Culture, of which the arts are the highest expression, is but a collective means of making meaning, of telling stories, of imagining and then believing what is real, who we are, what we are doing here and why. Our culture reflects us; how we see the world and how the world sees us.” This is an anonymous manifesto of the arts on Facebook some years ago. I love it!
What needs to be done to enable us inhabitants of this megapolis to stumble upon the arts — theatre, music, dance, visual arts, film and literature — in our regular lives, and be enriched by their presence? Because it is essential if we are to be a healthy, vibrant and truly cosmopolitan city, that we must have that access.
What the arts give you
Ken Robinson, education expert, defines creativity as the ‘process of having original ideas that have value.’ Imagination is the fuel that powers this creativity that leads to artistic creations and innovations in every discipline of life. Today when innovation is the buzzword of policymakers, why do we continue to ignore the role of the arts in our lives? Do we not see that the two are born out of the same pod? And that this is the pod that needs to be nurtured?
But there are other reasons too why the arts are critically important in India today. The arts are capable of giving you new perspectives, reaffirming things you had known but were uncertain of, all in aesthetic and sensorial ways. And it is this engagement with aesthetic expression that makes one feel alive.
The performing arts add one more critical dimension to this: they are a communal engagement. And now, more than ever before, it is this feeling of connection to a community that can glue our city together.
The arts have the capacity to ennoble communities, to give large congregations a sense of self-worth and dignity, and this has been proven time and time again. Whether through the path-breaking music programme, El Systema, in the favela (slums) of Venezuela, or in Cape Town’s rough, ethnically mixed and poverty-stricken neighbourhood, where a circus school for children, the Zip Zap Circus, has kept children away from crime and drugs, or our very own recently-painted railway stations in Rajasthan, amazing tourists and locals with the sheer magnificence of local art. The immense power of the arts to transform the individual and as well as the collective is disregarded in our country. But I believe they are urgently needed in our urban centres.
Mumbai loves the arts
I believe the arts are for everyone! Let’s look at what Mumbai already has in terms of live arts performances, demonstrating this vast and varied audience demographics.
From the rickshaw driver from a village near Pune to the bank clerk, from the rasika who frequents Marathi theatre in her neighbourhood with her family, to the Bihari taxi driver who is a regular at the annual poetry sammelan, to the Udipi restaurant waiter who ensures he gets to the all-night performances of the seasonal Tulu dramas, to the college students who have sleepless nights preparing for the intercollegiate and State-level competitions, to the families that frequent neighbourhood arts festivals, and faithful audiences who attend the renowned Prithvi Theatre and NCPA festivals, there is something for everyone. But in a city of over 20 million people, this handful of arts engagements simply proves that there is a dire need, and the city just has to respond by enabling a far larger reach for the arts across the city.
These engagements still continue to be accessible for small focused groups of people who are unaware of each other’s rich traditions. And in a city like Mumbai, where arts have managed to survive against all odds, we need now to move from surviving to thriving. Through an approach of nurturing and fostering existing talent we can build a vibrant artistic engagement that would impact the social fabric of the city and, critically, erase the terrifying slide towards xenophobia, which seems to be spreading like a plague.
I would like to see a Mumbai where every single inhabitant is aware of all the richness of the arts that the city holds, like a crucible. They may not engage with any or all of those arts, but they are aware of them and are impacted by the sense of belonging to this rich artistic environment.
A truly world-class city
But does Mumbai care? Can Mumbai seriously claim to join the super-club of world-class cities such as London, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sao Paolo, Sydney, Shanghai, Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro and Toronto? Look at maps of these cities and you will see them speckled with places for the arts: museums, art galleries, libraries, theatres, concert halls, open-air public performance spaces. Even the subway in London is plastered with advertisements for performances across the city. London is clearly a city built around the identity of its culture. If you take away theatre or the arts from New York, London or Toronto, for example, would that matter or would these cities fade into ghosts of themselves?
Do we pause to see what these cities have done in the field of cultural policy? A quick glance at the web will show you the detailed cultural policies that each of these cities have. But Mumbai throws up a blank. The greatest burden we carry is our so-called “5,000-year-old culture”: we believe that since it has survived so long with no policy, it can continue to survive without any into the future.
Let us re-imagine what Mumbai could be
Uniquely situated with such a rich variety of the arts, Mumbai can easily become one of the world’s most attractive cultural destinations not only to visit, but to live in. And could be a trailblazer for other urban centres across India (and possibly the world) to follow.
But what do we need and how do we get there?
To create a city that nurtures, fosters and celebrates its rich cultural practice we would need to develop:
- Training facilities for the skills required for each art form, for amateur and professional artistes.
- Regular engagement in all educational institutions; teaching the arts as well as exposure to the professional arts, from pre-school to university-level education.
- Spaces for creation: rehearsal spaces, artists’ studios, laboratories for creating work.
- Arts venues that are home to regular accessible arts: theatres, cinemas, museums, galleries, libraries.
- Public visibility and celebration of the arts: from performances in parks (or the beach), to public art installations, public open-air film shows, and celebrating language and literature like London’s Poems on the Underground.
- Media coverage to build critical discernment of the arts and a knowledgeable audience.
- Festivals celebrating and creating exposure of the arts.
- Rejuvenation of inter-college, inter-State, intra-State, inter-corporate and intra-corporate arts competitions.
- City awards for the arts, not only to artistes, but also to communities who have been exemplary in their arts initiatives, sponsors, government departments and others.
- Single-window licensing systems.
- Social security services for all accredited artistes.
I know the first thing you will say: where is the money for this dream? Especially given that we are one of India’s costliest real estate cities.
Real estate is not an issue: every one of these ideas can be realised with existing infrastructure. It is about utilising existing resources imaginatively and to optimum capacity. The main element is developing the management of these spaces in sync with the overall vision of this programme.
And the money is not impossible to source. From within various government departments as well as corporates and private contributions, the funds can easily be found. All that is needed is political will.
Mumbai is divided into six zones with 23 municipal wards with a population of between 3,00,000 and 8,00,000 in each ward. The annual municipal budget is over Rs. 30,000 crore. For a plan of this importance that will impact the quality of the lives of the citizens across the city, surely it is not too much to ask for 0.5 per cent of this to be spent on this plan?
However, the most important facet of realising this dream is to create the instrument of delivery.
A plan must have planners
It is imperative that before the money is raised and the plans are executed there is a foundation. That would mean a thought-through plan of how the programme will be overseen, how the best minds will be sourced to develop the plans, the best teams put in place to execute them, as well as independent systems that monitor and evaluate delivery.
Once there is political will to go ahead with this idea, then the nodal body, comprising no more than five experts from various fields, both governmental and civic, needs to be created. This body will be responsible for hand-picking the best minds to develop the white paper and roadmap, and to ensure the plans’ execution. This group of the most talented minds will be from across disciplines. They will create a white paper detailing the roadmap to realise these plans from over the next five years, through to 20 years. The State government will give this nodal body the authority to oversee, mentor and evaluate the execution of these plans once approved, and, from time to time, reassess their efficacy and tweak them.
The plans will be realised by working closely with government agencies. There needs to be a convergence of heads of various departments.
This nodal body and the execution of the plans is the most critical part of this dream. This is never carefully thought out and is the fatal flaw in the implementation of most government policies. The choice of the people authorised to run this programme, their integrity, talent and capability are paramount. If this is not ensured then soon these plans will get diluted.
I do not mean to put the onus of this endeavour on the government. But it will make all the difference if the government is committed to it and gives this idea substantial backing and impetus. Its true realisation lies in the ability of the arts community, the media, corporate world and citizen groups to come together with the government bodies to realise its value and work towards developing it for the greater good of the city.
Through this endeavour, the arts community itself will show its value through a greater active contribution to the social fabric of the city through a variety of developmental programmes and active involvement in several of the new initiatives, from creating training opportunities, to performing in public spaces to educational initiatives in schools and colleges, and more.
However, do we have the ability to see this vision, or realise the urgent need for an active intervention of this kind? And the possibility of breathing life into the city that is at the brink of imploding?
In our 70th year of Independence, is it not fitting that we allow one of our most dynamic cities to realise its full potential, by igniting its cultural and artistic potential and, with that, nurturing creativity and imagination, empowering Mumbai to blossom into a truly world-class city?
This is not just a pretty dream aimed at the beautification of a city, it is a reality check, a wake-up call. For every single person living in Mumbai. To be, or not to be: that is the question.
About the author
Sanjna Kapoor is co-founder of Junoon, which aims to create platforms for theatre in India. For over two decades, she has worked on bringing the richness of theatre into people’s lives in multiple ways. She built Prithvi Theatre into one of India’s premier cultural hubs, brought to Indian audiences some of the finest of world and Indian theatre, to introduce a touring theatre festival into the Indian scene, played a key role as catalyst for theatre for children. She currently spearheads Junoon’s school programme, and continues the legacy of both the Kapoors and the Kendals to take theatre to people across the country. Sanjna has also been responsible for initiating the India Theatre Forum network for theatre practitioners. Her current focus is working towards an all-India theatre alliance. She is one of the core team members and facilitators of SMART India, Strategic Management in the Art of Theatre, a theatre management training programme.