The Zonal Cultural Centres have yet to make a tangible impact.
It was 25 years ago that the concept of the Zonal Cultural Centres was initiated with the idea of “taking the resurgent cultures of India out to the masses where they live instead of confining Indian Cultural Renaissance to just auditoria and galleries,” where the clientele gets limited to urban audiences and viewers. The idea was not to make these centres State-oriented but “comprise several States belonging to a composite geographical region, and sharing certain cultural similarities.” So instead of headquarters in any State capital, these centres were located at certain pivotal cultural points on the Indian map.
Thus rather than Chandigarh it was Patiala that hosted the North ZCC, Thanjavur and not Chennai that hosted the South ZCC, Santiniketan rather than Kolkata where the East ZCC was located and Udaipur rather than Jaipur where the West Zone cultural Centre had its headquarters. Dimapur became the centre for the North East ZCC, Nagpur for South Central ZCC and Allahabad for North Central ZCC. To save these centres from State Politics, it was decided to place them under the chairmanship of the Governor of the particular Zone, with adequate representation on the Governing Council and various Committees of the ZCC from all component States and Union Department/Ministry of Culture. A generous corpus fund provided by the Centre and State governments was to ensure a degree of autonomy to these centres, in conducting their work. Encouraging arts and crafts in a holistic fashion along with performing art traditions, the idea was to prioritise folk and tribal art forms (classical art forms too were to be presented) so that these artistes do not feel intimidated by classical artistes or discriminated against the elite renowned artiste class. Enough encouragement was to be given to new and upcoming artistes with the hope and expectation that senior artistes would be forthcoming in lending their support to the ZCC's.
What started off with high aims helping national integration through the arts and enabling them to function as an instrument of social change gradually got diluted in perspective. Zonal Centres were often headed by persons who knew little and cared even less about arts and culture. Governors and SNA representatives as ex officio members of these centres were too busy to devote much time to the working of these centres. Classical artistes dominated programme space and the tendency to choose urban areas rather than out of the way places for activities, defeated the main aim of these centres. A people-oriented calendar with cross-country cultural Yatras, participation in cattle fairs, and mass religious celebrations such as Kumbh melas and Urs where urban and rural populations can be equally involved and a whole gamut of pan-zonal art forms can be seen in all encompassing vigour and diversity, did not find enough representation. The out-reach perspective was clearly being diluted, leaving out the aam aadmi. The documentation work undertaken by these centres cannot be of the same level as the Akademies and generally the Akademies treated the Zonal Centres as the poor cousins who had to be satisfied with the crumbs from the rich man's table. Participating in programmes abroad (economically helpful) became a heady proposition further taking away from the main purpose of these centres.
The stock taking exercise under Mani Shankar Aiyar's Chairmanship with Sitakant Mahapatra and Amol Palekar as Members after an exhaustive over-view has spelt out certain guidelines for the future. Ensuring even intra-zonal cooperation is difficult. When artistes travel performing in out-of-the-way places, expecting for instance a Nagaland performer to be living for days on just rice and sambar would be unrealistic.
At last the cultural policy makers seem to have woken up and courses for training cultural administrators have started in various places. Something like the event ‘Octave' showcasing telling excerpts from the unending variety of performing art traditions of the North-East, first designed by the SNA with the Zonal Cultural Centre involved, has not only given an exposure to millions in the country to the rich culture of the North-East, but it has also opened the eyes of the artistes of the North Eastern States to several parts of India they had only heard of but never visited. To encourage website for ZCC, to start artiste insurance schemes, to have chain programmes as done by SPIC MACAY, to help Guru/Shishya Parampara schemes by ensuring some succour in old age and to have more collaboration and help from the Akademies and to increase outreach programmes is part of the guidelines which hopefully will lead to better functioning of the Zonal Centres.