The world’s largest ‘cultural’ organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization) recently met with the minister responsible for what is probably, in real terms, the world’s smallest ‘culture’ ministry, the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. Under Khaki shorts, size does matter. The big tell the small, what’s what.
The hon’ble minister, Shri Dr. Mahesh-ji Sharma, an allopathic medical practitioner by education, a staunch RSS loyalist by inclination (his official ministry website informs us that he has been a dedicated follower of the RSS since childhood), and a medical entrepreneur by profession, is a stalwart of kennel, golf and constitution clubs and lately, an avid enthusiast of cultural cleanliness. No sooner had he listened to the sage advice of the path-pradarshaks and marg-darshaks of Nagpur, he declared his own mini-Swacch-Bharat (Clean India) mission – the cleansing of Indian culture of all sources of pollution.
He said, and the newspapers reported, “We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored – be it the history we read or our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over years…”
It is not immediately clear to me as to whether this means the honorable minister is now going to disown his own education in a ‘Western’ system of medicine and return his degree because it is polluted by ‘Western’ science, but I do think that what it does mean is that those of us who happen to work as cultural producers in India better look sharp, and turn as sattvik, and bharatiya, say, as kulchur ccholey.
Naturally, ambitions of a purge of this scale, encompassing all of Indian kulchur, from its origins thousands of years ago to now, tend to attract attention. And so, the honorable minister was called upon to explain himself in a recent television programme on NDTV at the urging of another of our national treasures, Barkha-ji Dutt, (who said she supported ‘Indianization’ but did not see the need for ‘Saffronization’, leaving both terms mysteriously unexplained and unaccounted for).
I have never quite understood what Indianization meant. Would it mean that the terms of trade in Sanskrit Theatre, which include ‘Yavanika’ or ‘That Greek Thing’ to denote the screen which might separate spectators from performers, (and so pointing to the ‘Western/Greek’ pollution of the Indian canon at a very early date) will now be cleansed by a group of zealots answerable to Bakha Dutt and Mahesh Sharma? Sanskrit came up more than once in the discussion, especially the inability of Ms. Dutt and other ‘Indians abroad’ to rise to the occasion to deliver a Sanskrit Shloka when necessary. Now I know my Kalidas as well as I do my Kala Khatta, and when called upon, can do a passable recitation, especially when overseas, and inebriated, of chunks of the Meghadutam, but I suspect more than the mere ability to pronounce Sanskrit compounds was at play here.
And so, Dr. Sharma magisterially provided a succinct explanation of what he meant by cultural pollution. The only thing I heard him offer as an example of what ‘cultural pollution’ meant in the program was the idea of what he called “Old Age Culture Homes”. He referred to them, twice, with great agitation, until his interventions were sidetracked by an RSS-sympathizer intellectual, Rakesh Sinha, who made excuses for the minister saying, that unlike him, the minister could not be expected to inhabit the rarified intellectual environs of archives and libraries, and so must be excused if he did not answer questions directly.
I was a bit puzzled by this protracted exchange, because, surely, the minister of culture must by now have some idea of his ministry and its workings, and because, the care of the elderly, I thought, if it was at all a subject of government concern, would be a matter for the Ministry of Welfare, and not, of the Ministry of Culture. Surely this rudimentary familiarity with the remit of his own ministry would not require endless hours spent in archives and libraries, in the company of stellar intellectuals like Rakesh Sinha (who I remember from my days in Delhi University as a taciturn thug. It is good to see him become so prolix in declining middle age.)
As it happens, the subject of old age homes has been of some concern to me, lately, though I have to say that I have never thought of their cultural dimensions in any depth. Suddenly, visions of millions of senior citizens taking Sitar lessons, or making cutting edge experimental films, leap to mind. I have to say that were ‘Old Age Culture Homes’ to exist, I would not mind paying a couple of them a visit to know what was going on in them.
My mother, who is an aging agent of cultural pollution, has often spoken to me of the dire necessity of quality Old Age Homes in our country. She is a ruthless proponent of high culture, and is particularly given to a fondness for modernist painting. She would have been quite excited by the existence of Old Age Culture Homes,were they to be an actuality. She, a seventy eight year old widow, and I, her somewhat nomadic only forty-something years old son, have sometimes discussed the need for communities of socialized care for senior citizens, especially for those like her (and in the future, me), who have chosen frugal familial ties.
We think of this, she and I, not because we do not care for elderly people, but because we know that the so- called traditional Indian family (the cynosure of Dr, Sharma and all enthusiasts of cultural purity) is a place where both older and younger people, the single, the widow or the widower, the separated and divorced, the celibate, the queer and the promiscuous, and anyone unwilling to be boxed into conventional gender or age roles suffer a kind of un-thought of neglect – a marginalization at the hands of the patriarchally mandated regime of centralized power invested in the hands of the fertile Hindu heterosexual couple, who do ‘it’, if you get my drift, only because the Sarsanghchalak is disturbed by his understanding of the demographic trends within the Muslim population of upper and lower India
Were inexpensive, comfortable, safe, clean, healthy and lively old age homes to exist, that would be accepting of all manner of folk, I have no doubt that millions of aging Indians would in fact choose to be ‘polluted’ by them. How indeed, could our age 0ld culture cope with such an exodus from the bosom of the holy hindu family ?
Needless to say, a systematic practice of the refined humiliation of the weak and the vulnerable has an excellent cultural pedigree in this country, especially in texts like the Manu-Smriti, (swayed by which our eminent judges now sustain death sentences) and no doubt it would be raised to new heights of pre-eminence, were all polluting influences of a needlessly humane, democratic and egalitarian kind to be removed. So, no, if cultural purity is to be maintained in India that is Bharat, there must indeed be no more old age culture homes.
That said, I still did not get why the minister of culture was talking about old age homes, or why, the rest of the discussion, tended to concentrate on the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, or the return of the ashes of the exiled patriot Shyamji Krishna Varma from Switzerland to India (as opposed to the promised return of ‘black money’ from the same country). Which, again did not strike me as part of the mandate of the ministry of culture. (Yes, it is true, these were the highlights of this television debate on the matter of culture, I am not making any of this up.)
Some of the other gentlemen on the panel talked repeatedly about the Indian Council of Historical Resarch, and Ms. Dutt confessed that she did not know Sanskrit even after learning it till Class VII. Manish Tewari, hoary Nehruvian, defended Chacha and grew sentimental about ‘Syncreatic Culture’, which I suppose is an antidote to the Pancreatic Ulcer I thought I was going to get just by listening to him. Meanwhile, Shobha De, yes, Shobha-ji De, brought up a rearguard defense of ‘secular’ values.While Rakeshji Sinha invoked the ghost of Sir Jadunath Sarkar. And two historian Mukherjis, one on the left, and one on the right, fought it out on the state of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, And thus was the ecology of culture, its cleanliness, pollution and toxicity, debated on our glorious airwaves.
Notwithstanding my confusions, I strained hard to get a sense of what the panelists thought were the contemporary crises, or health, of the state of cultural activity in India, I hung on to every word, to know if someone would say something significant about museums, galleries, biennales, funds for the production of art works, bursaries for artists, upgradation of artistic infrastructure, production of journals, research into artistic forms (both traditional and contemporary). But I heard not a single word about any of these things.
It has come to my knowledge, for instance that students of the Delhi College of Art have had to go on strike, for things as basic as laboratories and toilet facilities, and the fact that their syllabus has seen no change in several decades. Here is an art college in the republic’s capital, rotting under conditions of utter and pathetic neglect, and you would think that this would be something that could be discussed in a television panel on the crisis in culture, but no, ‘Old Age Culture Homes’ are the true sign of our crises.
I say all this just so that you get an an indication of the extent to which those who currently hold high office in the field of culture and talk about cultural pollution take culture seriously.
The truth, frankly, is, that the Government of India does not now, and has never had, an investment or interest in culture. And no, this is not just about the BJP led NDA Government that is currently in power. Every government, both at the Centre and at the states, Congress, BJP, Left or otherwise, has treated culture as window dressing when necessary (remember the role that ‘classical’ and folk music and dance play in the tasteless Jhankis or tableaux in endless military parades) and as a set of shibboleths to be resorted whenever faced with any kind of identity crisis. If the BJP at the centre has a ‘mahanubhav’ like Dr. Sharma, the CPI(M) in West Bengal had an eminence like Subhash Chakrabarti, who made his name fighting ‘apasanskrit’ and destroying every cultural institution. The Congress packed cultural institutions with mediocrities whenever it could and caved in, usually without a moments hesitation, to every lunatic fringe’s demand for attacks on cultural freedom. The Aam Aadmi Party once saw it fit to anoint Somnath Bharti, of whom the less said the better, as Delhi’s Culture Minister.
To my knowledge, no government in India, either at the states or at the centre, has ever exhibited anything but a vicious, callous indifference when it comes to the question of even the barest necessities of what it takes to have a functioning level of cultural infrastructure.
The Ministry of Culture has the most meagre of budgets, and the operational level of cultural institutions (and I am not even talking about content) is appalling. Museums, when they exist, are generally, barring a few stale flagships, dank, damp, dumps, understaffed, often led by philistines, and when, on the rare occasion have people who actually love what they do, consigned to the oblivion of deliberate and malicious neglect.
The current government’s first budget gives a crystal clear idea of the importance that it gives to the question of culture. The Finance Minister, while tabling the last budget, outlined steps that have led to a roughly 94.6% cut (from 59.33 crore to 3.20 crore) in the funds available for financial assistance for the promotion of art and culture. The budget allocations for the Sahitya (Literature) Akademi and the National School of Drama were cut by 54 and 44 percent, respectively. A closer scrutiny of the funds allocated for the Ministry of Culture would show similar drastic cuts for institutions such as the National Gallery of Modern Art, and for the Lalit Kala (Fine Art) Akademis. These were institutions that were cash strapped to begin with, and this government delivered a blow that will virtually cripple them in the long term. This is exactly how the ‘health’ of culture in india is being maintained by the regime that Dr. Sharma represents.
In recent years, the National Museum in Delhi (which Barkha Dutt, in a slip of the tongue that would have charmed the good Dr. Freud, called the Natural Museum, because to her, national is natural, and non-national is unnatural) saw some signs of life under a visionary director. But naturally, this could not last in an institution of national importance, and so, the director was removed, his plans and proposals for making the Museum put back into cold storage and the institution rendered leaderless, rotting, under the benign gaze of the Ministry of Culture.
Institutions like the National School of Drama, and the Lalit, Sangeet Natak and Sahitya Akademis have seen their autonomy eroded by tsunamis of bureaucratic interference. The Film and Television Institute of India (technically under the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting) is in severe crisis, with the appointment of sangh-friendly nonentities in positions of responsibility. Even the Crafts Museum (under the Ministry of Textiles) has not been spared. It was recently revealed by Dr. Jyotindra Jain, the man who was the founder-director of the Crafts Museum, that an entire room painted in the Madhubani style by the renowned folk artist Ganga Devi was destroyed according to a stupid and insensitive ‘renovation plan’ that consulted no restoration specialists about how Ganga Devi’s work could have been saved. This tells us the kind of ‘cleansing’ processes that the ministry of culture has in mind. Any thing that does not lie in the very narrow bandwidth of what the RSS and its cronies decide is cultural ‘purity’ faces the possibility of effacement.
If Ganga Devi, and Madhubani Painting does not make the cut, then nothing can. Every museum director, every curator, every artist will have reason to wonder whether or not the work they do will be pure enough to survive the cleansing mandated by the ministry of culture.
The Arts in our society need all the support that they can get, and they need an atmosphere that enables untramelled autonomy. This includes the freedom to be in active contact with cultural work all over the world. If anything, culture needs contagion, needs contamination, for it to thrive. The rhetoric of ‘cultural pollution’ and cultural purity is exactly the kind of thing that people working in culture do not need. They need resources, imaginative visions, and opportunities to engage with the social world in a fulsome manner.
Take the National Gallery of Modern Art, for instance. It has a heroic staff that tries to work to engage a growing public, against growing odds. It is grossly understaffed, and has an almost invisible and meaningless acquisition budget. As someone who has been involved in the mounting of a major exhibition at the NGMA, I know that in human terms, at the level of the enthusiasm of the mainly young staff of the museum, it can function far ahead of its present capacity, but that it lacks the support it needs from the Ministry of Culture.
In any other country comparable to India, say in Mexico, or Brazil, there would be many museums in each major city. The curatorial and logistical staff of these museums would be cared for and given the intellectual autonomy they needed. There would be active programs in schools and communities which involved artists, curators, arts educators and museums. The state would support artistic activity as a matter of right and the presence of artists, curators and critics in cultural fora, locally, regionally, and internationally, through independent arts councils. The visual and the performing arts would have a serious role to play in education.
But none of this can happen here, because we have a five thousand year old culture that is being protected by men whose minds seem to be five thousand year old fossils, who are driven, not by the desire to build anything, but to incessantly demand bans and censorship, as it the business of culture were best conducted in the total absence of cultural life. Theirs is the cult of the morgue, and they will turn our museums into morgues, with cadavers on display, given half a chance.
It is my understanding that this government, which came to power with a promise to change things, is now being seen for what it is by large numbers of people. As being a regime just as rotten and sick as the one that ones that preceded it. It has the same disdain for citizens, the same intensity of greed, the same lack of imagination in terms of how to hold a society together. The only way in which it can make a mark on the consciousness of those it governs is by stirring up mud in the domain of culture and everyday life. Hence the egregious interference about who can eat what, the continuous harping on matters of identity, the systematic assault on cultural and educational institutions and processes, either by imposing incompetence (such as at the Film and Television Institute of India) or by pulling down standards as much as possible.
Cultural life, to the extent it exists in India, has never benefited from state institutions, except by accident. If anything, the only reason why culture may have some remaining vitality is because the state in India (under every dispensation) mainly responded to the question of culture with a policy of sustained neglect.
While this neglect stifled and crippled ambition, it also led to a situation where a lot of interesting things happened (and still continue to happen) below the radar, away from the glare of media attention and the curiosity of politicians. Even institutions like the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Sahitya Akademi or the National School of Drama occasionally manage to pull off interesting interventions, frankly, simply because the Neta-log couldn’t have cared less and the ‘busybodies’ who demand bans and bandobast were busy elsewhere. And because no one ever really reports these things in the press anyway, and no one really reads annual reports either.
The idiocy of those currently in charge of the Culture Ministry (from the minister downwards) may mean that given their preoccupation with the health of cows and old age homes as indices of the make-believe concept called cultural pollution, things on the ground will continue as usual. The real substance of cultural activity will continue, or not, just as it always has. Artists and cultural producers will continue to do what they can, despite the neglect of the bureaucracy and the complete absence of any independent philanthropy. (Our Bourgeoisie likes to think that it collects, but actually it only connects, to its own meaninglessness by confusing culture with interior decoration.That Barkha Dutt had to pull Shobha De, a sometime writer of bad novels as a ”cultural figure’ in her studio discussion on ‘Cultural Pollution’ to defend the freedom of culture should give you an idea of what I mean)
This means business as usual. Once again, nothing substantially good will happen under the present dispensation, but it may also mean that there will be no harm done, because those who can do harm simply don’t know where to look, in order to identify what they would like to harm. This is the best possible outcome – that the nonsense uttered by Dr. Sharma, will simply fade with time. That is why, on a good day, the RSS pronouncing on culture does not worry me overmuch, because they don’t really know what they are talking about, and now that M.F. Husain is out of their picture, wouldn’t know what or whom to start getting agitated about if they felt they had to. I mean that would mean the sangh starting crash courses in the understanding of contemporary art, and somehow, I don’t see that coming,
However, there is another possibility, the one that we must take into account on bad days. (Acche Din, after all, are few and far between). And this is the possibility that the idiots in government who answer to the Nagpur caucus might suddenly begin to take culture seriously. This means that they may begin attending exhibitions, going to museums and galleries, attending plays and concerts and film screenings, and filing reports on cultural pollution.
They might find contemporary art that does not answer to their frigid notions of aesthetics, they may find experimental theatre that leaves them uncertain and uneasy, they may find poetry that laughs at them. They might even begin to curate exhibitions of ‘degenerate art‘ like their intellectual predecessors in the matter of ‘Aryan’ cultural cleansing, so as to arrive at definitive understandings of what must be shown so that it may never be seen again,
Whichever way the wind blows, I really do wish, that the honorable minister’s nightmares of Old Age Culture Homes comes true. I would like to check into one, in time, to see the half pants taken off the RSS in the end before I die.
Meanwhile, I guess I will just raise a glass in the general direction of the yavanika and say, “cultural pollution zindabad” !
Update: Dr. Sharma is clearly on a roll. Clarifying what he has in mind, he has added to his list of priorities. After stopping the pollution by senior citizens with his ‘Old Age Culture Homes are against Indian culture, he has now decided to take on the nocturnal habits of adoloscent girls. He has now declared that ‘Nights out by Girls is (also) against Indian Culture‘. In this way, one by one, we will come to know that the activities of most categories of the Indian population, beef eaters, meat eaters, non-morning walkers, anti-pranayamists, will be shown to be ‘against Indian culture’. Never has the ministry of culture been so clear, and so proactive. Fantastic.