01 September, 2020

Popularity vs Progress: Reality Check

Popularity is an important initial (certainly not the final) step in the lives of students and aspirants passionate about contributing widely and effectively.  Personal success in the eyes of many can certainly enable one to make a positive impact on so many lives, if used unselfishly. Of course, numerous people have contributed substantially before or even without getting popular. 

But a popular person can influence and inspire numerous people even without specifically setting out to do much for others - as legends have illustrated across eras and arenas.  But with serious intent, a popular person so inclined can catalyze a lot of good outcomes. 

Popularity can be a tool that can empower one to popularise rare things of beauty or things of rare beauty; or create a whole system of values that can raise standards all around.  Take the case of sitar maestro Pt Ravi Shankar whose popularity not only enabled him to influence his chosen Hindustani classical but also had a positive impact on Jazz, Rock, Pop and World Music.

However it has been long understood by thinkers that popularity is a multi-edged sword.

Organic vs Organized popularity

It would be ideal to work passionately without an agenda to gain popularity and yet become popular because of innate or justly earned excellence.  There is nothing wrong with being flooded by fame though one needs to still take care to stay above it and not get drowned by it.  However, history has shown that only 1/1000 manage this and current trends seem to take it to almost 1/10000 what with preoccupation to obsession with micro-stardom in social media measured by Likes or Views - which by themselves are not unhealthy, if one can manage to strive constantly towards one's long term goals with clear-headedness. But this is a tall ask. 

But organised popularity in the Social Media context has grown to a mega-level subject where synthetic success is able to occupy the same time-space as real class, albeit for such ridiculously brief periods - at times merely a few minutes - until the next "Like/View" sensation ousts it from its Trending Top-spot.  Students must take care to not let popularity become an addiction that defies detoxification. 

Responsibilities and risks of Popularity
Popularity is a responsibility towards oneself and others.  If this is not taken seriously as such, it can result in substantial under-achievement at best and a complete loss of direction in most cases.  But those who do take this responsibility seriously accomplish a lot in real terms. 

Music is no exception to this and the field is replete with musicians who popularised rare exquisite compositions or concepts that may otherwise have never been appreciated, had they been brought to light by people not as popular.  That said, artists must take care to not cease travelling inwards for excellence all the time, despite the ensnaring - and enslaving - nature of popularity, if they wish to progress.  They must constantly be aware of the fact that popularity is only a plateau that often prevents those perched on it from looking at peaks simply because the worldview down below is so enchanting. One can easily stagnate or even slide down without realizing it.

Popularity is a whirlpool that can suck one deep under unless one has the skill set and the mind set to avoid its pitfalls even while being fascinated by its inexorably compelling beauty.

Popularity is like a credit card that gives one loads of perks - as long as one has the ability to be saving more than the cost of maintaining it through constantly re-inventing oneself through introspection with a positive approach.

Popularity as a shaping tool

Specifically the quality of popularity has the power to shape an individual's life graph.  Popularity can become a trap that can bog down a person intent to just maintaining status quo.  For a musician, popularity among general listeners forces the musician to live upto their expectations by choosing clich├ęd songs or ragas or phrases within them, even if the artist wants to explore greater depths or scale greater heights.  So also for dancers and many others in the art world.

Does it mean that one has to be scared of popularity or one should consciously avoid popularity? Absolutely not.  If one can remember that the popularity of all the hottest stars that lived, that are living and those yet to arrive combined is dwarfed by the enormity of the field they pursue, one will be able to accept popularity with grace and humility and yet keep striving to better oneself all the time. This awareness and approach will act as a teflon shield against the sticky negative effects of popularity.

Abuse of popularity 

All the above holds good for those who court notoriety as well.  Abuse of popularity is perhaps more dangerous than abuse of power, which of course is uncondonable.  While abuse of power will hurt those directly under the sphere of influence of the powerful individual, abuse of popularity can have even more far reaching consequences.  

History as well as news teach us how not only monuments but also sentiments of millions can be irreparably desecrated when those enjoying political or social following mislead the public through misinformation and misrepresentations or incite them to disruption or even destruction.  No less significant is the billions of hours cumulatively wasted by millions of misled people who end up chasing false or frivolous causes (for years at times) losing out on opportunities of personal or constructive social development.

To sum up, one need not shy away from popularity but one must ensure that one stays grounded, positive - and honest - at all times and one must guard from getting popularity drunk as much as one is cautioned from getting power drunk.  

A complete system - Ravikiran with Sharada Ramanathan - The Hindu 12 April 2002


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