Reverse Swing: Artistic production in the era of institutional cop-outs
The sudden love of the Centre for museums and galleries, in the absence of any attempt at evolving a well-thought-out ‘policy’ on the matter of cultural institutions, reeks of cunning instrumentalism seeking to transform these museums into agencies of chest-thumping propaganda.
It is a self-evident truth, universally acknowledged, that the arts need an environment within which to flourish. The environment may sometimes be nourishing and sometimes hostile. But the arts also need, along with inspiration, talent, and creativity, an infrastructural soup within which to froth and bubble.
But we live in strange times, when sudden official proposals and announcements towards expanding such infrastructure alert your antennae to impending dangers. One such is the Prime Minister’s unabashed statement last month in Kolkata about the scheme to ‘reinvent, renovate, rebrand, and rehouse’ five Indian museums to international standards – ‘reinvent’ being the keyword here.
On the anvil is the iconic Indian Museum, Kolkata, as well as museums in Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Srinagar. Without much irony, the PM said that his government is working towards putting “the cultural potential of India in a new shape” before the world, to bring the country on to the world map of heritage tourism. The ‘new shape’ seems to be a brainchild of the PMO, rather than any considered proposal of museum experts and scholars. The museums have been identified now as yet another arena for a bruising engagement with the daily fabrication of history and ‘reinvention’ of material evidence.
The surprise announcement was that of a proposal to set up an Indian Institute of Heritage Conservation, with a deemed university status, to help create the personnel and infrastructure for running and maintaining these museums.
This ad hocism is both suspicious as well as exasperating. The sudden love of the Centre for museums and galleries, in the absence of any attempt at evolving a well-thought-out ‘policy’ on the matter of cultural institutions, reeks of cunning instrumentalism seeking to transform these museums into agencies of chest-thumping propaganda.
To begin with, the record of the Indian State, not to speak of the present regime at the Centre, has been particularly deplorable when it comes to running cultural institutions. Last May, an inexplicable fire at the National Museum of Natural History, Delhi, reduced several precious exhibits to ashes, including a millions-of-years-old, pre-historic, dinosaur bone. Though there was some outrage, one has not heard of any specific proposal to protect other equally precious museums from such disasters. The buildings where some of the best artefacts from our subcontinental past are housed continue to remain a mish-mash of unwieldy architectural monstrosities with unplanned extensions, ancient (museumization-worthy) electric wiring, and plumbing infrastructures. Leaky roofs and damp walls are a uniform feature in these uninspiring spaces.
The problem begins with the plain and simple fact that we, as a nation, have simply no clue as to why we need museums. Post-Independence, mimicking Western societies and a few existing colonial inheritances, we developed a clutch of museums across the country, but we completely lacked the imagination to foresee what kind of trained personnel would be needed to run and maintain these in good health. The museums under the Ministry of Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had no synergy with the Ministry of Education. Architecture courses paid scant attention to the needs of museum structures. The number of universities with courses in museology, archaeology, conservation, heritage studies, numismatics, epigraphy, etc, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
By the time India was 60 years old, we were facing a true-blue crisis. According to the Ministry of Culture reports itself, across 70+ museums under the ministry, there was a cumulative shortage of some 1,500 trained personnel. Several galleries in the prime museums, including the National Museum in Delhi, were sealed shut for years on end due to lack of qualified curators. The few graduates from the National Museum Institute, a deemed university run by the National Museum itself, were invariably absorbed by private museums. Museums in India were gasping for breath, manned by untrained bureaucrats who, more often than not, saw it as a punishment posting. This is the equivalent of pushing brand new ‘bullet trains’ on to the track and then discovering we lack trained drivers or linesmen or maintenance staff to operate them. It is a function of planning, and planning can take place only if there is a policy in place.
In the given atmosphere of large-scale apathy and abysmal fund allocations for cultural institutions in the country - the latest annual budgetary allocation for the Ministry of Culture at Rs.3,150 crores, continues to be less than 1% of the total budget outlay of over Rs.30 lakh crores - one cannot but conclude that these institutions, even at their inception, were designed to fail. Art is too anarchic and potentially subversive. Governments realise the advantages of keeping arts and its institutions starved unless they can bend it to their own narrow purposes. The above amount is supposed to be split between the ASI, the museums, the Akademis, the NGMAs, the National School of Drama, the FTII, the IGNCA, ZCCs, the national archives, libraries, the Kala Sanskriti Vikas Yojana, and other such schemes. Considering the total worth of the Indian visual art market alone is close to Rs.1,500 crores, the government’s scattering of a few pennies in that direction smacks of rank tokenism.
This is despite the Constitutional mandate to fulfil the ‘cultural well-being’ of the nation’s citizens as per Part 3, Articles 29-30 and duties expected of them, as in Article 51(A). Realizing the citizen’s ‘cultural well-being’ is integrated into the DNA of our Constitution and every citizen should expect delivery on that front, along with economic, social and political well-being.
However, consider the manner in which the governments went about it. The National Museum came up in 1949. The three Akademis – Sangeet Natak, Lalit Kala, and Sahitya Akademis – came up by 1953. The National Gallery of Modern Art was formed in 1954. These were to be followed within a few years by the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute in the 1960s. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts was set up in the 1980s.
At the first centrally convened symposium on the arts, simply called ‘The Drama Seminar’, in 1956, one of its convenors, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, mooted a State-run performance space or auditorium for every state. By 1960, these had actualised as Tagore Theatres or Rabindra Kalakshetras in all state capitals – except in Tamil Nadu, which strongly resisted and rejected Central institutions on its soil.
But here the story of India’s flirtation with cultural institutions seems to end. Within a decade of the setting up of the Akademis, the rot seems to have set in and, based on a continuous slew of complaints, the government begins the exercise of cobbling together a chain of ‘review committees’ to look into the functioning (or malfunctioning) of the institutions.
Starting with the Homi Bhabha Committee in 1964, the five subsequent decades witnessed ten major review committees. Till the year 2005, it used to average one ‘review’ process in a decade. But in the one decade since then, till 2014, the crisis seems to have intensified enough to merit the convening of five review committees to find solutions for the terminal decline that the Centre-run institutions seem to have slid into.
A quick listing of the committees (and their heads) will map the track we have run.
1964 – Homi Bhabha
1972 – Justice G.D. Khosla
1989 – P.N. Haksar
1998 – Girish Karnad (to review NSD)
2005 – Broad-Based Committee or BBC (for NSD)
2009 – N. Subramanian (for LKA)
2010 – Kishen Khanna (for LKA)
2012 – Mani Shankar Aiyar (for Zonal Cultural Centres)
2013 – Sitaram Yechury Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on the functioning of National Akademis and other cultural institutions. (This, by the way, was the 201st Parliamentary report on the functioning of cultural institutions.)
2014 – Abhijit Sengupta’s High Power Committee (HPC) report on Akademis and other cultural institutions.
A quick perusal of these five decades of reports will reveal that they are all, more or less, spotting the same flaws, and earnestly repeating the same solutions. For example, the 2013 Yechury report says (p.5, 27): “The Committee feels that the entire field of art and culture did not get the required attention for decades, despite the foresight and commitment of the Founding Fathers who knew the significance of ‘culture and arts’ in our efforts for nation-building. They set up these institutions because they knew that this power is superior to other forms of power”. Here it is almost echoing the 1989 Haksar Committee report.
Or Yechury (p.7, 37): “The Committee found that the secretariat of these cultural institutions were manned by people who have little idea/knowledge about how to manage Arts and Culture. Many of them lack professionalism required in the field”. Or Yechury (p.9, 49-50): “The Committee reiterates all its observations made about the functioning of our premier cultural institutions in its 171st… and 169th report…submitted earlier to Parliament. In fact, the report on hand is a result of the callousness and apathy noticed on the part of Akademis as well as the Government to any attempt to reform these institutions. The fate of a number of important reports such as Bhabha Committee (1964), Khosla Committee (1972), Haksar Committee (1989)…is a testimony to this as no actions have been taken on recommendations of these committees. These Akademis are always mired in one controversy or the other. Our Founding Fathers gave them autonomy to keep the politics away from culture but today politics seems to have crept into them from the back door…As a result, these institutions have failed to live up to the expectations and are being misused by those in power selectively by marginalizing/ignoring deserving others.”
Strong words that led to the setting up of the Abhijit Sengupta HPC (2014). In fact, the Sengupta report endorses all the above points, additionally pointing out that the pathetic budgetary allocations for cultural institutions, right from the early years, has continued to date, and that the less than 1% public spend on arts and culture hardly matches the aspirations of “a country moving towards a place at the international high table’.
To reiterate, there is no possibility of any corrective action here in the absence of a clear policy outline. We will continue to flounder through grandiloquent claims on museums and past glories, even as we preen at official claims to repatriating stolen icons displayed in museums abroad. But if these artefacts do return, we will have no idea how and where to house them. The story of over 1,400 objects seized, over the past five years, by the Idol-wing of the Tamil Nadu Police is a case in point. Antiques in stone, wood, and bronze have all been dumped in the parking lot on the premises of the CB-CID Economic Offences Wing, exposed to sun and rain and the sheer vagaries of officious bureaucratese, waiting for the cases to get resolved, in slow-motion, over the next couple of decades.
Of course, since 2014, the idea of ‘institutional failure’ just does not arise, as we are in the capable hands of deft pilots who continuously manufacture ‘success’ out of thin air. As soon as the Modi regime took over, all cultural institutions were asked to sign an MoU that they would henceforth function as ‘subordinate offices’ of the Ministry of Culture. In this case, when the institutions themselves are lying paralysed and moribund, the question of ‘failure’ need not even be considered. These were institutions that died at birth due to the deliberate choking of energy necessary to sustain their life. In thermodynamics, they call it entropy.
The main proposition in this piece was first presented in a paper under the same title at the Kerala Literature Festival, Kozhikode, on January 16, 2020.