Do We Need a Ministry of Culture?

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By Janani Ganesan

Indira Gandhi National Centre for the arts New Delhi 1987
Indira Gandhi National Centre for the arts New Delhi 1987, Illustration: Samia Singh

THIS IS the story about an almost inconspicuous ministry, directly under the prime minister till six months ago and under Kumari Selja now — the Ministry of Culture (MoC). In the course of this story, the National Museum, New Delhi, the biggest museum in the country under the ministry, was approached for a comment. The senior staff of the National Museum responded that only the director-general of the museum was allowed to talk to the press. The only hitch is that the museum, which houses two lakh works of art, hasn’t had a director-general for 15 years.

The Scandals
In a ministry that specialises in the invisibility cloak, scandals are also of the slow-moving and still-life variety. Here are some small indicators that point to the deep rot:

• Recently, the news emerged that Indravan, the guest house for visiting scholars at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi, had been turned into a hotel. A private hospitality company had been given the contract to run the guest house, which is on the IGNCA’s campus on 1, Janpath. Instead, Indravan was being advertised as a 24-room boutique hotel on the hotel’s website. IGNCA claimed it was unaware of this activity. Further, the MoC refused to intervene since the IGNCA was an “autonomous institution” and not directly under it. IGNCA was established in 1987 as a world-class centre for “research, academic pursuit and dissemination in the field of arts”. Sanjoy Roy, who heads the arts management firm Teamwork Productions, says, “IGNCA was never completed and its fund allocation to complete the building was not sanctioned. Today it has a skeletal budget. It had a grand plan with a super idea that has now been allowed to fall apart without adequate resources.”

• In 2011, Ashok Vajpeyi, chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, amidst much resistance from his institution, ensured that India had a pavilion at the Venice Biennale for the first time — an invitation at the art world’s equivalent of the Olympics. What most of us don’t know is that in 2007, the ministry refused an offer to be a part of the Biennale because it was not interested in spending money and going there. Among the countries that did pay for their artists to go were Angola and Uruguay.

• The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report in 2010-11 estimates that in the National Library, Kolkata, three lakh books didn’t reach the shelves due to delays in processing and merely 1 percent of rare newspapers were digitised. The report also mentions that 64 out of the 83 fire extinguishers in the building were not refilled for over four years. One careless smoker and our national heritage could be up in flames. The National Library is directly under the MoC. Meanwhile, reports from the Controller General of Accounts (CGA) state that Rs 13 crore allotted to public libraries lapsed in 2009-10 without being used.

• More from Kolkata. For those irked by the lèse majesté of Kaun Banega Crorepati’s recent use of a Subhas Chandra Bose verse in their promos, here is something to be actually bothered about. According to the 2010-11 CAG report, rare letters written by Bose, Tagore and Sarojini Naidu have been stolen/lost from the National Library.

• Mumbai-based art curator Girish Shahane explains how art and antiquities are handled in India. “We have serious gaps in our legislation. I curated a show for which a German artist’s piece had arrived. And it was held up by customs, saying it is obscene. Now, how can the customs department censor the arts?” Similarly, as this story goes to print, another artist’s works are being ‘exhibited’ at an airport rather than an art gallery. IGNCA was slated to exhibit India-born artist Krishna Reddy’s works this season. But Reddy’s works have been held up for the last month at the Delhi International Airport, because the IGNCA forgot to procure a permission letter from the MoC, to bring in art pieces from abroad. While its late request is passed around in the MoC, a renowned artist’s works sit unclaimed while IGNCA pays for its storage at the customs.

IMAGINE THE familiar Indian landscape of bad roads and half-done bridges. Now transfer it to the sphere of Indian culture and then you will have a sense of where we are. Incomplete works of digitisation in important archives, abandoned upgradation of public libraries, theft of precious artefacts, perpetual construction, empty museums and dying art forms.

Victoria Memorial Hall Kolkata 1921
Victoria Memorial Hall Kolkata 1921

‘Indian culture’ is a phrase that is constantly being served and lobbed past our ears. What is being debated — clothes, late nights, alcohol, sex, prayers — is actually in the realm of oughts and ought nots, in the realm of morality. The phrase seems to have little to do with the arts or our heritage or even history. We do have a Rs 1,000-crore Ministry of Culture with the mandate of “preserving, promoting and disseminating all forms of arts and culture in the country”. Today, there are 41 institutions under it (of which 33 are autonomous), ranging from the well-known National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi, to the relatively obscure Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh. We even have a parliamentary standing committee on transport, tourism and culture headed by Sitaram Yechury that is required to review legislations, demand for grants and the ministry’s annual reports.

Nancy Adajania, cultural theorist and art critic, points out that it was Nehru’s propagation of internationalism from the Global South that led to the establishment of the three academies — Lalit Kala, Sahitya and Sangeet Natak — in the 1950s. Four years after his death, the Triennale India was established in 1968, which brought together artists and art works from different countries to India. This was conceived as a counter to what Adajania calls “the hegemonic Venetian model that concentrated on the propagation of Western art”. Such was the proactive role of the state in promoting the Indian arts and making an international statement.

The culturati marvels that after 64 years of Independence, India has still not been able to create a museum culture or spread knowledge about contemporary Indian art, neither at the elementary school nor at the global level. On the other hand, two years after achieving machine-tool perfection at the Beijing Olympics, China organised an international expo at the same scale in Shanghai with 250 participating countries and 73 million visitors. The site was crowded with scores of national pavilions, sculpture gardens, shops and a $270-million sports arena, a performing arts centre shaped like a flying saucer and a kilometre-long display of art.

But let us discard international comparisons for now. If you look closely at our sarkari institutions, you end up surprised that any culture exists at all.

Follow The Money

National Gallery of Modern Art New Delhi 1921
National Gallery of Modern Art New Delhi 1921

Every year the MoC lets crores of rupees lapse in the national coffers. The CGA report of 2009-2010 states that of the Rs 1,296 crore allotted to it that year, the MoC returned Rs 111 crore. Similarly, Rs 99 crore was surrendered in 2008-09 and Rs 96 crore in 2007-08. Thrifty? Not really. The budgetary process begins in December with the institutions forwarding their demands to the MoC, which then forwards it to the Ministry of Finance. In the budget session, the Parliament votes on these demands. After several months of such debates, usually close to a year, the MoC receives the funds, which it then allots to the institutions that asked for them. However, since the institutions are in a state of inertia by then, no action is taken and the funds lapse. The accounts are replete with instances of either non-completion of projects or ‘non-finalisation of programmes’ — in Victoria Memorial Hall, National Archives of India, Archaeological Survey of India… let’s just say it’s a long list and leave it at that. And thus two years have passed during which buildings crumble, artefacts decay and scholars contemplate the joys of the US and Europe. The MoC shrugs off responsibility. Its secretary Jawhar Sircar says, “The autonomous bodies are headed by very senior people. Our job is only to allocate funds to them.”

Over a fortnight, the directors of the following institutions remained unavailable for comments to this story — Archaeological Survey of India, Victoria Memorial Hall, National Archives of India and National Library (see box). Here is some add-on bizarreness. On several occasions in the latter half of the financial year, when nothing much is happening, the MoC requests additional supplementary grants (in 2010, this was to the tune of Rs 20 crore). Why ask for more when you are plainly unwilling to do anything with what you already have?

Jawhar Sircar Secretary, Ministry of Culture  ‘When the ministry demands an explanation for its institutions’ inaction, the heads tell us: don’t be so rude, why are you scolding us?’
Jawhar Sircar Secretary, Ministry of Culture ‘When the ministry demands an explanation for its institutions’ inaction, the heads tell us: don’t be so rude, why are you scolding us?’

Jayachandran Palazhy, director of Attakkalari, an affluent and influential dance school in Bengaluru, says. “I had applied for funding from the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2009 as well as 2011, to organise an international dance festival. But we didn’t even get a response.” Palazhy might feel less thwarted by Sircar’s description of what happens when the ministry questions the inaction of institutions: “The heads tell us ‘don’t be so rude, why are you scolding us’.”

An exasperated Sircar lashes out at the “biggest defaulters” whom he identifies as the Indian Museum and the Victorial Memorial Hall, both in Kolkata. “I’m annoyed with the management of the Museum. The previous director simply refused to spend funds as he did not want any enquiries against him (for excessive spending),” he says. This is one of the peculiar reasons why the institutions under the MoC don’t want to spend; others vary from the usual red-tapism to a discordant institutional set-up. Sircar, who has been in the ministry since 2008, says that in 2010-11, the MoC “successfully” spent the funds allocated to it by reshuffling funds from departments that were not utilising the money. All that reshuffling can ensure is that the funds do not lie idle.

Shiny, Happy People

Leela Samson: Director, Kalakshetra  ‘My first joint secretary in the ministry said to me, ‘You may fault me for indifference, but never for interference.’ And he was right. He never interfered, till I was screaming in frustration’
Leela Samson: Director, Kalakshetra ‘My first joint secretary in the ministry said to me, ‘You may fault me for indifference, but never for interference.’ And he was right. He never interfered, till I was screaming in frustration’

Much is expected of the current MoC secretary. Fifty-nine-year-old Sircar is earnest, willing and interested in the arts. His well-wishers point out that he has been unable to do much in the two years of his tenure and will retire next year. Rumour has it that he is looking to stay in the art world after retirement. The right person in the right place is not something the MoC can boast of very often. The perpetually headless state of the National Museum is a good place to begin. Ask Sircar why the Museum doesn’t have a presiding deity and he says no single professional has seemed qualified enough. “We even tried to go out of the UPSC pattern and appointed an expert committee to find someone, but in vain,” he says. The Museum has, for the past 28 years, housed the National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology, within its campus — an institute that seeks to create museum curators.

Two different curators, both highly qualified and with years of experience, both of whom were approached for the position in different decades, told TEHELKA their stories. Based in the south, curator No. 1 says, “I applied. I was called for several meetings in Delhi. It went nowhere.” Curator No. 2, based in the north, was sounded out for the position a couple of times but never heard anything officially. “The ads for the position are so vague, it’s absurd,” he says, adding, “You will see exhibition officers apply. You will see people who retired from the museum apply. No one knows how much the pay is. No one knows what you will be allowed to do. If you have an existing career, you give up on the idea quickly.”

If the institution is outside Delhi, there may not even be an effort to fill the vacancy. The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai, has not had a director of its own since 2005. Girish Shahane asks, “Why should the director of the Delhi NGMA overlook the NGMA here in Mumbai? When NGMAMumbai had its own director there was at least one show every two months. Now nothing much is happening there. Delhi seems to have become more important than the rest of the country.”

There are plenty of square pegs in the round holes in the MoC. Partha Mukherjee, treasurer of the Indian National Committee of the International Council of Museums, illustrates the efficiency of directors of other institutions. “Many holding the posts of directors don’t deserve to be directors,” he says, pointing to their lack of arts background.

Instead of IGNCA, Reddy’s works are languishing at Delhi Airport. Reason: IGNCA forgot to get permission from the MoC

Leela Samson. You could call her superwoman or an example of our human resources crunch. She is the chairperson of Central Board of Film Certification, director of Kalakshetra and the chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. She recounts a telling anecdote, “My first joint secretary in the ministry said to me, ‘You may fault me for indifference, but never for interference’. And he was right. He never interfered till I was screaming in frustration.” In the years since, she has grown more tolerant. “Some are indifferent, some decent, some political, some wonderful minds trying to cope with the best they can. Some do not want to be where they are. They are expected to understand the various forms of art, the idiosyncrasies of artists, the history of institutions and decide their future. Artists are known to not have much clarity on matters related to anything but themselves. Ask them about another art or artist and you get differing views and biased advice. So who does one ask?”

Why are we lying in The gutter staring at The stars?

Sanjoy Roy Managing Director, Teamwork Productions  ‘Who doesn’t appreciate art? Those who turn out to watch Ramlila? Those who go to the Durga Puja pandals? In India, all 1.3 billion of us think we are creative and can sing a song, tell a story or dance’
Sanjoy Roy: Managing Director, Teamwork Productions ‘Who doesn’t appreciate art? Those who turn out to watch Ramlila? Those who go to the Durga Puja pandals? In India, all 1.3 billion of us think we are creative and can sing a song, tell a story or dance’

Ashok Vajpeyi, chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, blames the middle classes for receding from the narrative of history: “If people don’t care, why will the Government?” Sanjoy Roy, whose company organises seven cultural festivals in India, including the Jaipur Literature Festival and 17 annual festivals across the world every year, disagrees rather vehemently, “Who doesn’t appreciate art? Those who turn out to watch Ramlila every evening in street corners across the country? Those who go out to see the Durga Puja pandals or the lighting installations? In India, all 1.3 billion of us think we are creative and can sing a song, tell a story or dance. Our arts are alive and kicking.”

Then why don’t we get a sense of this hyper-alive culture even in the richly endowed but deserted compounds of monuments in Delhi? State-run is the catchword here. Be it the street-corner Durga Puja pandals or the excellence of Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art or the Devi Art Foundation, these shows are individual initiatives.

India doesn’t have a culture policy. This might be because the creation of a culture policy in a country as heterogeneous as ours is too dangerous a tinderbox for anyone to touch. But in the absence of a policy and any commitment to cultural activity, do we really need a Ministry of Culture? Could privatisation be the way forward?

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Funded Decay

An alarming number of projects remain incomplete with institutions under MoC letting the funds lapse

Archaeological Survey Of India
Rs 7 cr

Victoria Memorial Hall
Rs 18.96 cr

National Archives Of India
Rs 1.77 cr

National Library, Kolkata
Rs 4.23 cr

Indian Museum, Kolkata
Rs 22.63 cr

Source: The CGA report 2009-10 (include funds lapsed and reappropriated to other projects)

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Unfortunately, no. Not even the most exasperated of our respondents wished the State to step out of the game altogether. Says Samson, “One person with a dream and a few good friends can make a huge difference to the arts. But private bodies serve small communities and are for the few, by a few.”

The market, as we know in other realms, is not god-like in its munificence. It can destroy, skew and distort the arts. Abhishek Hazra, a 34-year-old Bengaluru- based artist, is lucky to be working at a moment when the Indian art market is healthy and the vibrant alternative art scene loves his science and tech-entwined work. He says, “We need some meta level cultural policy that enables the ministry to engage the popular without being populist — a difficult negotiation no doubt. And while I don’t want ‘experimental’ and ‘avant garde’ art practices to get tightly coupled with state patronage, at the same time, it is also true that sustained institutional support can be crucial in remedying this popular perception of contemporary visual arts as being closed and elitist.”

In institutions outside Delhi, efforts to fill the vacancies are halfhearted. The NGMA, Mumbai, has not had a director since 2005

Shahane expands the canvas, “At least the visual arts get support from private galleries. But I think the performing arts need more support from the state, considering the absence of other support mechanisms.” Playwright Ramu Ramanathan adds, “Theatrewallahs have been infantilised by the profession. There’s a professional organisation in all countries that runs the theatre movement. In India, the NSD does the same. It doles out subsidies to mediocre ex-students. This overprotection marginalises one in the creative culture.”

The Way Forward
Creating a review process for the institutions under the MOC is an urgent necessity. Almost everyone in the arts and culture world suggests the promotion of arts management courses to create able administrators. The idea holds promise but sometimes the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle seems to be a work ethic. Rajeev Sethi, chairman, Asian Heritage Foundation, was a member of a commission formed by the MOC in 2006 with an aim to introspect on its functioning. He says, “We had some shocking findings. There are museums that don’t even have light bulbs.”

Adajania suggests a modification. “If our academies are languishing,” she says, “it is because we lack the larger political and cultural vision to make them dynamic. Since it is beleaguered by rampant inefficiency and lack of political will, it needs to work in partnership with private foundations. A foundation has the liberty not to compromise itself at the altar of the market. It can even support innovative art practices. For instance, at the Venice Biennale, the national pavilions are produced by art foundations or NGOs mandated with this task by the respective states.”

Rajeev Sethi Chairman, The Asian Heritage Foundation  ‘In a commission formed by the Ministry of Culture in 2006, we had some shocking findings. There are museums that do not even have light bulbs’
Rajeev Sethi Chairman, The Asian Heritage Foundation ‘In a commission formed by the Ministry of Culture in 2006, we had some shocking findings. There are museums that do not even have light bulbs’

There are examples that can be drawn from other developing democracies. Roy praises Brazil’s idea of planting huge centres of art in the middle of slums, which has resulted in pulling the kids off the streets and into the centres of learning. The Philippines, Adajania says, has a good model, where museum culture, art pedagogy, critical culture and the conviction that cultural action can contribute to a larger logic of political awareness all go hand-in-hand.

To be responsive, we need a strong cultural policy and a strong political will and vision, both of which are singularly lacking today. Today, our cultural institutions are as good as the oddballs who run it. If we are lucky as we are occasionally, it is an oddball who is sacrificing better prospects for a quixotic vision of culture. To actually have the culture that we talk so proudly of, India would need more than luck.

Janani Ganesan is a Trainee Correspondent with Tehelka.
janani@tehelka.com

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