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Listen to your art

Artistic talent in India is often lost before it can mature. One way to change this is by making India a hub for art from the developing world, writes Kaushik Basu.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2009 21:47 IST

Whenever I happen to be in Delhi in March I make it a point to visit the annual exhibition of the Delhi College of Art, when paintings and drawings by the students of the college are opened to the public. What one sees takes one’s breath away. The talent on display is phenomenal. This is true not just of Delhi. One finds the same looking at art by little-known artists in Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. One cannot but marvel at the skill and imagination that India’s young and unknown artists bring to their work.

What is true, however, is that a vast number of these extraordinarily talented people will ultimately be compelled to abandon their craft to make ends meet. This is even more true for those living in small towns and villages. There is not even the college exhibition where one sees the talent on display before it is extinguished. India clearly needs to do more to promote its own culture and the arts.

The reason for this sub-par performance is rooted in mistakes on both the left and the right. The first mistake is to suppose that art has nothing to do with markets and, so, to overlook the fact that, for art to flourish, we need a thriving market. The second mistake is the one of supposing that a market thrives only when it is left completely to its own devices. The truth is that markets need to be nurtured by the government and institutions. This is true of markets in the US, Japan and China; this has been true of markets at the time of Adam Smith and is true now.

If we wish the celebration of Indian art (in India and abroad) to reach beyond the few whose works now regularly make it to London and New York — Syed Haider Raza, Anjolie Ela Menon, Jogen Chowdhury, MF Hussain and one or two others — we need deliberate action on the part of the government and our media.

There is a lot that the government can do to promote art and art appreciation. One idea, which will need some initial investment but can in the long run pay for itself many times over, is to build in India a Museum of Contemporary Art from Developing Economies. Buying the works of top artists from the United States or Britain or France can be prohibitive. Not so for some of the finest artists from Brazil, South Africa, Vietnam, Russia, Sri Lanka, Mexico and China.

Some contemporary Chinese artists, such as Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang, may command prices like those of the most expensive Western artists but, in general, it is within India’s reach to build up a museum that is known globally for being the best collection from the developing world. This would not only increase tourist traffic to India and raise the profile of India in the world, but it can, in turn, increase interest in Indian art and culture and thereby open new doors for our own poor artists.

Also, once one such major international gallery comes up, the market for art would pick up on its own and smaller galleries would sprout up in and around this one big effort.

A visit on any random day to Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, housed in the magnificent premises of the Jaipur House, can be a dispiriting experience. The art, with large collections of the works of Amrita Shergill, Abanindranath Tagore, KG Subramanyam and others, is impressive. What disappoints is that so few people visit the museum. On my last visit I felt guilty that the guards were getting disturbed.

This is where the Indian media comes in. There ought to be more coverage of the arts, music and even science and mathematics in our newspapers, magazines, radio and television if we are to have a more learned and productive citizenry.

I am aware that this is a two-way street. The media clearly have an interest in supplying people with what they are interested in. This explains the excellent coverage of what is happening in the lives of Megan Fox and J Lo. This is understandable and one can see why no single newspaper will want to take away that space and turn it over to more educational matters.

The fear of competition can, however, be partly curbed if there is a collective effort on the part of all major newspapers and television channels to devote a small amount of space to nurturing interest in the arts and the sciences. After all, corporations, despite their commitment to profits, do, nowadays, make some concession to ‘corporate social responsibility’. The CSR movement has led companies to agree to take small cuts in profit in order not to pollute the atmosphere and to uphold minimal labour standards even when that is costly. They need to do more; but it is interesting that they at least do something.

Likewise, we need to promote the idea of what may be called “media cultural responsibility.” A commitment to MCR will mean that a newspaper will devote a small amount of space, say 5 per cent to start with, to promote the arts and culture, and interest in science. This will not increase sales and will not, therefore, help with advertisement income, but this small cost, borne by all newspapers, can make a huge difference to the promotion of the arts and sciences in India, and can speed up development by creating a more enlightened and productive citizenry.

Kaushik Basu is Professor of Economics and Chairman, Department of Economics, Cornell University.