A new report captures what ails Indian arts and culture sector: Poor budgets and data, institutional vacancies

The Budget Guide by Sahapedia notes that the marginal budget alloted to the sector, which averaged at 0.11 percent in the last decade, fell to a miniscule 0.07 percent in FY22.

Shailaja Tripathi April 08, 2021 13:40:51 IST
A new report captures what ails Indian arts and culture sector: Poor budgets and data, institutional vacancies

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

If it wasn't for the pandemic, Prabhat Kumar Mahato — a leading practitioner of Chhau in Jharkhand — would have been immersed in a series of performances at this time of the year, along with his team. After a year without any work, Chhau performances have slowly started to resume. However few in number, Mahato is nevertheless grateful for them. Having received no support from either the state or Central government, artistes like Mahato have to fend for themselves, after all.

Speaking from the Kharsawan district of Seraikela in Jharkhand, Mahato’s voice is tinged with sadness. “The state government of Jharkhand has a disorganised, understaffed Department of Culture, so what can we expect from them? During the lockdown, the Zonal Cultural Centres of the Central government got artistes to do online programmes. We were promised Rs 1000 for each programme. Around 15 people from my team performed, but none of them have been paid. We have reached out to the officials in question several times,” the artiste says.

There is nothing new about this apathy towards art and culture, and the Budget Guide released by Sahapedia, an open online resource on the arts, culture and histories of India, makes this quite evident. It analyses how the Indian government's budget for this sector has showed a decline in the last few years.

While countries like the UK, Singapore, Australia and Germany announced relief packages and increased their budget for the arts during the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the Government of India slashed its budget for art and culture across ministries by 21 percent in its mid-year revision in 2020.

The Budget Guide notes: Allocations for the Ministry of Culture (MoC) as a proportion of the Indian government's budget have remained marginal for the last decade, averaging at 0.11 percent. For the last five years though, they have shown a further decline, falling to a miniscule 0.07 percent in FY22 – the lowest in the last 10 years.

“We keep hearing about Bharatiya sansriti on our news channels every other day; people latched on to it, especially during the lockdown, for mental sanity if nothing else – but clearly there is nothing we do to really preserve and promote it. Reduced budgets during the lockdown and in this financial year signify the critical absence of political and administrative will, one that has been absent for art and culture for many decades, but the worst in the last five to seven years,” says Padmapriya Janakiraman, who has authored the report along with Maansi Verma.

While Janakiraman heads the Urban Heritage Documentation Project at Sahapedia, Verma is a consulting researcher. Armed with a Master's in Public Administration from New York University, Janakiraman learnt to analyse budget documents at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. For this report, she accessed the budget documents of the government and other documents published by the MoC and other ministry websites.

According to the 289th Report of the Parliament Standing Committee on Culture, the allocation of Rs 2687.99 crore in 2021-22 is 14.66 percent lower than the allocation of Rs 3149.85 crore made in 2020-21, which witnessed a severe cut of 29.77 percent at the revision expenditure stage in 2020-21. Considering the projected demand of Rs 3843.68 crore by the MoC, there is a substantial shortfall in the provisions for art and culture.

Apart from trends in allocations and expenditures by the MoC, the report also looks at vacancies in institutions supported by the ministry, and issues in the MoC schemes for tangible and intangible culture. The latter receives the least support, as a result of which several art forms lie on the edge of extinction, with their practitioners struggling for basic survival.

“There is no real data on who in the arts are most affected. Private initiatives are based on a local understanding of the situation. For instance, Kutiyattam or Ramlila were made UNESCO-recognised art forms owing to the efforts of a few individuals, but there are so many oral traditions that need support – we don’t even have it all mapped and recorded,” says Janakiraman.

In 2017, the MoC set up the National Mission on Cultural Mapping to compile data of artists and art forms. According to Sahapedia’s report, this exercise, which started with identifying artists at the block level, was abandoned due to the lack of IT infrastructure to record details of artists, as well as lack of support from state governments, with only five states having appointed a nodal officer. "The Cultural Mapping Mission could have addressed the biggest question: who are our artists, where are they located and what is their status? Its failure thus far is a big blow to any real conversation on support for the intangible arts," Janakiraman adds.

Data published on the MoC website thus far have severe data quality issues. Mahato recalls memories of one data collection drive. “I remember one exercise whereby our data was collected and entered on computers, but what use has it been of? The government hasn’t even issued us a basic identity card that identifies us as art practitioners.”

Senior artist Vivan Sundaram says that art and culture has never been a priority for our governments, even in the past. "But previously, there could at least be a dialogue with the State. Now, there are other priorities that the State wants to push in an undemocratic way. Look at the Central Vista Project,” he says. Sundaram is one of the petitioners in the plea that challenges the approval of the government's proposal to have a new Parliament constructed.

Pooja Sood, who has headed the Rajasthan state government’s Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK), explains what ails the system. “The government has made it such a difficult process to dispense with money, and there is an acute shortage of imagination on how to do projects. So the money goes back, and the next time, the government gives less. What we lack is imagination and good human resources... You must get good people to run cultural institutions. You can’t float a tender for a classical art and then pay the lowest to the artist. It is absurd. You can’t treat it as a service. Arts have their own category. It is such a fragile ecosystem, and you are discouraging people from taking it up as a career,” says Sood, who is credited with transforming the JKK during her tenure.

In 1997, Sood founded the Khoj International Artists Association, an alternative space for the experimental arts. During the lockdown, Sood had spoken about the need for emergency funds for young artists. The association then released grants to enable upcoming artists to meet their basic needs.

NGOs like Kalamandir helped the artistes in Jharkhand with basic sustenance during the lockdown. Over the years, the outfit has worked with disappearing art forms like Pyatkar, and during the lockdown, collaborated with the Kala Chaupal Trust to help Chhau artistes create a prototype of 'Chhau Personal Protective Equipment' (PPE), a half-mask made of papier-mâché, clay, cloth and maize. The NGOs had envisioned it as a means to generate livelihood for the artistes.

“The artistes are in very bad shape. This art form is their passion and livelihood. They preserve heritage and entertain others. The current government has homogenised culture, but the fact is that there is no monoculture of artists. Different kinds of artists and art forms require different support. Previously, different groups would get support and opportunities at different levels from varied institutions, but it is not so anymore,” says Amitava Ghosh, the secretary of Kalamandir.

Classical musician Shubhendra Rao, who trained under the late Pandit Ravi Shankar, finds the figures pertaining to the arts and culture sector shocking. “It’s very sad to note that the culture sector is the first to take a hit in times of crisis. The fact is that there are so many artists and performers in remote corners of the country who are dependent on their art for their livelihood. During the pandemic, they have been among the worst sufferers,” says Rao. In May 2020, his foundation, the Shubhendra and Saskia Rao Foundation, organised an eight-hour-long online concert Music for Hope that raised six lakhs for artists and frontline workers.

There have been precursors to the Budget Guide which pointed out issues and suggested remedies. A high-powered committee set up by the MoC submitted a comprehensive report regarding the working of various Akademis and cultural institutions in 2014. The report, headed by former secretary of culture Abhijit Sengupta, flagged concerns about grantmaking, vacancies, quality of manpower, budgets and financial matters, among other things.

Janakiraman states, “All senior-level posts are vacant, institutions are headless. Various committees formed by the government to understand issues in the administration of culture by the MoC have pointed this out, and one doesn’t know why it’s still ignored. Not having the right people in positions does not affect any one art form, it adversely affects the arts ecosystem, one that’s the most important to preserve and protect.”

The MoC didn’t offer any comment or clarifications in response to an e-mail or phone calls. Lakhs of artistes in the country are eagerly awaiting answers.

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