Classical versus folk, rural versus urban. A radical report points to how we might access the arts again, says Poorva Rajaram
ANY WELL-INTENTIONED government project set up a quarter century ago would struggle to make news today, so let’s not hold that against the Zonal Cultural Centres (ZCCs). Rajiv Gandhi set up the ZCCs across India in 1985 to ensure greater access to culture and the arts in nonurban areas. The seven ZCCs are located at Patiala, Udaipur, Nagpur, Thanjavur, Allahabad, Kolkata and Dimapur. Since urban Indians have the benefit of auditoria, akademis and festivals, these centres were meant to ensure affordable cultural access in non-metro areas. They organise activities like crafts melas, workshops, exhibitions, theatre, artist scholarships and cultural yatras.
Over the decades, things haven’t gone as envisioned. Rajya Sabha MP Mani Shankar Aiyar was present at the original meeting where Gandhi and his culture ministry came up with the idea of ZCCs, and last year Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked Aiyar to chair a committee to evaluate the programme’s performance. The three-member committee of Aiyar, filmmaker Amol Palekar and poet and scholar Sitakant Mahapatra met for the first time on 27 August 2010 and released their findings publicly on 11 April 2011. The committee spoke to 59 witnesses, including cultural eminences like Amjad Ali Khan, Leela Samson and Sonal Mansingh, and between the committee they made visits to all the centres. The report identified deep structural problems like overspending on infrastructure, too many urban-centric events, cowering to the Ministry of Culture and, most problematically, sidelining of the core idea of providing widespread cultural access to Indians.
According to the report, the ZCCs have become “excessively bureaucratised and insufficiently creative”. What makes the ZCCs special is partly what they are not supposed to be. The centres were supposed to keep away from state capitals in the hope that they don’t become yet another governmental plaything. They were meant to be creatively autonomous centres to disseminate existing arts and document dying ones. Instead, they ended up with an inevitable urbancentric focus on the classical arts at the expense of folk and tribal arts. At the heart of the committee’s recommendations is one impulse: how do we stop tribal and folk art forms in India from dying because modern economies are rendering self-sustaining artistic livelihoods defunct? And, as corollary, how do we find a way to provide greater cultural access to potential audiences?
“If you ask me in a nutshell what the ZCC is all about,” says dancer Prathibha Prahlad, “it’s about dealing with artistes at grassroot levels. The ZCC is about folk and tribal artistes. The fact is that a whole lot of folk artistes are surviving because of ZCCs.” Aiyar disagrees, “The ZCCs are not really for folk artistes, they are for the rural audiences.” He adds that one of the main problems has been that they “were unable to communicate the idea to our very middle-class audiences”. This time around, there has been an effort to energise public attention — with the indirect carrot of how an Adivasi cultural renaissance can be a balm to Naxalism. “The phrase emotional integration was a cliché of my generation,” says Aiyar, “because Jawaharlal Nehru used it so often. But alienation is the root cause of Naxalism. The need for emotional integration in this country is far greater than it was in the 1950s and 60s.” He adds, “The truth is folk and tribal art forms are more in need of patronage than the classical ones, which have now started being funded by NRIs. As far as the ZCCs commercialising any of this is concerned, that isn’t our goal. Right now, we see an extraordinarily vulgar presentation of tribals in Bollywood that otherwise does an excellent job of national integration. One would hope that tribals get a widespread and authentic representation in the mass media.”
In his report, Mani Shankar Aiyar admits the centres could do with a name change since the current ones (SCZCC, NCZCC) ‘reek of fertiliser distribution’
WHILE SUCH evaluation reports can themselves become a happy cog in an oily bureaucracy, the ZCC report stretches past the perfunctory towards some radical suggestions. And the committee members aren’t afraid to go for the jugular, such as when Aiyar admits in his report that the centres could do with a name change to help their image, since the current ones (SCZCC, NCZCC) “reek of fertiliser distribution”.
The fight to change the programme’s direction lies in the nitty-gritty of daily functions. One crucial recommendation is a financial revamping — as part of their larger vision to make sure the ZCCs aren’t the poor cousins of Delhi-based cultural centres, the committee has proposed increasing their corpus from Rs 20 crore to Rs 50 crore, so they might sustainably survive off the interest. Another is a recommendation to overhaul the guru-shishya parampara scheme, which offers a way for teachers and students to receive patronage and construct a livelihood.
The committee came to the reluctant conclusion that the country needs a separate Folk and Tribal Akademi — similar to the Lalit Kala, Sangeet Natak and Sahitya Akademis. They recommend that this national akademi work with another new body that would oversee the functioning of the individual ZCCs — the Indian Council for Zonal Cultural Centres (ICZCC). In their committee interviews, it’s clear that the artists don’t want bureaucrats without cultural knowledge running the ZCCs, and suggest wresting official control of the programme from the governor’s office to lessen red tape. Says Leela Samson, chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, to the committee, “The whole staffing pattern needs to be revamped. We have to ensure programme coordinators have a background in the field. Currently, there’s an ordinary clerical staff of government departments.” At the core of most of the committee’s recommendations is the hope that the ZCCs function with more autonomy — both financial and creative.
One possible danger that could arise from the ZCCs is that non-affluent audiences will be circumscribed to a loop where they can access only folk and tribal arts. Aiyar is clear that the ZCCs are not here to create classes. “We can’t say classical arts are only for Delhi’s Siri Fort auditorium,” he says. He also emphasises the need to encourage experimentation with mixed and hybrid media.
Given the odds of celebrity- obsessed media and aching slowness of government reform, the report brings some welcome energy to this flailing institution. But the real work to imbue the ZCCs with life will only begin once Delhi bureaucrats open the report and enable change as far away from the Capital as possible.
Poorva Rajaram is a Correspondent with Tehelka.