The Moment of the Applause


The Moment

Still from Pyaasa, 1957.


Appreciation of artwork is always situated in, and partly an expression of, a cultural context. And there are different cultural contexts, and, within these, different languages of appreciation. Certain milieus make room for visceral, spontaneous responses and others for a certain refinement—knowing, say, when to laugh or when to applaud. I get the impression that the latter is especially important in performances of Western classical music. People are silent as they listen. They don’t generally shake their heads or gasp with pleasure during the recital, but they must at least know when the piece has ended, and when—and how much—to applaud. Concerts of popular music, on the other hand, are often, as we know, propelled by the audience’s response—a response that’s at once visible and (at times deafeningly) audible. The joke that Joni Mitchell made to the audience in 1974—“No one said to Van Gogh, Paint a starry night again, man!”—was a rueful admission about the way audience intervention could shape the pop-rock-folk concert.

In the North Indian baithak, or soiree, the visceral, the unpremeditated, and the refined converged. The listener, too, was a participant. The Hindi word baithak relates literally to baithna, or “sitting,” and implied a far smaller space than an auditorium. It sometimes encompassed the middle-class drawing room, in which culture was often showcased in India. There were overlaps between the North Indian baithak and the Urdu mehfil, which was associated with performance and recitation. I use the past tense here because the smaller spaces, and the cultural lineage they sprang from, have been vanishing for decades. In the baithak or mehfil, the informed listener’s response followed the development of the performance like the live and changing thing it was. Appreciation expressed at the right moments—when a sense of beauty was created, say, by a note being deliberately elided in a raga—demonstrated generosity and knowledge, and both were important to a classical performer. The performer articulated a creative transformation of the melodic mode, the raga, and took liberties with the time signature. The informed listener needed to also have mastery over these time signatures and modes in order to be struck by the recital’s creative departures. One of the stock expressions of appreciation, still often used today, is the exclamation wah!, which is a nonsense word that has to be earned: it is the cognoscenti’s astonishing! or well done! It’s the paradoxical sound of informed wonder (paradoxical because the seemingly spontaneous utterance is the result of years of training and exposure, like great music itself).

The culture I’m speaking of is a predominantly Muslim one. It may have originated in the Mughal court, where the aristocracy—whatever forms of rule or misrule they were otherwise perpetrating—were often great aficionados of music. Some of the kings were themselves practitioners. The appreciation heard at music recitals could—and still can—also be heard at Urdu mushairas, or poetry recitations, where the delicate form of the ghazal is applauded at every development in its conceit with a kind of informed hyperexcitement. The ghazal’s form is poised for surprised and periodic approbation. It’s basically a riff in couplets, structured ab, cb, db, eb, to infinity. The second lines in the couplets echo each other through a mixture of rhyme and repetition in phrasing. For instance, “wait to go home” in line 2 might be followed by “opened the gate to go home” in line 4, and “too late to go home” in line 6. This mix of arrest and development can be verbally ingenious and emotionally, conceptually profound. Some of the contemporary vocabulary of response originates, surely, from the mushaira: “Kya kahne!” and “Kya baat!,” both meaning, essentially, “beautifully said.” But the lineage of appreciative utterance goes further back, into classical, Sanskrit India, to the figure of the rasik (literally “taster”), who was trained to spot beauty when he encountered it and had the language to make it known to the performer when he had done so. What the rasik is tasting is the rasa of the artwork. Rasa means “juice,” and the concept is central to Bharata’s Natya Shastra, a treatise on music and performance that dates back to 200 B.C.E. Rasa denotes an aesthetic component which Abhinavagupta, a later philosopher, would say takes performance beyond entertainment into a kind of experiential bliss. In other words, the rasik is not only expressing admiration but is engaged in delectation—a private, and to an extent a physical, experience.

The director and actor Guru Dutt (1925–64), who worked in Bombay with scriptwriters and lyricists who belonged to the world of the mushaira, came to know and represent this North Indian ethos well. Dutt wasn’t North Indian himself: he was born in Bangalore, in South India, but grew up partly in Calcutta in the east, and then lived in Bombay in the west, where he became successful in popular Hindi cinema (which, in the seventies, would come to be called Bollywood). He was an exceptional artist; the foremost among a handful of directors who would bring to the commercial Bombay movie a luminosity of imagery and specific aesthetic preoccupations with the cinematic language: they either employed, or themselves were, terrific editors and cinematographers. Dutt began exuberantly as a filmmaker; his early films are comedies. But “thereof in the end [came] despondency and madness.” His last two films as a director, Pyaasa (The Thirsty One), released in 1957, and Kagaz ke phool (Paper Flowers), which fared dreadfully at the box office in 1959, are at once extraordinarily beautiful and utterly disillusioned with success, with the ethos I’ve just described, of appreciation and response. Pyaasa’s hero is a melancholic poet, Vijay (played by Dutt), a writer of the ghazal, who is duped by his friends, mistakenly assumed to be dead, and, in effect, robbed of his literary oeuvre. The song he sings at the end (at a function at which he, presumed dead, is being commemorated by friends and admirers, and his ghazals celebrated) is by the lyricist and poet Sahir Ludhianvi. Its lines are about Sahir’s disgust with the mushaira’s empty approbation, and with Dutt’s alienation from a world for which the mushaira was a metaphor: “This world of mansions and power and crowns, / this world that’s an enemy of the human, / this world of customs full of avarice, / this world—what would I do with it if I had it?” Dutt himself died shortly after, in 1964, from a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol.

The moment I’m concerned with comprises a subtle undermining and occurs earlier in the film. It’s one of a series of moments leading to Dutt-Sahir-Vijay’s ultimate disenchantment. Vijay has strayed into a mushaira at the house of his rich friend, who’s now married to Vijay’s old flame. A bunch of poets have gathered. The room is full. Despite being unintroduced, Vijay begins to sing his ghazal’s lines (the ghazal was often sung, unaccompanied, by poets): “What kind of people were those, I wonder, / whose love was returned? / When I asked for flowers / I was given a garland of thorns.” The camera’s pan is meant to reveal the old flame’s distress, but it also captures how the song transfixes the room. When Vijay finishes, there’s a pause as the background music fades—hardly noticeable, it’s so transient—when anything might happen: because the viewer already feels the gathering is in an unnaturally still and awakened state, and a transformation is on the verge of being generated. A man disturbs the strange composure by exclaiming, “Bhai wah wah! Bahut khub! Bahut achhe! Subha … ” All these are encomiums, assertions of how extraordinary the song is. The last word, “Subhanallah,” another term of praise, meaning “God is perfect,” is never completed because the others shut up the appreciator. How do they do this? Not by telling him to stop or disagreeing with him but by simply looking away and resuming their conversation. The moment of resumption is the moment of reestablishing normality. It overlooks the extraordinary, which had cast its spell on the room, not by refuting it, but by behaving as if it never existed. Nothing has happened, the reaction implies. There is no artist here. We have experienced nothing unusual.

I have always found Dutt’s account of how the closing down occurs—the opposite, that is, of the opening up that the Wah! expresses—perspicacious, unsparing, and moving. People don’t only reject the artwork and the artist by criticizing them unjustly; often, they simply don’t recognize their existence. Dutt is not interested in the critical move, which casts a good artwork as a bad one, but in the ontological one, which says, What are you talking about? I didn’t notice anything. This is done by returning to the hum of normality. It takes away the artist’s identity in a way that Dutt dramatizes in a more tortured, literal way later in the film.

In Dutt’s view, Vijay is abnormal not only because he’s greatly gifted but because he doesn’t fit in inside that room. Vijay has no coterie. In a moment, we discover how the immediacy of the mushaira’s reaction is overwhelmed by its intolerance of the stranger—it knows how to approve and embrace, and how to look away.


Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, essayist, poet, and musician. His seventh novel, Friend of My Youth, will be published in the U.S. by New York Review Books in early 2019.