West Bengal is hurtling towards the fate of eating cake since it does not have bread. After the fanfare of the film festival, created out of funds that could have been used elsewhere since the state is professedly cash-strapped, the government has turned its attention to the performing arts. Singing, music, dancing and drama, it feels, should be taught in all state-aided universities. Performing ‘culture’ seems to be the state government’s current passion, and it is not bothered about the implications of its conduct.
Even in the darkest seasons of government interference in higher education, no previous regime has actually told universities which subjects to teach. Universities, state-aided or not, should ideally be autonomous in their academics, moulding their profile of subjects and standards according to their capacities and targets. Education, like any other specialized job, is for experts to administer; the government has no business deciding whether a university should teach mathematics, music or museology. The reported statement of the chairman of the West Bengal State Higher Education Council that performing arts “is an integral part of education”, offered as the rationale behind the government’s direction, is peculiarly woolly-headed. Cooking is an even more integral — if that is possible — part of education, then why leave it out of the syllabus? The purpose of the decision remains a mystery. Is it a move to make the government more popular by ensuring that more artists get steady jobs and students more artistically than academically inclined get a chance to bloom? There is an air of impulsiveness about the decision that is bound to cause discomfort, for there is no sign of a study or survey indicating the need for such a major step. If wishes are always horses, Bengal is heading towards rocky times.
Impulsiveness ignores realities. Building new departments for the performing arts in every state-aided university would require an enormous injection of funds. Singing and dancing are not easy to teach, neither can they be taught properly today without the right equipment and environs. All this is expensive, even if the facilities are modest, and there is no reason why the best specialist teachers should teach at discounted rates. If the subjects are going to be taught for BA or MA degrees, surely the government cannot be thinking of lowering the academic standards of the universities that will teach them? But these questions are, ultimately, secondary. The main question is, if the state government starts to dictate to universities what subjects they must teach, what is it going to dictate next? Since the performing arts are an integral part of education, it may make it mandatory for all scholars to do a little jig every time they get up to speak at a seminar. Just to prove they are fully educated, that is.