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SOS: Indian Art and Culture

They say that art appreciation is also an art form. The art and culture of any nation is the backbone of its civilization. India stands apart on the global stage as the amalgamation of multicultural, pluralistic value systems, beliefs, traditions, fairs, festivals, rich classical music and dance forms, handicrafts etc. But people who understand and appreciate Indian art and culture are a dying breed. One can always argue that there are more pressing problems than cultural illiteracy that ails our country. But given the current state of affairs the very ethos of the Indian civilization, which is in great part embodied in our art and culture, it will die a slow and painful death. In these harsh times when artists of great talent languish in sheer neglect, is it not the need of the hour to salvage and reclaim the legacy of our heritage, a heritage that has taken thousands of years, and the toil of numerous artisans, poets, singers, dancers, sculptors, architects, performing artists et al to develop and preserve?

Enter the advent of smartphones; the concept of what a person does with his or her leisure time has undergone a sea of change. Ask the average Indian youth of today if they have ever heard of a Raag Malhar or Bhairavi and I'm sure the answer would be a big no. Forget our parent’s generation, how many of us have been directly or otherwise been exposed to the classical arts and literature of our great country. Maestros like Bismillah Khan, M. S. Subbulakshmi, Bhimsen Joshi, Zakir Hussain, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, Allahrakha, Kishori Amonkar, Ravi Shankar, Amjad Ali Khan, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and so many more that are such intrinsic parts of the repository of rich Indian classical music, are probably just names one recalls from the GK textbooks.

In the words of a former diplomat who is deeply concerned about the depletion of cultural enthusiasts or rasiks (people who enjoy and understand Indian art and culture), “India must rank as one of the most unique civilizations of the world, marked by great antiquity, substantial refinements and unprecedented audacity of thought. Why, then, do successive governments treat culture with such disrespect?” According to him, very little investment has been made in terms of money and priority when it comes to culture with the Ministry of Culture being clubbed with other subjects like tourism and at the same time inadequately budgeted, often leading to negligible development.

“India must rank as one of the most unique civilizations of the world, marked by great antiquity, substantial refinements and unprecedented audacity of thought. Why, then, do successive governments treat culture with such disrespect?”

Comparing this glum scenario with efforts put in by China and other Southeast East Asian countries by way of investing in state-of-the-art museums and galleries, along with art districts, rows of streetside cafes and art programs, one can only wonder at the commitment of our politicians towards our “Bhartiya Sabhyata” which the current dispensation often alludes to.

There are two unfortunate consequences of this neglect of our cultural heritage- Cultural Indifference and Cultural Illiteracy. The former refers to the total lack of interest in our heritage, leading to a loss of balance between popular and classical culture. Can you imagine a jam-packed auditorium for a Bharatanatyam performance versus any crowd-pulling Bollywood dance number? In London, Hyde Park visitors throng both pop group shows as well as those showcasing western classical music. Our National Gallery of Modern Art hardly gets 30,000 visitors annually compared to the millions in the West. The second fallout which is cultural illiteracy refers to cultural militancy which compensates for one’s lack of knowledge. Culture becomes nothing but a mere slogan in the hands of the uninformed, which does unimaginable damage to the highly complicated fabric of our heritage. Modern India needs to reclaim the legacy of our great cultural heritage.

Probably the faintest idea about Indian classical culture survived in the collective memories of the pre-millennial generation. Minimal exposure to the real India has only worsened the issue. Popular culture is held in great sway (mostly Bollywood and West based) in this land of the Natya shastras and amid the remnants of great dynastic monuments. Where are the world-class museums and art galleries that this country needs, and more importantly, where are the audiences for it? A revival of the arts through proper preservation and education at every possible level is the only solution to save it from the brink of extinction.

The time for merely paying lip service to it has long passed. Proactive measures are urgently required to bring back the lost glory of our artists, most of whom languish in deprivation. Acknowledge, respect and uplift them. Cultivation of interest and promotion of our arts through popularisation via various media channels is a must, and most importantly, institutional investment in the arts and culture will surely bring back the audiences and keep India's unparalleled cultural tradition alive.


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