Whose Culture Is It Anyway? Why India Needs A Comprehensive National Cultural Policy
Culture is not always about doling out grants, holding mega-festivals, or just about sob stories around lack of preservation. If the economics of culture is understood, it can bring in prosperity and boost soft power. But, how exactly should India go about it?
As a writer chosen to be in-residence at the Rashtrapati Bhawan for a fortnight, in March 2015, I had the honour of not only interacting with the honourable President of India, but also utilising some of the wonderful resources of the library there. My study there revealed the fact that most nations, including Malaysia, Thailand, African countries and so on have a national cultural policy that sets a roadmap for the management of the country’s creative economy.
For the longest time it has been argued that India woefully lacked a national culture policy. Ironically, the formulation of such a policy has been opposed by several committees set up by the Ministry of Culture itself for the express intention of designing such a policy. In June 2008, after several meetings held at taxpayers’ expense, yet another such committee of luminaries declared to the media that Indians were a disparate community, that there was hardly anything common between a Kashmiri and a Malayali or a Gujarati and a Mizo in terms of their culture and hence there was no need for a homogenised policy that served them all. The usual apprehensions of a unified or majoritarian imposition of cultural standards were expressed and the committee had a quiet, unsung burial.
As an artist and writer myself, this deeply bothered me. I shared this lament with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom we were privileged to meet at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Modi was most sympathetic to the idea and asked me to put my thoughts together in a concept note and share it with the Minister of Culture and/or the NITI Aayog for further action.
For any meaningful discussion on cultural policy or cultural activity in a country as vast and diverse as India, it is no doubt essential to keep in mind the complex, multi-layered and multi-dimensional cultural fabric of this country, which despite its diversities is united by that single intangible thread of Indianness, which defies definitions and boundaries.
A culture policy for a diverse nation like India (or for that matter any country, as my study revealed) is in no way an attempt to homogenise the country’s culture – an act, which is anyway impossible through mere legislations or executive decisions. After all, the more than 5,000-year-old civilisational history and culture of India has borne numerous challenges to be shaken by such a policy document. A policy of this kind is not even an attempt to define what the culture of India needs to be. In my view, a national culture policy needs to look broadly at effective ways of managing, promoting, preserving and showcasing this rich and vibrant culture and handle the economics of the culture ‘industry’ through a variety of innovative initiatives, new participation, governmental incentives, funding and public private partnership (PPP) models.
Based on this premise, I set out here to list a few elements of what such a policy might encompass. These salient features of a culture policy are independent of political agendas and ideologies and instead seek to put in place a robust and efficient system to run the culture industry in India – a crying need for decades now considering the rot that has set in, in most of the government-run cultural organisations. The culture policy can be seen as an area of intersection between activities and initiatives of various ministries of the government of India, such as Ministry of External Affairs, Human Resource and Development, Tourism, Commerce and Industry, Textiles, Small-scale and Agro Industries etc, and not necessarily just the Ministry of Culture (MoC).
1. Complete overhaul, rationalisation and effective management of existing cultural bodies coming under the government of India.
One of the biggest challenges facing the governmental intervention in the domain of culture is the lack of skilled administrators for the 45 odd organisations that fall under the MoC ranging from Sangeet Natak Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi, Sahitya Akademi, National Gallery of Modern Art, National Museum, National School of Drama, the seven Zonal Cultural Centres, CCRT, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) and so on. While performing artists are masters in their disciplines, they need not always be skilled and unbiased administrators who understand the fine nuances of management. Bureaucrats many a times consider a Culture Ministry posting as a punishment one as they are not exposed to or are not sensitive to the arts. Unlike most countries of the world, India lacks a discipline of “arts management” or “arts administration” that helps produce young, administrative talent specifically for managing our arts institutions, museums, monuments, libraries, art galleries and centres for performing arts.
In addition to mediocrity and inefficiency, most of the bodies under MoC have a huge duplicity of their functions. Everyone seems to be intent on rediscovering the same wheel, and that too over and over again. This is not something that the ministry is unaware of. In 1964, the Bhabha Committee was set up to analyse the ills facing the ministry and its report was submitted in October 1964. Result: NO ACTION. The Khosla Committee set up for the same task in 1970, submitted its report in 1972. Result: NO ACTION. The Haksar Committee set up in 1988, submitted a report in 1990. Result: NO ACTION. The last, but I am sure not the least in this series, was the High Powered Committee (HPC) set up in January 2014 under the chairmanship of Abhijeet Sengupta and submitted to the parliament with more than 220 pointed action items and recommendations. Lo! And Behold – yet again, NO ACTION! The HPC rightly points out:
“First, if the Government wishes to experiment with change in administrative systems, a small Ministry like Culture could be a starting point. Second, many of the changes we propose are not entirely new, they revisit the conditions that existed fifty years ago; it is since then that rigidity has set in. And, third, this Ministry is one whose very mandate should require it to interact with the young, with creative, independent minds: it has to be a catalyst for new beginnings.”
Most of our culture bodies on which huge sums of money are spent are leaderless. The institutions work in silos and do not talk to one another. Issues of autonomy and transparency dog most of them. Creation of new jobs and skills with specialisation must be a prerequisite for management of cultural organisations and not mere ad-hoc postings. The ministry must ensure that there is a proper roadmap and periodic performance audits of these bodies, to see if they are achieving the objectives for which they were set up in the first place.
Regional centres are set up as further money-guzzling mechanisms, with no sense of mission, objectives, or Agenda. A case in point is the IGNCA, which has been perennially in controversies for long. With a sprawling head office in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi and regional centres in Bengaluru, Varanasi and Guwahati struggling to make any headway, IGNCA has decided now to start many more regional centres in Ranchi, Srinagar, Goa, Vadodara, Puducherry and Kerala. Land would be acquired, buildings constructed, a battery of staff appointed, with no agenda on what is to be done. The maintenance of these inefficient white elephants gets paid by us tax-payers.
2. Enhancement of funding for India’s cultural industry through new participation models, including PPP.
China spends roughly 18 per cent of its budget on culture, education and science. The UK saw the support of an additional £8.9 million for culture in 2015, 25 per cent tax relief on orchestras and other creative activities, support to roll out WiFi in all state libraries and museums and so on. Most European countries spend about 1-1.5 per cent of their public expenditure on culture and the quantum of private expenditure in culture too is substantial in the relatively affluent countries. From 0.12 per cent spend in 2009-10 to 0.13 per cent in 2014-15 of the government of India’s budget it certainly paints a sad picture of the priority that is given to a country with such an ancient heritage and culture.
The UK has the concept of the ‘arts council’, which acts as the nodal agency for all matters related to funding the arts. The funding here comes as a mix of two sources – direct government funding and a large component through private investments in culture called the National Lottery. This funds a wide range of activities – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, crafts to collections; and helps them achieve their mission statement of “great art and culture for everyone”. Close to £1 billion of public money was invested in 664 arts organisations from 1 April 2015 to 31 March 2018. Of this £69.5 million per year comes from the National Lottery invested in touring and working with children and young people.
The budgetary pie for culture in India too needs to expand, and for this the government exchequer need not be the only source. Augmenting the funding for culture by combining government intervention with private initiatives, corporate grants and even foreign investment especially in tourism related projects is a way out. The National Culture Fund (NCF) of the MoC has been largely a non-starter. More tax exemptions and reliefs for donations to the culture industry and bringing it within the ambit of mandatory corporate social responsibility (CSR) can drive more corporates and individuals to adopt culture projects. Important projects could be adopted by high net worth individuals and even go by their name if that is an incentive that someone is looking for.
3. Inclusion of the cultural element among young minds by broad-basing the education system to inculcate a sense of national identity, pride and self-worth.
Swami Vivekananda points out that the defect of present-day education is that it has no definite goal to pursue. A sculptor has a clear idea about what she wants to shape out of the marble rock; similarly a painter knows what she wants to paint. But a teacher has no goal in what she wishes to make of the children. The end of all education, Swamiji opined, was ‘man-making’, manifesting in our lives as perfection, which is the very nature of our inner self.
Studies have shown that there are various levels at which cultural education can be part of the syllabus right from kindergarten. The first level is knowledge-based which teaches our children the best of what has been created and is being currently created in the performing and visual arts and literature. The second level helps develop children’s critical faculties through the introduction of courses such as music, dance, drama, painting etc. and the positive impact that it has on the child’s cognitive development, IQ, and personality is scientifically documented. The third level is skill-based where the child learns how to participate and create new culture for themselves. Not everyone reaches here and a child exposed to say Indian classical music, need not necessarily become a performing musician. But the positive spin-offs of such exposure at a very early age are unimaginable. It would also create millions of jobs for so many artists, who are all not lucky to make a living out of their art, and can now be teachers in schools at various levels.
The arts fuel children's curiosity and critical capacity. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ideals state them as every child's birthright. It is vital that children engage with the arts early in their lives. The arts contribute to the development and wellbeing of children and young people. They inspire future audiences and the next generation of artists and leaders.
At the level of higher education, it is a real pity that we in India lack institutions on Indology/Indic Studies or civilisational and heritage studies. We have outsourced most of this to Western scholars and cry hoarse each time they come up with a biased and warped viewpoint of our country, its culture and faiths. But is there a strong counter-narrative based on honest scholarship bereft of shallow jingoism or ideological biases? The answer is sadly, No! The predominant leftist agenda in education has made us feel perpetually inferior and ashamed of everything that is Indian. But then how long will we continue to quote Macaulay for creating the brown Englishmen or blame the Marxist intellectuals and wallow in self-pity, when the country has no agenda in mind to course-correct?
4. Looking at culture as a profit centre that provides jobs to people, enables skill development and vocational training and finds effective markets for the wares of artisans, weavers, artists, painters and craftsmen of the country in traditional and contemporary arts and crafts in both national and international platforms.
For long the Culture Ministry is seen as primarily a cost centre, which is also a grants body for various schemes and to which greedy artists flock to curry favours or lobby for awards. Sadly, the “soft power” of India’s culture and the manner in which this can be utilised for job creation, skill development and enhancing tourism in the country, which can transform it into a profit centre, has never been looked at.
Today with dwindling job opportunities many traditional artisan families are leaving their art to take up sundry factory jobs or enter low level tasks in the IT field and so on. The policy of the government must aim at providing economic stability to the craftsmen which would also give them a sense of pride in what they are doing for generations and also ensure enough returns so that they don’t abandon their hereditary task.
As part of the government’s Skill India Programme, a national institute for skill development in the traditional arts, crafts, textiles, handicrafts etc. should be set up or added to the NSDC. A curriculum and framework for certification must be created by the Institution in consultation with NSDC, NIOS, institutions of higher education and other stakeholders including private training providers. A sector skill council on traditional skills can be created by NSDC too to further give credibility to the certification. Indian arts, crafts, and textiles should find its way in every global market after being duly patented.
5. Clear roadmap to integrate culture to tourism initiatives and boost the country’s rich but latent, tourism potential.
As highlighted in the UN WTO 2013 report, tourism can account for 9 per cent of GDP (direct, indirect and induced), one in 11 jobs and 6 per cent of world exports.
Our heritage monuments, temples, palaces and forts count for among the best in the world and we have numerous world heritage monuments attested by UNESCO. But the infrastructure and upkeep around the monuments is abysmal. The Cultural Policy should dovetail with the tourism plan of the government in ensuring good infrastructure around monuments – clean, approachable and motorable roads, airport facilities, telephone lines that work, clean toilets and restaurants serving hygienic food.
This industry in itself can help employ millions of people in the area. The most exquisite monument cannot compensate for the ugliness of public defecation, garbage mounds and rivers of sewage – common in every Indian tourist spot. Beggars found around the monuments and temples can be gainfully employed around the monument. Digital multi-media presentations/sound-light shows, multi-lingual audio guides, qualified tourist guides, sufficient information and pamphlets at the sites would draw innumerable tourists. Heritage walks enhance the whole tourism experience and can be conducted with private partnership. In all these important sites opportunities for historical and cultural immersion in the local culture – local dance and music forms, arts and crafts, cuisine etc. and a market for local artisans to sell their products to tourists can thus be made.
On the lines of the English Heritage, the government of India must seriously consider a national heritage trust. Gone are the days when people looked at history books for learning about their past and heritage. They, and increasingly tourists, are looking at experiences that bring history to life in an engaging way standing on the very spot where history happened. The trust needs to offer a hands-on experience that will be educational for children, national and international tourists who come to the country.
India must make a push for more of her monuments for UNESCO Listing. There is an economic case too for this. In Luang Prabang, a World Heritage Site in Lao, the number of direct jobs increased from by about 10.3 per cent between 2000 and 2005 and the number of commercial establishments doubled, after it was UNESCO listed. As a result, direct employment in the tourism sector there has grown at a compounded annual rate of 8.5 per cent. Ankor Wat in Cambodia was listed as World Heritage in 1992 and since then tourists arrivals have grown at an impressive 21 per cent (CAGR) annually. In 1993, the tourist arrivals in Ankor Wat were about 1.2 lakh and in 2010 the recorded figures were over 25 lakh. Tourism receipts there too grew from $100 million in 1995 to $1,786 million in 2010.
6. Institutions for dissemination of cultural knowledge to the public at large through various media; Online being the biggest backbone for a “Digital India”.
A lot of the country’s tangible and intangible heritage needs to be preserved for posterity and also documented. We have lacked a sense of documentation and showcasing of our own very rich past.
Creation of institutions such as a national cultural audio-visual archive that can also be accessed online by everyone, and modernisation of our existing archives (National Archives of India, National Film Archives and State Archives etc.) and libraries, through technology and digitisation would create lasting legacy institutions for our country.
Museums are also one of the most significant revenue earners for developed nations, through tourist footfalls. The five most popular museums and galleries in both London and Paris receive more than 20 million visits between them while Shanghai’s and Istanbul’s ‘top five’ attract more than six million. ‘Newer’ cities too are keen to develop their museums and galleries. Singapore alone has more than 50 museums, and 40 per cent of its residents visit a museum or gallery each year. About 100 museums open annually in China, peaking at nearly 400 in 2011 alone. Is it not a national shame that just one museum in Paris (the Louvre) gets more than 1.5 times the number of visitors that all of India gets in terms of foreign visitors according to a past statistic of the Indian Tourism Department (9.72 million versus 6.29 million)?
Just in terms of international scale and standards, if we see the three cities with the highest number of national museums: Shanghai (27); Paris (24); Berlin (18) or with three cities with highest number of other museums: London (162); Berlin (140); New York (126) and even with cities with very little history, it becomes amply clear that we in India fall woefully short.
It is sad that in independent India there have been very few new museums that have been developed. Government museums make up for 90 per cent of the roughly 1,000 museums in India. In 2011, UNESCO published a scathing report on the appalling condition of India’s top eight museums, citing sub-standard maintenance, lighting and signage among other issues. But at the core are deep-rooted issues of archaic policies, lack of autonomy and skilled manpower and under-staffing. They are banned from all kinds of partnerships with private individuals or organisations and have to depend only on central funding for day-to-day operations. Professional salaries are not given to trained museum staff and hence modern curatorial, display and conservation methods are not followed in many cases.
While it might not be entirely feasible to develop museums in every city and town of India, major centres in the country could have the ‘museum district’ (like in London) or the ‘museum mile’ (in New York) set up with public private partnership to become a showcase of the culture and arts of the entire state and also for different facets of a state/city (For example – science, IT, sound, defence, cricket, etc. which have developed indigenously in Bengaluru). In addition to national museums, regional and community museums need to be encouraged and provided for to showcase regional culture and heritage. For instance, a botanical museum for the Western Ghats would be a unique asset. Going to museums must be a joyful and a deeply enriching and educational experience both for tourists and for Indians. Can we mention even one such museum in India today?
In line with the Government’s Digital India Project, the online medium should be used to the maximum extent to conserve, create and disseminate cultural artifacts of India.
7. Showcase and educate the international community about the best of India’s culture, heritage, traditional knowledge, performing and visual arts.
In most international forums, India and her culture are not showcased to the extent that it can be to depict its richness in all its glory. Through the network of embassies of India and consulates, regular dissemination of cultural artifacts of India, the best of the performing and visual arts, films and documentaries, books and literature should be periodically organised.
The soft power of Indian culture can and must be used to create jobs, not necessarily always in India, but for Indians across the world. The demand for Indian cuisine across the world itself is a market that is dying to be explored. Instead, what we find is that in most countries, so-called Indian restaurants are run by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
International co‐operation should be sought for setting up India studies chairs in major universities abroad where Indian scholars are invited to research and teach about India, her history and culture rather than leave it to Western scholars to create a warped view of Indian history and religions. Cultural cooperation agreements with various countries to get the best of what is happening world-wide to administer and disseminate culture is the need of the hour.
Like the recent inclusion of World Yoga Day, more art forms – classical music, dance, classical languages and traditional knowledge etc. should receive international recognition considering they are thousands of years old. An element of Indian performing arts and literature must be a given in all the major festivals across the world. We, and our culture, need to be seen, understood and appreciated.
An important aspect of international cultural co‐operation is a sizeable programme of scholarships/fellowships in different disciplines given to foreign scholars and artists to come to India and to Indian scholars to visit foreign countries. Most of these scholarship programmes need to be on a reciprocal basis. Cross-cultural projects and interdisciplinary studies can herald new ideas and avenues in the field of culture and can act as a soft tool for international cooperation and diplomacy.
Rabindranath Tagore had said: “Everything comes to us that belongs to us if we create the capacity to receive it.” The time has come now to build this capacity in the culture industry of India and make it a robust and streamlined one that not only provides jobs and revenue to millions, but creates a sense of national identity, self-esteem, pride and lasting legacy for posterity.
While it is essential that we become an economic and military super-power, I guess we would be a highly impoverished nation if, after a generation, our cultural heritage and identity is lost. As mentioned earlier, culture is not always about doling out grants, holding mega-festivals, or just about sob stories around lack of preservation. The economics of culture and the way it can enhance skills, augment jobs, and add to the country’s might by being both a profitable industry and also as soft-power diplomacy needs innovative and out of the box thinking.
As advised by the Prime Minister, I did meet the Minister of Culture and shared a much more detailed concept note (of which this article is a mere excerpt), as also with the NITI Aayog. But sadly, is anyone out there interested at all or are they listening?
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