Opinion

A people’s palette

There are many paths to pursue while supporting art and artists in these tortuous times, and this may mean an upending of the way the show has been run thus far

The arts make us whole; they are what endure in civilisations, the intangible that brings life to life. This is true and one emphatically endorses the rhetoric, but we are at a time when the majority of people in the world cannot even dream of bringing that enhancement to their barely sustainable lives. In the Global South, this is the starting point for philanthropies working in the arts.

A report released earlier this year by the nonprofit Sahapedia states that India’s Ministry of Culture has been allocated an average of 0.11 percent of the central government’s annual budget over the last decade. This is the reality that informs how the trickle of funds available for the arts is optimally utilised, how we design programmes and who we design them for, and how we can invest in small, strategic steps that lead to giant realisations.

Deepika Sorabjee

Deepika Sorabjee is head, arts and culture, at the Tata Trusts.

People and infrastructure are the pillars here. Art is a human construct and practitioners need infrastructure to flourish. Enabling systems are needed to allow for passions, pedagogy and practice to determine lasting expressions.

Currently, in terms of funding, the focus seems to be on the outcome — the event — and the majority of funding is consumed here. This includes festivals, panel discussions, digital output and art products. While one could argue that these are necessary, it cannot be as skewed as it has become, where the cost of actually allowing an art form to flourish is compromised for the ‘market’. How should we refocus our attention and why?

Sir Ratan Tata and Sir Dorab Tata, two of the founders of the Tata Trusts, were keen aesthetes. Mandated in their wills to do so, the Trusts have been consistent supporters of the arts in India. In a period as tumultuous as 2020-21 has been, what does it mean ‘to support the arts’? Why do we need to in a country where the bare necessities are still out of reach for so many?

In the performing arts, the nature of Indian dance and music, while remaining the same in training and practice, has undergone seismic changes in the last few decades. Moving from private gatherings and temple grounds to proscenium stages, with ticketed audiences, business patronage and an altered reception of the art itself, a dependency has grown to meet ‘market’ demands.

Footfalls, ticket sales and sponsorships — metrics that often eschew the quality of art for the acceptance of particular art forms by particular audiences at particular venues — have become the overriding points when any programme is considered. This has resulted in a gradual erosion of inclusiveness in access for struggling performers as well as less-advantaged audiences.

Investing in people

Establishing an emerging art form or helping preserve a dying one is effectively achieved, as we have seen at the Trusts, when programmes invest in people — teachers and students — over a sustained period of time. Pedagogy supported at institutes has seen students with the Tata Trusts fellowships emerge as professional performers. The pedagogues themselves (practitioners, gurus, teachers), thus, exponentially increased the presence of the practice to its highest degree and, simultaneously, established it as a thriving art form.

The Trusts have never been in thrall to the event, preferring to concentrate on integrity of instruction and sustained support over long phases to establish a critical mass of practitioners. While funding comes easier for art education in school, it is at the tertiary level, where standards are falling or don’t exist at all, that urgent support in restructuring curricula or bringing in professional training anew is required to cultivate excellence.

The Trusts’ support for conservation across built heritage, art conservation and film preservation has shown us the challenges that each throws up — whether it be with the paucity of conservators, lack of requisite laboratories and standards in art and film preservation or, for that matter, governance and training that needs revitalisation, as in the case of built heritage.

India can be the global university for ground-up conservation, given our millennia worth of cultural material. But, sadly, there is little structured training with long-term aims of establishing labs or training courses in specific materials. Indeed, awareness among officials and the lay public is fuzzy about what conservation really is.

Through programmes that the Trusts have pioneered, either with funding or design, we hope to show by example the way to not only create a cadre of specialised professionals within the arts but also the economic driver that the arts can be, for both government and the private sector.

The impact of digital technology has been felt across the board in the arts, in conservation, the performing arts, art education and craft. As the pandemic shut down performing venues, exhibition spaces, institutions and sites, the further shift to digital was swift.

The rush to the digital stage, however, has brought to the fore the deep inequities inherent not just in the arts; how economics, education, region and gender can impact access to participation in this digital world, as well as how some programmes cannot have a digital life. Much like doctors who have to be hands-on with their patients, conservators, too, have to be onsite to attend to their patients: buildings and objects.

For so many of us, there was this abundance of art — film, literature and music — made available for free or for an affordable fee. But this required access to basic equipment, data packages, language or just the permission to partake of it all. It was universal, unfolding across continents, and left us all deeply reflective about the way forward.

It is not easy, especially in countries like India, with deep social and economic divides and diverse languages and customs, to frame inclusion strategies; somebody is bound to be excluded. It must be acknowledged that in now privileging the previously left out, the current actors in the art world may have to sit out some time themselves.

A new way beckons

To feel the struggle of understanding art in another language, sharing programmes between institutions as funds get scarcer, supporting certain regions over others, investing in infrastructure in the arts rather than events — there are many strategies to pursue that may mean upending the ways in which the show has been run thus far.

As the focus shifts to the collaborative efforts of the Global South, it should be ensured that the ‘souths’ in these ‘souths’ are handed the reins. For too long has a certain elite within the ‘souths’ themselves perpetuated the inequities they call out.

Finally, in a country like ours, where art forms exist in abundance, these differences and traditions must be celebrated. Scaling up here has no meaning if that means dilution of differences to suit a universal palate.

The arts in our country cannot be thought of either as one whole or a particular craft blindly scaled up. We need to go back to the drawing board and build the infrastructure, a task that may not be as alluring as a quick-fix art product or event, but one that will more robustly sustain the future of art.

India can be the global university for ground-up conservation,
given the country’s millennia worth of cultural material, believes
Ms Sorabjee