Off-Centre History & Culture

A recent email from Sangeet Natak Akademi betrays a curious diminishing of the function of the institution

Children run on the eve of Republic Day in Guwahati, 2014.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

A curious email landed recently in many mailboxes. Dispatched by the Deputy Secretary (Music) of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the email informed its distinguished recipients of a September 24, 2021 scheme announced by the Prime Minister on Mann Ki Baat: Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. The PM, it says, desired that the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence be “filled with the colours of art, culture, songs and music.” (Of course, if one follows the Kangana Ranaut calendar, this is only the 7th anniversary of Independence).

Obedient to this requirement, the Akademi informed its addressees that the Ministry of Culture had initiated three competitive events for which it was seeking mass public participation: 1. Deshbhakti Geet Writing, 2. Rangoli Making and 3. Lullabies. While one need not have any objection to these activities, there is clearly a diminishing of the function of contemporary India’s most significant state agencies of cultural patronage that they, firstly, indicate with such precision the forms of cultural production that they will support, and second, the implication that independence can only be celebrated through idioms of praise, decoration, and slumber-inducing quietude.

Are we to infer that the 75-year-old nation will not be able to withstand the force of more complex and engaged artistic practices? Are we to understand further that the state will no longer support critical aesthetic practice that finds its inspiration and provocation in the many scenes of darkness within the borders of the nation and turn instead to the production of scenarios of virtuous and majoritarian domesticity?

An email such as this is not however a one-off. It is tightly woven into a mesh of initiatives, each undergirding the other. A visit to the website of the Ministry of Culture or to those of its affiliates shows the Amrit Mahotsav as the dominant rubric through which cultural entities as various as science, museums, archaeology, festivals, anthropology, the visual arts, etc. are to be interpreted in the year to come.

Screenshot from the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s website.

Screenshot from the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s website.  

The Prime Minister in his address describes the contemporary moment, presumably this year, as Amrit Kaal, the time of the nation sanctified by divine nectar. This sentiment of sacralised simplicity is all encompassing. A significant site where we see this is in the invocations and incorporations of the tribal into the national imaginary. A trip last Sunday to Dilli Haat, the popular bazaar for crafts in central Delhi, saw every available surface plastered with publicity material advertising Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. Also celebrated was Aadi Mahotsav, this time, as the National Tribal Festival, with the tagline ‘A Celebration of the Spirit of Tribal Culture, Crafts, Cuisine and Commerce’. All of middle- and upper-class Delhi seemed to be congregated in the bazaar, replenishing its stocks of ‘authentic’ tribal merchandise. Amidst the thronging crowds were small groups of Rajasthani performers, musicians, dancers, and puppeteers, eking out some meagre space in the bazaar’s main thoroughfare.

The interest in the indigenous and in their alienable cultural products is no accident nor, for that matter, is it new. A preliminary examination will understand this as deriving from ascriptions of ‘simplicity’ and ‘decorativeness’ to indigenous community organisation, their self-presentation, and their material cultures. The indigenous provides an easily invoked sensory shorthand for authentic Indianness. Importantly, the perspective at work is not that of the community in question, but of how it is implicated into the logistical frameworks of the state and its market for cultural products. It is important to recognise, however, that these ‘effects’ are produced through concerted institutional labour of specific cultural arms of the state.

The seven Zonal Cultural Centres (ZCCs) instituted by Rajiv Gandhi, and operationalised by Mani Shankar Aiyar, in the late 80s and early 90s, were devised to bring indigenous and other non-elite communities from the hinterlands into the cultural frame. The ZCCs represented a moment of institutional innovation; no longer would the Akademis, located in Delhi, hold the threads of support. Instead the ZCCs, spread across the country, would have unprecedented reach and access to the ‘people’ and their material. They were imagined as mobile infrastructures and logistical forms to facilitate the easy transport of cultural producers and their products from one part of the country to another. In the decades since, the ZCCs have been heavily criticised for their inefficiency, but the model has not been set aside. The ZCCs continue to be relevant to the ways in which the present government institutes policies for culture, providing the foundation upon which the initiatives of the present, particularly those concerned with the mobilisation of mass participation are based.

Folk artists at a tribal mela in Visakhapatnam.

Folk artists at a tribal mela in Visakhapatnam.   | Photo Credit: K.R. Deepak

Returning to the email in question, let us turn to its reference to the Mahotsava’s intention to engender participation that would bring onto a single plane the tehsil/ taluk and the national. The email calls dispersed publics to order. The participation of these publics would be ensured through the modalities of mahotsav, competition, and haat. These, again, are not new. There is an intriguing way in which competition becomes a key element through which participation in specific modes of nationalist performance is made possible.

Participation, or bhagidari as the Ministry of Culture glosses it, is central to the practice of democracy; it produces communities and it produces products to be displayed, purchased and consumed. It is by exhorting participation that institutions create publics; what is interesting about the present moment is the force and ubiquity of this exhortation.

Everywhere one looks, we see banners invoking the 75th anniversary of Independence. One might not be able to ignore the calls to participate. Celebration here is compulsory, competitive, a ritual of obedience and, as we have seen, enforceable. Are there other ways in which this significant national anniversary might be re-imagined, its pasts thought about, not solely through celebratory rhetoric and practices, but through perhaps a more filtered lens — an examination of appropriations and wounding, of damage done, a work of memory purposed towards seeking justice, addressing hurt, and initiating healing? A street rap rather than a lullaby?

The writer teaches at Ambedkar University Delhi. She studies policy-making for culture, literary histories, and performances.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 8:46:53 PM |

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