Cul­tural celebri­ties

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - SHOWBIZ -

THE Czech Re­pub­lic’s cap­i­tal city of Prague is touted in tourist lit­er­a­ture as the cul­tural cap­i­tal of Europe. While some may baulk at such a de­scrip­tion, point­ing to its rep­u­ta­tion as a sex trade hotspot, I don’t see how this can de­tract from the city’s well-de­served rep­u­ta­tion as a cul­tural cen­tre.

I am writ­ing this on the sec­ond day of my sec­ond visit to Prague. My first visit was in 2005. The im­pres­sion I have of the place is still the same – this for­mer com­mu­nist East­ern Euro­pean city oozes with cul­ture.

Over here, a Czech is more likely to at­tend a clas­si­cal con­cert or an opera than watch a Hollywood movie. Apart from its many mu­se­ums, Prague has three full orches­tras, a host of small, high-qual­ity cham­ber mu­sic groups, and a plethora of dance troupes and the­atre com­pa­nies as well as a very ac­tive jazz mu­sic scene, among other cul­tural pur­suits, that to­gether put up a large num­ber of shows each day.

What’s more, most of these shows are well-at­tended by the city’s 1.25 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants. In­spired tourists find them­selves keen to do the same, but of­ten face dis­ap­point­ment as they dis­cover that tick­ets for the more pop­u­lar shows, such as con­certs by the Czech Phil­har­monic Or­ches­tra, have been snapped up long be­fore they ar­rived in Prague.

The only cities that come close to putting up such a large num­ber of cul­tural per­for­mances are London and New York, but these two metropoli­tan cities have a pop­u­la­tion of some 8 mil­lion, so Prague still leads by a mile in terms of shows per capita.

When re­fer­ring to celebri­ties, pop and

Nov­el­ist Franz Kafka was re­garded by the Czechs as one of their own. The house he had lived in is pre­served as a me­mo­rial, and a mu­seum is ded­i­cated to an ex­po­si­tion of his works. movie stars of the Hollywood ilk or their lo­cal and re­gional vari­ants come to mind in most so­ci­eties these days. But in Prague, a nat­u­ral man­i­fes­ta­tion of the city’s cul­tural in­cli­na­tion is its cel­e­bra­tion of cul­tural icons above their pop equiv­a­lents.

Writ­ers like Mi­lan Kun­dera and the late Ivan Klima, Bo­hu­mil Hra­bal and Franz Kafka are pop­u­lar and in­flu­en­tial, with their words car­ry­ing weight among the pop­u­lace, even af­ter their deaths.

Kafka was born in Prague of Ger­manJewish im­mi­grants at a time when Prague was part of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire. He wrote in Ger­man as this was his na­tive tongue but he spoke flu­ent Czech and is re­garded by the Czechs as one of their own. The house Kafka lived in is pre­served as a me­mo­rial and is open to the pub­lic. There is even a mu­seum ded­i­cated to an ex­po­si­tion of the writer’s works.

Much of Kun­dera, Hra­bal and Klima’s in­flu-

Mu­sic com­poser An­tonin Dvo­rak re­mains one of the Czech Re­pub­lic’s favourite sons till to­day, 106 years af­ter his death. Doc­u­ments re­lat­ing to his life and work have been pre­served. ence stems from their sta­tus as dis­si­dent writ­ers dur­ing the Com­mu­nist era when they wrote un­der the threat of jail against the re­pres­sive regime in power from 1968 to 1989. Klima and Hra­bal, es­pe­cially, are revered as they were forced to en­gage in blue-col­lar jobs to sur­vive, but still wrote and pub­lished their works un­der­ground, with­out any chance of gain and ev­ery chance of reprisals from the Com­mu­nist au­thor­i­ties.

So in­flu­en­tial are Czech lit­er­ary fig­ures that dis­si­dent writer Va­clav Havel was elected the coun­try’s first post-Com­mu­nist pres­i­dent in 1989. He was in of­fice un­til 2003, first as pres­i­dent of Cze­choslo­vakia and, from 1993, as pres­i­dent of the Czech Re­pub­lic af­ter Slo­vakia de­clared in­de­pen­dence.

One hun­dred and six years af­ter his death, clas­si­cal mu­sic com­poser An­tonin Dvo­rak is still one of the Czech Re­pub­lic’s favourite sons. Doc­u­ments re­lat­ing to his life and work, in­clud­ing some of his mu­sic manuscripts, have been pre­served and been on per­ma­nent dis­play at a mu­seum in Prague since 1932.

An­other clas­si­cal mu­si­cian, Bedrich Smetana, is less well-known in­ter­na­tion­ally than Dvo­rak but is widely re­garded as the fa­ther of Czech mu­sic, thanks to some of his works that were writ­ten as na­tion­al­ist ex­pres­sions of Czech as­pi­ra­tions for in­de­pen­dent state­hood in the mid-1800s. Smetana lends his name to many of the city’s mu­sic-re­lated halls and mon­u­ments.

Clas­si­cal mu­sic is so pop­u­lar in the coun­try that most of the street buskers in Prague con­sist of small rov­ing bands of cham­ber groups com­pris­ing vi­o­lin­ists, cel­lists and bassists who per­form their mu­sic at cob­ble­stoned cul-de-sacs of old build­ings that date from me­dieval times.

The qual­ity of play is very high for buskers and these bands are more in­ter­ested in sell­ing their CD al­bums than the coins and notes that spec­ta­tors of­ten shower them with.

Then there are the mu­si­cians who play at the many jazz and mu­sic clubs lo­cated in ev­ery nook and cranny of the city, jam­ming with in­ter­na­tional artistes who flock to the city in droves as well.

Jazz mu­sic is deeply pop­u­lar be­cause of its as­so­ci­a­tion with anti-Com­mu­nism as Czechs would flock to jazz clubs in de­fi­ance of Com­mu­nist dis­ap­proval.

Let me add the caveat at this point that the av­er­age Czech also likes his weekly dose of Two And A Half Men and The Simp­sons, but these shows and the stars from these shows play sec­ond fid­dle to the lit­er­ary and mu­si­cal icons whom the Czechs re­gard as the real celebri­ties.

The lit­er­ary he­roes of Prague also open one’s mind to an­other way of defin­ing a celebrity. Tal­ent is es­sen­tial, but it is the courage one has in pur­su­ing one’s tal­ent, at risk of life and limb, that makes one a true celebrity. Art has a pur­pose and it’s not about money but about con­vic­tion. Now, that’s some­thing we don’t en­counter much in the Hollywood vari­a­tion. n In this col­umn, writer Hau Boon Lai pon­ders the lives, loves and lib­er­ties of celebri­ties.



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