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DEEPANJANA PAL
CULTURE MULCHER

Deepanjana Pal is books editor at DNA

Justice Katju, the performance artist? What else could it be?

Artist Nikhil Chopra

he chairman of the Press Council of India, Markandey Katju, recently pronounced Salman Rushdie to be a "poor writer". The chairman has read "some" of Rushdie's work and that's enough for him to come to a conclusion about Rushdie's literary abilities, thank you very much. Katju is a retired judge after all. If he can't make judgements, who can? Literary critics? Pshaw. Those stooges of Britannia (no, not the biscuit company but the once-imperial heavyweight, Great Britain). Lest you think Katju is dismissive of literature from foreign lands, the chairman clarified that certain Western authors are worthy of discussion. His list of permissible literary figures included Charles Dickens, G.B. Shaw, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Pablo Neruda. Now there's a man who is up to date with his reading.

I've read Katju's comments about India's "so-called educated Indians" who suffer from a "colonial inferiority complex" about 10 times now, and with every reading I'm convinced that Markandey Katju is not, as they used to say in the '90s, for real. He's a performance art project. Trust me. I'm an art critic. I've seen this sort of hoodwinking of the public before. Tejal Shah looked remarkably masculine when she pretended to be a young man performing a morning shave in a video work. Nikhil Chopra has convinced people in a number of cities around the world that he is an aristocratic woman in an elaborate Elizabethan gown. He even shaved off his eyebrows to perfect the illusion. Perhaps the most popular of contemporary performance artists is actor Sasha Baron Cohen, who transformed himself into a Kazakh man called Borat and goaded the government of Kazakhstan into placing an advertisement in The New York Times that explained Borat was not really representative of the nation. Placed alongside such examples, Katju's attacks against India's literati finally make sense.

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Katju is not, as they used to say in the ‘90s, for real. He’s a performance art project. Trust me. I’m an art critic.

Because surely Katju isn't serious when he describes the author who has won the Booker of Bookers as "sub-standard"? He can't really believe that India's literati is under the colonial yoke after 65 years of independence? Or that the "mental level" of India's intellectuals has felt no impact of postcolonial theory – whose leading figures include 'desis' like Padma Bhushan Homi Bhabha – even though it has scorched its way through literary criticism in the twentieth century?

There's such delicious irony in Katju accusing Rushdie fans of suffering from a colonial hangover, given Rushdie is one of the first writers to gleefully Indianise English. From Satyajit Ray's Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne to Amitabh Bachchan, it's all in Rushdie's writing. He's the man who coined HUGME (an acronym for the multilingual mix heard in Mumbai; it's short for Hindi Urdu Gujarati Marathi English) and used it nimbly in his writing.

In fact, when Katju holds up Dickens as an author worth revering and criticises Rushdie's English, Katju reveals how colonial and antiquated his own understanding is. Both English and literature have evolved beyond the nineteenth-century novel, but not for Markandey Katju. His notion of good writing is fixed in a colonial mould. Katju is unable to see how postcolonial writers have transformed English from a foreign language into one that Katju himself uses to be understood across the linguistic variety that is India. In the twentieth century, English became a bona fide Indian language. It may have been introduced to us by colonisers but it was manipulated into a local product. It's thanks to authors like Rushdie that English has been forced to expand and accommodate sounds, words and stories from worlds that Dickens, Shaw and Tolstoy rarely acknowledged in their writing.

The whole point of performance art is to provoke thought, and to that end, Katju, with his recent ridiculous statements, has been reasonably successful. This is commendable because Katju's had stiff competition from those baying for Jeremy Clarkson and Jay Leno's blood. Who knew the government of India was such a champion of performance art? Of course the trouble is that it now falls upon the rest of us to ensure that these antics aren't what end up defining contemporary India.

 
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