January 27, 2020
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The State Of The Arts

How to stop our patchwork cultural fabric from ripping at the seams

The State Of The Arts
Illustration by Sorit
The State Of The Arts

The very mention of Indian culture brings to mind its sheer diversity both in form and content. But this mental picture is quite different from how narrowly we view it now. Today, there is a tendency to homogenise— like running a road-roller over the cultural fabric of India. While mass media— largely television and cinema— has usurped most of our attention, culture, in the more conventional sense of live performance, is also fast gaining a glamour quotient. One does see more imagination being put into programming and venues today. Can we, then, stop lamenting about how Indian culture is deteriorating? Perhaps not till we’ve found answers to some pressing questions: Whose responsibility is it to safeguard culture? Who will be the patron? Can the thousands for whom their art form is their livelihood survive? And are they surviving now?

Some of these concerns saw a silver lining in a report released recently by the review committee of the zonal cultural centres (ZCCS) under the ministry of culture— in its silver jubilee year, significantly. The ZCCS, created under Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership, are located in seven cities across the country. They were set up with the intention of bringing India’s resurgent cultures to its masses and, in this spirit, they were not situated in state capitals, but in smaller cities with an important connection to culture. So, Thanjavur instead of Chennai, Shantiniketan and not Calcutta.

Initially, several promising objectives were put in place— delink the ZCCS from state politics, promote financial independence, encourage young and up-and-coming artists— and some good did come of it. The Shilpgram, a first-of-its-kind, one-stop crafts and culture village, defied its low budget to become a “must see” when in Udaipur. The Manganiyar singers are another success story. ‘Discovered’ by the ZCCS, they now perform internationally extensively.

The review report, an extensive undertaking under the chairmanship of Mani Shankar Aiyar, consulted eminent artists from across the country and concluded that the centres have seen a steady decline in the quality of their content, their promotion of art and their encouragement of artists— contravening the very purpose of their existence. It admits acerbically that the centres have, over the years, become excessively bureaucratised, insufficiently creative and essentially extensions of their state’s department of culture. The folk and tribal forms are worse off than ever before with newer generations having to eschew their traditional skills and become migrant labourers to survive.

Ironically, we need these institutions because the onus is on the State to look after these artists and art forms and to provide platforms for their performance, and because there exist, quite simply, no alternative survival mechanisms.

The re-engineering of the ZCCS has to be a reformative exercise at several levels. The review committee’s recommendations, including the setting up of an Indian Council for Zonal Centres, cutting down on major infrastructural expenditures (raising the centres’ corpus funds to Rs 50 crore each), increasing performance budgets, cultural audits to control corruption, improving documentation and archiving by bringing in the requisite expertise, have the potential to address existing issues. The committee stressed the need to support folk and tribal cultures through a revamped Guru-Shishya Parampara scheme, which will assure talented but indigent artistes to secure livelihoods through such proposed initiatives as a Folk and Tribal Arts Akademi (and National Museum).

While the report’s recommendations are quite comprehensive, it also supports the creation of superstructures and big budgets for cultural management. In a country like India, which has an array of art forms that is as diverse as it is extensive, it remains to be seen how low-cost models can be created. Also, if the youth are to be engaged, then there is a need to find a synthesis between fast-paced change-oriented technologies and the cultural traditions of communities. Community radio, digital archiving and the internet are avenues that need to be used optimally. The greater involvement of local communities and decreased outside interference will only add richness to content.

In three bulky volumes, the review committee’s report is an important contribution in that it not only reiterates how culture is much-neglected in India, but also puts forward concrete suggestions on avoiding an irretrievable collapse. It needs to be seen, however, how these recommendations will be implemented. Given the step-child treatment meted out to culture in India, the reincarnation of these zonal centres should help us rediscover our displaced (read: by Bollywood) cultural pride.

(Vidya Shah is a Delhi-based singer and programmes director at the Centre for Media and Alternative Communication)

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