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State of the art

In a recent talk, art commentator Sadanand Menon gave a concise diagnosis of what is the matter with our government-run cultural institutions

November 28, 2013 08:12 pm | Updated 08:12 pm IST

Sadanand Menon. Photo: Vipin Chandran

Sadanand Menon. Photo: Vipin Chandran

An organisation aimed at integrally linking “our means of knowledge generation, knowledge translation, and knowledge conservation with the act of living and the experience of community”, Lila, a foundation for ‘translocal initiatives’, for its 10th Series, mounted at Habitat’s Gulmohar, had art activist, commentator and journalist Sadanand Menon speaking on the condition of state-run cultural institutions. True to his brutally frank, no punches spared style, he quoted Harindranath Chhatopadhyaya’s observation, “when the State gets into the arts, the arts get into a state.” Ironically, Sadanand who has always held the view that institutionalising art is the surest way of killing individual creativity, today finds himself placed on the committees of several such institutions. Mistaken for government benevolence, these institutions are part of the State’s cultural policy as an effective tool for neutralising all dissent — the conformity and status quoist attitudes that such art institutions breed, abdicating creative ideas, turning them into hegemonic monsters preventing things from happening.

At the Gujarat Lalit Kala Akademi, where a special exhibition on Dasarath Patel had several of his line drawings displayed, Sadanand overheard one of the Akademi functionaries, in the tribal gallery explaining a tribal painting, “Adivasis – they live in jungles”. When accosted by Sadanand that a more mature understanding of the artist and work should be part of his explanation, the official insisted “Adivasi hi unki pehchaan hai” (the term Adivasi is itself their identity). When one can isolate a tribal community from a small area calling them ‘adivasi’, where does the question of the nation come into their perspective?

Our museums have been totally ineffective in spreading artistic sensitivity and understanding. At present, all art institutions have reached a macabre point, where it hurts. The main policy of continuity stresses ‘tradition used as a security blanket’ not realising that continuity has to come with confrontation and new ideas, which are resisted. Unity in diversity is the oft quoted phrase — but without ‘diversity in unity’. When an ill-at-ease Heisnam Kanhailal was dismissed as a student of the National School of Drama years back, the organisation did its best deed — for, after this Kanhailal produced his most creative work — which is now prescribed for NSD students.

Now, very often, in order to get the piggy off the back, states are asking private enterprise to step in and provide succour for the arts. What the manipulative market can do is even more frightening to think of. Everywhere in these institutions there is a chorus of lament of things being bad. The idea of a cadre of art sensitised specialists for manning and heading these institutions is one way of running them in a more disciplined fashion, than handing over such responsibility to artist/performers.

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