The Industry Of Outrage

Desperate for a controversy over “hurt sentiments”, the media decided to pin Karnad down to his statement on Tagore’s plays.

WrittenBy:Mathew Idiculla
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Flipping through TV channels last Friday, I came across Arnab Goswami hyperventilating over another controversy surrounding Girish Karnad. Surely it can’t be coming out of Karnad’s talk yesterday at the University, I thought. As a matter of fact, it turned out to be just that. Karnad was being castigated for calling Rabindranath Tagore a “mediocre” playwright.


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Karnad had delivered a speech on “Culture and Entertainment” at the Azim Premji University at Bangalore on Thursday as a part of our Colloquium series. I went to the talk, half-expecting it to turn into an occasion where Karnad’s statements on Naipaul would once again become the bone of contention. But Karnad (unlike his Mumbai adventure) stayed true to the topic that was agreed on and never mentioned Naipaul at any point, even in the Q&A session which followed the talk.

Karnad spoke about the complex relationship between art/culture and entertainment and examined the evolution of various forms of arts – music, dance, theatre, painting, architecture, film – in modern India. He spoke about the impact of colonisation on the arts and remarked that prior to the staging of Shakespearean plays by the British, theatre had little snob value in India as it was largely staged by people belonging to the “lower” castes. However, with Shakespeare’s popularity among the English in India, members of the Indian genteel class, including Tagore, ventured into it. In this context, Karnad remarked that none of the Indian plays during the British era were notable and even Tagore’s plays were mediocre.

Karnad’s address was, judging by the reaction of an alert audience, well appreciated. I could not sense any feeling of outrage or displeasure over any part of his speech. None of the questions by the audience in the Q&A session dealt with his statements on Tagore. The Times of India carried a fairly extensive report on the talk which did not mention anything about Tagore. I don’t think anyone in the room that day would have thought that Karnad’s talk would result in a national squabble.

But the media, it seems, desparately wanted a controversial story from Karnad. And since he did not say anything about Naipaul, they decided to pin it down to his statement on Tagore’s plays. Soon the tamasha kicked in. Reporters were sent to Karnad for a re-statement of his views on Tagore. Bengali writers and politicians were asked to comment on Karnad’s statement. A predictable story was emerging.

It is disturbingly odd that the Hindustan Times report on Karnad’s speech is filed from Mumbai. Importantly, the by-lined report does not attribute the story to any news agency. How the Mumbai reporter quoted Karnad’s address in Bangalore remains a mystery.

All newspapers had a similar story to tell. After targeting Naipaul, Karnad has now gone on an outburst against Tagore. Twitter spread the rage. Karnad was already an object of hate for the anti-pseudo-secular brigade after he berated their newfound hero – VS Naipaul. The viral ultra-nationalist was joined by the disgruntled Bengali parochialist in rebuking Karnad. The nation was slowly getting outraged. That was the cue for Arnab to step in.

So Arnab got a battery of Bengalis on his show and the panellists succeeded in painting Karnad as an irrelevant man trying hard to remain in the limelight. Swapan Dasgupta felt that Karnad said what he did as he was “overwhelmed” by the “hosannas” he got for attacking Naipaul. Bachi Karkaria said that by suddenly attacking literary greats, he was acting like a controversy junkie who was going through a “literary menopause”. Cricket expert, Boria Majumdar objected to the “language” used by Karnad to “denigrate” Tagore, which he felt should not be allowed in a democracy. “Is he deliberately giving up subtlety to attract attention?” asked Arnab.

To suggest that Karnad was on an attention-seeking mission is absurd. The immediate audience of his supposedly sacrilegious speech, which included professors, researchers, students and members from the general public, raised no voices against it. Still television channels would like us to believe that “the nation” is outraged.

India is of course a nation with people waiting for their sentiments to get hurt. From Tagore to Tendulkar, from Gandhi to Gau Mata, our culture of reverence does not encourage anyone to speak their mind. There are actually many realities in India that should cause all right-thinking Indian to get outraged. But despite Justice Katju’s forceful reminders, the TV media and its viewers refuse to get similarly outraged by farmer suicides, malnutrition, or female foeticide.

Outrage is fast becoming the singular selling point of India’s news channels. Though, it is difficult to come up with something new for our daily outrage, Arnab and Co. seem to perform this impossible task miraculously. The media should actually be thankful to the UPA government for providing so many opportunities for getting outraged. The Department of Leaks in the government and CAG have also provided some fodder for media outrage. The latest supplier of outrage is a man called Kejriwal, whose press conferences have become an excuse for the media not to do any serious journalism. Despite all this, the high demands of the outrage industry are not met.

Hence, “controversial statements” are what news channels repeatedly turn to for reducing the supply deficit. Television media often gives disproportionally long airtime to nonsensical statements made by irrelevant, dim-witted people in the far flung corners of Bharat, simply because it gives them a chance to outrage. Every news organisation, I believe, also maintains a file titled – People Who Make Outrageous Statements. Whatever comes out of the mouths of those in this list are endlessly followed, as they act as a feeder service to the outrage industry. The industry of outrage is ably supported by the People’s Forum for Continuous Outrage – aka Twitter.

Girish Karnad, by speaking against Naipaul at the Mumbai Litfest has unwittingly made his entry into this desecrated list. Suffice it to say that Karnad’s speech at the university would not have made news if he had not spoken against Naipaul a few days back. The only consolation is that the industry of outrage runs out of steam fast and things are forgotten when a new topic of outrage comes along.

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