April 2016

Fostering of India’s deep cultural diversity needs to be inclusive, pluralistic and contemporary

Sorabjee, who anchors the Media, Arts and Craft portfolio at Tata Trusts, speaks about lack of interest and resources in arts and the Trusts' efforts to remedy it

For centuries, India’s rich cultural traditions have continually been enriched by internal re-interpretation and by outside contact through trade and conquest. In its wealth of cultural diversity, India is unique — it could represent a continent in the number of deep traditions that exist. Yet, nearly 70 years post-independence, many traditions are fast disappearing, a built heritage is threatened, and newer forms face discrimination as being non-traditional. The very diversity that is India’s cultural strength, is besieged by a growing lack of awareness.

Deepika Sorabjee
The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005, acknowledging the actual discouragement in the arts in the current system of education (deemed as “useful hobbies” “leisure activities”), observes dispassionately that “… general awareness of the arts is also ebbing steadily, not just among students but also their guardians, teachers and even among policy makers and educationists.”

That is practically the entire art community involved in pedagogy! Interestingly, the NCF had summed up the mindsets of both society toward the arts and that of the art community itself.

So where does one go from here? Our government spends approximately 1% of the GDP on health. Does one really expect the government to spend on the arts? We can be despondent like all today, yet entrepreneurs with passion exist, even in the arts. One such that Tata Trusts support is the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF), whose co-founders Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu decided to put up, against all odds, the biggest democratic, non-profit, art start-up that the country has seen in recent times — the Kochi Muziris Biennale. They did what others couldn’t do — past governments or any of the stakeholders mentioned in that National Curriculum; not policy makers, not teachers, not educationists nor others that make up the art world; not gallerists, collectors, or investors. They filled in a gap that was glaring — an inclusive art education initiative, with the commitment of a few sensitive government officials and a lot of passion. And more importantly, rather most importantly, they did it for the sake of art with no expectation of personal return, much like what the government should do, and what philanthropy does.

Philanthropic institutions cannot be the government. They make substantial difference to a community by supporting projects and initiating programmes to fill in the lacunae that exist. Education in the arts is one such lacuna that the government and art institutions fail to fill, not only due to economic reasons, but right now, due to a severe dearth of mentors, gurus, maestros, teachers, facilitators — call the imparters of an aesthetic or an art education what you want.

While Tata Trusts have been engaged in thematic areas such as conservation, performing arts and craft, newer initiatives are being undertaken. Education in the arts is one such initiative. With art forms being multivalent, the projects supported and initiatives embarked on vary: from working towards introducing a master's degree in contemporary dance, working on training modules for conservators, an exhibition and conferences on the state of architecture, to collating digitised material on an online platform.

Working with Kochi Biennale Foundation, Tata Trusts support the Student’s Biennale, an effort that trains young, selected curators and engages with over 50 colleges in tier 2 and tier 3 cities all over the country, to work with faculty and students and eventually present the best work in a parallel exhibition simultaneously with the Kochi Muziris Biennale. A video lab will document artist interviews, practices and talks through the next biennale while training young filmmakers. This is a programme that takes art to the art community, to reassess, to re-invent, the tertiary level in art education that is crucial.

By involving students, teachers, and curators and through conferences, they are implementing what has been talked about thus far. How will we know what the state of the schools are without actually visiting them? How will we know of the aspirations of art students outside metros without actually having a dialogue with them? How will we know if there is guidance, if we don’t know who is shaping their minds? At the opening conference of the Student’s Biennale in Kochi in November 2015, Cochin University’s Vice Chancellor Dr J Letha spoke with understanding — that art tutors should be given complete freedom with regard to the curriculum, as it cannot be taught like the sciences and that universities should only oversee the administrative side —“artists are not administrators”.

The programme cannot fix the entire system — that is so daunting that it would defeat the purpose at the start. Perhaps, continuing a dialogue that started with the last Student’s Biennale and KBF’s commitment to future ones, it will slowly throw up the guardians of the future. A critical mass in any venture has to be built up for it to be successful, and this is a start. Future interventions could extend to faculty strengthening programmes, devising a new curriculum, or choosing one or two colleges in a region to anchor and act as galvanisers for others around, or mobilising public-private partnerships in these identified colleges, or even smaller more frequent exercises, like ones that take a busy, established artist back to a home state or home college to teach and inspire, even in intermittent bursts.

The Student’s Biennale is an opportunity in a world that is not always equitable or accessible to all. By bringing the students to Kochi alongside the main biennale, it brings visibility to many who would fall outside the contemporary art radar. It exposes them to national and international standards in contemporary art practice. The Ernakulam District Collector MG Rajamanickam stressed that art should be made “a necessity of society” and recognised KBF’s efforts in initiating that change — that rooted in Kochi, KBF has taken on a pan India inclusiveness, at a time, when the very idea of inclusiveness is seemingly being questioned.

Deepika Sorabjee anchors the Media, Arts and Craft portfolio at Tata Trusts, leading the areas of work in conservation, performing arts and art education. She obtained her medical degree from Grant Medical College (Mumbai University) and the Sir JJ Group of Hospitals, and a diploma in Indian aesthetics from Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. She is a writer with independent views and writes for various publications and online sites on the city and contemporary art.