What Hero Alom may lack in talent or tact, he more than makes up with his keen instinct for self-merchandising. His “art” is an exercise in mockery, faux aesthetics, and narcissistic self-indulgence. He serves as an agent provocateur of low taste and high cheekiness.
However, he manages to remain in the public eye and continues to be discussed. For a public performer, that outcome is the most coveted reward.
What explains him, and his persistence in the “news”? First, he cloaks himself in the mantle of the common man, a populist counter-point to the dominance of a snobby and incestuous cultural establishment. He has a shrewd understanding of the way “high culture” is presented, commodified and consumed, and the intellectual pretentions and social posturing of the “culture vultures” who are generally perceived as looking down upon others with disdain if not contempt. The alienated “hoi polloi” become his obvious constituency.
Ironically, some of his supposedly “progressive” defenders (demonstrating some rhetorical excess and stretchy logic) who have recently extoled him as a symbol of resistance and subversion against the hegemony of the dominant elite and hence provoking their wrath, fall into the trap of victimhood he has cleverly set for them. He is no more a class hero than Trump is a constitutional scholar, or Modi a spiritual healer.
Second, in his latest venture (improbably, as a Tagore “artiste”) he exploits the political polarisation in the country. Rabindranath is a contested presence, lionised and appropriated by people of some political persuasions, disfavoured and opposed by a few others. Thus, when he is reduced to no more than an amusing figure that can be mangled, distorted, and snickered at, then the second group feels vindicated and emboldened.
Third, he is as much as a product of his times as he is an active agent of its dynamic. The current “social media” environment, given its obsession with cheap humour and immediate gratification, is perfectly suited to his kitschy and tacky interventions, which consist mostly of cheesy videos in which sexism and titillation are more apparent than musical virtue.
Moreover, most public engagements today, which may even include teaching, academic presentations, political protest or national celebrations, have become high theatre, a performance art, a set of attention-grabbing media events which emphasises “chamak” (style, gimmickry, entertainment) rather than substance, merit or value. This is Hero Alom’s natural habitat.
There is a different consideration. First, he may be seen as part of a universal fixture located in many periods and cultures. Most villages had an idiot, most courts a jester, most eras a fool, most classes a clown, most Raja Krishnachandras, a Gopal Bha(n)rr. They provided comic relief and necessary distractions, offered pithy advice and folk wisdom, personified the common man. They were innocent, endearing and socially useful.
Fourth, in the West, there is a rich tradition of the comic as social critic (Charlie Chaplin, George Carlin, etc.) leading, more recently, to “outsider” humourists like Sacha Baron Cohen or the late Andy Kaufman. They would play different roles as imposters and pranksters (Cohen pretended to be a serious journalist, a politician, or a representative of different cultures, Kaufman acted as an Elvis impersonator, a professional wrestler or political commentator). The roles they caricatured were the “joke” which they inflicted on the public with a straight face. Their buffoonery, such as it was, satirised the fads and foibles of American popular culture with savage glee.
But our Hero lacks the wit, imagination or appetite to be socially relevant. He is hardly an anti-hero, or counter-cultural icon, or a comedic seer of his time. If he had performed the “lungi dance” in front of the Cineplex to register protest at the humiliation of an elderly patron for wearing it, he would have at least garnered some praise for the courage and innovation he had demonstrated.
But, all he cares for, and peddles, is himself. He simply “is”, and what there is appears to be rather little. In the words of Gertrude Stein – there is no “there”, there.
The latest brouhaha surrounding him, and some support and sympathy he has generated because of it, is not because of anything that he had accomplished, but what was done to him.
He rendered a Tagore composition, in his typically limp style, bad pronunciation, and tonal disarray. Some outrage was entirely expected. But what was flabbergasting and unprecedented is the fact that the police became involved, hauled him to the station, interrogated him for almost eight hours, and forced him to sign a “muchleka” (a bond or guarantee) that he would not sing Tagore or Nazrul songs anymore. As Hamlet would say, “ay, there is the rub”, or as Lady Chatterley’s gardener would put it, “what the f…”?
Under what authority can the police make such a demand and compel its acceptance? Since when did they become arbiters of cultural taste? Are they trained in such matters? Will they extend their authority over other cultural productions (poems, plays, dance), or other performers, with the police becoming quality control enforcers sitting in judgment over them? Does the constitution permit this unwarranted and unexpected extension of their jurisdiction? Does the example of other countries serve as a model and justification for this behaviour? Are there historical precedents in our own?
The sheer absurdity, if not the audacity, of the police, reaches Orwellian proportions, and sends chills down the spines of all citizens, particularly the artistic/cultural/intellectual community.
The police may argue that Tagore is “different”. He is located within the cultural and political landscape of the country, integral to its struggles for identity and liberation. Moreover, his musical oeuvre is unique and non-replicable with universal brand-name recognition. Millions identify with his music and are inspired by it. Courses, departments, academies, and even universities are dedicated to ensure that standards of notational accuracy, stylistic integrity, and presentational dignity are consistently maintained. To offer his music in a callous or distorted manner is not merely an example of shabby taste, but an affront to his image, cause, and heritage. It is difficult to tolerate or forgive. Therefore, stopping him is justifiable.
The point is powerful, but irrelevant. Music is a creative process and does not follow or need professional certification protocols. It may be possible, perhaps necessary, to ignore him, condemn him, even mount a campaign against him. But no one can deprive him of his right to sing simply because s/he disapproves of the quality of his voice, his style or musical ability.
In Brandenburg vs. Ohio (1969), the US Supreme Court observed that the accused, a notorious leader of the KKK who had made vile and vicious remarks against Blacks and Jews, was patently stupid in his position and language. But the ruling suggested that he has that right (i.e., to be stupid). The First Amendment does not merely protect nice and acceptable speech, but also opinions and words that some may deem silly, ugly or hateful. Society can (and should) reject him, the laws cannot. The same principle applies to our Hero.
However, he may have the last laugh after all. He can always point out that that if he is so bad, why does he have so many followers? And further, why am I wasting my time writing about him? TOUCHE!!!
Dr Ahrar Ahmad is professor emeritus at Black Hills State University in the US, and director general of Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation in Dhaka.