Once again we are having an "International Book Fair" in Colombo. It is the talk of the town this month. The organizers will count the footfalls and be proud about the achievement. For nine days there will be a huge traffic congestion around the BMICH. The book fair is the largest annual crowd puller in the country.
Do we really need book fairs today is the question that comes to mind, every year. In the same way that the Neanderthals disappeared from the face of the earth with the invasion by the 'early modern humans' the printed book is also threatened by the e-book and the audio book. However the printed book will never become extinct, it will remain with us for a long time to come, while the book fairs as we know them today will become extinct in the near future.
Book Carnivals for 'entertainment', and for the organizers to make profits, will continue, like the mockeries of festivals held in the name of literature, in Jaipur or Galle. Yet for anyone who wants to buy a book, there are book fairs which are open anytime. You can visit these book fairs at your convenience, browse through the books, even read a few pages, check the price of the book at other vendors, order the book, sit back and relax till the book is delivered to your doorstep, or to your computer.
Even before the digital books take over the market from printed books, digital technology has already taken over the marketing of printed books. Today almost everything a man needs could be searched for, located, and purchased in cyberspace. All this started twenty years ago, with the launch of Amazon for online sale of books and eBay for online auctions. Amazon 2014 sales figure was $ 90 billion worldwide. The best place to search for a book today is the internet, whether it is for a new print, a used book, a first edition, or as a soft copy. Many book publishers and sellers too are now competing with Amazon, selling their books online directly to customers. These book sellers have their own permanent 24/7 book fairs in cyberspace, while Amazon is the largest International Book Fair in cyberspace which never closes its doors.
There are also sites like bookfaironline.net, who claim, "It encourages dialogue and mutual cultural understanding by providing a neutral platform to all publishers and writers around the world. It's available online 365 days a year, there is no need to travel across the hemisphere, no need to pollute the planet by flying and shipping books to the four corners of the earth. Bookfaironline.net is committed to reduce the carbon footprint within the publishing industry." The cultural festivals like the Kolkata Boi Mela is fading away.
But people still fly from all over the world, leaving a huge Carbon foot print, just to attend the book fairs in Frankfort, London, Delhi and all other cities, when they can find in cyberspace all the books displayed. Book sellers also invest millions to showcase their books here. Some of our booksellers too participate and display their books, when they could display all their books online to all the readers around the world, at a much lower cost.
When we can visit such book fairs in the comfort of our home or office, or from anywhere on earth as long as we have an android phone and a connection, there is really no necessity to visit a congested venue to attend a book fair. Driving is a nightmare and finding a parking space is far worse, unless we are lucky to share a ride with another person. Public transport is still worse, even though the organizers arrange a shuttle bus service to a few locations in the city. Some of the book stalls are so crowded, that one could only crawl between book shelves, pick a book at random and wait for ages at the sales counters.
A book lover now living in Toronto lamented that she will be missing the book fair this year and wrote on Facebook, "The smell, the sight of books, touching them, holding them and reading bits, the conversations with like minded people..." But this is just wishful thinking, all one could smell is the food and the sweat, and conversations about parking problems, the crowds and what is to eat, and where.
The traditional book fairs are for the benefit of the publishers and sellers. They make us buy what they want to sell, or to get rid of, from their non-moving stocks. We do not have the opportunity to check out the books, have a choice of what we want to buy. The sellers abuse the human instinct for impulse buying. They keep the books they want to sell, at our eye level, within easy reach. We end up buying them, because they do not display the books we really want to buy, or they keep them out of our reach. We believe we get bargains, when they offer special discounts. But we are only deceiving ourselves. Most publishers offer the same discounts at their own bookshops, throughout the year.
If the postal services offer a reasonable rate for book posts, then it would benefit both the publisher and the reader, as it would save both time and money, to order a book by post, than to visit a book shop. Or a local courier service should make an attractive offer for home delivery of books.
The time has arrived for the Book Publishers Association to have a permanent book fair in cyberspace from 2016, to offer a real service to the readers at less cost and effort.
Save time. Avoid the hassle. Visit all the book fairs in cyber space.
An aesthete has been defined as a person who has or professes to have sensitivity towards beauties of art or nature. It is in this sense that the term Homo aestheticus came into use. However, Pennsylvanian paleontologist Prof. Pat Shipman has explained an invasive species as one that expands into a new habitat or ecosystem, and disrupts the entire functionality of that system. She published a book, 'The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction'. (2015), where she argues that early modern humans were the most invasive species and the most dangerous environmental enemy of all.
It is not just the 'early modern humans', but the 'modern modern humans' who still happen to be the most dangerous enemy of all life and Mother Earth herself. Thus we may have to call him 'Homo sapiens invasivus' instead.
Shipman's view that invading humans destroyed the Neanderthals further strengthens the argument that invaders have always been less civilized than the natives, anywhere on earth, at anytime till date. She says that Neanderthals had been in Europe for a couple of thousand years before the human invasion, and also used tools and fire, but the humans had domesticated a wolf-dog.
Shipman quotes in an interview with National Geographic, "....we're so invasive. We have continued to invade new continents and new habitats, accompanied by our dogs, altering, tipping, and changing the ecosystems in virtually any place in the world you can think of, with the possible exception of the submarine habitats and Antartica...We are everywhere. And everywhere we go, we are an invasive predator".
What the early modern humans did in Europe to the Neanderthals was repeated by the Europeans, probably the descendants of the early humans, when they invaded the Americas, destroying the more civilized, more advanced cultures, using their modern weapons and their cunning. They who entered America illegally are now preventing other people, including descendants of original inhabitants from entering or residing in their homeland. Almost all invasive species destroy others while they never become a threat to their own species. With man, he becomes a threat to his own species, his own brothers.
Some countries have very tough regulations for 'Environmental Biosecurity' to control any unwanted plants or animals coming into their country. The different types of invasive species to include diseases, fungi and parasites, feral animals, insects and other invertebrates, marine pests and weeds. Though these countries do not include human beings as an invasive species, their departments of immigration, which are also called Border Security, try their best to prevent human beings entering their countries illegally. Yet all such attempts have always failed, because man finds ways of invading, or introducing other invasive life to every place on earth including the deserts and the frozen north and south poles.
We are not only an invasive predator, but we also introduce other invasive plants and animals to the ecosystem, wherever we live or wherever we go. In our country we have seen that with Water Hyacinth, which was brought to our country as an ornamental garden plant by the British in 1904. Today there are over 60 invasive plants and animals identified in our country, which are destroying indigenous plants and animals, destroying our ecosystem.
Today there is also the threat of invasion of the natural environment by the new Frankensteins created by man himself, proudly named 'Genetically Modified' plants and animals. Interference with Mother Nature has always worked negatively, because man will never be able to conquer nature. Every time man has tried to interfere with nature it has been out of greed and a false assumption that the act is for the benefit of mankind. GM food is developed "to solve the hunger around the world". We do not need GM food if we can distribute the present food production uniformly around the world, instead of allowing one-third of food produced to go waste (1.3 billion tons per year), as reported by the FAO.
If man had not turned to large scale agriculture there would never have been any food waste. They would only grow, pluck and consume what they needed. Commercial agriculture became big business for big profits and those who controlled it manipulated the farmers and consumers from the time of ploughing the fields till the processed food reached the plate of the consumer. They always found new ways and means to increase their profits, first through unwanted agrochemicals, and then by patenting and monopolizing even the seeds to be planted.
The farmer as the invasive species uses agrochemicals to destroy all the natural plans and animals found in his farm, calling them weeds and pests. As the agri-poisons are made stronger and stronger, the food crops too are destroyed, which enables the businessmen to produce GM plants which they claim will be resistant to the poisons. They make the profits and the farmers are happy that he is able to destroy the weeds and pests. But the GM plants invade the surrounding wilderness, interbreed with the natural plants (which the farmer calls weeds), and the weeds too become resistant to the poisons. Invasive GM species also crossbreed, like invasive humans. The businessmen have to make stronger poisons, and also develop new GM plants. France, Germany and other European countries have already banned the genetically modified corn 'Mon810 Bt'.
If man really becomes an aesthete, if he really learns to appreciate the natural beauty around him, to write or read beautiful poetry about nature, to paint or play music, if man really embraces the Arts, he will stop destroying nature, and stop becoming an invasive animal. Then our children too will be able to hear the singing of the birds and see the beauty of the butterflies and flowers, and taste the natural sweetness of a fresh fruit.
The Times had written to several famous authors asking them "What is wrong with the world today?" They received one reply,
Yours, G. K. Chesterton."
This is reported in the American Chesterton Society website, but they also mention they do not have any records to confirm it. The fact is that one hundred years later, people are still talking about Chesterton's reply to The Times, and also talking about his book, whenever anything horrible happens around the world, even though Chesterton would have addressed his book to the 'gentlemen' of England.
I have always loved reading Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and thought of sharing a few gems from his book "What is Wrong with the World" (1910), which he had originally thought of calling, "What is Wrong".
"We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing. We should not by any means all admit that an active aristocracy would be a good thing." - The aristocracy he meant a century ago is all dead and gone. Instead the society has produced a more evil, more harmful culture where politicians have taken over. But in this case too, a lazy political culture is less harmful than an active culture, because they would be too greedy, and would be in too much of a hurry, which is always more damaging.
"We all can see national madness; but what is national sanity?" He posed the question. - Today we see national madness all over the world, but humanity has survived so far because it was only a madness and mad people cannot do much harm. But national sanity could annihilate mankind, because sane people are more methodical in their acts of destruction, and can easily wipe off the rest of the people, while destroying themselves.
"Compromise used to mean that half a loaf was better than no bread. Among modern statesmen it really seems to mean that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf." - There may have been statesman during Chesterton's time. But today we have mostly politicians, who try to offer a whole loaf for the people when they beg for their votes, but once they come to power, they enjoy cake, while taking away even the half a loaf the people had.
"I do not object to Socialism because it will revolutionize our commerce, but because it will leave it so horribly the same." he wrote. - Commerce, which began to control agriculture and industry has been the curse of mankind, which means a minority has always exploited the majority, in every field of human activity.
Some truths he has mentioned in "What is Wrong With the World?" stand forever.
"The classes that wash most are those that work least." - The hardworking class cannot afford to worry about his sweat or soiling his hands and clothes with mud and oil and even his own blood, as he continues to toil to earn a morsel of food for his family. It is only the idle, who does not have to sweat except when they exercise, and does not have to touch soil, oil or anything that could contaminate them, but who would always be washing, using soap and disinfectants, all the time.
"Cleverness shall be left for men and wisdom for women. For cleverness kills wisdom; that is one of the few sad and certain things." - Today when some women try to outdo the men in being clever, they too contribute to kill wisdom, because many of them want to show off, or they try to imitate men. Chesterton has much more to say about women.
"The woman does not work because the man tells her to work and she obeys. On the contrary, the woman works because she has told the woman to work and he hasn't obeyed." - Chesterton, knowingly or unknowingly confirms that it was the woman who domesticated man in the beginning.
"...the woman stands for the idea of Sanity; that intellectual home to which the mind must return after every excursion on extravagance.....much of what is called her subservience and even her pliability, is merely the subservience and pliability of a universal remedy; she varies as medicines vary, with the disease. She has to be an optimist to a morbid husband, a salutary pessimist to the happy-go-luck husband......when men wish to be safely impressive, as judges, priests or kings, they do wear skirts, the long, trailing robes of female dignity. The whole world is under petticoat government; for even men wear petticoats when they wish to govern."
"He (man) claims the right to take his Mother nature under his control; he claims the right to make his child the Superman, in his image. Once flinch from this creative authority of man, and the whole courageous raid which we call civilization wavers and falls to pieces."
At the start of the book, Chesterton says, "I have called this book 'What is wrong with the world?' What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right."
However in 2001 Dewitt Jones produced the short film "What is Right With the World" and then he had started a Facebook page, 'Celebratewhatisright', where many people from all over the world have posted photos of what they believe is right in this world. He wanted to show the world how to approach this "with confidence, grace and celebration". The film can be watched online at http://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/48/17613
That is what we need anyway, after we read Chesterton, to watch the film by Dewitt and begin to think positive, and to look at what is right with the world.
Adi sasa-lapa se suki[du]hu sad-madale
Pavatu va-dahasak ek [da]vasak se mene[hi] ma (Sigiri graffiti 135)
"May (you) remain for a thousand years, like the figure of the hare, which the King of the Gods painted on the orb of the moon; (but that is) like one day in my mind." (Paranavithana translation) This was written more than a thousand years before Einstein proposed his Theory of Relativity. When time is relative, it is impossible to measure it, and clocks are of no use.
The clock should never have been invented. It has turned man into a machine, or we could say man has been enslaved by the clock. We wake up by the clock, eat, drink, work, play, dream, and then sleep by the clock. The only things that do not obey the clock are our birth and death. Not only have we become slaves of the clock, but we are trying to control lives of animals and plants and even nature by the clock.
It is one more cause for the disease called civilization. Among mankind, all the stress, frustrations, pain and suffering is because we have to watch the clock, all the time. We have to race against time. We have to meet deadlines, we have to draw timelines and timetables.
Agriculture and agricultural revolution is a mistake, but not as bad as industry and industrial revolution. Like all animals man would have been happy to have lived at complete leisure. The only issue about time would have been night and day, and to a lesser extent the seasons. He would wake up when he felt he had enough sleep, or when he felt hunger or thirst. He would go back to sleep only when he felt the need for sleep, not because he had to have a fixed number of hours for sleep, or not because he had to get up early the next day. He ate when he felt hungry, and not because his parents insisted on three meals a day, and at school or at work, because there were fixed times for tea or lunch.
When nature domesticated the early woman, she went out to gather her food when there was sufficient light in the morning. She would have fed her children when they were hungry. Even when she learned to grow a few vegetables or fruit trees, she did not have to do it at a fixed time of day. She harvested her crop when it was ripe. When she domesticated her man, still she did not prepare a timetable for him.
The woman did not have to record the date and time of birth of her children, or keep track of their age, to wean them, to set them free, or to teach them. When man made his own tools, he did not have to meet deadlines. It is only when man began to outsource, and pay for the services he obtained, the service providers had to meet the time set by his customer. But even then the stone tool maker would not work by the hour, but by days, counted probably by the cycle of the moon.
When some men tried to become more equal than the others, when out of greed one man amassed more wealth, more land and more resources, the less equal men had to serve the needs of the other. That is when exploitation of man by man began, and to squeeze every drop of sweat, blood and tears from the poor, the powerful and the wealthy had to make the others slave for the maximum length of time. That is when he needed a clock, to watch the time. He invented the concept of punctuality, created attendance registers with red lines, then signature clocks and today the biometric time-clocks. We all wear wristwatches, diamond studded or gold plated, we have the time on our phones, and wall and table clocks all over the office and the house, but we in our country are not concerned about punctuality, except when a time has been decided as auspicious.
The concept of time is a contradiction for most of us today. We either do not have the time, time is too short, and we are killing time, or do not know what to do with our time. Just as an example, we rush to the airport three hours before departure time, and then kill time till departure, and often kill more hours in transit than the total flying time. But we punish an employee who is five minutes late.
Most of us do not live in the present. Either we are sad about all that has happened in the past and what we have missed, or we are worried about the future, so that we do not have the time to enjoy the present. We are like the modern day tourists who spend all their time taking photographs, that they do not have the time to enjoy the places they are visiting.
Time travel has been used in legend and fiction for several millennia, the earliest probably is in Mahabharata, where king Revaita travels to Dwaraka to meet Brahma, where he had to wait while Brahma listens to a song recital, at the end of which he realizes that on earth 27 chaturyuga (648,000 years) time had passed. Another way of time travel, popularised by H. G. Wells, is to use a Time Machine to travel through time.
Politicians use time, to paint a future paradise and to remind of a past purgatory. Athletes try to beat the time on the track, trying to outrun the others, and most human beings are trying to outrun the rest of mankind from their birth to death.
Let us all find peace of mind. Let us stop the clock. Let us not think of the next micro-second, but only about the next eon or kalpa.
Buddha has returned not only to India but to all of South Asia, through the a book by Prof. Himanshu Prabha Ray. She had titled it 'Return of the Buddha. Ancient Symbols for a New Nation'. I came to know about the book after she had presented a paper at the National Archives, New Delhi, on 'Archaeology of Buddhism in India: Sourcing the Archives', in June 2015. Because I did not have the good fortune to listen to the presentation, I wrote to her requesting a copy of her paper, and she wrote to me that it was based on her book, 'Return of the Buddha'.
Dr. Himanshu Prabha Ray is Professor, Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Among the ongoing research projects undertaken by her is Digital mapping of archaeological sites through satellite imagery, and seafaring and maritime contacts. She is the recipient of many prestigious awards and appointments which include, Member of the Institute of Advanced Study (Princeton), Visiting Professor at North Texas University, Concordia University, and Foundation Maison des Science de L'Homme, visiting research fellow at Asia Research Institute and Shivdasani Fellow at Oxford Center for Hindu Studies.
She says, "The book essentially discusses the material remains of Buddhism, as archaeological sites associated with the life of the Buddha came to be discovered, identified and written about widely....discusses Buddhist imagery as it was created through archaeological investigations, as it entered the field of politics through distribution of relics and how it rose to the surface of visual rhetoric and communicated crucial messages of unity and liberation, as it was firmly enshrined in India's most significant political document, the Constitution of India....also traces their conceptualization within the itihasa purana tradition of the subcontinent that locates continued Buddhist presence in historical consciousness."
Prof. Ray's book is so full of archaeological facts, that this work is not just for the archaeologists and historians, but people all over the world who are interested in the Buddha Dhamma, and the millions of Buddhist pilgrims who visit India. She traces the earliest known pilgrimages to sites associated with the Buddha to the reign of Asoka and "the term stupa first occurs in the Nagalisagara pillar inscription of Asoka in Nepal."
Several years ago, a journalist in Sri Lanka wrote an article about how Buddhism disappeared from India. I had to respond then, that Buddha Dhamma had never disappeared from India, and in fact most Indians, whatever their religious faith was, were true followers of Buddha Dhamma. Prof. Ray reminds us that Independent India accepted the Asoka Chakra and the Sarnath lion capital, as symbols of the new nation.
As I continued reading 'Return of the Buddha', it dawned on me, that there was no need for Buddha to return to India, because Buddha has always been present in India, not only in the religious spaces and statues and paintings, but in the minds of all Indians. All followers of Buddha Dhamma owe their gratitude to Prof. Himanshu Prabha Ray for providing us all this information, and opening our eyes.
A more saddening realization was the devastation which had been caused to Buddhist sacred spaces during the 19th century in the name of archaeological excavations. Though we have to appreciate the contributions made by Cunningham and others for the discoveries they made, we also have to consider the extent of damages they would have caused and all the evidence and artefacts which may have been destroyed or lost to history. Today we cannot consider it as archaeological studies when 30 sites are visited in one season, or a site is excavated in one hour, "..at times these visits ended up as mere object-hunting expeditions where sites were cleared and sculptures and coins collected...Cunningham's primary interest was in relics and relic caskets..." While some of these explorers were only interested in filling up museums, others had even made money by selling the artefacts.
The British too had their own motives to encourage their officers to explore Buddhist sacred spaces. Prof. Ray quotes from Jonathan A. Silk. "Within a British colonial context it was mainly as a counter to the predominant Hindu system in India that the Buddha could be of use. The Buddha thus created was an opponent of caste and of the priestly system, which supported it, an advocate of social reform." Ray added, "The Buddha stood for social reform in the eyes of colonial officials and was thus a potent counter to the prevailing Hindu culture of the nineteenth-century India."
It is also saddening to realize how much more there is to be explored, not only in India, but also in all South Asia, for us to learn of the historical Buddha. The painstaking study done by Prof. Himanshu Ray, is a work that needs translation into Sinhala, perhaps by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, and also into other Indian languages, specially Bengali, Hindi, Oriya and Telugu.
There is a need to have more discussions, conferences and study tours by the people concerned and involved, as she says, "We suggest that the archaeology of Buddhism is a promising field for interdisciplinary study that continues to be under researched, though it can provide deeper insights into the history of Buddha dhamma in South Asia."
It is in this context that the international conference On Archaeology of Buddhism, which was held in Colombo in 2012, organized by the SAARC Cultural Center has to be mentioned. It was a very useful, very timely conference, where the delegates from SAARC countries could share their work and discoveries. It is unfortunate that this discussion could not be continued, after the conference, which could have been kept alive in cyberspace. It is time for the SAARC Cultural center to organize a follow-up conference.
"The Man Booker Prize promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year. The prize is the world's most important literary award and has the power to transform fortunes of authors and publishers" This is how the Daily News Muse article on July 5, 2015 began. This is what Man Booker organizers themselves are claiming.
The British probably believe they still rule the world, for this organization to claim this prize as the world's most important literary award, because the award is restricted to what is "written in English and published in the United Kingdom". They are taking it for granted that the best writings are only in English and they are published in UK, and it is more important than the Nobel Prize for literature.
This is just another business gimmick "the winner and the shortlisted authors (which really means the publishers) now enjoy a dramatic increase in book sales worldwide". In other words they are pushing a few UK publications down the throats of the readers all over the world.
Author Tom Chatfield once said that Aravind Adigar's 'The White Tiger', before been shortlisted had sold less than a 1000 copies, and after the Booker award sales had passed one million. But he also says "Prizes grant opportunities, but their pronouncements remain at the mercy of the reading public and he gives an example, Moshin Hamid's 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' lost the Booker to Kiran Desai's 'The Inheritance of Loss', but far outsold Desai."
Even though betting on Cricket is banned, there is serious widespread betting in UK on the Man Booker. Probably it was the 'Gentleman bookmaker' Ron Pollard who began to call the odds on the Booker, and now people bet on the authors, like they would bet on horses. That is the level book awards have come down to. This betting is even mentioned on the Man Booker website.
Richard Gott, The Guardian Literary Editor called the Booker as an annual pseudo-event. He wrote in 1994, "The handling out of literary prizes is more a toss-up than an exact science - and perhaps should be recognized as such. It is not even a guide to what makes a good read. Its sole justification is to spray a little money in the direction of deserving writers. Prizes are a contemporary form of patronage....May be the error made by the Booker judges over the years has been to try to pretend that their decisions amount to literary judgements - when all they have been doing is to participate in a lottery.....No panel of course is perfect...But their composition can be critical. So who chooses the judges? Who forms the hidden committee that makes this annual choice? " He mentions that "Martyn Goff, a little known second-hand bookseller, clubman and minor novelist, now over 70, administers the prize, helps select the judges, sits in at every meeting, provides the grease that oils the machinery of selection." From 1970 to 2006 Goff had continued as the administrator.
This is a very interesting comment, and food for thought, even for us in Sri Lanka. Our own literary awards, by the Cultural Ministry, Book Publishers Association, Vidudaya and Godage, are scheduled for next month. Who selects the selectors, who decides who are the best judges for this year's awards? Because the final decisions of the awards could easily be manipulated by the selection of the judges. It happened even with Booker, when American writers were not eligible for consideration. It was only last year that the Booker was opened out to writers of any country.
The history of the Man Booker is also interesting reading. It began in 1968 when Booker McConnell offered a literary prize of £ 5,000 for a novel. Bookers had owned almost all the sugar plantations in Guyana by early 19th century and had business interest in many third world countries. "In the 1940s and 1950s, the managing director of the Booker company, Jock Campbell, turned it from an expatriate colonial business with interests mainly in Guyana, into a UK-based company dealing in food distribution, shipping and rum marketing. Campbell had literary interests and a friendship with Ian Fleming and he created an author division of Booker, which purchased the copyright of successful authors like Fleming, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, to create tax loopholes for them and a profit for the company.." (Dinah Birch in 'The Oxford Companion to English Literature'). Today it is Man Booker Award with the investment manager, Man Group as the sponsor. What has investment management to do with literature, unless they are investing in the publishing industry. It is like the infrastructure developer, DSC Group sponsoring the South Asia literary award.
Graeme Harper in 'A Companion to Creative Writing' claims that Tom Maschler, publishing director at Jonathan Cape, also played a key role in the founding of the Booker prize. Interestingly, Jonathan Cape is the publisher with the highest number of winning titles! Another interesting fact was that during the first ten years of the Booker, no one had shown much interest, till William Golding's Rites of Passage (1980) and Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) won the Award.
It reminds us of the statement, "No great writer gains lustre from a Nobel Prize. It is only the Nobel Prize that gains lustre from the recipient - provided the right one has been chosen." said Karl Ragnar Gierow of the Swedish Academy, in his presentation speech on the award of the 1971 Nobel to Pablo Neruda.
Jean Paul Sartre had the guts to turn down the Nobel Prize (1964), and he had consistently denied all official honours, and Truman Capote said "The Nobel Prize, to me, is a joke. They give it year after year to one absolutely non-existent writer after another". It also applies to most Literary Awards around the world.
New York University offers a course, Master of Arts in Arts Politics. "The politics that makes art. The politics that art makes.....Arts politics attends to both formal and informal political processes that bear on the production, dissemination, and reception of the arts. It integrates approaches from the humanities, social sciences, and the arts themselves. It studies governmental and policy processes and the institutional ecology and political economy of the arts. It employs perspectives that understand how to decode cultural meanings, how social movements are formed, and how to read the aesthetic dimension of contemporary politics. Through official patronage and censorship, celebration and loathing, affirmation and critique of prevailing values, art has long been imbricated and implicated in the political. Yet arts politics is never fixed; its historical and cross-cultural variations help us understand what possibilities exist for civically engaged artists working in the present."
Goldsmiths University in London also has a course MA in Art & Politics, "inspired by appeals to situate 'practice' in terms of a variety of contemporary discourses and the increased incorporation of politics and social agendas into art." There are many other universities around the world offering post graduate courses in arts politics.
There has always been art in politics and politics in art. Rulers and politicians have used artists and all art forms to convey their messages and to control and manage the thoughts of their people. Sometimes artists have also used their creative abilities to change the minds or to guide the people in power towards creating a better world.
We may never be able to discover when arts were not political. We have very little information about the pre-historic people who created the art works we have discovered in caves. Perhaps these paintings, and even the palm prints on the cave walls, had carried a message, and some of them could have been political inspired messages.
American philosopher and anarchist Crispin Sartwell wrote, "Every political regime uses the arts for propaganda purposes, consciously deploys the arts to try to shape the consciousness of their populations. And every resistance movement does the same, often with much better aesthetic results than those procured by the state, the arts of which are often gigantical, yet excruciatingly dull." Throughout history there have been rulers who got their artists and engineers to build huge structures, believing them to be works of art, but posterity had seen them as just monuments of megalomania.
Some such constructions are still admired by people, as works of art, and just one example is the Taj Mahal. We also have the Sigiriya complex as our own tourist attraction and recognized as a world heritage site. But such sites also remind us of the pain and suffering of the poor helpless people who would have toiled for years and years, in such constructions. To build the Taj Mahal 20,000 people had shed their sweat, tears and blood for 22 years.
We have also to accept that most arts from our ancient past, which survive till date, were either initiated by those who engaged in politics, or the artists were supported by them, even if the creative works were non-political. Many creative art works too had been destroyed, and sometimes the artists tortured and murdered by those in power, simply because they dared to speak out against tyranny.
A short poem or a few brush strokes could be more effective than a thousand words. That is why very often political leaders use creative writers to write their speeches or their messages. An artist doing a portrait or a sculptor carving a block of stone into a human figure could provide a completely different person. This is not a new development. Claudius was shown as Jupiter, or Alexander riding bucephalus are examples from the past. In ancient times, visual propaganda played a more important role to win the minds of the illiterate. In India, the symbols used by Devanampiya Piyadassi (better known as Asoka), the Chakra and the Sarnath Lion capital, were selected for the new nation. These are examples of the survival of political art.
Political leaders used art as personal adornment to enhance their status, which could be the origin of gold ornaments, crowns and thrones and very expensive clothes had to be created by artists for them. We have the story of the emperor's new clothes. Once money replaced the role of bartering, the leaders stamped their own faces on the coins, which continues till today, in most countries in the new coins and notes. Thus we could also say that some artists and some politician s were interdependent. Their success or failure could depend on their own specialized skills and ideas.
George Orwell, in 'Why I Write' (1946) said, "What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art", and in 'Politics and the English Language', "In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics'. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia."
In Britain Prof. Bernard Crick established The Orwell Prize "for the work which comes closest to George Orwell's ambition 'to make political writing into an art'." Seismopolite is a Norwegian-English quarterly "which investigates the possibility of artists and art scenes worldwide to reflect and influence their local political situation. Recently it carried an article by Prof. Sabine Grosser, 'At the Turn of the Centuries: Art and Politics in Sri Lanka' writing about two artists of the new generation, Chandragupta Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe.
"Literature is political, because we are all political animals", says Oliver Senior, but this is a topic for another day.
Throughout history, many kings and rulers of the world had celebrated their birthdays, in different ways, but mostly to continue with their megalomania. But when a king proclaims his 60th Birth Anniversary celebrations as the Year of Reading for the children of the country, he is really entitled to the title of king. He is not doing it for himself but for his country.
That is what is happening in Bhutan today, the country which measures Gross National Happiness of their people instead of GNP. His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo, told the students, "if they strive to serve the country in the future, look after their parents, and become strong and successful adults, students must gain sound education. You must read about everything around you - not just subjects that interest you. You must learn about current events, history, science, culture and people around the world - the pursuit of knowledge must be lifelong."
They have opened a Facebook page, 'READ Bhutan' and establishing many READ Centers in Bhutan. Dr. Antonia "Toni" Neubauer founded Rural Education And Development, which had started in Nepal in 1991 as 'READ Nepal'. Today there are over 2.1 million rural villagers in 237 villages with access to 80 'READ Centers' in Nepal, India and Bhutan. These READ Centers offer training programs in literacy, livelihood skills, health and technology. They also include adult literacy and women's empowerment programs.
Passang "Passu" Tshering, writer, painter and photographer, wrote about the inauguration of the National Reading Year in Bhutan, "at the end there are only two types of people: the ones who are fortunate enough to read, and others who aren't. All the other differences are therefore connected to this division. I realized this late in life because of where I grew up - a small rural village called Yangthang, in the Haa district of Bhutan, which lacked educational opportunities."
Tshering also wrote, "coming from a farming background, I was rather good at reading the signs in the clouds in the sky or the falling tree-leaves or singing cuckoos. I did not develop the (reading) habit so easily." In Bhutan and in most villages where READ Centers have been established, the children could not read because they did not have the opportunity. Most of the villages did not have libraries, not even schools.
'Room to Read' has set up 1,694 libraries in Sri Lanka since 2005. They had also set up 3,776 libraries in Nepal since 1998. In 2008 they started in Bangladesh and today they have 545 libraries, and in India 6,803 libraries.
India has the 'Read India Read' campaign, with a mission to reach 10 million children across rural India to help them learn enhanced reading skills. Since they started ten years ago in Ahmedabad, they have conducted reading crash courses for more than 350,000 children and adults. They have a program to conduct crash courses for employees in public and private organizations. They are planning to venture into 'Read Asia Read' and then to go for 'Read World Read'.
We in our country have a Literary Month (September) and the Reading Month (October). But unfortunately most activities are limited to these two months only, and very few have the opportunity to participate in these activities. The media support to develop the reading habit among our children is almost non-existent.
It is very difficult to find out the number of books published in Sri Lanka, or statistics on reading, not just books, but even newspapers. Newspaper sales is not an indication. Based on the number of books received by the State Literary Panel, there are around 1700 books published in 2014. The National Archives which receives every book printed in the country does not publish any statistics on their website. The number of Sinhala novels published is only around 150 annually. It is not very often that a publisher prints more than a 1000 copies of a Sinhala novel, or 500 copies of a Sinhala poetry collection, if that could be an indication of the market demand for books, in a country with over 15 million people using Sinhala as their mother tongue, our literacy rate is meaningless.
In India on an average people spend 10.7 hours a week reading. This is in a country with population over one billion, and a literacy rate of only 62, where most people are also addicted to TV (with over a thousand cable TV channels available anywhere), and films. In Sri Lanka though we do not have accurate statistics, it is obvious that most of the people in the country are totally addicted to television, throughout the day. For some people their timetables both at home and place of work, are planned according to the TV schedules. Under such circumstances, trying to promote reading among the majority is next to impossible.
In our country almost all our children have access to schooling, even though some schools do not have even basic facilities. According to UNICEF statistics, in Bhutan total adult literacy rate was 52.8 (2012), 57.4 in Nepal and in India 62.8, while in Sri Lanka it was 91.2. The problem is we do not count our blessings. We have libraries in every corner of the country, all our universities have thousands of books in their libraries, so do most of the schools. Even our parliament has a library with 34,000 books for our members of parliament. How many of the books in the libraries of the universities, schools, the parliament and other institutions are used today is what we have to find out.
It is so unfortunate that we have such a high literacy rate, so many opportunities to read, yet most of us are not interested in reading anything. Before we go on establishing any new libraries, let us have a campaign for people to use the books in the libraries we already have.