The 11th century philosopher from Kashmir, Acharya Abhinavagupta, in his commentary on Bharata’s Natya Sastra explains the comic sentiment as Kuhaka – meaning tickling of Kaksa – armpits or hidden and sensitive zones. Tickling is a form of cute aggression. Surrendering to the power of the tickler is an acknowledgement of the pleasure of harmless aggression. Abhinavagupta saw comic laughter as a tactile equivalent of intellectual and aesthetic processes of bringing hidden and untouched zones of meaning making sphere to life.
In Dharmic traditions laughter is also a sign of enlightenment – truth is recognized in its bare form and an indication of Svatantrya – liberation, laughing without a care in the world. One feels liberated in the world and not from the world. The comedian and or satirist manage to uncover our mind’s eye. We laugh because we get it. We recognise what is hinted at. Everything becomes transparent. Many aspects of reality, particularly unofficial truths, or things that are unsayable or things that defy social decorum are accessible only to laughter. Hence comedy and satire are closest companions of Truth.
I write this against the backdrop of recent discussions and debates on what the so-called comedian, Vir Das, delivered in his monologue at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Let me be upfront: there was no humor in what he said. I draw from the rich intellectual and performance traditions of India that have posited one of the most profound philosophies of Hasya– Laughter. For a culture that has grown up with stories of Akbar and Birbal and Krishnadeva Raya and Tenali Ramanna, comedy and satire are all too familiar. ALSO READ: India’s FabIndia Attempted To Impose Unrelatable Phrase, USA’s Target Honoured Diwali’s Essence
Comedy is not meant for cheap amusement: it uses the wisdom of folly to expose the folly of staged and superficial claims of wisdom. It is never meant to be a relief from reality, but it is meant to take you towards reality. What Vir Das did was plain cruel and cheap – mocking and belittling a nation and civilization and it was a wholesale accusation that all Indian men, and that should include him too, worship goddesses during day and become gang rapists by night. What is so comical about it?
Ritual degradation is common in satire. It is only meant to bring the hero back to the earthly plane. In ancient India, such rituals were meant to ward off evil eyes. Ritualized forms of parodying the hero or anybody in power were meant to shield them with a protective amulet. Comedy is never meant to laugh at others but laugh with others. It is a collective gaiety. No one is spared and yet no one is singled out. When bitter truths are couched in the comic genre, as Birbal and Tenali Ramanna did, it allows even the mighty to swallow bitter truth. The jester is forever in a ‘fact-finding’ and ‘fact-delivering’ mission. The satirist is an upholder of a higher level of truth and freely resorts to crude tactics to jolt the complacent. When you fail to reveal the truth and dwell on falsehood, as Vir Das did, then comedy has disappeared.
Comedy freely uses salty language and even profanities. It is the street language and rebels against polished words and even social conventions. It refuses to repress anything. It is earthbound and folklorist. The coarse language is meant to pull you away from false seriousness and fake news. When you pretend to be serious without really being serious, only comedy can expose you. The “bullshitter” who runs away from truth or becomes diabolical by twisting truth to an unrecognizable form, and the satirist who takes you very close to truth – both use profanities, but their philosophical meaning and their impact are worlds apart. Vir Das was the former.
I conclude with these philosophical principles of comedy and satire. When the hierarchically organised world declares itself to be the norm, laughter shows an inverted world to suggest other possibilities. When you think you are indispensable to the world, comedy exposes your insignificance, as it does not favor any self-appointed saviors of the world. When morals and ideas are frozen in time and space, comedy melts them to let them flow in uncharted cultural landscapes to pick up new dimensions.
Comedy is serious business: it requires sharp intellect and a way with language – to break words, twist concepts, juggle meanings and amplify sounds. Like a juggler tossing objects, the joker produces wit by playing language games. Having grown up in Chennai, the phrases delivered by Cho Ramaswamy are still so memorable to me. That kind of satire was stinging. The movie Mera Naam Joker was a comedy par excellence. It is seriously funny, making us understand the absurdities of life.
(Dr. Lakshmi Bandlamudi is a Professor of Psychology, LaGuardia Community College, City University New York)
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