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Spaces for art

Friday, August 17, 2018

Cultural influencers came together in Mumbai recently to discuss ways to build eco-systems and improve policies for Indian creative industries. Menka Shivdasani listened in

As India tries to build its reputation as a global economic powerhouse and taglines like ‘Make in India’ take centrestage, creative industries generally get short shrift. After all, what use is a work of art, or a poem?

Yet, according to Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the Indian art market was estimated at around Rs 15.8 billion in 2017, having witnessed an annual growth of six per cent—impeded only by demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST).

FICCI believes that there are enough employment opportunities in arts and the sector can easily increase its contribution to the national economy. The Durga Puja in Kolkata generates Rs 40,000 crore a year, according to one survey, while there are two lakh daily footfalls in each of the 5,000 pooja pandals there.  There’s no reason to believe it would be any less in our own, grossly over-populated Mumbai.

For creative industries to flourish, however, the right spaces must be built and cultural sensitivities recognised. On August 11, FICCI, along with AVID Learning, drew attention to the issues involved during a summit titled ‘Smart Cities, Art Cities’. “We need to draw our attention to good governance for the arts and through the conference we hope to open dialogue and affect change on cultural policy, education systems and infrastructure development for the creative sector,” Asad Lalljee, CEO, Avid Learning, SVP Essar Group, and Curator, Royal Opera House, said.

The day-long conference brought together industry experts, policy makers and game-changers, among others, to ideate on finding solutions to these concerns. Key government officials, such as Nirupama Kotru, Jt. Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Vinita Srivastava, Jt. Secretary and Mission Director, National Mission on Cultural Mapping, and Sanjeev Palande, Director, Culture Affairs, Maharashtra government, were among those present, along with Dilip Chenoy, Secretary-General, FICCI, among several others.

Speakers across the spectrum discussed ways to encourage the arts; as FICCI noted, the Ministry of Culture has the smallest budget allocation in the current government, whereas the general expectation is for more investment in the sector, given the importance we all attach to our rich ancient culture and the need to keep them alive.

A survey of all 99 identified smart cities found they fared badly on identity and culture; in fact, they seemed totally disconnected. Yet, the potential is rich; for example, open, or useless areas under flyovers can become spaces for arts and artists to flourish, FICCI observes. Instead, in our haste to build urban sprawls, much of our cultural heritage spaces are being demolished. As Sanjoy K Roy, Managing Director, Teamwork Arts, Co-Chair, FICCI Art and Culture Division and the man most of us associate with the Jaipur Literature Festival, points out: “It is important to explore the synergy between heritage, art, culture, within the context of our burgeoning cities and the needs of its citizens to live a balanced life and find the opportunity to explore and maximise their talent.” Sanjoy also spoke of the disconnect between culture and industry. “We look at art as a ‘handout sector’ and do not bat from a position of strength,” he said.

The Bhau Daji Lad museum in Mumbai is an excellent example of how old structures can be revitalised and culture safeguarded. The building was restored, with 3,500 objects, and a museum of contemporary art came into being. Today, it is a vibrant space for the arts and offers a platform for rich discussions, film screenings, heritage programmes and much more. 

Tourism was the subject of some discussion, with FICCI pointing out that creative industries needed to focus on this sector in order to find sustainability. Tourism contributes 9.6% of our GDP and generates 220 billion dollars, employing 41 million people. “We need to engage with tourism,” said Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, Managing Trustee and Honorary Director of Bhau Daji Lad Museum. “It is the other side of culture. After all, tourists are not coming here to see new malls and roads!” Tasneem also felt that in order to preserve our cultural heritage, public-private partnerships were vital.

Sangita Kathiwada, who was representing the Kamal Morarka Haveli Museum and Shekhawati Arts Festival, stressed the need to bridge urban and rural divides. The Festival offers local craftspersons the rare opportunity to display their prodigious skills to the world.

In the galaxy of speakers, Malvika Singh stood out. Ms Singh, who is an author, publisher and member of the Chief Minister’s Advisory Committee for Rajasthan, showcased various various cultural initiatives and spoke of how it had been possible to create them at the request of the chief minister but with little or no government funding. The interventions included getting local painters to paint the walls of the Sawai Madhopur station with images of the Ranthambore forest – a suggestion by tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar, (10 Rajasthan railway destinations were also surface painted); revamping of 18 state museums; the Masala Chowk with  food stalls; and The Jail Shop, where inmates of Bikaner Jail create amazing carpets.

A key takeaway from her talk was that if you want to do something, it is important to just begin; the solutions will emerge as you go along. “Instead of the usual practice of two meetings a year, the Advisory Committees took decisions using an email round-robin to communicate and recommend,” she said. “This eliminated the endless delays that have been the malaise of public/ private partnerships and reduced unnecessary expenses.”

Several fascinating insights came to light during the panel discussions—the fact that the arts can create tangible wealth; that it is possible to create cultural spaces anywhere if you are determined to do so (witness Dharavi Design Museum on Wheels that Kruti Saraiya, its creative coordinator, spoke about); that definitions of art and culture keep changing.

One remark that resonated with this writer long after the conference ended, however, was a statement by Ashutosh Phatak, Founder, True School of Music, and co-founder, The Quarter.

“A dhoti-clad fisherman walked into our School one day;” Ashutosh remarked. “His son wanted to sign up for an Electronic Dance Music (EDM) course, and the father was willing to spend Rs 4 lakh on it!”

The fact is that so long as culture continues to transcend all boundaries, we will always find ways to create the spaces that we need.

Some government initiatives…

But they are not enough

Culture mapping of India—120,000 villages in 620 districts with a budget allocation of Rs 490 crore;

Eighth Theatre Olympics at the National School of Drama;

International Kala Mela at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi;

Print Biennale at the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi;

Rashtriya Sanskriti Mahotsava in various cities;

Festivals of India abroad.

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