What ails the arts in India? Former Culture Secretary Jawhar Sircar points to an absence of historical temper

  • Jawhar Sircar spoke at the inaugural Jamshed Bhabha Memorial Lecture, to answer the question ‘What ails the Arts in India?’

  • Overarchingly, the ‘ailment’ Sircar laid out is the absence of historical temper in India.

  • Sircar concluded by calling for increased attention and patronage to the arts and culture of India.

On the occasion of Dr Jamshed Bhabha's 106th birth anniversary on 21 August, Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) invited former Culture Secretary Jawhar Sircar to speak at the inaugural Jamshed Bhabha Memorial Lecture, to answer the question ‘What ails the Arts in India?’

Overarchingly, the ‘ailment’ Sircar laid out is the absence of historical temper in India.

 What ails the arts in India? Former Culture Secretary Jawhar Sircar points to an absence of historical temper

Jawhar Sircar. Photo credit: Facebook @sircar.j

“There’s this tendency to eulogise and say everything goes back to a past. We have to be analytical,” says Sircar at the lecture. This much-touted ancient history is something we only learned of about 70 years ago, through British Imperial archaeology, adds Sircar, and questions: “How much of a collective amnesia does it acquire for a nation to completely wipe off its past?” Proudly inculcating this newly learned history into the national narrative was, of course, beneficial to a newly formed democracy still in its infancy.

Today, however, this has escalated. “It’s a pity that India has been taken over by fringe elements and the mainstream is withdrawing into a shell.” He adds: “We have entered an era where we have a group that claims that everything in ancient India was superior to the rest of the world.” The masses prefer to believe conveniently packaged stories disseminated through social media instead of inculcating a spirit of inquiry and questioning popular, nationalistic narratives (a problem faced by the scientific community too, with many calling for increased scientific temper).

As a result, mass consciousness is also developing in a largely ahistorical manner, leading to “a world view where myth is preferred over history” and where “it’s almost impossible to explain modern, evidence-driven linear history” to masses who simply don’t care about history and preservation. Such thinking, according to Sircar, is not just ludicrous but also dangerous, since it runs against the grain of plurality and truth. “Plurality is the magic weaving together so many ethnicities into one [country]. Every group that has come into India has contributed,” says Sircar, adding that today’s climate of increasing intolerance reflects our historical amnesia and shows that we have forgotten our culture altogether.

This was reflected in the national budget drafted during Sircar’s tenure, where culture was allotted only 0.11 percent of the total funds. Tangible effects of this negligence are visible today, most immediately with museums. While Sircar claimed that Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) is the best managed in the country, he credited that vastly to a passionate board and staff. In other places, however, demoralisation is high. Several posts are vacant and as of last month, almost 100 posts were abolished at Delhi’s National Museum, reflecting the apathy to tangible historical evidence of the Indian culture.

Besides museum relics, the other tangible resource to retrace a community history are its archives, which in India are also, unsurprisingly, in a bad state. Sircar laments the indifference with which we treat our archives, something that can offer invaluable insight into the cultural traditions we inculcated and how they developed. We’re so busy looking forward that we haven’t woken up to the fact that “we are losing what we have”.

This apathy also extends to the intangible parts of culture, namely the arts. Sircar reminds none of the arts are the same today, none are performed and understood exactly as they would have been during the Vedic period. One instance is classical dance, where dancers originally performed for audiences all around. However, “in the 1930s, classical dance was practically reinvented to suit the front-facing proscenium stage”. Classical music, on the other hand, developed following the introduction of the gramophone, which limited the size of tracks, and the use of the microphone, after which different qualities were valued in a singer’s voice. “The classical music of two centuries ago is not the classical music we hear today… it metamorphosed into something new but it survived”.

While it’s important to proudly acknowledge the roots in the past, one must be honest and willing to admit that culture today cannot be the same. The important thing is the quality of the arts of surviving and adapting. After having addressed the heritage and traditional culture, Sircar turned to the hugely influential, and the relatively recent phenomenon of popular culture. During two important landmarks in popular culture — the Ramayana and Mahabharata shows on Doordarshan in the 1990s — researchers noticed a “sudden upsurge in community pride” which might have been a result of the shows.

With the coming of the radio and broadcast, a new mainstream popular culture definitively developed, which is hugely influential and binding. With the popularisation of Bollywood music, it “entered the souls of our houses” and “broke down the reserve that non-Hindi states had for Hindi”. Sircar describes Bollywood music as a unifying force bringing the whole country together, a sort of musical lingua franca in India. The demand though, also meant round the production and “in the process, we started poly-packing and barcoding culture as well”.

Besides being a record of Indian art and society, culture can also serve as an important diplomatic tool. We must be encouraging an exchange of cultures. “For India to be a power as the craze is on now, we must export a small part of our culture in the language they understand, not force our culture and language on them,” says Sircar about India’s cultural exports. We must also be accommodating when receiving them. Sircar explains that other than the NCPA, India does not have a single space with the depth, acoustics, stage width, and lighting, for a symphony, opera or ballet. Sircar explains how appalling that is and that Delhi, the country’s capital, must have at least one such theatre.

Sircar concluded by calling for increased attention and patronage to the arts and culture of India. Instead of being disheartened or annoyed at the apathy, one must work to spread awareness: “Getting angry is not the solution. People who know must campaign” for the furthering of the arts. For personal enrichment, and growth as a nation, “Culture is a powerful tool,” says Sircar.

Sircar's speech can be watched here in its entirety.

Updated Date: Aug 25, 2019 12:32:11 IST