Chalta Hai: An Aesthetics of Neglect in South Asian Performing Arts

This post participates in the Future Initiative’s ongoing theme “Care.”

The word “care” has, during the last decade, become more prominent and varied in usage in academic and social justice circles. Sometimes, care is an object of study; to care is to “care for” beneficiaries (Alber and Drotbohm 2015), while at other times care shapes disciplinary practice; e.g., an “ethics of care” (Cheng 2016). Care is often motivated by sentiment, which may be unsurprising considering the word’s etymological origins: Old English caru (“sorrow, anxiety, grief”) and Proto-Germanic karō (“lament”). Yet, care is more than sympathetic sentiments because, through care, inward feelings are made actionable. To care is to will to act.

Sound bears upon the possibilities of care in unique ways – in the capacity for sound to interface between an individual’s sense of interiority and the external world. Sound is therefore an opportune means for cultivating emotionally-charged ideas and mobilizing feelings into acts of care.

Denise Gill uses the term “sonic generosity” to describe the duties of washers who care for the bodies of refugees who died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea (Gill 2019). Washers internalize the roles of surrogate “last family members” as they pray, lament, and perform quiet gestures to honor the deceased. The term sonic generosity is also deployed, albeit differently, by Jim Sykes to describe Sri Lankan musics performed as gifts to deities. Music is reciprocally exchanged for protection and healing (Sykes 2018).

In both accounts, sonic generosity serves to differentiate the identities of giver and receiver. Regardless of how caregivers and care-recipients feel, generosity fulfills conditions necessary to reproduce social life. The performance of care plays an important role in social cohesion, particularly during times of crisis; however, the means to care may be uneven and finite. Might non-care also have a social function; that is, the performance of apathy, neglect, and disinterest?

For Kant, disinterest constitutes a heightened form of aesthetic appreciation that transcends the affects (Kant 1790/2013). While care constructs social difference (Thelen 2021), disinterest may be a tactic of social avoidance – of partitioning emotions, mitigating risk, and even immobilizing oneself. For the socially downward, particularly in South Asia, individual acts of apathy might be seen as a way of coping with sarkari apathy (“state apathy”) (Majumder 2016); in other words, a “weapon of the weak” (Scott 1985).

Anna Morcom’s Illicit Worlds of Indian Dance describes how, through British colonialism, South Asian tawaifs (courtesans) were systematically marginalized from their status as keepers of performing arts repertoires. Morcom discusses how the tawaifs’ contemporary analog are bar dancers, whose sense of hopelessness and lack of opportunity translate to unenthusiastic performances (Morcom 2013). Gregory Booth’s Brass Baja examines Indian marching bands, a vestige of British colonial brass bands, who now perform in the streets, at weddings, and during festivals. According to Booth, the cacophonous and chaotic nature of the music is often attributed to lack of skill, both a consequence and necessity of the musicians’ impure and low status (Booth 2017).

For these marginalized musicians, disinterest is a performance of non-performance. Disinterest is a marker employed to distinguish oneself from their surroundings and regulate self-sovereignty. Disinterest and neglect are both an enactment and confirmation of social status, even if hegemonic. Disinterest is encapsulated in the Hindi idiom chalta hai (“it works / it is enough”), an idea that, rather than being associated with efficiency, often negatively connotes a lack of innovation – a lack of care (Chatterjee et al 2021). Perhaps this is, in part, because neoliberal logics usually demand that “it is enough” is never enough. Perhaps, also, what is neglect for one party might be care for another. Care and neglect are both intrinsically linked in reproducing social life through social difference.