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Mushtaq Bhat

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Totem & Taboo

Necktie, Shirt, Sandals and Acrylic on Hard Board
100 x 70cm. 2008

Totem & Taboo

Of Durkheim, Weber, Malinowski and Freud

Or from the Magic of a Piece of Cloth

So you think the world is completely entzaubert? There is no magic in high-tech societies? But now stop and take a deep breath. Look at this small piece of cloth! My lady, the Necktie! What magic it possess? For all types and colors of men and sometimes even woman. From Einstein to Churchill and James Bond to our new age CEO. We will consider it's three most bizarre almost magical properties!

  1. Magic (Totem)
    • It imposes it's own rules upon the person wearing it. It demands a specific behavior ranging from eating food to interacting with other human beings. It emanates formality and convention and a acceptance of a certain social consens, which is indeed a Totem quite related to how Emile Durkheim, a thorough sociologist perceived it. We will not go into it's psychological aspects, apart from saying that it emanated a high class celluloid charm, especially when worn by some good looking men like Gregory Peck, JFK or Sean Connery. Beatles wore them too, though I guess it might have been to divest it a little bit of it's formal stiff-back straitjacket functionality, that the Necktie seems to have gained within the upper-classes. Nevertheless, Beatles would never ever indulge in extremes of rebellious behavior, as far as dress code or stage performance is concerned, unlike Alice Cooper, Screaming J.Hawkins, David Bowie or the Kiss, which means this bit of formality was not really foreign to their nature. Have you ever wondered why Beatles were not at the Woodstock? Nobody at Woodstock wore a tie? Or did some one? Never mind, Dylan was not there either, and he hardly ever had a tie on. Nowadays the yahoo folks, Brin & Page, Steve Jobs or the bosses of modern progressive corporations like Virgin Atlantic may be pioneering the first breakaway from a long lasting fashion or to talk anthropologically from the widespread Totem of our decade.
  2. Magic (Taboo)
    • The taboo. I once witnessed, some urban citizens in Berlin deridingly mocking a man from the country, who was wearing a tie with knickers, hiking shoes and socks. This is the subject of our artwork. You just can not wear sandals in public, when you are wearing a tie, without provoking some gazes or outright laughter! Or you are a rebel and a hero, when you can be allowed to break taboos!
  3. Magic (Diffusion)
    • The diffusion. From Africans and Arabs in scorching heat, even in midsummer, to Siberia and the peaks of Simla the ruling classes and government employees wear it, sometimes dutifully, sometimes proudly and sometimes forcedly. How could an Arab change his so functional airy dress for the neck constraining piece of cloth of the Christians and succumb to all the constraints it imposes; shoes and socks, pants and buttoned up shirts, jackets and coats _ and that too at incredibly high temperatures? I have always wondered at it. From Japanese to Persians and Indians, from officials to even the teaching professionals, no one is immune to its magic, even when under such circumstances, it may appear as a grotesque joke on human rational thinking, revealing complete disregard of the primary function of any dress, which should tally with the weather and the climate and for a rational being, one may dare venture to say, with real comfort and ease. Teachers should be the first ones to bring this home to the kids. Certain Indians wear synthetic suits in mid-summer in Delhi, when the land is exporting cotton to the world since ages! Maybe a Masai is one rare exception, Gandhi probably too. Nehru and Mao may have had a different reason to refuse it's symbolic essence, more like a protest against the hegemony of the West. But I really believe that the Masai, like many of the Afghans or the Ifugao in Luzon have remained partly immune to its magic so far, as long as they possess/possessed a very good sense of their personal worth. Incidentally they were also never really colonized or defeated in battles. But in all cases it is not the secondary biological functionality, like keeping your private parts hidden, protecting you from cold, rain and wind, that is the primary cause of it successful diffusion. In fact it has none of that, perceived this way it is the most useless piece of dress that men ever wore, but it certainly is its symbolic _ eh, the magic?_ that has made it cross the oceans and mountains with such astonishing speed, trampling all that was before to oblivion! Yes indeed a magic in hi-tech enlightened societies. A taste of Durkheim in the broth of modern Nations.


In the nineteenth century and to great extent in the twentieth too, there is hardly any reference in European scientific literature to the cults and rituals, totems and taboos prevalent in West. One understandably considered it to be the domain of artistic literature and history and had other terms for such queer things, like tradition, convention, style, fashion, trend, art- or stylistic-epochs, each Christianized with its own respectful, sometimes bordering to awe, name. Now and then there were no doubt also some disdainful or humor full references to a certain convention or an entire epoch, like the Biedermeier epoch in Germany. But nothing in such conventions, rituals, fashions, totems and taboos of an epoch or a century were ever found to be really all that bizarre, let alone declared as such, compared to most of the rituals and the taboos attributed to certain tribes of our world. Here you had History and Literature, some tentative explorations in Sociology and a rather ethnocentric Psychology, and there it was Ethnography, and for the Ethnologists these people were just the Natives, almost nameless and with facial and bodily features indistinguishable from one another. They had almost no individuals. Science here was even more biased than literature. Herman Melville gives us a true great account of such a native. But he was no ordinary writer. He sat on the desk late in his life. And was far ahead of all the European desk-top sociology, psychology and ethnography of his time. As late as Emile Durkheim, these two domains western sociology and tribal ethnology had nothing in common. In fact the people, who existed detached from the main civilization centers and the domains of written history were subject to other type of natural laws and even if not existing in a vacuum somehow showed a strange affinity with algebra, whereas those at home had more affinity with Sonata and Poetry and Science, not to talk about the latter possessing a direct hot-line to higher spiritual beings, denied to the natives. No doubt some of it was certainly true. There existed and still exists cannibalism on the planet, but the need for irrational conventions and habits did not end with the natives, they are all around one and everywhere. No society is free from them. And some of them are really bizarre! Durkheim was a pioneer in using the powerful findings of the ethnographers to arrive at more universal conclusions, quite aware as Levi Strauss later, that these so called natives in far flung places, without any significant influence from the great civilization centers may have replied to the demands of nature and community life in a much more subtler and effective ways than what one saw at first glance or was willing to acknowledge and trust these infants to accomplish. Most of these natives may have had restrictive organizations, but at the same time some of them have had hardly any occurrences of suicide, murders or sexual perversions, so widespread in modern population centers. Freud and Malinowski, who was incidentally a Freudian however applied such findings in service of their own preconceived ideas, although the latter doubtlessly did go out there, as had Captain Cook before him and many missionaries before and after them. Elsewhere I have paid a tribute to some great missionaries, who dedicated their lives and years of labor in noting down, amongst other things the languages, grammar, customs, legends, history, flora and fauna in these exotic lands with unsurpassed sincerity, dedication and respect, very much lacking in the tourists of the new age or the academicians of the earlier decades.

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