It is time India asserted itself on the international stage in the areas of contemporary art and the other diverse realms that constitute the notion of culture to make a strong statement as a ‘soft power’. This is something that the Western world has brought into play as an important artery of foreign as well as domestic policy to project humane dimensions and to generate pride and confidence in the people. Successive Indian governments have forever neglected and pooh-poohed any investment in showcasing the inherent, palpable strengths of the subcontinent. As a result, this culturally lively and energetic country of ours has been transformed into a virtual non-entity across an extremely active, culturally aware comity of nations.
When the Festivals of India were supported by the Central government during Indira Gandhi’s time, the protests were loud and many. It was silly and thoughtless on the part of the shouting brigade and the editorial classes to criticize initiatives and symbols that celebrated human skill and thought that straddled various social spaces as well as the past and present. The babus found the exercise unnecessary and futile because of their abject lack of knowledge of the importance of ‘soft power’ in the world of hard-nosed diplomacy. In their desperation to clone the worst symbols of economic prosperity, India was led by the nose and compelled to dilute all the elements that could have given it the dignity it deserves. We were defined as a third world nation when, in fact, we were a fine civilization, alive and kicking since the early centuries.
The damage has been inflicted in the realm of cultural activity by the political class and the babus. Museums lie rotting. Cultural institutions, which were set up in the early years, are staffed with officials who remain inert intellectually. Tourism is treated as a ‘travel-around-the-world’ junket by those posted to that ministry. No government has conceived of a contemporary blueprint that will liberate culture, travel and tourism from the stranglehold of untenable and archaic policies and regulations that have suffocated the golden goose. Instead of prioritizing culture and tourism to reap national revenue and political power, India has degraded its fundamental, inherent strength.
Therefore, it is imperative that the Central and state governments create a dynamic, flexible scheme to enhance and support all kinds of cultural activity. The government should not force the sector to conform to debilitating rules that stifle creativity. If the babu had cloned the structures within which modern cultural institutions operate, India would have been the leader in this field on the planet. The enormous failures are easily identifiable, as also the logical, simple solutions that could overhaul and get rid of the unimaginable mess for short-term and long-term benefits.
A relevant and vivid example is the ineptitude of the ministry of culture when having to take a decision about a permanent Indian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. India is not represented. Disparate attempts are often made by citizens who want to showcase their amazing country but the government manages to stall every initiative with well-rehearsed mechanisms that sustain babudom in India. Virtually every country on the planet is officially showcased at Venice. From China to Angola, from war-torn Syria to Tuvalu — a nation with a population of 11,000 people — the contemporary art exhibited at the Biennale draws more visitors than the sub-continent tourist traffic. It is nothing short of a national shame that successive governments in India have not recognized this lacuna and plugged it forever. Will the Centre take the baton and run to the winning post?