In a country given to preening about the value of its living culture and soft power, we continue to treat culture as an awkward little secret. Thus, even the well intentioned young Corporate Affairs minister Sachin Pilot in his new Companies Act 2013 (posted on the ministry website and seeking feedback) overlooks art and culture.
Section 135 of the new Companies Act requires all large profit-making corporations of a certain size to set aside 2 per cent of their net profit of three years average for CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). This could create a bank of Rs20,000 crores. Schedule 7 of the Act notifies a list of CSR activities with such indisputably urgent issues as extreme hunger and poverty, gender equality, child mortality, environmental sustainability, vocational skills, disease, contribution to the PM’s National Relief Fund and schemes which help minorities, SCs, STs and OBCs. Although there is a clause that says “such other matters as may be prescribed”, the fact is that art and culture has been omitted.
The inclusion of the promotion of art and culture as well as preservation of heritage is said to be under consideration by the Rules Committee but the oversight points towards a wider confusion about the value and place of the arts in contemporary India. The one hour Google hangout posted on the ministry website has the minister in conversation with heads of corporate India, corporate foundations and NGOs moderated by a television journalist. Nobody thought that the diversity of Indian arts and crafts needed to be represented at the critical discussion too.
The arts give us our identity and our values but the fact is that they have not quite found their constituency or market and continue to struggle for survival. Countless knowledge systems and art forms continue to disappear. The sarangi, for example, is rarely heard today, a fate shared by the ancient classical singing form of Dhrupad Dhamar. Kutiyattam, Kerala’s Sanskrit theatre, despite receiving UNESCO’s recognition as ‘Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ in 2001, struggles to survive.
While the crisis is plain to see, the problem is that nobody quite knows what to do with culture except nod solemnly in its direction from time to time. The state governs cultural institutions with an outdated paternalism and a lack of understanding of culture. Even the meagre funds allocated for Culture remain unutilised.
The inhabitants of new successful India are disinterested too probably because they have never experienced the arts through school and college. Ambitious schemes to include the arts in Indian education have not really taken off and Indian education, mirroring its social context, becomes more functional by the day.
By neglecting the arts the section on CSR only confirms the bias against it. But it does worse. It also suggests that developmental needs and social issues are more urgent than the crisis ridden world of Indian culture can ever hope to be. This creates the notion of rival claims between two critical and legitimate areas.
In a system where our brightest students sail through premium educational institutes untouched and even contemptuous of the arts as an activity that cannot pay for itself, this is dangerous.
Besides, in a world where perceptions rule, a CSR initiative focused on such charged issues as hunger and disease will always successfully deliver a set of visible advantages for the corporate and political classes. The arts cannot deliver these benefits to those who pay for them. But should they therefore be deemed unnecessary and frivolous? Sober reflection will reveal that arts, crafts and culture are linked to livelihoods directly and contribute to the health of their immediate communities and the idea of India in more subtle ways. But will the arts receive the benefits of serious reflection and a fair chance in a country that only recognises the utilitarian and becomes more philistine by the day?
The author is an arts critic and curator based in Mumbai