Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Primal Media Musing

The socio-cultural beat may not be as enticing as politics or business, but the beliefs and practices embedded in our culture are far too consequential to overlook

Dharma Adhikari
One area that I am dangerously impaired is in the visual literacy of the ancient type. I find it difficult to grasp even a formulaic understanding of primal media objects, symbols or designs that pervade our culture. The ubiquity of these media means that the more they are around us the less able we are to see them for what they really are.

I'm not talking about the shapes, sizes or properties of space as postulated by Euclid or Descartes. But geometrical figures—as part of our formal school curriculum—appear more familiar than our ancient yantra, chakra, swastika, mandala or Om symbols that remain missing from our mainstream academic syllabi. These, no doubt, could offer a rich trove of material for the resurging field of design. Unfortunately, that is not happening.

Growing up, I used to be mystified by the diversity and even absurdity of everyday images. The pooja samagri in my father's altar included an assortment of sankha, chakra, many-headed/handed gods and goddesses, including fossil shaligram stones. Unless I was asked to clean those objects, I would maintain a solemn distance from them. I used to get filled with a mysterious apprehension every time I held a shaligram, or tried to remove the greenish tarnish from copper and brass idols. I was never fully engaged. The gulf between these objects and my perception of them was simply too wide.

Some god or goddess poster invariably adorned our walls, as they do many homes today. Of the many mental shots of visually enduring images that I came to store in my subconscious one is the incredibly beautiful and creative yantra patterns that my priest father created out of white flour, around havan kunda (fire altars). But those images, never fully processed, remain forever locked in my mind, almost devoid of context and meaning. Nobody, neither my parents nor my academic institutions, bothered to help me unlock their mysteries.

What have these crude images done to my mind, my psyche? How have they affected my perceptions of reality?

No other culture may rival our ancient visual overload, still sustained in the forms of phallic mounds, erotic wooden carvings, Buddhist mani stones, and paubas, to name a few. Add to these the 12th century murals archaeologists recently unearthed on the walls of the Riteseling Cave in remote Mustang. Such is the burden we carry in our mind. And yet I was able to learn little, for conformity is a given and rituals don't entertain hard questions. The primal media objects merely served as metaphors for something otherworldly, phantasmal and unsettled. With 330 million deities to turn to, it's impossible to stop your head from spinning.

A while back, I wrote a column in this space describing the pain in explaining to children why we have many-handed goddesses, and other gods with elephant trunks and serpents around their necks. The extension of frontal limbs and augmentations are integral to the evolution of Homo sapiens. That was an old-fashioned media literacy topic. Since then, similar questions have arisen concerning the extended field of media as subsuming everything from language, iconography, paraverbal communication, typography, graffiti, drumbeats, smoke signals to new technologies.

The beauty of this area is that despite the quickening pace of development, Nepal still preserves the hybridity of media forms, from primal to modern. And yet, despite their gift of mental indentation, these media forms receive little critical scrutiny. We have done little to uncover our history of pigeon post, human messengers, or Narasingha trumpets.

These primal media objects—as codes or symbols or culture—have acted, for the most part, like emoticons; they are there to incite some feelings and sentiments but rarely do they stir thinking and reflection. They attract and engage some local and foreign researchers, but most natives remain oblivious of their deeper meanings and implications. Increasingly, Santa Claus and St. Valentine make more sense than Krishna or Mahakali.

The media scholar Neil Postman wrote many year ago that media are like metaphors; they never provide a clear message, but only define reality in a certain way, subject to interpretations.

In Goddesses of Kathmandu Valley: Grace, Rage and Knowledge, an extensively researched and beautifully written monograph, Arun Gupto describes an interpretive situation. While at Jagannath temple in Puri, India, Professor Shreedhar Lohani asked him this question: who is great, the supreme [gods] or the artist who dares to change the gods into puppets? Gupto writes that he gave two answers; one to Professor Lohani, to him he replied "the artist evidently"; "the interpreter," was the second answer Gupto gave, to himself, silently.

Questioning leads to interpretations. But media's charming effect on the audience can render them passive. Jean Baudrillard went to the extent of describing the media as external demigods, "the idols of the mind" because they seduce the audience or users to produce a reified consciousness.

The many heads and many hands defy human logic. And the primordial idols of the mind are a dangerous reality in a superstition-ridden society like ours where instances of witchcraft, untouchablity, human sacrifice, often in the name of gods or goddesses, still make headlines. A deeper public conversation on such topics and a social journalism anchored in rational interpretations can help ameliorate the situation.

For journalists, the socio-cultural beat may not be as enticing as politics or business, but the beliefs and practices embedded in our culture are consequential, and too complex to overlook. The primal media forms, through language, metaphors and symbols, helped the ancients to overcome the tyranny of nature and its delusions, and to communicate with others. As social contexts change, these media forms merit new interpretations.

Gupto's Goddesses, for example, is an excellent reference reading for journalists reporting on culture and society. It probes many questions concerning the Devi culture in Nepal and South Asia: Why are there so many forms of goddesses? Why have they grown in numbers and become more popular? How do the Kathmandu Valley arts represent goddesses? How do the goddesses' attributes of grace, rage and knowledge often overlap and relate with beauty? How does the goddess culture illuminate feminism and ecology?

The author offers fascinating insights into these topics. Despite deeply entrenched patriarchy, the female deities far surpass the males and defy gender binary in their various attributes. Discussion of commodification of goddess culture in popular media representations and tech-aided body alternations also make this work relevant to our times.

The book does not force any particular narrative, but provides multiple interpretations and even a personal touch. For instance, I was able to see that Ambika, Bhagawati, Ganga, Chandra, and Aditi, members of my extended family, are all named after important goddesses.

We need more such works, perhaps a volume focused on gods, to demystify more media objects and seemingly complex cultures. A translated version of the book, in Nepali or other vernacular, would be even more useful.

Our media reinforce the goddess culture, with their coverage on Durga, Kali, Saraswati, Kumari, and many others. These primal media forms have themselves become important content for our modern media—print, broadcast or online. This internal hybridity of media poses another challenge to our perception of reality.

Published in Republica, 3 May 2016