Funding the Arts

by Devina Dutt (Co-founder - First Edition Arts, Arts Writer & Curator)

The new India story of the last decade or so is characterised by what can only be described as a certain unambiguous, almost confessional fondness for display. Even before we were all swept away in the constant pull and thrust of social media, the Indian performing arts traditions which include the classical arts, have for several years, had to deal with the fact that in the popular imagination at least, they are pitted against Big Media and Big Entertainment.

They will be judged largely for their efficacy as entertainment products or “content” by an audience whose attention spans have declined even as their need for instant gratification has grown. In general, a more varied and nuanced response to a work of art presented by a practitioner of some integrity is very rare.

Artists of all streams including the classical arts as well as experimental indie theatre or contemporary dance at the other end of the spectrum, wonder how they can fit into this dominant pattern. Is it possible to stay committed to rigour, take creative risks to advance their body of work, find and nurture their audience in a context that relentlessly reinforces only one kind of market sanctioned and flattened idea of art and culture? How can seeking artists continue to learn, collaborate and fine tune their art in an ecosystem which does not recognize the difference between popular entertainment and intimate engagements.

These artists often feel disoriented, trapped in a social and cultural construct that is at odds with the immersive long years of training they have been through and the artistic goals they are conditioned to and expected to pursue.

In such a scenario there is naturally also a great asymmetry between the unmet funding needs of diverse artists in diverse art forms and those in sectors that are closely mapped to the market and capable of justifying ROI (Return on Investment) in corporate parlance! It is disappointing that in a country as large as India and with so many traditional as well as contemporary art forms, we haven’t really seen much success in creating self sustaining smaller and multiple ecosystems each with a unique audience base.

Corporate sponsors are often referred to as the natural successors to the intricate networks of royal patronage that used to exist earlier. But corporate sponsorships have largely been a tactical and one sided engagement in an essentially unequal relationship. While corporate sponsors seem ubiquitous, specially during cultural festivals in the winter months, the fact is that the bulk of the limited sponsorship pie is dominated by a small clutch of super branded artists and high profile “events”.

Generating publicity and executing a marketing overdrive is by and large the reason corporate sponsorships exist. The high visibility of the sponsored event cannot hide the fact that the arts sector and the majority of artists are excluded. It also cannot hide the fact that we don’t have a robust, sensitively delivered, widespread government arts funding program. Linked to these drawbacks is the fact that we have collectively failed to develop a culturally sensitive audience that although far smaller in size and existing in pockets could have created viable alternatives specific to diverse art forms comprising a cosmopolitan, eclectic mix of patrons, young professionals, college students and the wider arts communities.

All of these factors taken together make things very difficult for a serious minded artist looking to create sensitive art. On the surface It might appear that joining the game, playing by the rules, developing a pragmatic approach to creating more acceptable art that is not too demanding of audiences, is the way to go.

But counter intuitive as it may sound, it might just be better for individual artists to not lose hope and delve deeper within to explore and reconnect with their own convictions and principles. To learn also to look outside of their own practices and worlds at other art forms and closely study their funding and audience building structures. To try and understand their best practices looking at examples from decades ago as well as from the present.

There are communities of artists and networks waiting to align and then present their respective art forms or collaborations from a position of greater strength by addressing each other’s audiences. This is specially true for classical artists who tend to isolate themselves from the more immediate here and now contexts. Perhaps by reaching out to compatriots in other forms, by abandoning the fusty preciousness of charmed circles and embodying the contemporary spirit will bring newer thinking and opportunities.

Working with untypical audiences, drawing them into the fascinating processes and stages that go towards the making of works, will lay the ground for the making of a long term audience. Working to build even a 100 good listeners or viewers would be a great achievement for any artist today. Instead of accepting the disheartening reality of the current arts ecosystem, going back to the basics and using the power of intimate, consistent engagements and communication about the artform are bound to bring results. Forming artist collectives, working with local communities and educational as well as cultural institutions like schools and public libraries will energize both sides. In doing so there is time and place for intelligent, proactive use of social media too but based entirely on the artist’s terms.

Artists who want to bypass the pressures and prescriptions of the market and exercise their freedom to create and communicate with their audiences on their terms need to bring an extraordinary force of imagination and self belief in their responses to the systemic challenges they face.

About Devina Dutt

Devina Dutt is an art curator and writer who has co-founded First Edition Arts (FEA), a performing arts company with a focus on promoting and documenting Hindustani and Carnatic music and musicians. FEA has also worked with international jazz musicians like Jazz Maestro John Mclaughlin and the 4th Dimension and Alex Mackachek. Devina has 25 years of experience as news, business, development, and arts writer and remains fatally attracted to poetry and literature.

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Legendary Kuchipudi Dancing couple, Raja and Radha Reddy, is responsible for bringing Kuchipudi dance, the pride of Andhra Pradesh, onto the cultural map of the world.

Legendary Kuchipudi Dancing couple, Raja and Radha Reddy, is responsible for bringing Kuchipudi dance, the pride of Andhra Pradesh, onto the cultural map of the world.
For their contribution to the art form they have been decorated with many awards nationally and internationally. They have had the honor of performing for presidents and prime ministers of many countries such as President Ford, Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro etc. They have conducted charity shows for Red Cross Society, Blind Relief Association, and the home for the aged people in Bombay and CRY. They had the honor of being invited as the first Indian dancers to participate in the International Dance festival of Avignon in France and Salzburg in Austria.

The couple’s contribution to the festival of India in the USA and the UK was considered outstanding. They were the star attraction of the All Star Ballet Gala festival in Japan. The Reddys inaugurated the India Festival in Bangladesh. Raja and Radha Reddy have created history by becoming the first couple to receive Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan award individually and simultaneously for the same cause by the President of India, the Sangeet Natak Academy award, International Meridian award etc.