Forging a new link in Delhi, through culture | Opinion – analysis
In December 2019, at a classical music festival organized by the Delhi government in Sunder Nursery, a well-known enthusiast of the culture of Delhi of Lutyens turned to me and told me with relief. “I’m not a fan of his government, they only work for schools, bijli (electricity), paani (water) … I’m glad you’re seeing high culture. This is good governance. “On the same night, a popular rock star from Uttarakhand was playing at a concert in Mayur Vihar, which was attended by a few thousand people, most of whom had never before attended a live performance of such scale: The last two years saw a variety of programs unprecedented throughout the city that helped convey the message of social harmony of the government in times of polarization.
Art is an inherently subjective matter, as are aesthetic preferences. What should be the role of government in the promotion of art and culture? What should promote a cultural policy that meets the diverse and subjective tastes of the millions of individuals and the myriad communities that make up a diverse city like Delhi, in its rich amalgamated heritage, a true microcosm of the country?
In 2017, Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, voluntarily decided to lead the department of art, culture and languages. He believed that the holistic development of our city would be impossible without paying attention to the power of the arts to enrich lives. I joined him to create spaces in Delhi where people can meet to learn and entertain.
When we started our work, the most obvious problem was that the cultural financing of the government was mainly limited to the center of Delhi. This meant that the arts of the nation’s capital were primarily the arts of the elite. As is often the case with other areas of India, the arts in Delhi not only failed to close the social gaps, but were fundamental to restoring social hierarchies.
The government was already in its third year and was doing a remarkable job in education, health and welfare. We had little time to realize all our creative ideas, so we contacted people who are already part of the artistic scene of the establishment. Our vision of decentralized financing to democratize the arts was well received. Many suggestions came from the initial euphoria: cultural cartography, #artsforall, public art, community radio, etc. However, most of these ideas seemed superficial, where a new generation of culture experts wants to bring “good art” to the general public.
At first, the Delhi government began organizing cultural evenings with popular artists throughout the city. In the high-class punjabi neighborhood of Janakpuri, a qawwali The Nizami brothers program was organized as part of our Dastak series. Approximately 1,500 people showed up in this and its surroundings, far exceeding our expectations. Our neighborhoods are often divided by caste and class, despite their proximity. In a meeting like this, where art is the binding force, the differences disappear. The response of the public stimulated the qawwals, which at one point began to shout “Hindu-Muslim ekta zindabad“To our surprise, the non-Muslim majority area echoed the slogan in a genuine collective voice.
In the next budget, the Delhi government allocated Rs 25 lakh per year to each of the 70 constituencies of the assembly. We created informal cultural committees of art lovers, who worked closely with members of the legislative assembly to decide the best way to use the funds. Whether it is Bollywood performances or community-specific traditional performances, the government did not interfere in the choices made by the people.
From this experience, we also learned that people are also eager to participate in cultural events. In a city-wide challenge, we created a local talent competition, sending trucks and presenters to 300 rooms and launching an application in which people could register to perform. Despite some technical problems, it was successful. People of all ages and all social classes participated. People looked at this as a way to express themselves. I will never forget a young mother of conservative origin who dances to her heart’s desire and is applauded for it. She told us that she would never have had the chance to leave her mohalla to participate in a talent show. She, along with many other participants, returned with memories that they will appreciate.
Directing our attention from the street to the proscenium, we discovered that, although the various government academies organized a series of programs, several remained with little assistance or attended exclusively by a disinfected crowd of the usual suspects. Our next goal was to make these programs accessible. We realized that the lack of timely information meant that many art lovers never heard about the events. Then, Sisodia launched a free subscription message service to receive regular updates on cultural programs.
Government funding is usually limited to classical or traditional art forms, but we wanted to involve more people. While we work to make art accessible to people, we also work to ensure that artists are valued for their talent and skills. At first, 1,000 street artists, including singers, hip-hop artists and street actors, participated in events.
Festivals to celebrate languages such as Urdu, Sanskrit, Punjabi, Maithili-Bhojpuri and Hindi have kept Central Park busy at Connaught Place. The venue features performances ranging from lesser known ghazal singers to Bollywood stars like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Javed Ali, Shilpa Rao and more. The public has been an eclectic mix of informed listeners and, encouragingly, first timers who run into the experience and end up being delighted. The programs at Central Parks have become part of the soul of Delhi.
The democratization of knowledge goes hand in hand with the decentralization of power. The Delhi government is committed to reducing inequalities by making knowledge systems inclusive. What this government has managed to do through artistic efforts is a reflection of the general system of political values of the government, where ideas of democratic and decentralized decision making, inclusive spaces and dialogues and opportunities for respectable livelihoods come together creating a vibrant confluence. An open and fresh approach will be essential to give life to the cultural character of Delhi.
Abhinandita Dayal Mathur is an advisor to the Delhi government on culture and teaches at Ambedkar University
The opinions expressed are personal.