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Art of governance

Whatever be the case for culture as invested in geography, it’s evident that any pro-people, visionary government will invest in culture as a binding force and an important building block of Indian identity, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Jun 11, 2009 23:39 IST
Renuka Narayanan

It’s one thing for old political hands to say that culture was delinked from tourism in this administration to deal with the issue of Ram Setu, on which the sarkar was all at sea last time. But there’s more at stake than that for national life.

Nearly a fortnight after the council of ministers was sworn in, the Prime Minister is rightly taking his time about who should head this critical ministry that may not get the media-hype but contains those emotional issues that can tear India apart.

The DMK’s eagerness to destroy Ram Setu’s fragile ecosystem, citing revenue from marine traffic and coastal security as reasons to build the Sethusamudram Canal, was countered in court by arguments pro-environment and the actual economic feasibility of the project.

Moreover, among the believers in the site’s sanctity are people like Virbhadra Mishra, a water-warrior for the Ganga and former professor of hydraulic engineering at the Banaras Hindu University and post-retirement, the hereditary Mahant of the famous Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple at Tusli Ghat, Varanasi. Mishra’s bold and confident assertion of communal unity kept the peace in Varanasi after the blasts at this busy temple on a Tuesday evening in May 2007.

Last year, when the Ram Setu case was being argued in Delhi, Mishra told HT, “Sacred geography is a part of the Indian culture. Ram Setu is a revered reality in the belief system of millions of Hindus. Don’t desecrate it.” Piquantly, Mishra spoke from the 400-year-old building on Tulsi Ghat where Goswami Tulsidas had composed the last two chapters of his Ramcharitmanas and also the Hanuman Chalisa. Tulsidas wrote under the protection of fellow-poet Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan, then the Mughal governor of Varanasi. He upheld Tulsi against orthodox priests who opposed Tulsi’s rendering of the Sanskrit epic into ‘common’ speech.

Whatever be the case for culture as invested in geography, it’s evident that any pro-people, visionary government will invest in culture as a binding force and an important building block of Indian identity. Apart from its intrinsic depth and complexity — no other country has seven classical styles of dance, for one — there’s the matter of culture as soft power.

The performing arts, in particular, have served their country heroically. When newly independent India set up one foreign mission after another in ship-to-mouth economy decades, it was classical arts that took abroad as its calling card. They kept our honour, for we had nothing else. “We are poor now, but we are not nobodies; we have this grand old culture. We’ll be back with more money some day, but meanwhile, note this: we are India,” was our poor but proud message conveyed by ghunghroos and taans at trade fairs for heavy machinery across Europe and America. Indira Gandhi always presented a glimpse of classical dance to visiting foreign dignitaries at Rashtrapati Bhavan, a practice that lapsed after her, under President Zail Singh.

Today, many Indian lives are invested in culture. But many others cannot access the time- and money-intensive learning process needed. So besides managing the politics of culture, a visionary government would do well to revive patronage that untaps new Indian talent.

A proposal under consideration with the Finance Ministry suggests tweaking the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission Awards to reimburse parents for learning fees up to Rs 12,000 per annum per child, for two children per family until class XII, for expenses incurred in learning classical Indian dance and music.

If approved, this will affect over 20 million Indians. The child of a sarkari peon will be enabled to access the arts that so far only children from the middle and the upper-middle class can from private gurus. This template could be adopted by the private sector as well. In the long-term, our syncretic identity would be stabilised along with our economy.