Rosalyn D'Mello: The Christmas gift no one asked for

Published: Dec 23, 2016, 06:15 IST | Rosalyn D'Mello

Instead of splurging Rs 3,600 cr on a 'tourist attraction', the government should spend on organisations that work for the welfare of society

Gifts are gestures; acknowledgements that you truly know another person and can anticipate her desires, or can gauge possible causes for her happiness. Beyond the ceremony and obligation of it is a joy that is felt by both the giver and the receiver, a certain amount of selflessness that marks the exchange. This inevitably forms a huge part of what we describe as the spirit of Christmas.
Fishing boats with black flags take part in a 'sea-rally' to protest the construction of the Chhatrapati Shivaji memorial in the Arabian Sea on May 25. Pic/AFP
Fishing boats with black flags take part in a 'sea-rally' to protest the construction of the Chhatrapati Shivaji memorial in the Arabian Sea on May 25. Pic/AFP

This year is different, though. Even the act of gifting has been compromised, thanks to the empty promises of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's demonetisation drive. While I've made my peace with the fact that until another six months pass, we won't be entirely sure whether this 'surgical strike' has effectively served a deathblow to a relatively functional economy or has managed to resuscitate it (although I firmly believe that no policy that has suffered casualties or a death toll should be considered successful), I am acutely aware that many things are rotten in the democratic republic that we call India.

Having spent most of last week at the opening of the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, I found myself thinking a lot about the absolute paucity of government investment in arts infrastructure in the country. All the institutions conceived of by Nehru have gone to seed. The National Gallery of Modern Art has been lacking in leadership for more than six months following Rajeev Lochan's exit as director, the Lalit Kala Akademi has trapped itself in bureaucratic red tapism and has effectively ceased to be the hub for artistic activity and debate it once was; it has made itself irrelevant.

The same goes for most other cultural establishments that all share in common a sense of past glory but present morass. Against this dreary backdrop, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has been an unprecedented success; a beacon of hope, an incredibly reassuring example of how the government can collaborate with the artistic community to create something of immense meaning and cultural significance; an achievement that few states in the country can boast of in terms of the scale and magnitude of the event, and the number of visitors it has the potential to attract.

Yet, every two years, the Biennale suffers from a scarcity of funding. The amount promised by the government doesn't always arrive in a timely manner and there's a more than a fair bit of scrambling around, with artists having to bear the onus of raising funds. I know a female artist who sold her gold bangles to create her work at the last edition because she wanted to show her solidarity. The art world in India has survived not because of any support from the government, but in fact, despite the total absence of any.

In October 2016, UNESCO made a compelling, research-based case for how cities can be rejuvenated, made safer and more economically viable through the arts. "Culture lies at the heart of urban renewal and innovation," said Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO in a statement about the report presented by the body that "provides a wealth of insights and concrete evidence showing the power of culture as a strategic asset for creating cities that are more inclusive, creative, and sustainable."

It's a report I wish the Central and State governments would read in detail before belligerently promoting the most wasteful exercise in recent times: the controversial Shivaji Maharaj Memorial off the Mumbai coast that is estimated to cost the taxpayer R3,600 crore. I cannot but think of this as an unnecessary extravagance, a slap in the face to so many sectors of civil society that are struggling to sustain their activities, especially organisations that do so much more for the welfare of society at large than the government could ever comprehend.

I would have liked to spend a lovely Christmas with family, prepping for the Midnight mass. Instead, I'm going to be foaming at the mouth here in Mumbai because the Prime Minister, who has single-handedly (well, with a little help from his RBI friends) managed to screw us over, will be in the city to inaugurate the construction of this gigantic waste of resources.

There is a helplessness I feel that is difficult to digest. Both the Congress-NCP that proposed this ludicrous "tourist attraction" and the BJP government that is taking it forward, is like that one relative everyone has, who thinks they know what's best for you and so gift you extravagant things you never needed or wanted nothing to do with.
This weekend, we must reflect on the thousand different, better ways in which that amount—R3,600 crore—could be spent. For this is no gesture, it is the government smugly spitting on our faces.

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