From Jnanpith Award winner Mahasweta Devis inaugural address at the Frankfurt Book Fair, October 3, 2006
Appropriately, we can begin with Indias Guest-of-Honour-Country status and participation at the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF) this year to directly enter the alarming dichotomies of art policy and art practice in our country today.
The past two years have been unique in the history of the arts in India. Two parallel, yet seemingly divergent, vectors have consolidatedone, an intensification of private corporate interest in the arts in festivals, sponsorship, auctions, promotion, buying, etc, and the other, a renewed interest on the part of the state in matters of policy, appropriation, intervention and so on.
The India events at Frankfurt this October brought both these strands in sharp focus. On the one hand, a rather unabashed celebration of the commoditisation of the book trade with a record number of deals and, on the other, the unprofessional and anti-artist approach of a central agency like the National Book Trust (NBT), which had to execute the Indian presence at the FBF.
The point is, if nodal agencies within the ministries of culture and education like the NBT can comprehensively botch up a single 90-minute event, one shudders to think of the sorry spectacle we will cut at the Commonwealth Games we are hosting a few years down the line. There seems to be no national will to create events and invite honorable participation from artists for enhancing the dignity and aesthetic/human wealth of the nation. One can almost predict to a T that, failing to come up with creative ideas, the officials who own and run Indian culture will just keel over and pay Rs 50 crore to some agency like Wizcraft to put together a tacky Bollywood song-and-dance item as a representative stand-in for what we might call Indian culture. Despite all our claims of being the new force of the millennia, we seem to find it difficult to shed our darbaari attitude to treating artists as mere performing monkeys.
The contradiction gets in-your-face when you realise that the very same government is, on another flank, being rapidly led up the garden path via an initiative in the Planning Commission to be implemented in the 11th Plan. This is the brainchild of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, executive head of the Planning Commission and a taskforce he has created on Creative and Culture Industries, under designer Rajeev Sethi, as vice chairperson. The ostensible purpose of this exercise is to explore the potential for wealth-creation in cultural and creative inputs, and evolve a mechanism for positioning India at par with global economies for cultural and creative industries. The task force has already proposed the setting up of a National Mission for Creativity in Cultural Industries (NMCCI) seeking a government order that will vest it with authority and resources to implement its mandate under the colonial slogan what cant be mapped, cant be managed. This is tantamount to commercialising the cultural field, rationalising it and then handing the public sector over to the private on a platter for plunder and export. The wealth they are anticipating in this is about Rs 60,000 crore. The frightening aspect of this development is that since it was first mooted in 2005, there has been no public debate on it and the exercise is mired in opaqueness.
Another recent central initiative in the arts that seems oblivious to any reality-check is the NCERTs attempts, within the National Curriculum Framework exercise, to bring the arts and crafts squarely within the ambit of school education, rendering them not extra-curricular but co-curricular. Towards this, the proposals enunciated in the Position Paper of the National Focus Group on Arts, Music, Dance and Theatre reflect an enthusiasm and optimism that directly contradict anything existing on the ground. Even if we set aside the criticism that just the notion of arts in the Position Paper is tame and tilting towards the classical, its inability to think beyond platitudes with no clue on how to broaden the outlook is self-defeating.
Who are we fooling Look around. There is a complete debasement of arts institutions. The museums, libraries, arts colleges are in ruins. Most national landmarks set up over the past 70 or 80 years are on artificial respirators today. Shantiniketan, Kalakshetra, Kalamandalam, National School of Drama(NSD), the Film and Television Institute, colleges of fine arts in Chennai and Kolkata, the Rabindra and the Tagore theatres in state capitals, colleges of musicall function on the brink of a resource crunch and an even more debilitating ideas crunch.
There is an alarming absence of infrastructurestudios, rehearsal spaces, auditoria, galleries, archives. The academia has eased itself out of any worthwhile research projects in the arts. The vacuum of informed debate on the arts in periodicals, journals and mainstream media is now beginning to pinch. All scholarship on Indian arts has moved out of India and now resides with purposeful research departments abroad. It would be difficult today to have a serious symposium on Indian performing or fine arts without including a handful of scholars from abroad who, sometimes, even set the agenda.
All arts seem trapped within the chasm of national culture (museumisation) on the one hand and cultural nationalism (aggrandisement) on the other; trapped in a nation enacting the twin script of carnival and survivala disjunction between utopian desire and dystopian reality.
While I have been part of several art festivals in 2006 and am struck by how such rapid cloning is happening, my own misery has been to do with being part of a high power committee for 10 months to create a new vision statement for the NSD. Well-known personalities of the Indian theatre world and academics sat together and drafted a document. The good news is: it has been dumped.
We need to take Mahasweta Devi to heart. Torn between private sector plunder and public sector idiocy, the arts should reconnect with their fundamental right to dream.
(The writer is a cultural commentator)