Taking a hard look at soft power

The Copyright Act (Amendment) Bill, 2012 passed recently by Parliament, is a landmark beginning for the Indian creative sector. In an era that is overwhelmed by global commercial interests for short-term gains, the collective consciousness of a mighty heritage, perhaps involuntarily, heard the voice of the individual artist who has been central to the ethos of its civilization. The very fact that this Amendment got passed reflects a larger need to focus on the creative sector not merely as a tool for profitability but as an organic agency for human development and sustainability.

The General Conference of the UNESCO, recognising the role of soft power in human development as early as its fourteenth session in 1966, proclaimed in Article I that: 1. Each culture has a dignity and value which must be respected and preserved; 2. Every people has the right and the duty to develop its culture; 3. In their rich variety and diversity, and in the reciprocal influences they exert on one another, all cultures form part of the common heritage belonging to all mankind.

But India's ambition to be a “superpower” by 2020 at the cost of her soft power heritage has run into tangible trouble: between 1997 and 2006, at least 1,66,304 farmers committed suicide in India, resulting in recent farmer uprisings against the usurping of land by corporates and the state. In Andhra Pradesh alone, at least 2,000 weavers committed suicide between 2006 and 2011. Kerala saw an uprising against a Coca-Cola factory on the grounds that it diverted groundwater from primary needs. And protests, ranging from Kudankulam to the Narmada valley, only reflect the widening conflict between the excluded majority and the benefitting minority in a skewed state developmental agenda.

Three characteristics

Is this “superpower” model going against the very fundamentals of India's “soft power”? Three characteristics distinguish India: a 5,000-year-old extant, unbroken, well-documented, civilizational, cultural heritage; an overwhelming population of no less than 1.2 billion; and a living laboratory for pluralistic development without a common spoken language. While other countries may share some of these characteristics, India is unique in having to factor all of them into any developmental plan, thus necessitating an original blueprint.

The Indian arts and cultural sector has the inherent capacity to create the desirable models of development. Indian crafts alone can potentially employ about 25 per cent of India's population. For example, the north-eastern hilly state of Manipur is being industrialised at a heavy cost due to its topography. The crafts sector could be revitalised as a nerve centre of Manipur's development as its soil is congenial to growing bamboo, and since it has traditionally produced master craftsmen of bamboo products. While this rehabilitation is integral to peace and development in the State, it equally calls for radical transformation in governance.

As diplomatic bridge

Arts and culture build bridges like nothing else. Take India's complex relations with her neighbours. She has a history of turbulent political relations with Pakistan; border issues with China; ethnic links to Sri Lanka's political crisis; and issues of democracy with Nepal and Bhutan. One common theme that has enabled India to sustain “Track 2” non-official dialogue with neighbours, through non-diplomatic channels, has been culture. Exchange programmes in art, music and dance, and bilateral film productions sustained the India-Pakistan dialogue even when the two countries were at war.

The power of cultural and creative expressions has been skilfully hijacked and exploited by commercial superpowers to sell themselves successfully. As Simon Evans of Creative Clusters Ltd. says, “Companies like Nike and Coca-Cola do not manage factories, they manage narratives. And the language that they use is not analytic and impersonal, but intuitive and aesthetic. It is the language of the storyteller, the entertainer, the artist.”

Creativity is the birth of an idea or thought that architectures the cultural enterprise to be understood as a spiritual, emotional, experiential, even abstract experience

Within the globalisation agenda itself, the Creative Industries bring back to the table, the natural human urge to explore one's own creativity. This is perhaps becoming less possible in other sectors, which are far more institutionalised and corporatised than the creative industry sector.

But this trend has also created a new hierarchy where the dominant commercial forces appropriate and exploit human creativity, exploit intellectual property of the less advantaged and generate a business sector that excludes the very sources of its business. Yoga, ayurveda and ancient philosophical, spiritual and knowledge traditions are some of the biggest commercial money-spinners in the western world, which even claims patent rights over some of these traditions.

At the other end of the spectrum, creative models have emerged in India, seeking to synergise lifestyle, the environment and the aesthetic. Islands of excellence, small-scale entrepreneurial enterprises, and performing arts movements, such as DakshinaChitra, Dastkar, the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), the Prakriti Foundation and Rupayan Sansthan have mushroomed around the country to nurture traditional arts and crafts while enabling their innovation, livelihoods, business and trade in these sectors.

A culture policy

It has been argued that a culture policy is required to nurture India's cultural sector. Independent India has been discussing a culture policy but found no feasible mechanism to implement it. This is perhaps because the state's policy constructs are centralised and monolithic, but the cultural sector is inherently diverse and devolved to communities. However, in an act of coping with the global trend, the Planning Commission set up a national committee for creative industries in 2004. While the committee has produced a preliminary report that is in cold storage, it is faced with the challenge of addressing a 5,000-year-old continuous cultural heritage that is caught between the superpower and soft power paradigms.

India is crying itself hoarse for the state to veer away from the ugliest twin-manifestations of its corporatisation agenda — corruption and environmental destruction — and to waste no time in engaging with the Indian creative industries sector, in a trailblazing long-term sustainable way.

Short-term is negative

For example, although there are potentially 50 million people who are employable in the Indian crafts sector, a fast-diminishing number of less than 25 million people are sub-optimally employed, and Indian crafts constitute only two per cent of the world trade. This sector suffers from underemployment, a lack of organisation, and is preyed upon by a few big players with short-term market targets that eclipse long-term sustenance. Therefore, institutions like the Crafts Council of India and the Zonal Cultural Centres have their work cut out.

The golden era of Indian cinema which was considered an extension of Indian art and culture in the international market was largely propelled by the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) up to the early 1980s. Ironically, it was the Indian state that supported “independent cinema”! Today, commercial Bollywood is amusingly patronised, and Indian cinema is characterised more for its synthetic presence, mostly through shallow red carpet posturing than its core cinema. The NFDC-model of state support needs to be urgently reinvented to produce great cinema and build capacity to reach latent audiences.

Recognition of the individual artist by these institutions churned out artistic excellence and set standards in India's sustainable soft power sectors. India also needs to revisit its cultural history with renewed imagination to rediscover its reservoir of knowledge traditions. And the artist and artist-driven cultural movements must be central to chartering these new pathways not for tourists or for travellers but for seekers.

(Sharada Ramanathan is Director, Golden Square Films Pvt. Ltd. and Magnus Media, Chennai.)

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