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Challenges in procuring public art grants for art and culture programmes

April 6, 2018

It was a lively discussion on challenges people face in procuring Public art grants for promotion of art and culture, at the Habitat Gulmohar Hall, for the Shanta Serbjeet Singh Memorial Art Appreciation lecture of the month, sponsored by Legends of India. Since government as the main art promoter in the country owns the largest kitty (however miniscule it may be in the overall percentage of the total budget reserved for culture), it was but right to have representatives of government bodies dealing in art matters, as the main speakers for the evening.

With Suresh Goel, the permanent moderator for these lectures being unwell, Rajiv Chandran, at the last moment was asked to take over and he began by asking each of the speakers to first talk on what worked and what did not. Dr. Madhukar Gupta, a bureaucrat with a deep interest in the arts, now Additional Secretary with the Ministry of Heavy Industries after having served earlier in Tamilnadu and Rajasthan, set the discussion ball rolling by mentioning a very pertinent point on how a lot of government thinking perceives development as best represented in establishing brick and mortar edifices, without realising that software like good art performances can generate better responses, apart from having an economic potential that has not been tapped. Even when visitors look at a historical building, it is a live performance or an audio visual show that helps bring to life the monument.

He gave examples of how in Rajasthan, at one time, funds for art events were requested from the Rajashtan Patrika and how a festival contrived by the people of a 'Shobha Yatra' saw visitors create the mood by coming in traditional costumes. The community at large was asked to help in kind in whatever way they could and gradually from the small four digit number of tourists, the number through these schemes in a short time went up to 20,000 visitors. The method was to engage with people, to give them flexibility and above all he stressed the need to be innovative. What CSR provides (as the Corporate Sector's 2 % cess) is a fleabite. So, there is a dire need to look for original ways of managing events by engaging with stakeholders and connecting them with fund providing groups. He gave the example of the enterprising Army Wives Association which has imaginative ways of working and generating ideas. For instance, arranging for a painting event with artists seated in front of the Ganga, could become the seed for ideas with each artist's work expressing a version of what Ganga should be. Street art for instance with artists doing work on walls, using Madhubani painters to decorate a station platform, were all ways of giving art expression while beautifying public spaces. There is no substitute for an apex body with persons fully aware of how to curate and manage events.

Riva Ganguly, the Director General of the ICCR, talked of the difference technology had made to the art scene for the institution which was concerned with selecting the right talents for showcasing Indian art abroad. YouTube and the social media provided much needed information on artists - some of who perhaps were not even empanelled in the ICCR list. While observing later in the discussion the absolute requirement for bureaucracy dealing with art matters to be really well informed, Rajiv Chandran also made the observation that good artists did not always figure on the social media or for that matter on YouTube.

Sujatha Prasad, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Culture, talked of the need to get away from an elitist outlook on culture, by trying to ferret out information on the invisible subalterns in art and while the Cultural Affairs Ministry's mapping now covered almost 89 lakh artists, they knew that there were several more not covered. Even amongst the visible, she realised that there was a constant feeling of inadequacy in terms of funding. She was not completely satisfied with the programmes of disbursement which were not very natural with political ideologies often dictating decisions. Varanasi, which in the present dispensation has received special attention, has many ongoing projects to showcase its history and culture. One hears about the programmes with 34 cultural faces in government schools and with Gyan Pravaha's schedule of events - museums too are involved in various ways. Live programmes on the ghats by chosen troupes with even Puran Maharaj's five year old daughter being featured, have been very successful.

Ultimately trying to establish connections between the art community and funding bodies outside the government too is a must. Talking about the crying need for more literacy in the artist community, particularly in the rural areas, the moderator mentioned how artistes need to be educated on how to apply for a grant and about the agencies to be approached.

The very important question of 'who decides ultimately' was still a ticklish point. The government's good intentions and the best schemes for help will come to naught unless properly implemented and ultimately it is the person behind the desk at that moment who will or will not make things work. Ad hoc methods of appointing committees result in often manning them with unsuitable representatives and square pegs in round holes are not uncommon. Also Culture Ministry's method of appointing artists on panels, to take decisions on their own colleagues, when they too have a stake in the performance scenario, does not seem fair.

Dancer and art activist Geeta Chandran spoke of the tedium involved in getting applications accepted by the right section. Does an artist work at her art, or spend hours doing clerical work which seems to have no end? Streamlining was needed. The bureaucrats manning various desks are sometimes so ignorant that they even ask a ten year old to produce paper clippings of reviews! What the scene needs are sensible Art Administrators and this is a community which is scarce.

Mira Kaushik, who residing in the UK, is doing so much for the production of dance programmes, when asked to give her impressions, mentioned how working with ethnic arts she had managed to present, after some effort, events which received maximum publicity, in India. How to get art patrons and creative people together was a part of what she had learnt in this work. And while the process could be prolonged and required tremendous push, one had to doggedly pursue one's goal.

As Madhukar maintained, the role of the government with time, is bound to diminish. Persons from the audience talked of how things were changing. Geeta Chandran recollected the time when she was very young and nobody spoke of young artists - the only category being the divas - just a handful of them who in the early years of the fifties, sixties and seventies had the lion's share of opportunities created by the government and were sent to every foreign country to represent Indian art. But those days are gone. The scene now is crowded, with artists having to compete for an ever diminishing government funding. The community at large must become, and be made, aware of the need to participate in preserving its culture.

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

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