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Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Why India needs a national culture policy

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‘Culture’ in India is an idea influenced by two contrasting views.

Either, India possesses a superabundance of culture and a great pool of talent – which takes inspiration from excellent Akademis – to work at preserving traditions, re-inventing them with new orientations and new media, and supplying burgeoning cultural industries with material.

Or, India has a creaky government framework to interpret culture and administer it, which is headed by the Ministry of Culture – a framework entirely without policy direction, surviving at whim on a shoestring national budgetary allocation.

Both these views are true, each incumbent upon where ‘government’ is located vis-a-vis culture. The former view is what we find the Ministry of Culture preferring to portray, ignoring the latter view, with which it does not engage. The ministry has since the years following Independence occupied a high ground and, having fortified itself with institutions and centres, is unable to speak a language other than the rosily administrative.

For this reason, because India in 2018 has a Ministry of Culture so utterly out of touch and out of tune with the teeming types of current discourse about culture (expressions, industries, media, collaborations), the insistence that a culture policy is needed, and needed quickly, is a welcome one. This need was given substance by an article in Swarajya titled, Whose Culture Is It Anyway? Why India Needs A Comprehensive National Cultural Policy by Vikram Sampath, and I am thankful to both the magazine and the writer for having opened a space to consider, debate and act on the subject.

To the question – why should India not have a national policy on culture? – the most dismissive replies have come from a constituency which says that we are a civilisation whose recorded histories stretch back at least five millennia, whose puranic histories reach back further still, and therefore have no need for such new artifices like culture policies.

This article was published by Swarajya in January 2018. It is a shortened version of the commentary available in full here: click for the pdf.

Whereas for artistes and practitioners, who are entirely submerged in their fields, the question of such integration is superfluous, there is the matter of Indian society: our families and households inhabiting more than 4,041 ‘statutory’ towns (465 of which have populations of above 1 lakh), and about 597,000 villages. It is for these families and households, and for the many kinds of social, community, economic, geographic and occupational networks that link and support them, that a cultural policy is to be considered.

Defining culture is certainly not what the policy is for. Doing so is unnecessary and will also lead to contentious arguments over definitions, which will inevitably distract one from why a policy is needed in the first place, as Sampath has set out in detail in his article. But a policy needs a statement about the subject it is setting a direction for, and in such a spirit, distilling the many excellent statements which our Akademis, artistes and intellectuals have given us, what emerges is that in India, culture is elaborated by us as expressions of our creativity and spirituality, including our language, architecture, literature, music and art.

It is also the way we live, conduct ourselves with each other, before nature and before god, the way we think, and the way in which we see and perform the world through attitudes, customs, and practices. Our cultures transmit to us an intrinsic understanding of the way our world works, and leads us to see what is important within that world, thus our values.

This is an organic view. The Ministry of Culture, the institutes and centres it runs directly and those autonomous to it, and state government cultural departments take a state view, seeking a connection with the Constitution of India. Article 29 of the Constitution states that “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same” and Article 51 A(F) of the Constitution states that “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture”.

The language and import of these Articles have very much to do with the Constitution’s overall message of rights and duties, and therefore it is not able to embrace the creativity, ways of living, understanding between human and nature and traditions of expression that contribute to ideas about and practices of cultures.

In his article (based on a concept paper submitted to the Ministry of Culture and NITI Aayog) Sampath has listed and explained the important elements a national policy on culture must contain. These are: (1) Complete overhaul, rationalisation and effective management of existing cultural bodies under the government, (2) Enhanced funding for India’s cultural industry, (3) Bringing culture to young minds by allowing education to inculcate a sense of national identity, pride and self-worth, (4) Enabling skills development and vocational training so that artisans, weavers, artists, painters and craftsmen find markets, (5) Integrating culture with tourism, (6) Disseminating cultural knowledge to the public through media including digital, and (7) Educating an international audience about India’s culture, heritage, traditional knowledge, performing and visual arts.

This is a sound list as it blends current concerns (they have been current since the early 1960s!) with contemporary ideas of arts management, the place of cultural industries and the need to place culture more centrally in education. As part of my work for the UNESCO 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage, the management of creative products and goods, the matter of livelihoods and incomes (not only of artistes but what the Convention refers to as tradition bearers), and infusing formal curricula in schools and universities with an understanding of cultures and their practicing, are all indeed central.

Moreover, it is over a decade since UNESCO itself began to not only re-frame but to act towards greater cooperation and collaboration between its cultural conventions and between several long-running programmes in which culture is central. These are the 2003 ICH Convention, the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, the 1972 World Heritage Convention, the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme, and the UNESCO Memory of the World programme. Whereas earlier these functioned quite isolated from one another (largely because of the structural barriers in the ways they were conceived to work and be administered) today integration has become visible.

I mention this because governments often look to an inter-governmental system for guidance or direction, and India takes a justifiable pride in being a member of UNESCO since 1946, with 36 monuments, sites and structures on the World Heritage List, with 13 elements listed by the ICH Convention, with 10 protected areas and natural reserves under the Man and Biosphere programme, and with nine archival and textual repositories in the Memory of the World programme.

Such integration is a far cry from what we inherited as being legislated ‘culture’ which had to be ‘administered’. Hence young post-Independence India considered culture and heritage as being born out of enactments of government, an attitude that ossified itself so solidly it continues into 2018. As examples we have The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites Remains Act, 1958 (and Rules, 1959), The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 (and Rules, 1973), The Delivery of Books’ and Newspapers’ (Public Libraries) Act, 1954, The Public Records Act, 1993 (and Rules, 1997). We even had The Treasure Trove Act of 1878!

Likewise, institutes and centres that have to do with manuscripts and books, archives, libraries, cultural objects and art holdings, museums, classical arts foundations are governed by acts and rules, and these include some of the most well-known centres of India: the Asiatic Society, the Victoria Memorial, the Salar Jung Museum, the Khuda Bakhsh library, the Kalakshetra Foundation and the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial.

It may not be poetic licence to claim that imagining the forms of national cultural administration through these legislations, rules and acts would cause the younger generation of Indians to call to mind gloomy hallways filled with massive bookcases, whose great keys lie rusting on pegs in some dim anteroom, attended to by geriatrics who may have been the only readers if at all of the mouldering tomes they watch over.

It is a picture not altered by bright paint, shiny new racks and computer terminals because the vintage grip of these legislations has not relented, nor has the opportunity such cultural ‘legislation’ gives to those who would command and control centres as petty administrative fiefdoms. Sampath says as much: “everyone seems to be intent on rediscovering the same wheel, and that too over and over again” and “regional centres are set up as further money-guzzling mechanisms, with no sense of mission, objectives, or agenda”. This is what points to a signal difference between institutions established by legislative fiat, and those which emerge from an application of cultural policy, regardless of whether they are state-controlled or receive budgetary support from central or state governments.

In September 2015 when the UN member countries adopted what is called ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development’ (the 2030 Agenda in short), also adopted were the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs). UNESCO had since 2013 argued for the greater inclusion of culture, if not as a standalone SDG then as central to several SDGs. An SDG on culture did not materialise, but the efforts to have one did lead many countries to think more holistically – and inventively – about the place of culture in national development. Today, there are 111 countries that have adopted a national development plan or strategy, and out of these 96 include references to the cultural dimension.

It is far from a template adoption. The UNESCO 2018 report, ‘Re-shaping cultural policies: advancing creativity for development’, which explains how the 2005 Convention on Diversity of Cultural Expressions is being implemented, has sounded a note of worry that there are a large number of countries which acknowledge the cultural dimension “primarily as an instrumentality, as a driver of economic or social outputs” and moreover that “across the board, the environmental impact of cultural production and artistic practice itself is not yet taken sufficiently into account”.

How important are development – by which is meant a development that is ecologically harmonious and which contributes to social cohesion rather than inequity – and environment in the framing of a cultural policy? I would like to illustrate using two examples from my work for UNESCO in recent years.

Our neighbour Sri Lanka in 2017 embarked on a drafting of a national policy on intangible cultural heritage (ICH), which would supplement, enlarge and strengthen the work being done under the country’s National Cultural Policy and its National Policy of Traditional Knowledge and Practices. This drafting (advised by UNESCO) was steered by the Ministry of Education, Government of Sri Lanka, which ensured a wide-ranging series of consultations to assist and benefit the tradition bearers and practitioners of ICH and local knowledge systems in Sri Lanka. For the practitioners of these arts and crafts, every kind of material they use, every way in which it is fashioned, every place from where it is gathered, the functions which their creations fulfil, the meanings attached to those functions, all these are guidelines considered cultural.

The second example is from Cambodia, where UNESCO’s work towards deepening and strengthening the recognition of and support for traditional practices, knowledge and cultural expressions had as its backdrop the needs of a population for which four out of every five households lived in villages. Reliable sources of income throughout the year, securing multiple streams of livelihood for the members of a households, finding income and livelihood from activities that were tied closely to agriculture and cultivation or fishery, ascertaining the role and potential of handicraft and hand weaves – all these proved to be concerns that fundamentally tied culture with the environment, and the training, consultations and distillation of learning from meetings over six years (2011-16) had emphasised this tie.

In both countries – just as it is in India and throughout South-East Asia – the use of nature’s resources is as common as is its integration with culture and heritage. The connection with the natural world, for communities in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, has been particularly intimate. Traditional names of villages reflect their inhabitants’ perceptions of the environment that surrounds them. Place names incorporate kinds of vegetation. Paddy lands are classified in a number of ways, where the grain is threshed and winnowed are given specific names. So too are river floodplains, groves of low trees, highland and lowland cultivation areas. Biodiversity is the basis for indigenous and local systems of medicine and treatment, and are extremely significant in social practices.

Is such an approach possible with the government cultural machinery? I take as an answer a statement in the ‘Report of the High Powered Committee on the Akademis and other Institutions under the Ministry of Culture’, 2014: “What is most crucial today is that the Ministry of Culture accepts that it is stuck in antediluvian systems and that change is inevitable. Indeed, it must guide that change assiduously, else the bureaucratic control centre would be ‘out of sync’ with the outside environment.”

This latest report on the Ministry of Culture and its institutions was referred to by Sampath, who in an exasperated tone noted that its recommendations at the time of his article (2017) had not been acted upon, and such inaction followed exactly the same responses to predecessor reports completed in 1990, 1972 and 1964, all having made recommendations with none being acted upon. If cultural institutions such as the three Akademis (Sangeet Natak, Lalit Kala and Sahitya) are to be managed and budgeted for, and a training centre (the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training) is to be maintained, do we need a Ministry of Culture for the purpose?

The 2014 High Powered Committee report has explained that we do, because the Ministry has to work as a “point of coordination for cultural expression, and a catalyst for the dissemination of that expression through the encouragement and sponsorship of multifarious artistic activity”; it “has to guide the people towards higher expressions of the arts, and enable us to differentiate between mediocrity and excellence” and has also “to protect our heritage, both tangible and intangible, through research and documentation, and at the same time prepare us for new pursuits in the creative world.”

I agree with these reasons, but do not think it is or ought to be the prerogative of the Ministry alone (zonal cultural centres included of which there are six) to accomplish these tasks. Neither does this work become the responsibility of the constellation of centres, institutes, libraries, archives, arts foundations and research societies recognised by the Ministry. This is why a national policy on culture for India is needed, which will help explain the duties we have towards our inheritances, and will help construct a superstructure of competencies and human resources, supported by relevant pedagogies, financial channels, collaborations with allied sectors of the formal and informal economies, and which will inform policy and its implementation with the values that sustain our society.

It was as long ago as 1993, at a UNESCO-sponsored meeting held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, that the basic distinctions that exist between anthropocentric and cosmocentric approaches to the question of cultural identity and development were reflected upon. The participants discussed what constitutes culture and development not individually, but as an integral holistic notion including linguistic, ecological and ways-of-living identities. It is in this spirit that I once again thank Swarajya and Vikram Sampath for reopening a discussion which should never have gone out of vogue, and which, I hope will take on both a new urgency and a new vibrancy.

[This article was published by Swarajya in January 2018.]

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Written by makanaka

February 5, 2018 at 22:38

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