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Two grantees of the India Foundation for the Arts spoke to a gathering in Bangalore about their attempts at redefining cultural history.

Kolkata's Victoria Memorial: heritage power

ARTS FUNDING in India is a troubled arena, fraught with squabbles, controversies, and a paucity of both vision and funds. The post-Independence establishment of national and state academies for the muses did little to help, triggering personality tussles and inter-regional strife, seldom alleviating the plight of the individual practitioner. It was against this backdrop that the Bangalore-based India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) stepped into the picture in 1993 as an independent grant-making body with the potential to redefine the ground rules.

Has it succeeded? Positively, as was evident from presentations by two of its recent grantees at The Park Hotel on September 20, before a gathering of the IFA's board of trustees that included Trent Limited Chairperson (and former Lakme head), Simone Tata, celebrated Baroda-based artist, Gulammohammed Sheikh, and advertising icon, Tara Sinha.

The presentations were energy-charged, engaging as they redefined cultural spheres. The first, by the Kolkata-based Action Research in Conservation (ARCH), focused on a new lease of life for the city centre of Dalhousie Square, the hub of heritage buildings. This was followed by a reconstruction of how the Nagercoil-based Kalachuvadu Trust comprehensively documented the work of Tamil writer Pudumaippithan.

Making a Powerpoint presentation, ARCH Secretary, Manish Chakraborti, shared insights into a project that recently led to Dalhousie Square being recognised on September 24 by the New York-based World Monuments Fund as one of the globe's 100 most endangered heritage sites. The architect-urban planner-conservator recounted the pleasures of "Footsteps", their walking tour that enables citizens to re-gauge the familiar within its two sq. km., including 70 heritage buildings such as the Victoria Memorial, the Town Hall, and so on.

With passion, Mr. Chakraborti sketched in the life of the square from 1690 to the present day, drawing us into the Lal Dighi tank, the Treasury Building, the Currency Building, and abandoned warehouses. He outlined ARCH's documentation — measured drawings, detailed inventories, extensive photography, and an accessible digitalised information system. Turning to the future, he unveiled plans for a square-centric annual cultural festival that could set the city's imagination afire.

With a dream in his eyes, Mr. Chakraborti concluded: "The Dalhousie Square festival should think long-term, expand through possible programmes, rally the corporate sector by ensuring their visibility through credible applications."

What of the Kalachuvadu Trust's funded odyssey for the unpublished, uncollected genius under the pseudonym of Pudumaippithan? His memories alight from their search through now defunct literary journals of the 1930s-50s, Dr. A.R. Venkatachalapathy rendered glimpses into the life of a Tamil journalist named C. Vriddhachalam, who introduced realistic, modern notes into a literature then predominantly romantic and didactic. Over a mere 17 years, upto his premature death at 48, Pudumaippithan's essays and short stories traced an anti-establishment stance, a subversive voice under several pseudonyms.

Through journals such as Gandhi and Manikkodi, the trust's team discovered an individual familiar with Jack London, Maupassant, Kamban, and Bharatidasan, a writer who wins new readers with every generation. When their saga began in 1994, Mr. Venkatachalapathy hoped to eventually publish about 80 pages of unknown Pudumaippithan. Instead, their 300-page fiction volume went into three reprints within three years.

Sharing moments of serendipity, Mr. Venkatachalapathy recalled visiting a Muslim family outside Thanjavur 14 years after a Tamil Ph.D. scholar studying Gandhi had received, but not utilised, permission to visit their library. The master of the house was away in Malaysia. But his son allowed them to access a treasure — nearly 3,000 Tamil books and journals, including obscure copies of Gandhi. The team was plied with coffee and biryani by the invisible women of the family as they toiled through the day. He said: "At that moment, I felt all is not lost. So much of our patrimony is in the most unlikely of places." Today, the trust has placed Pudumaippithan's legacy on microfilm, digital film, and CD-Roms, while Tamil Nadu's "nationalisation" of his works has returned them to the common domain.

Have we long missed out on the secret life of the Indian arts? If Mr. Chakraborti revealed the potential of inner city resurgence within an Indian context, Mr. Venkatachalapathy made us (even non-Tamilians) yearn for bookstores to open, so that we could access Lakshmi Holmstrom's recent English translation of Pudumaippithan for the Katha imprint.

How does the IFA board rate its current status? French-born Ms. Tata, the visionary businesswoman who's back at the trust after a two-year break, responds: "I'm not an Indian, you know. To me, relating to these projects helps to understand the Indian arts, not just to appreciate them. That matters to me." Of their progress, outgoing member, Sheikh, remarks: "The research and documentation projects have been very impressive."

Small is beautiful, at least as long as the decade-old IFA keeps up its independent arts funding. That's a message Bangalore can send out to all-India arts lovers with pride.


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