in the interests of the Eelam Tamil people. Failure to wage a resolute struggle in the field of culture will only allow the Sri Lankan state to destroy all progressive Eelam Tamil content in art while simultaneously promoting, with aid of its external patrons, depoliticized forms that are no expressions of Tamil reality.