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Culture: everywhere and nowhere

Culture: everywhere and nowhere
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First Published: Thu, Jan 27 2011. 11 52 PM IST

Updated: Thu, Jan 27 2011. 11 52 PM IST
It is rare to find a philanthropic cause that everyone agrees needs support, but for which actual support is so little. Chameleon-like, art and culture make the cut of portfolios of grant makers, taking the colour of whatever larger location of which it is made a part.
This is not a new problem to the sector. It is also not a fair recognition of the work that both the arts and cultural practice can do, and indeed are doing, in India, however we name them. This note is a plea to recognize culture as something integral to our conception of an ecosystem: indeed, to see culture as the ecosystem itself.
What would this do to our conception of development, especially as independent donor agencies and philanthropists gradually enter the art and culture scene? Can we at all imagine a way to devise unique local strategies for regions, districts, villages, or even neighbourhoods, as the much-vaunted concept of cultural diversity—for which India prides itself so often—gets replaced with a new focus on diversified livelihoods? Can culture be understood as contributing to the livelihood of the weakest sections of our society, as capable of diversifying hazard-prone livelihoods? Can it be seen as something that economically impoverished households actually survive with?
I believe there is an audience for such an argument, but I also suspect that to realize this vision, India’s art and culture programmes need to fundamentally transform their conception. The difficulty of culture taking on the hue of whatever larger social location within which it is identified has never been a problem for its practitioners. This problem has arisen, perhaps even been created by modern administrators of culture.
Three decades ago, in 1975, the former minister of education, culture and social welfare, S. Nurul Hasan, complained that “there is a great deal of confusion” with the sector. “Some want the (Lalit Kala, Sahitya and Sangeet Natak) Akademis to be institutions supporting and encouraging excellence; others want them to take culture to the masses. Some maintain that the principal duty is to preserve even the most primitive of our tribes in their state of primitiveness. Others want, in the name of national integration, to do away with all the richness, the variety, and the virility of those cultural traditions of different sections of our people which have survived the onslaught of time.”
Confusion over how to find bureaucratic solutions pervades governmental policy on the sector even today. The fifth Five-year Plan’s task force on culture was one of the first to acknowledge the problems caused by the sheer multiplicity of government departments with one or other cultural policy. The task force had recommended “greater coordination between the department of culture and other administrative units (which had) a cultural component…specially the fields of information, broadcasting, mass media, tourism, social welfare, agriculture and the welfare of industrial workers”. The problem, said the task force, was that even with all these many schemes, India still did not have anything like a cultural plan.
What of the private philanthropic sector? Independent philanthropy, despite the smallness of its presence in contrast to the state sector, has primarily played a paradigm-changing role. The role of industrial houses such as the Shriram Group, which made large endowments of land and capital to create institutions such as the Bharatiya Kala Kendra (1952), justifiably proud of its contribution to the revival of Kathak and Mayurbhanj Chhau, the Birla Academy in Kolkata and the Tata trusts has not been little. Such initiatives have played a liberating role, in loosening the stranglehold of government support by advocating best practices from around the globe. But as we look at a wider purpose for the sector, we may have to look further.
On the one hand, there is a slow but steady increase of independent donor support for the sector. A decade ago, the 1999 Indian Centre for Philanthropy’s national survey of 104 Indian donors showed 13 institutions interested in supporting arts and humanities, which compared well with support for leading causes such as conservation and environment (16) and actually exceeded support for science and technology (12). While these are far below the big-ticket areas of philanthropic support, education (81) and medicine and health (57), they are not little either.
But what can this do to a sector that, by the government’s own figures, shows that India’s cultural industries contribute 14% to India’s gross domestic product, employ 30% of the workforce of the country and have an envisaged growth rate of 12-15% annually (the Planning Commission’s task force on creative and cultural industries)? It is almost certain that, to the extent that any donor initiative has even reached such a creative economy, it would have been through rural livelihoods or even drinking water initiatives and not through any one of the arts and humanities supporters listed above.
Can independent philanthropy as presently constituted, even begin to take on the challenges of the cultural sector? Some brave attempts exist: HIVOS has a profound policy on how to support culture as a key component of development, and the Sir Ratan Tata Trust now has a draft strategy framework on the arts, crafts and culture sector. But to take any of this forward, we may need to shed old misconceptions along the way.
Here are a few suggestions. We need to remove the arts from the arena of culture. Neither the arts nor culture are helping each other in becoming unwilling bedfellows. Support for the arts may be best absorbed into larger support for innovative practices, especially given the growing crossovers between innovation in the arts and that in science, design and new media practices.
Support for significant cultural practices cannot be divorced from support for the practitioner: In fact, the key mantra, support the practitioner, and the practice will look after itself, continues to hold good in cultural practices, but India has not always learnt this lesson well. India has all too often created museumized practices on show to tourists, at the cost both of the practitioner and a social understanding of why that cultural practice exists at all.
I suspect that a few such paradigm shifts could once again rescue culture from being linked to this or that endangered art form or practice, but return as the centrepiece of new development strategies. Nothing less would be sufficient.
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First Published: Thu, Jan 27 2011. 11 52 PM IST