|WE HAVE NOT BEEN ABLE TO LEVERAGE THE ECONOMIC ADVANTAGES OF CULTURE SO FAR. ANY CULTURAL PRACTITIONER KNOWS THAT MORE THAN HALF HIS/HER TIME GOES IN SECURING FUNDS FOR A SHOW
By PRIYA KANUNGO
He is considered the live wire who's made thinking out of the box a regular practice in the Ministry of Culture. A 1975 batch Indian Administrative Service officer of the West Bengal cadre, Jawhar Sircar came in as Secretary, Culture, Government of India, about three years ago. Like any bureaucrat, he's done stints in the field, in departments in the state, and at the Centre. But despite his much-coveted positing in finance and industry, he says he's had a soft spot for all thing cultural.
And this is despite the fact that unlike many of his predecessors, he doesn’t stake his personal claim to fame in any particular artistic discipline. Practitioners of culture say they haven't seen such a bumper crop of schemes in years.. that there is a zing to art administration that is quite distant from the dust-laden attitude that people were all too familiar with. Read on to know keeps him ticking when he is tackling creative sensibilities.
What are the differences between administering culture and commerce?
Both finance and commerce require a great deal of precision, and are highly competitive than the other two. But it does not get enough importance because those in culture have not been able to articulate their points of view. More importance, they have not been able to leverage the economic advantages of culture.
I’d like to cite the example of the Lincoln Centre in the US as a case i point. The revenue generated from this cultural complex can equal the income from any economic enterprise. But it provide employment to a far greater number of people, because culture is a very person-intensive, people-centric activity. Administering culture is, therefore, a little more complicated than dealing with commerce.
In India, most people in culture don't like the term "creative industry". The British and the American use the term - what they are trying to say is that culture has an economic connotation, that it is not trying to project and work round in the Ministry.
What has been your big picture on culture?
We are trying to set up culture complexes along the Lincoln Centre line, because we realize people are impatient. You need to give them more choice. So just a stand- alone hall will not work. you need allied facilities within a given time. If culture has to pour its heart out to people, you will need to have, say, a vibrant dance-drama, a seminar, a book reading, a dance recital, etc, all within a complex, and within a time band.
When I look over as Secretary here, out first target was to support, through small grants, a large number of cultural expressions. Any cultural practitioner knows that more than half of his/her time goes in securing finances for a show. I’m glad that in the last one year, at least 500 groups have benefited from these grants. And this is something that has never happened before.
But there is a rider that only those NGOs and trusts that have been around for three years can apply for such grants?
Most of these schemes and grants are new ventures for the Ministry. So it many sound bureaucratic, but stipulation like having a registered society for three years are actually screening mechanisms for the government….Just to make sure that the beneficiaries haven’t sprung up overnight. But now we are looking at giving grants to individuals also. For the commemoration of 150th Birth Anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, we are looking at talented individuals to carry the schemes forward. If this attempt succeeds, then we try the same for other cultural functions too. But there will still be an element of caution in all such initiatives or else, very soon, there will be applications be pouring in from people who have no clue about the subject.
What are the two biggest challenges you have faced in administering culture?
The first challenge was the belief that culture is a hobby, that it is not mainstream. Culture need a stand-alone identity. There are so much in government service, as also outside it, who are interested in, or practice an art form. But they do it after office hours. So it become a past time. That hurts, because it is a way of saying that it cannot be more important that what the source of income is.
I can’t say I have been able to overcome this mental block, but I can certainly say I’ve tried to project to policymaker what the reality on the ground was/is. I think today cultural practitioners also known that even of I don’t always agree with what they say, I give them a patient hearing.
The other challenges was to change perceptions within the sector, within culture, regard foot the bureaucracy has been very low because the belief is that we don’t understand their area of work. In any sector, expectation can never equal delivery and budgets. But in culture, its practitioners (artists and scholars), by their very nature, them might even be anti-establishment. But I’m told that how they do not feel hesitant to establish direct communication channels with us.
How did you mange that?
By being frank. And then paying the price for it (laughs). If you air your views frankly, I find cultural and academic people are more comfortable, rather than with diplomatic speech. That’s because they themselves are spontaneous. And I was anyway genetically programmed to be brash and open (smile). Also having done theatre and not succeeded in it, I know when I see a good actor and how much of a struggle it is, just to be seen/heard, let alone to succeed. So the studio scheme that we have introduced is a gift to those in theatre.
What would you say have been your biggest failures so far as Culture Secretary?
There are many schemes where I have lost several man hours, which could perhaps have been used to look after the family. One such effort which hasn’t borne fruit is my trying to set up a world-class auditorium in Delhi: something that has the depth and the width to take in a large number of performers. I have been beating my head against a wall just to find the land for it. No one is willing to give it.
The other is that we are sitting on mountains of recording, whether it is recitals or visuals. Most of them haven’t been documented, or catalogued. Every researcher complains that he/she cannot access material from sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), the nodal organisation for the performing arts. Fortunately, now, with Leela Samson coming in as chairman, SNA, work has begun. But it is still at the initial state.
Had it been another Ministry, this wouldn’t have happened. Because there are lines of command. But in culture, it’s a mindset.
I know of one of the oldest libraries in the country. We have been giving them tens of crores every year of digitize their manuscript, but they haven’t been doing it under some pretext or the other. They just wait for condescend to issue reading material in droplets.
This is the 21st century, people are not going to take it. The manuscript are not their property. They are only housed there. But since most of these institutions are autonomous bodies, we respect their independence, and don’t interfere.
The other problem is that the Ministry now has too many schemes to administer, but not enough manpower. It is becoming almost unmanageable. If we give out the administration of these schemes to a private body, the fear is it might end up becoming a favor-dispensing machine. At least right now it is in the hands of bureaucrats who are neutral and have no vested interests.
Till recently it was believed that culture gets very little money from the government compared to other ministries, is that perception changing now?
Money has never been a problem. The mistake often made is to unimaginatively consider the budgets as God’s last word. How we have managed to find the funds for our activities is that we review our allocations periodically. So if one institution has been allocated Rs. 2 crore for a year, and we’ve tracked it to find that the money hasn’t been spend for whatever reason, we take it out before the year lapses, and give it to an organization that is hungry for funds.
We have been re-appropriating and reallocating funds as a rule. And for that, we have to stay back in office till 10 pm to check paper regularly. If you go off at 6pm, you will have a fund problem! In fact for the first time in the history of the Ministry. We had 100 percent on our budget.
As someone who doesn’t claim any specialized knowledge in the arts, would you say were at a disadvantage when you come in as secretary in the Ministry of culture?
I strongly feel just the reverse is true. We’ve had Culture Secretaries with specializations in some artistic discipline or the other—whether in theatre, music or literature, etc. I’m referring to Bhaskar Ghosh and Sitakant Mahapatra. I have none, mercifully.
The non-specialization has a great advantage because you are not blazed towards any particular discipline or to a set of people. I’m not saying a person with talent like Sitakant mahapatra was biased, but the charge of running the Ministry could well be given to someone who is a generalist too.
And what would you say are the disadvantages of being a generalist in the Ministry of Culture?
Each discipline of culture has a history, its own terminology, its own legacy. I had to work hard to figure out the idiom, the divisions, the strong views and tensions within each discipline. But because I’ve been here for about three years, I’ve had the time to understand the sector better. The bottom line, however, is attitude and aptitude.