December 10, 2019
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The Two Universals

When it comes to the universal and the local, we can broadly distinguish between two categories of people: there are ones who learn to pan the world and there are others who decide to dig a place deep

The Two Universals

Are there two categories of the universal, while there is only one local? Strange question indeed. Quite abstract for sure, but let me try to draw you into a short engagement on this thought that has been whirring in my head for a few weeks now.

There have been many triggers for this, one of course being the many India books that are theorising us as a people in a frightful swift to meet various exigencies of global politics and economics. But let me assure you that they are not the only one. For instance, a conversation with a colleague in Kolkata, a couple of days ago, brought me back to the theme, when he said his photographic experiment with the theme of the itinerant circus artistes had found more buyers than his experiment with Chitpore, a throbbing Kolkata locality. While the 'Circus' theme did not have a geographical particularity, 'Chitpore' was specifically located. It was about a distinct local heartbeat.

Saibal Das introduces his 'Chitpore' pictures thus in the catalogue: "One rainy morning, walking through the maze of Kolkata's bylanes as part of my journalistic assignments, I came upon a baby struggling to wriggle out of a shack but tumbling over and over again. However, his futile struggle and the glint in the eye trying to see the rain washed world outside somehow entranced me and I immediately thought of capturing the pulse of a place that nestles so much of diversity under the sky... Meandering through narrow streets of Chitpore I have learnt a lot about life itself - its sheer unpredictability along with the unabashed joy and the brooding shadows."

Interestingly, the commentary for the 'Circus' book (Circus Girl, Seagull, 2010) is written by Nola Rae, a French mime artiste, who trained under Marcel Marceau. Although the circus artistes are of Indian origin, the art of circus and the culture of clowns has a universal connotation, which create easy frameworks for any person writing on them. Not so with Chitpore, none could have spoken with ease about its chaos and enlightenment other than the discoverer himself. A discoverer who has walked the streets since childhood.

As Saibal mentioned his almost contrasting commercial experience with the themes, I tried to further the analogy by saying that I somewhat understood what he meant. It was like the difference that existed between Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali that was about a way of life and Ganashatru, which was a slice of life. Pather Panchali could not be set anywhere but in a remote village of Bengal, but Ganashatru could have happened anywhere. The former comes to life because of its details, while the latter stands out because it resonates universal ideas like corruption, compromise and moral degradation. Not surprisingly it is an adaptation of Ibsen's play.

While the universal is easier to connect with, the local and the particular expects a certain commitment to understand its context and history. It lives in its minutiae that expects a certain devotion to reveal. It demands a greater involvement. People, usually, do not have the time for it. The shortest cut they sometimes take to accessing the local is through an artefact that again sits in a decontextualised milieu or through an exotic gastronomic channel. This is probably why something that is perceived as having universal attributes, however formulaic, does commercially well, while all that is local struggles to survive. Here I am reminded of another Bengali genius Ritwik Ghatak. In his last movie Jukti, Takko Aar Gappo (1974) there is a remark made by the 'Chhau' folk dancer ('Chhau' dance of Jharkhand, Bengal and Orissa is performed with a mask): "These days people don't come to see the dance, they just take the mask and keep it in their drawing room."

When it comes to the universal and the local, we can broadly distinguish between two categories of people: there are ones who learn to pan the world and there are others who decide to dig a place deep. It is unfair to create a hierarchy between them but their politics and dynamics are altogether different. They quiet simply follow two methods that yield varied insights. For instance, the world of Indian cinema divides itself on these two popular categories: some are comfortable making only Bollywood movies and some believe in 'parallel cinema'. Although both have meaning, one is seen as more meaningful than the other. In continuation of our discussion, it is important to understand that while the mainstream movie focuses on universals and certain perpetual emotions; the 'parallel' ones look for nuance and newer detail. However, there are actors and filmmakers who swing between the two categories with remarkable ease and it is here that I would like to bowl my googly. That is, to return to the question that I posed at the beginning on two universals and one local.

A necessary premise for this thesis is that the universal and the local are interconnected. The universal that we have propounded earlier exists, we can call it the bird's-eye-view universal, but there is a universal that emerges from the study of the particular. The texture and quality of this universal emerging from a deep study of the local is unique. The puranic texts celebrate this universal when they say 'the universe is apparent in an atom.' William Blake also sang in the 'Auguries of Innocence': "To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower". Peruse this gem from cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz's Local Knowledge (Fontana Press, 1983): "To see ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening. To see others as sharing a nature with ourselves is the merest decency. It is from the far more difficult achievement of seeing ourselves amongst others, as a local example of the forms human life has locally taken, a case among cases, a world among worlds, that the largess of mind, without which objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a sham, comes."

The two universals are complementary. One cannot be decried for the other or the two can't be placed in a hierarchical order. The puranic saying, the Blakian utterance and the Geertzian quote also celebrate this complementary nature. Yet, when it comes to real politics, there is strife and a stratification. Saibal's 'Chitpore' is a victim of this, although the tiny text I have quoted from his catalogue above should suffice to suggest how wonderfully he connects the particular to the universal.

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