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High and dry

Published : Oct 9, 2016, 10:32 pm IST
Updated : Oct 9, 2016, 10:32 pm IST

Performing artists bust the myth that all art is not a by-product of being under the influence

Imaad Shah and Ira Dubey in the movie, M Cream. (Representational image)
 Imaad Shah and Ira Dubey in the movie, M Cream. (Representational image)

Performing artists bust the myth that all art is not a by-product of being under the influence

‘What are you on, bro ’ or ‘How high are you’ are just some of the odd questions every creative artist has had to face at some time or the other in their career. The question becomes even resonant when the artists’ fans-slash-sceptics assume that it must have been the external stimulation of some psychoactive substance that helped them create their art.

Last week, stand up darling Biswa Kalyan Rath wrote a long post on his Facebook, expressing his contention with such assumptions. He asserted that the stereotype that an artist must be ‘high’ to produce art stems from cultural bias that they are eternally unsatisfied humans; that it’s the pain and dissatisfaction meeting the drugs within the creator that makes art what it is. He also lashed out at this stereotype stopping parents from letting their children consider any for of art to be a serious profession.

“This is an age-old romanticism attached to drugs and any creative arts,” explains Girish ‘Bobby’ Talwar, founding member of city band, Zero, talking about Biswa’s argument. “I’m allergic to smoke, so I never indulged in any kind of drugs. But earlier, I used to have dreadlocks down to my waist and people would assume that I was always high,” he says with a shrug, adding that he didn’t take these assumptions too seriously. “Generally people associate music with drugs to only one kind of music. No one ever says: Sex, Drugs and Jazz. It always has to be Rock n’ Roll. You’d also not hear people talking about alcoholics. I know Hindustani classical musicians who would perform drunk onstage, but people don’t have much problem with such things. It’s also hypocritical how having bhaang on Holi is okay, but if someone has it on some other day, the society will look at you differently.”

Although substance abuse of rock and rollers are stuff of legends, jazz musicians and certain school of writers from New York have been historically known be heroin addicts. Most, however, have gone on to regret their decisions. Stand up comic Kenneth Sebastian agrees with Biswa. “Art shouldn’t always be linked to substance. I don’t smoke or drink. Also I take my stage performance very seriously, to the point where I make sure I have had adequate sleep so I have enough focus on stage,” he says, talking about his own routine. While he points to internal strengths of artists, he also adds that such assumptions from his fans don’t affect him much. “If I had to get affected by what society says, I wouldn’t have pursued the performing arts as a career,” he smiles.

Musician, Randolph Correia accepts that there’s some element of glamour attached to drugs. “Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll happened before anyone knew it here. If they think they become cool after doing drugs and if there are people who like Bob Marley and be like him onstage, then I don’t have a problem and I don’t think anyone else should. However, for me, performing on stage is a very important affair. So I make a point that I am 100 per cent sober on stage. I look at it as my job and I better not f*** around. We’re professionals here,” he says. “But if someone asks if you’re high and do you play your music, I would just take it as a kind of compliment and move on,” he adds.

In the history of music, especially the popular and rock and roll genres, several substance-induced works have reached legendary status, especially, the striking shifts in The Beatles’ discography. On the other hand, drugs have ruined some of the best musical collaborations like John Cale and Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground.

Writers and poets have also spoken heavily of drugs and have been much celebrated — from Samuel Coleridge, and his later regret, to William S. Burroughs, to closer home with Jeet Thayil. A younger poet from Mumbai, Mihir Chitre believes that there are other elements that could provide for a better impetus on the creative adventure. “Have I created anything under the influence of an external stimulant, yes. But has it been up to the mark, not really. If you think about it, tragedy and pain could as well be a stimulant. Or, for that matter, any experience or memory of your life can be a stimulant. There are infinite possible experiences that can give you the motivation to write, produce or create something,” he says.

“One of the biggest writers of all times, Ernest Hemingway, wrote everything under the influence of alcohol. Alcohol had become a part of his personality.

Whatever little I have written under the influence of alcohol hasn’t been the best of me. The most one can get is a brilliant line, but getting a complete piece of prose or poetry under the influence of an external stimulant seems difficult. I mean, coming from personal experience, it requires a lot of editing and reworking. I don’t think there is anything wrong with associating pain with the creative process, but drugs and psychoactive substances isn’t right,” he concludes. Or as Jeet would introspect in his book of poems, These Errors Are Correct: What was the point of it / Time squashed flat / Nothing now to know / or remember but the dirty taste.

With inputs from Pooja Salvi