You can't eat culture

Oct 08, 2013, 07:39 IST | Deepa Gahlot

Was a fly on the wall at a gathering of a few heads of cultural institutions, and the topic invariably comes round to funding

Was a fly on the wall at a gathering of a few heads of cultural institutions, and the topic invariably comes round to funding. Even in relatively affluent countries, whenever there is a recession, and the governments make budget cuts, the first to be axed is culture. Because, as a minister in a western country remarked, “You can’t eat culture.”

Culture cola: A bunch of multiracial London kids were taken around the British Museum and contributed to various aspects of the Pompeii Exhibition

Of course you can’t, but life without culture is pretty much like bland tasteless food. In a poor country, where people are still lagging behind in basic necessities, it does seem indulgent to splash on culture, and funds from the corporate social responsibility (CSR) go into nutrition education, healthcare; but is a small percentage going into culture? Maybe it is, but not enough.

Everywhere, only the big cultural institutions manage to survive, but it is a struggle for the smaller ones. And the ones that manage to keep doing good work, have to depend on either government grants or endowments from corporate houses. In the US in particular, there is a culture of giving. In India, people with money to spare would rather spend it on Bollywood events or fashion shows, or just to get celebs to attend their functions. If they do sponsor cultural events, the talk goes first to footfalls, deliverables and ‘what’s in it for us’. And then you see corporates in the West, giving in millions and getting just a small logo at the bottom of the creatives.

In Mumbai (and India), culture is seen as elitist, and perhaps, there haven’t been enough attempts to a) include the ‘masses’ into what is perceived as high-brow culture and b) ignoring or looking down on popular forms of culture — the commonest example being classical music being given a much higher standing than folk music. A classical musician or dancer gets high fees, best performance spaces and can get away with prima donna behaviour, while a folk performer is treated with far less reverence.

It can also be pointed out here that even poor quality Western me-toos (some of the local rock bands!) are given much more importance in the media than far superior classical or folk musicians. One excuse is that there aren’t enough writers who know about the classical arts, which brings us to the issue of the lack of arts appreciation. There is sporadic talk of the arts being included in school syllabi, but it hasn’t happened as yet, so interest or involvement in the field has no tangible benefits. In short, if it doesn’t get you marks or money, it’s not worth pursuing.

But when children are exposed to culture, they are enriched in so many ways. A firsthand example here: the British Museum filmed their popular Pompeii Exhibition and produced a special version for children, in which a multiracial bunch of London kids were taken around the British Museum, and were involved in various aspects of the exhibition — like a demonstration by volcanologists on how volcanoes erupted; they were made to dig at a small excavation site made for them; made to taste Roman food and create small mosaic designs and frescos like the ones at the exhibition. They reacted with excitement, awe and lots of laughter. To them a museum showing an exhibition about an ancient civilization was not boring — they must have gone back with an experience to remember.

Watching this film with a bunch of children from two local schools was most illuminating. They saw the film, gasped and laughed at exactly what the British kids had, and then, they bombarded the exhibitions curator Paul Roberts with amazingly mature questions about volcanoes, the exhibition, Pompeii… most touching was their concern for people who had died 2000 years ago. Many children asked, “Didn’t anyone escape?” “Could they not have prevented the volcanic eruption?”

That’s part of the solution — get kids interested in art for art’s sake, and a culture of connoisseurship will follow. In China, corporates sponsor instruments so that poor kids can learn music. In Venezuela, there’s El Sistema, a state foundation which trains and supports youth orchestras, which not just helps underprivileged kids learn music, it keeps the crime rate down. Finally, all things being sorted, there has to be a hunger for culture, and if that can be created, then the means will be found to connect the performer and the audience. In India, there is the overwhelming influence of Bollywood that drowns everything else. Eventually, everyone wants to be in the movies (or television), because of the fame and fortune. Bollywood is like the monster that sucks in all the oxygen that could have nurtured other forms of arts and gives nothing back in return. As Paul Roberts said, “You can’t eat culture, but you can be nourished by it.” 

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator 

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