In England, a range of cultural activities are state-supported.
JUST recently, Mumbai played host to a series of concerts which were regarded by everyone as an unqualified success. Sangat 2002 featured as many as 15 top class musicians from all over the world: some were of Indian origin now doing well in the highly competitive world of classical music in the West; others came from England, from Iceland, from Germany, from Denmark, from Russia, from America ... .
In other words, a truly international cast assembled for a few days and played chamber music from composers from the 18th to the 20th Century. Not just that, the musicians also conducted Master Classes for local amateurs who rarely get an opportunity to interact with world-class musicians. This culminated in concerts where the finale featured a large group of these local musicians playing with their international counterparts: they had learnt from them, rehearsed with them, and now played alongside them. It was a memorable event for everyone concerned, especially so for audiences which packed the Tata theatre.
Now for the most remarkable aspect of the Sangat concerts: the concerts were arranged entirely through private voluntary effort, with no government help at all.
In the absence of any grants or government largesse, the ladies who form the executive committee for Sangat, used the age-old method of raising funds through corporate sponsorship. They, of course, are not alone in this. The Prithvi Theatre Festival, an annual event run by the Shashi Kapoor family, stopped trying to get government funding years ago, preferring the sponsor route to state grants where there was more red tape than rupees.
Isn't something wrong somewhere? In every enlightened country, cultural institutions cannot possibly run without substantial government funds. A case in point is the situation in England. The National Gallery the monumental building which dominates Trafalgar Square is state funded. It relies on public donations and trust funds for acquiring the most expensive works of art, but is otherwise run with money from the local council. The same applies to a whole host of galleries such as the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Gallery and the new Tate Modern. Without these (and similar others in other centres in Britain), the vibrant art scene in that country would be nothing. Contrast this with the scene here: after years and years of effort, a National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) was opened in a wonderful old building in Mumbai. The building was gifted by a private trust while the government pays for its upkeep and for the salaries of its staff (the director of the gallery, by the way, works free). But even some five years after opening, the NGMA has no funds to acquire any paintings or sculptures for its own collection!
To continue with England's example, just look at the range of cultural activities that are state-supported: there's the National Film Theatre, the British Film Insitute, the Royal Ballet, the Convent Garden Opera House and the pride of Britain, the National Theatre.
There are others, but this partial list tells us how every possible cultural field receives state help.
Why not ours?
The old argument that India is a poor country doesn't wash in a situation where so much of our national budget is allocated to wasteful expenditure.
There is money around; what isn't is a sense of priority. A country which puts so little money into health, education and culture is making the fundamental mistake of not investing in its own future.
What the government does do is what it shouldn't. To state the obvious, it shouldn't play the kind of negative role illustrated by the Sangat concerts where the entertainment tax would have been so high that the concerts were made free instead.
It also shouldn't fall into the trap of making grand gestures. One of the grandest, and most futile, is to gift away government land to well known artistes. The futility comes from the low success rate of these ventures. And why should that surprise us? Great musicians or great dancers or great painters don't necessarily make great administrators; on the contrary, they make rotten ones. Pandit Ravi Shankar, for example, started and closed down three institutes for music, one each in Mumbai, Los Angeles and Varanasi. Music composer Naushad Ali has been promised a 2,000 square metre plot in Mumbai for an institute for classical and film music. But Naushad started, then abandoned, a similar institute three years ago in Lucknow. (It's now become a marriage hall).
Other artists like dancer Sonal Mansingh, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Debu Choudhary have done nothing about land given to them. Even older institutes like Rukmini Arundale's Kalakshetra once successful are now close to collapse.
The government should also not take on itself the job of running cultural institutes for the simple reason that its officials are temperamentally and procedurally not equipped to do so. We have had enough time over 50 years to prove this to everyone.
So what is the solution? Simple enough: scout the country for private bodies like those which run Sangat and Prithvi, ensure that they have an outstanding track record, then fund them and leave them alone.
Obviously an eye will need to be kept to ensure that the bodies stick to their charter, and an unfussy, minus-the-red-tape procedure is laid down for finance and accounting.
This is disinvestment of the kind no one is talking about. Privatisation of non-profit areas like the arts does not mean throwing everything to commercial wolves; it means finding mechanisms for running them efficiently with minimum interference. This will lead, in a few years, to a flowering in our arts the like of which we haven't seen for years and years.
Who will make 2003 the year when our Renaissance begins?
Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.
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