Days of jubilation ought to be also days of reflection. In the minds of many men the future is more important than the past. It is in the future that their hopes and fears, their ambitions and dreams find realisation and fulfilment. The past serves them as measure by which they gauge production and performance, by which to determine of further efforts and the amount of effort required to achieve the aims set before their eyes.
Two years after the achievement of independence, where do the arts stand in India? Independence provided the great opportunity for cultural re-orientation for cultural re-orientation and realisation of nationhood. Has this opportunity been exploited? There may be many who will say ‘yes’ and many whose answer would express doubts.
What are arts and culture? They are expressions of a totalitarian view of life. Totalitarian not in the sense of Hitler or Stalin, but in the sense of seeing the independence of all things, the lives of nations as well as that of individuals, of things of the spirit as well as the hard realities of existence. Today our lives are departmentalised. What we do for a living may have nothing to do with the real aims and objects of our lives. We make a difference between the things of the spirit, politics, culture, economics and our private existences and fail to provide the common basis of all these things.
Our Governments rule us by departments and the preoccupations of one may be unknown or unwelcome to another. And in this development in which India has her share as much as most other peoples art and culture have become a department. They are treated as something apart from politics or economics, something on which funds may be expended if there is a little left over after one has paid for defence, industries and social welfare.
One aims at making lives richer and fuller by improving standards of living and shortening hours of work. Does one spend the same energies on filling the newly won hours of leisure?
How often have we heard, ever since the days when the national struggle was on, that in times of stress and danger, art was a luxury that would have to wait for better times. We consider that a determined and purposeful art policy is one of the most important duties today, a duty that cannot wait for better times, for the very reason that such a policy could help to bring those better times nearer.
Village communities in India have many ways preserved their culture and their arts, however much the ingression of the modern age has defiled their innocence. Village life is totalitarian, and the arts of the village people are the conventional but very alive expressions of their lives in all aspects. Bound to the course of nature and the elements more closely than city folk, their awareness of the fundamental issues is more real and more awake. Life and death, growth and decay, sowing and harvest, are all part of the great spectacle of life. Their arts express this awareness in dances and festivals, ceremonies and the decorations of their houses, in their songs and their dresses. Now that mechanisation may enter the villages of India, and the ways of a new co-operative system of working, great care must be taken that the inherent culture is not destroyed.
Lack of Patronage
Beyond the villages, art and culture have become conscious and premeditated. They are part of the trappings of a community-life which has lost its community. However, they survived and it is patronage that made them survive. The great commercial civilisations of Europe and America have at least provided patronage of more or less enlightened understanding. The wealth of the few has partly been re-invested for the good of the many. India’s curse today is the lack of patronage. The most generous and on the whole most enlightened patronage used to be dispensed at the princely courts. With the debasement of princely culture during the last hundred years, the court arts degenerated. Today the source of patronage is wholly buried. The middle classes have failed. People who see salvation in the very existence of money cannot be moved to spend it on such ‘unessential’ things as art. Exceptions there have been in great patrons who have been in great patrons who have generously provided support, encouragement and incentive. But they were few and incommensurate with the needs. The total insensitivity of our middle-classes has largely contributed to the decline of art in India. You have only to go into the house or the flat of the average ‘bourgeois’ in any city of India to see the nakedness, emptiness or tawdriness of their lives.
If Prince and burgher fail as patrons and the community as such is not yet aware of its community as such is not yet aware of its community life, the state must come in and play the part of the patron - the state but not the bureaucrat. That’s where we need an art policy.
The Government of India has founded a National Cultural Trust and has convened or is going to convene various councils to deal with painting, dancing, theatre, music and literature. Departments again. The Government has also decided to give scholarships to deserving artists and to buy for official purposes works of artists. These are beginnings which one would whole-heartedly welcome if the Department concerned was less highhanded in its selection of personnel and less dominated by cliques which certainly do not represent the whole art world of India. Artists, less than other people do not like to be dictated to. Once a policy of patronage has been decided on it should be left to the artists themselves or their representative to implement it.
The immediate object should be to create a climate in which the arts can grow. That the demand is there among the people is clear to any one who reads and sees the number of journals and magazines published in every part of the country. Art is today much more a topic of public interest than it was some time ago. But the circle of initiates is still very small. Interest is latent in many more who need stimulation and opportunities. Point one in our art policy would therefore be a progressive and re-enlightened art education in all types of schools and throughout the school-going age. We do not want to torture children with the tedious imitations of objects or pattern but ignite in them the spark of creative doing and seeing. Make them aware of the beauties of their own country and that of others and let their minds lower in a free unfolding of their fantasy. Let them make their own art; that is the best way of teaching it.
Point two of our art policy would be to foster understanding and interest among the many, the grown ups with their bare and unlovely lives. We cannot think of a better way to create an atmosphere for art than by stimulating and supporting in the most generous manner a theatre movement in its widest andmostcomprehensive aspects.
We would like to see public theatres with a permanent company in every big city. Let the central Government and the Provincial Governments and the municipalities combine to give us the theatres. It will not be long before our artists will bring them to life. The smaller cities may have their own play-groups and receive the seasonal visits of travelling companies. Nothing could bind the people closer together than their own theatre. The film has on the whole failed. As in America, it has been completely commercialized and is incapable of giving anything but the most superficial and vulgar form of entertainment. Here, too one must acknowledge the exceptions which have tried for more and aimed higher; but it is the average that counts. A live theatre movement could in turn influence the film and fertilise it in many ways. A commercialised stage will easily fall a victim to box office. Our theatre movement should be free and state supported, not state-managed. Here is the opportunity for imaginative Government patronage. One can start from scratch. Nothing has been done yet. The largest cities of India, including the capital, have no theatre. Companies of dancers or actors cannot find a stage. Is this an atmosphere to foster art?
Art & Tradition
In all the arts, the problem is today the creation of a truly contemporary approach. In the art of any given time, tradition plays a part. But tradition will only enter in the same measure as this tradition is a true part of our life. Only he who lives in the present, deserves the past. The arts of painting and sculpture in India are still dominated by a tendency to continue an ancient style which quite arbitrarily has been made into something of a national style. To adhere to the principles of painting as they were in vogue in Ajanta in 750 AD is as ludicrous as the Victorian tendency to build railway stations in the style of Gothic cathedrals. Every age has its own problems to solve and must work out its own art. for that reason we feel that any discrimination in favour of a so-called national traditional style would stifle rather than promote the development of good art in India. Good art will in any case speak the idiom of its own time and its own country.
We would therefore like to see a generous official policy towards the arts. After all, the amounts required to finance it are insignificant compared with the crores that are needed to satisfy more material wants. We would like this policy to consist in the providing of opportunities but not in the running of art activities by bureaucrats. The executive should be in the hands of co-operative artist groups, who must learn to work together and to give to the nation a new art as the product of great co-operative effort. Perhaps we can see the right beginning in Bombay where the Government has formed an Art Advisory Committee consisting mostly of representative non-officials drawn from artists and art-critics. One will follow with great interest this experiment in co-operative effort.
At least in the visual arts, Bombay marches today at the head of the nation. Various groups of artists explore new ways of expression. Bold experiments have led to vigorous results. Public taste is gradually formed and shaped by artist who are faithful to their own time.
Co-operation means discipline and team work. It should not mean the narrowing of enterprise and the defeat of freedom, because freedom is the birthright of art. The official tendency today is to forget this. Censorship has established itself in our midst with all its deadening consequences, all its ugliness and all its futility. If the people want to be wicked hey will be so inspite of the censor and if they want to be ‘agin’ the government, they will be so whether the censor allows it or not. But how can true art grow when the petty-minded have the means to clip the wings of the freer spirits. How can art live if fear of the policeman dulls the atmosphere? We have seen a case in Bombay where the organisers of an art exhibition removed some pictures from the screens in fear of official disapproval. Can the degradation go further? We had Shakespeare’s words purified and a recent French town included the exterior of a wineshop. Censorship is a stupid and on the whole intellectual weapon against freedom. Why not abolish it?
Published in the Times of India, Monday, August 15, 1949, page 16