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Culture’s silenced exiles

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Detail from a photograph of Toda men, from ‘An account of the primitive tribes and monuments of the Nilagiris’, James Wilkinson Breeks, 1873

FIVE WEEKS after Italy imposed a lock down on its citizens, the United Nations on 15 April 2020, which is ‘World Art Day’, explained that “with billions of people either in lockdown or on the front lines battling the covid19 pandemic”, the day picked to celebrate world art (the birth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci) “is a timely reminder that art has the power to unite and connect in times of crisis”.

The agencies of the United Nations system have for over seven decades busied themselves, when not pondering or influencing the fates of humanity, with inventing days, years and even decades for all sorts of projects and concepts: environment, education, the girl child, oceans, AIDS, indigenous peoples, Africa, science and so on. Since these demand sometimes lengthy preparations for worldwide events for a particular day, or even better, for a specially designated year, they are popular with UN agencies for their ability to swell budgets.

Like many other messages from the UN and its agencies about its celebratory days and periods, the message that accompanied World Art Day 2020 was maternally saccharine. “Throughout self-isolation, art has nonetheless been flourishing. Pointing to performers tapping into their creativity to relay health guidelines and share messages of hope – as well as neighbours singing to each other on balconies, and concerts online,” gushed UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The Mona Lisa was “revisited in a variety of ways, including images of her self-isolating in the Louvre Museum, or covering her enigmatic smile with a surgical mask” which according to UNESCO “is how, despite the crisis” showed “art is demonstrating its resilience”.

But culture and resilience have other dimensions, many of them very different to what is envisioned by the world’s cultural authorities. By early May 2020, it had become clear to all those in the throbbing tourist hotspots of South-East Asia that the squadrons of flights bringing tourists were not going to resume soon. When they would resume, no-one could say. The popular markets of the region, to which tourists thronged and from which local families derived their regular incomes, fell silent – Chatuchak in Bangkok, Kuta in Bali, Phsar Chas in Siem Reap, Ben Thanh in Saigon, Divisoria in Manila, Glodok in Jakarta.

Calabashes of the Thonga tribe, eastern coast, southern Africa. The smallest are used for keeping medicinal powders. Those with long handles are used as bottles or for drinking. From ‘The life of a South Africa tribe’, Henri A Junod, 1912

These are the famous ones, the ones that get written about in glossy travel magazines and are the subjects of tens of thousands of pithy ‘reviews’ by travellers. For each of these, there are hundreds of local markets that cater to local needs. In these humbler but no less important smaller and provincial markets, the wares on offer and mix of stalls is decidedly different, the accent being on what rural and small town households need and can afford. Curio kiosks and pop art counters, fingernail salons and smoothie bars are not part of these marketscapes.

Regardless of the difference in these two kinds of markets, the “resilience” that UNESCO mentioned is very much more a characteristic they can claim than can the Louvre, the Uffizi Gallery, the Tate Modern, the Rijksmuseum or any of Europe’s most visited cultural and art centres. But while state-funded museums (whose capacious treasuries are well attended to also by private art foundations) can survive closures that are months long, local markets cannot, because their resilience must be renewed every day. This is what the wave upon wave of lock downs all around the world have damaged, in some places likely permanently. The lock downs are, for those familiar with the marketscapes and the creative ambiances they include, culture killers of a kind never before seen.

The lock downs that began in February 2020 did not pause to discriminate between the commonly recognised grades of culture: high culture, contemporary (or even pop) culture and folk culture. In Europe especially, ‘high culture’ is surrounded by government, arts foundations, arts councils, academic institutions. Where it manifests or is nurtured, in cities, are awe-inspiring structures designed to project pomp and power. Orchestra houses, national galleries and museums are typical of such structures. A great deal of money is mobilised every year to maintain them. In France and Germany, spending by government under the head of culture approaches some 2.3% of the annual budget. In the USA, the comparative figure is under 1%, but American arts foundations tend to be better endowed.

IN CONTRAST IT IS THE OTHER TWO GRADES – contemporary and folk culture – which receive very little of the culture budgets that remain, and compete or struggle for the small grants and project funds that city councils and private foundations give out. Between these two, it is folk culture, in all its diversity, that is the worse off, not least because it straddles so many subjects at the same time, such as indigenous peoples’ rights, environment and ecology, traditional knowledge systems, living heritage. It is also folk culture that is the fountainhead of the world’s handicrafts, hand weaves and household arts traditions and products. These include basketry, rugs and carpets, woodwork and wood carving, canecraft, the spinning and dyeing of yarn, the weaving of fabric on shuttle looms or waist-looms, incense sticks and aromatic oils, decorative metalware, lacquer, tapestries, traditional toys and games, jewellery as the most common.

The lock downs choked not only the world’s tourist flows (which spur the making of handicrafts) but also, in every metropolis, city, town and district centre, choked the normal commerce that provides the baseline sustenance that local artisans and creative collectives depend upon. What has been seen often in the last 15 or so years, with the establishing of ‘creative cities’ networks (notably in Europe), is the blending of the three typical grades of culture in festivals, extending the benefits of state sponsorship which flows disproportionately to the top cultural tier, to the other two as well. When museums shut their gates, galleries downed their shutters and theatres switched off their lights, the locales for such festivals disappeared from urban landscapes.

A Chuktia Bhunjia home in Odisha, India. Mud walls and thatched roof.

A Chuktia Bhunjia home in Odisha, India. Mud walls and thatched roof.

‘High’ culture moved online, fitfully and awkwardly. Museums essayed everything from virtual tours to guided meditation and home children’s workshops. Symphonic orchestras began to run livestreamed performances. Avant garde design studios experimented with commissioning works that were supposed to represent responses to the pandemic. Literary societies hosted weekly online reading groups. Indie film-makers mixed and spliced footage from a smorgasbord of ‘on location’ cast members filming at home. Musicians did the same, collaborating by being patched in to sound studios.

These attempts to maintain a facade of activity were at best cosmetic, a falling in line by the centres and institutions that embody ‘high’ culture not only with lock down restrictions but also to have their regular visitors receive the same bland yet menacing message – stay safe, stay home – but from a source that is not government, not medical authority and not administration, a source which until January 2020 represented the very core of what is meant by ‘civilisation’ in ways that are fundamentally and necessarily different from what is meant by ‘economy’ and ‘technology’. The lock downs and their restrictions did not remove from households and families either economy or technology, but they did remove culture.

This removal finally, in late December 2020, when the “cancelling” of Christmas became one more administrative cudgel, was recognised by the UN and UNESCO. “It is not only the sector itself that has been hit hard, people have also lost access to cultural events. Since covid19 hit, many concerts, art events and festivals have been taking place online. However almost one in two people globally cannot access them due to issues such as lack of internet connectivity,” said UNESCO. Its choice of words was mendacious, for what had removed culture was not a respiratory disease but lock downs.

Its grudging admission of the elemental connexion between culture and social life was quickly given an economic cast. “The culture sector, which employs more than 30 million people globally, has been hit much harder than expected by the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout. The film industry alone could lose about 10 million jobs this year, while a third of world’s art galleries could cut their staffing by half or more. What has been in effect a six-month closure of concerts and performance, could end up costing the music industry more than $10 billion in lost sponsorships, while the global publishing market could shrink by 7.5 per cent,” UNESCO said.

The UN system agencies that have anything at all to do with creative community energies and the knowledge systems of communities – chief among them being the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Health Organization (WHO, especially where traditional medicinal systems are concerned) and UNESCO – trot out the term ‘resilience’ very often. They use this term usually in conjunction with the Sustainable Development Goals and with Agenda 2030. It is designed to sound caring and humanistic.

A woman of the Badjao (the sea gypsies of South-East Asia) cooks in the kitchen of a stilt house in Borneo. Photo: David Kaszlikowski

A woman of the Badjao (the sea gypsies of South-East Asia) cooks in the kitchen of a stilt house in Borneo. Photo: David Kaszlikowski

In so saying, UNESCO sounded much more like an economics thinktank than an organisation that has worked on cultural matters for 74 years, works through seven international conventions on culture, and also through dozens of regional programmes. Perhaps it took its cue from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which with a squarely macro-economic bent had said plainly in September 2020 that culture has to do with economics: “Cultural and creative sectors are important in their own right in terms of their economic footprint and employment. They are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with large cities often containing the greatest share of jobs at risk. The dynamics vary across sub-sectors, with venue-based activities and the related supply chains most affected.”

WHAT CONNECTS THE WORLDVIEW of the OECD, the institutions and centres of ‘high’ culture, UNESCO, and the gigantic ‘development’ industry that the UN Sustainable Development Goals have become is that peoples’ cultures and ways of life, their everyday artefacts, their folk arts and expressions, all in fact that they derive meaning and identity from, fall outside what is called ‘cultural industry’. This is nothing but the full formalisation of community creativity and its translation into economic units. There is no place in a cultural industry view for the traditional knowledge systems that give a non-monetary value to a basket, that give a ritual value to a silken shawl, that give children delight in the form of puppet theatre, that fulfil a cosmological tradition when unleavened bread is baked for a feast day.

The Inuit of the Arctic, the White Mountain Apache of Arizona, the Yanomami and the Tupi People of the Amazon, the Gujjar and Bakerwal nomadic herders of the Indian Himalaya, the Bontoc of Philippines Cordillera are not cultural industrialists and have no use whatsoever for the distinction between formal and informal economy. In the same way, living heritage such as the collective fishing rite of the Sanké in Mali, the Enawene Nawe people’s ritual for the maintenance of social and cosmic order in Brazil, the making of the Noken woven bag by the people of Papua in Indonesia, the making of the Ala-kiyiz and Shyrdak traditional felt carpets in Kyrgyzstan, all these are unreachable by the economic formulae that would assign them a minimum wage, turn them into ‘resilience’ courseware, patent their medicinal herbs.

But the lock downs have gravely assaulted their patterns of life, and these were already tenuous. Their systems of knowledge, and the products and objects that emerge from these systems, could not and cannot be virtualised and livestreamed. The meanings and symbolism of everyday and ritual objects – which assume the avatar of handicrafts in a market – must be transmitted and the receipt of those transmissions must be tested.

The generation that receives the world’s great stores of traditional knowledge does so through what is so carelessly called ‘informal education’, but which is a teaching channel that has stood the test of time. The lock downs separated hand-made goods from markets, and when they did, they brought down a new wall between peoples who still fashion a hand-made world and those who have the sensitivity to sample some of it. The lock downs masked and imprisoned a youth that was ready to receive wisdom and learning from their elders, and chained them to laptop screens, and when that happened, the elders retreated into an exile of silence.

Written by makanaka

June 8, 2021 at 14:18

Taxing knowledge and nature

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The success of GST cannot come at a cultural cost to India. A well-informed tax system must widen the dialogue finance has with handicrafts and hand weaves. [This article has been published by The Pioneer, New Delhi.]

On 15 September, in a notification about the Central Goods and Services Tax (GST) Act 2017, the Central Board of Excise and Customs exempted “casual taxable persons making taxable supplies of handicraft goods” from requiring to be registered under the Act. The previous day, a similar exemption was given for the Integrated GST, and which concerns the inter-state supply of handicraft and handloom goods, a traffic that contributes a substantial livelihood to many crafts households.

There are a few conditions explained in the stilted language such notifications employ, such as value of sales, the need for craftspeople and artisans to obtain a Permanent Account Number (PAN) and fill out an e-way bill.

Yet these corrections to GST, made by the Ministry of Finance, are the first signals that the entreaties made to the Government of India by craftspeople and artisans are at last being heeded and responded to. They were made, and took shape in the form of a representation, titled “A plea for reconsidering GST rates for the crafts sector” and was submitted in July 2017 to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The reason this representation had been discussed, compiled and delivered was the ruinous effect on the handicrafts and handloom sector of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which came into force on 1 July 2017 under the slogan, “the single biggest tax reform in the history of the nation”. The representation to the PMO pointed out that this single biggest tax reform had been drafted, passed and was being implemented without a single consultation with the largest national number of craftspeople and artisans in the world.

The representation went on to explain that the GST consultations had not included or even recognised “the widespread existence of crafts people, practices and products based on centuries old histories and skills, which give India a unique place in the world and brings economic benefits to dispersed rural artisans”.

Handicrafts and hand weaves provides employment and livelihood which is, in terms of numbers, next only to agriculture (indeed the two are concomitant, being based on nature and the application of knowledge). While many crafts and artisanal products are seasonal, estimates are that over 110 lakh persons are so engaged, with more than 43 lakh in the handloom sector alone.

Click for a pdf file of this article (courtesy The Pioneer).

The GST crisis for handicrafts and hand weaves has shown that this sector is constantly on the defensive. It can only proceed by causing the recognition in economy that this sector (cultivation and its ‘arts and local manufactures’ included) does not produce only food, it also produces feed for animals, fuel (both traditional fuels and biofuels) and fibres and grasses and woods, the minerals and clays, the colours, for artisanal (and industrial) production, and that the maintenance of the bio-economy – that is the service of balancing our ecological habitats upon whose gifts we base our lives, a balancing brought about by the application of uncountable streams of local knowledge – is fundamental to the well being of the country’s peoples.

“One would assume that natural materials, organic cultivation, reduction of plastics and other synthetic materials, and recycling would figure in the Centre’s approach to policies across the board,” Jaya Jaitly has observed. As president of Dastkari Haat Samiti, the conceiver of Dilli Haat and the initiator of several of India’s most innovative programmes to return dignity and viability to craftspeople and artisans, her expectation of policy coherence is well warranted.

Both dignity and viability are important, and for as long as handicrafts and hand weaves were held in high esteem by the ruling administrations of ancient and medieval, colonial and independent India, both were assured. In the 1951 Census, the first of independent India, among the list of industries and occupations according to which the working population was described were herdsmen and shepherds, beekeepers, silkworm rearers, cultivators of lac, charcoal burners, collectors of cow dung, gatherers of sea weeds and water products, gur manufacture, toddy drawers, tailors and darners, potters and makers of earthenware, glass bangles and beads, basket makers.

The liberalisation and ‘market reform’ which swept through the country from the early 1990s brought with them a view of both macro- and local economics that became more distant from ‘arts and local manufactures’. India began to pay more attention to GDP and less to the meanings which handicraft and hand weaves represented. By the middle of the decade of the 2000s, biodiversity, carbon, ecosystem services, and even cultural services had begun to be discussed and considered. Terms and ideas such as ‘externality’ and ‘social costs’ began to be used to describe the changes to society and environment that were under way, visible but never acknowledged, which weakened and sickened both.

Such discussion rarely recalled quiet efforts that had been made in the same direction only a little earlier, such as in the report of the Steering Committee on Handlooms and Handicrafts for the Twelfth Plan, which had observed that “these two sectors constitute the only industry in the country that provide low cost, green livelihood opportunities to millions of families, supplementing incomes in seasons of agrarian distress, checking migration and preserving traditional economic relationships”.

‘Green livelihood’ made a quiet entry into planning vocabulary then. Now, ‘livelihood’ has been replaced with ‘economy’, which is quite a different idea, and the recent loud calls in favour of a ‘green economy’ for India have helped shelter a variety of very ungreen enterprises and practices. Perhaps in the notifications of 14 and 15 September we are seeing the first admission from the central government’s financial and planning authorities, that there is no need for a new ‘green economy’ (especially one based on expensive finance and fickle technologies) when we have had one for all the ages that we can enumerate.

The notifications are a worthy start, and I submit to the Ministry of Finance that these can and should lead it to consider anew how incentives and encouragements in the form of taxation instruments can do much to renew, revive and strengthen a ‘green economy’ that is the only genuinely grassroots activity India has and can have.

Some aspects that still require consultation and an extra-financial view are that crafts and weaves are not commodities and should not therefore be fitted by force into the Acts’ labyrinthine system of HSN codes, that the imposition of taxes higher than 5% on handicrafts and hand weaves discourages both sustainable production and consumption (at a time when such practices are gaining international currency), and that a well-informed system of taxation must include an understanding of the continuum of natural material, habitat, and the knowledge streams that use and transform nature’s materials into craft and fabric.