Modern global production systems place a premium on specialisation and the most esoteric of ideas are quickly elevated to a knowledge system. Admittedly, with technology it has become easier to specialise and find new markets and also to grow established ones. Knowledge and its application often implies an income, and without that essential sustenance of income, the knowledge system will wither away. The fate of traditional knowledge and its skills today is in the balance. But there are good reasons why traditional skills—from medicine to linguistics to water harvesting to the skills of the hand to performing arts—should take the challenge of the market head on, reinvent themselves and be used as an instrument for social innovation and change. Several initiatives are emerging across the country. For example, the Centre for New Perspectives (CNP), an organisation headed by Navina Jafa, works in the field of traditional skills through research, advocacy and livelihood programmes. CNP has recently initiated work on repositioning marginalised folk performative communities with a pilot programme in Delhi. The Indian folk performative communities have not received their due recompense in social and economic return in large part because of the underprivileged social status of the performing communities, of their patrons and the performing spaces, which have often been street squares and other public places, and has kept such artistes in a low-level equilibrium.
These performers become tools for creation of one-time events, such as festivals of India abroad, after which they are condemned to their routine hardships of everyday life. While these are important opportunities, they do not address the important question of sustainability. There have been no attempts to upgrade their skills or provide them stable support systems for their families or their communities, and a complete lack of consideration for making these heritage skills attractive professions for the next generation. The classification of traditions into different categories—while necessary for academic scholarship and administrative expediency—has only created hierarchies, leading to discriminatory ideas, policies and practices.
That traditional jugglers, magicians, puppeteers, acrobats and masqueraders can contribute to the GDP of India would provoke a smirk from most. For a country that is struggling to skill and create jobs for 10 million energetic youth entering the labour force every year, any opportunity is a ray of hope. Anybody who read last month’s article on the phenomenally successful Cambodian Phare Circus carried by this paper (https://goo.gl/PxNcMJ) would at least begin to think of it as a possibility.
After the horrific purges carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, 90% of all types of artistic practitioners had been annihilated, along with their arts. As Cambodia began to recover, a school was begun in 1994 by refugees who returned home, for orphans and poor children in Siem Reap, from UN funds. In 2013 the Phare Performing Social Enterprise was created to revitalise the arts sector in Cambodia and provide sustainable employment and incomes to artists. Today, the Phare Circus is the owner of this venue and, in 2016, had a net revenue of $1.2 million. It employs 47 artists and 70 support staff permanently. It has one show daily and aims at taking the number up to two shows a day soon. After Angkor Vat, it is Phare that is the most popular item on tourists’ list.
It is evident that these skills need a reconnect with the market to rejuvenate, and creation of new ‘products’ is necessary to bring in audiences. In Delhi, where CNP proposes to begin a pilot programme, we found there are broadly about 5,000 families of such artists. Their monthly earnings from their hereditary skills are somewhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 8,000, and they are compelled to supplement it with a ‘regular’ job.
Following this baseline survey, CNP developed a business model for the way forward with the help of reputed public policy expert and economist Raghav Gaiha, Prof of marketing Harshvardhan Verma and Ekta Duggal of the Faculty of Management Studies, University of Delhi. With the support of the shopping mall Select Citywalk—an important collaborator for the space it provides—CNP presented the draft of a pilot programme for the city of Delhi, with a scaling up and replication potential for other parts of India in a meeting with corporate, government and artist stakeholders. The pilot aspires to address capacity building, sustainable livelihoods through the formation of a social enterprise, and protection and training of children of creative communities representing 10
skills practised in street and other performative spaces.
Viable artists’ organisations open to new ideas and a solid institutional framework that provides the artists with practical guidance on financial matters, insurance and social support are needed. Workable and varied financial models for these organisations as well as for productions need to be developed. While Delhi justifiably boasts of a rich built heritage—a huge selling point with tourists—it is equally important to recognise that Delhi’s vibrant intangible heritage can be of immense value. The creative city criteria is not just about events for performing artists, but also about providing dynamic and sustainable systems to creative communities.
Writer is Director, Centre for New Perspectives, Delhi.
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