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A leader for a creative India

India is the world’s largest democracy and a nation that is economically resurgent. But we have undergone over 200 years of colonisation and are, at the moment, in the midst of an aggressively globalising world.

Pavan Kumar Varma        Print Edition: January 13, 2008

Pawan Kumar Varma, Director General, ICCR
Pawan Kumar Varma
Today, the challenge for a creative leader in the field of art and culture can be clearly defined. India is the world’s largest democracy and a nation that is economically resurgent.

But we have undergone over 200 years of colonisation and are, at the moment, in the midst of an aggressively globalising world. Therefore, the unfinished project is the appropriation of our cultural space, and this is of utmost importance.

The creative leaders that need to emerge from within this paradigm must have certain qualities, the first and foremost being an awareness of the paradigm itself.

The success of colonisation was not in the physical subjugation of the people but in the colonisation of their minds. And, for a culturally dislocated nation, its people and society, to recover, to once again establish continuity with their roots, takes time and effort.

The second challenge we need to understand is of globalisation, a factor that is all pervasive and yet physically non-invasive and incipient.

Usually, therefore, the victim is the last to know that his world has been acted upon. In fact, the world is not an equal playing field today—there is a huge degree of cultural asymmetry, there are dominant cultures that have greater resources at their disposal to project themselves.

It is from this scenario that our creative leaders will emerge. But without this awareness their leadership will become a mechanical exercise.

We need to filter other influences
We need to filter other influences
Whatever our relative strengths in other fields, culturally we have always been a superpower. But if we are not alert to this legacy of ours, to which we are heirs, we will not be able to give to our efforts the scale, depth, seriousness and influence that is necessary.

There are five noteworthy attributes we must bear in mind: our antiquity of 5,000 years, our unbroken continuity, our assimilative evolution, our diversity and our exceptional pinnacles of refinement. Such recall will root us culturally to our land.

The great worry for me is that a large number of our educated classes, especially in the metros, are adrift from their own cultural roots.

The organic core of our culture is being eroded in the avalanche of upwardly mobile pursuits, whether in our languages or the plastic or performing arts, or our folk idioms.

Thirdly, rootedness cannot come without knowledge. People live in Hauz Khas, Chirag Delhi, Safdurjung Enclave but have no idea about the history of these locations.

This amnesia is also a result of colonialism. Therefore, knowledge, especially without tokenism, is a must. It is not about reciting one Sanskrit shloka and feeling content about knowing our culture.

India is a cultural superpower
India is a cultural superpower
But this knowledge will not come about until it is integrated with our school curriculum. We cannot be players in the cultural field while in a void.

To my knowledge, the Kendriya Vidyalayas in Delhi have no optional courses in the Arts. From where will we find those who know that they are the legatees of a civilisation that produced the Natya Shastra, a 2,000-year-old complete treatise on aesthetics, or of the Sufi tradition, which partakes of the best of Islam and has some of the most beautiful manifestations in poetry, be it Amir Khusro or the other Sufi saints, or what was produced as a result of architectural fusion? It is only rootedness that will allow us this knowledge.

The authenticity of knowledge is another essential aspect. One cannot be an authentic spokesperson if even one of the above-mentioned qualities is missing.

Authenticity comes when we are rooted in our culture, have acquired knowledge about it, have overcome the temptation to jingoism and chauvinism and, perhaps most importantly, have an open mind and attitude towards change.

We cannot succumb to the temptation to fossilise culture. The ability to change creatively, to assimilate and yet retain our identity, has always been one of our hallmarks and should remain so.

The fifth factor for leadership should be a sensitivity towards the democratisation of culture. Ours has been an elitist culture, under the patronage of the rich, notwithstanding the great pinnacles of refinement that we have witnessed. Even after 1947, it mostly remained so.

However, there is now an urgent need to take this culture beyond, to the eager audience out there. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations does numerous programmes with foreign troupes and we make a conscious effort to ensure that the invites to these events are available not only in Mandi House and such obvious counters, but across the city.

Past is important
Past is important
People are willing today to take buses or the metro to attend these functions. There is a palpable hunger for such cultural programmes and a leader should be aware of this need.

Finally, anyone who aspires to be a creative leader cannot be imitative or derivative. This is possibly the ultimate sin. This takes me back to my first point that in an era of globalisation the victims are usually the last to know.

Today, with technology becoming so much a part of our lives, it is the easiest thing for us to imbibe influences from outside. This is noticeable across our cultural spectrum—in music, films, television, the print media, even through mobiles.

There is no reason for us to insulate ourselves, but we can certainly filter these influences. No doubt, the hold of Bollywood across the world is great. But we need a wider perspective not to get swept off our feet.

I believe we are operating below our potential. Be it in art, music, dance, culture, films or any other field, though there are encouraging signs of new developments, we need to retain a sense of perspective.

Why is it that the Chinese artists today are paid several times more for their paintings than our best artists? Our rootedness and knowledge will ultimately help us to equip ourselves with the tools to interface with the globalising world and face such challenges.

India is emerging as a global power and there is a new interest in us. If 20 years ago the interest was about the refinements of our past, today the world wants to link that refinement with the excitement of the present and the potential of the future.

We, therefore, urgently need to think of how to meet that demand and how best to project ourselves. The challenge is how to leverage holistically a global presence for Indian culture. We must not forget that there is a 20-million strong Indian diaspora in key countries across the globe.

Our cultural legacy
Our cultural legacy
Every sixth human being is an Indian. Already, therefore, we have sheer demographic weight. It is for us not to be fooled by the euphoria of our smaller achievements, or be destabilised by minor setbacks, but prepare ourselves to forge ahead.

We must have a certain perspective in mind. We must remember that we are not in the big league yet. But we are surely working our way up there. To be in the big league, however, we must have appropriate infrastructure.

The British Council, for instance, has 109 centres abroad. The Alliance Française has an equal number, as does Germany’s Max Muller Bhavan.

Even Russia, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, has around 80 cultural centres abroad. The annual budget of the British Council is £450 million. It gets a subsidy of £190 million a year from its government, through its foreign office.

On the other hand, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations operates on an annual budget of Rs 70 crore, seeking to project India’s culture globally. There’s an obvious discrepancy. Yet, the innate and intrinsic strength of Indian culture is what propels us forward.

We can be the beneficiaries of the same technological advancement that is beaming in the cultures of other countries into our own. For instance, the ICCR has recently opened centres in Kabul and Kathmandu.

Apparently, in Kabul, the nation shuts down when the teleserial Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, dubbed in Dari, is aired. I am told, when there is a power breakdown, people pool in money to buy fuel for at least one generator to run so the whole village can watch this show. We have this power but we have to leverage it further with a lot of thought.

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