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The Shrinking Cultural Spaces in the Cities

Art and culture have always been on the back burner in comparison with other traditionally lucrative sectors.
Shrinking cultural spaces in cities

Representational image. | Image courtesy:

On May 23, the results of the general elections to the 17th Lok Sabha will be out. A new government will be formed, which hopefully will work in the interests of the common people. Various sections of the society became important stakeholders during the run up to the elections and made their voices heard in one form or the other. These sections that include NGOs working among children, student groups, youth, women, other Civil Society Organisations working in various domains, dalit groups, workers through their trade unions and various other groups, kisans etc., pressurised the political parties to incorporate some of their demands in the manifestos.

However, there is one section that hardly made its presence felt during the election discourse. This section comprises of the performing artists, cultural groups and such other groups. This does not diminish the various demands that these sections have towards the Indian state, even though their issues vary as per the different types of art that they are into.

The challenges that performing artists face are immense in the country, especially in the cities. More so, at a time and space when the cities are rapidly transforming into a more liberal capital driven model rather than the old Nehruvian model. The cities, like other units, are also structured towards more privatisation. Even governance in the cities is seen with the same prism. The cities are more competitive and are supposed to attract investments for their sustainability.

In this transformative stage, the cultural spaces are also witnessing a paradigm shift. These spaces are viewed as spaces to attract investment for the development of the city. A task force formed at the behest of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) as its consultant has brought out a paper, ‘Rejuvenating Urban India Through Art and Culture’. This is a road map to revise the art and culture in Indian cities. As mentioned in the paper, the cultural spaces are also considered as an industry which is worth $US 67 billion (Rs 4,67,000 crore).

Also Read: The Systemic Failure of City Administrations

The executive summary of the report defines the role of the cities quite unambiguously. It considers Indian cities to be curated to attract ‘capital’ in the growing intense competition among cities. Art and culture, according to the report, must play a pivotal role to make cities more vibrant and attract more capital.

The Indian art and culture landscape has numerous challenges. The task force, however, rightly identifies these challenges. The first being, lack of cultural and social infrastructure to commission, distribute, manage and support the sector. Secondly, Indian cities, because of their vast historical background, struggle to strike a balance between preserving tradition and modern convenience. The third challenge faced by Indian cities is, ensuring equitable access to art and culture-related opportunities. Currently, major consumers of the sector in Indian cities continue to be the middle and upper classes, with marginal and poor communities existing in ‘cultural deserts’ with almost no access to these opportunities. Additionally, Indian cities, unlike their global counterparts, lack comprehensive data about their cultural resources, which prevents them from planning effectively. Lastly, due to lack of awareness of the tangible and intangible impact of the sector in India, art and culture have always been on the back burner in comparison with other traditionally lucrative sectors such as manufacturing, telecom and mining. As a result, the sector has seen minimal investment from the government and private players.

The cities require state investments to ensure that cultural and social infrastructure is maintained and developed.

The entire process of planning in the cities has to be revisited. Planning in cities must incorporate the various aspects of cultural and social infrastructure. A multifaceted approach for planning, designing and managing public spaces is required to ensure that the culture in city thrives. The contemporary infrastructure in the cities is more elite and middle class oriented. To perform in the cities and mega cities, the cultural artists have to book the theatres which work on a business model. To host a play in Delhi, an auditorium will require at least Rs 1 lakh a day as rent. How is it possible for small groups to exhibit their art in such an environment? On the other hand, the performances of street artists, especially street theatre has been virtually taken off the streets by various coercive interventions at the behest of the city administration. One of it includes, seeking permission, which in itself becomes a challenge to the cultural artists.

Also Read: The Role City Govts Can Play in the Health of Citizens

The new model of governance in cities, the smart city mission (SCM) was supposed to take a number of initiatives and schemes that centred around cultural urban development. The SCM is an urban renewal and retrofitting programme, which aims to develop 109 smart cities across the country. It is supposed to provide a significant opportunity for promotion of art and culture in India. Under this scheme, every nominated smart city has been allocated, on an average, Rs 80 crore to implement projects that will enhance its cultural identity and heritage.

However, Virkein Dhar, an architect and a dancer, based in Delhi, has altogether a different view over the way the planning is done in the cities. According to her, when these performing spaces are planned and the infrastructure is constructed, the major players are kept outside. These are constructed without consulting the artists or performers and the audience. Take for example, the many amphitheatres constructed in the cities which do not have a facility for a green room. How will an artist change their clothes without a green room, she quipped. K T Ravindran, another planner and former professor in School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, who is also known as a ‘militant planner’, terms the entire exercise of the transformation in cities and shrinking cultural spaces as an attack on the people. According to him, the construction of shopping malls in open spaces is a way to create this new culture of ‘malls’ so that the people are turned into mere consumers.

The hard infrastructure comprises the body of the city and culture is the soul of this body; both have their importance. In cities with large migratory population, the manifestation of the cultural aspirations of these communities are limited only to religious festivals. That is why in a city like Delhi, Chhath puja is a big festival, similarly Ganesh puja is gaining ground. However, the democratic spaces of people’s culture are diminishing and this is a challenge, which smart city does not address rather shrinks it further.

Read More: Is India Committed to Empowering Its Cities and Their Inhabitants?

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