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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The importance of art in the age of coronavirus

Studies have shown that viewing a painting, listening to music or watching a performance strengthen learning, reduce anxiety and heal trauma.

Written by Nachiket Chanchani | New Delhi | Updated: May 17, 2020 2:09:21 pm
A thing of joy and beauty:  A Madhubani painting by Padma Shri winner Sita Devi, one of the early Mithila artists

As the government of India looks to gradually reopen the economy, creative and cultural industries, a sector that has already been impacted by the ongoing pandemic, may be among the last to recover from the economic downturn. As the arts nurture public health and as cultural diversity is an essential aspect of the nation’s fabric, it is critical to keep this sector afloat.

For several reasons, creative and cultural industries are poised to suffer enormous losses. Many of India’s performing arts, museums and heritage sites have come to be tied to tourism, another sector poised to recover slowly as travel and social distancing restrictions will continue for some time. The perception that the arts and humanities are not essential to our society is entrenched. Since many artists, arts organisations and cultural workers have been the recipient of meagre grants from the government and philanthropic trusts even before the pandemic, their resources will diminish first. To counteract this, the development of a forward-looking cultural policy is the need of the hour. Recent symbolic gestures by the Union Ministry of Culture — such as inducting regional weaving traditions into national lists of intangible cultural heritage and illuminating the forecourt of the Red Fort with oil lamps — will neither preserve these practitioners nor the sites.

A recognition that the arts positively affect our bodies and minds is an elementary first step in formulating a new policy. Art fosters awareness, enhances social skills, increases self-esteem and slows cognitive decline. Many studies have shown that activities such as viewing a painting, listening to music or watching a performance strengthen learning, reduce anxiety and heal trauma. Therefore, the arts are promoters of healthier communities in the intermediate and long term.

If the past is any guide, then by turning to it we might learn of other benefits of investing in the arts in times of crisis. As a famine extended its grip in Bengal in the 1940s, artists such as Zainul Abedin and Chittaprosad made sketches of the unfolding human tragedy. Some exhibited their work, others arranged for their speedy and inexpensive publication. Even as these ventures drew the colonial government’s ire, they inspired fellow Indians to contribute resources to ease the suffering of those most impacted by the catastrophe.

Two decades later, a severe drought hit Bihar. Pupul Jayakar, the then head of the handicrafts board, encouraged the women of the Mithila region to transfer compositions they had hitherto reserved for their nuptial chambers to paper. With Indira Gandhi’s support, Jayakar marketed these rustic paintings to urban audiences by emblazoning their images on trains, hanging them in hotel lobbies, selling them in emporia and showcasing them at international festivals. Since then, a dedicated group of anthropologists, designers, museum professionals and government officers has revived many other ritual art traditions, including some on the verge of extinction. As a result, their makers have enjoyed fame, their rural communities have prospered and new forms of cultural expression and regional identity have flowered.
Alongside arts practitioners, now is the time to support arts scholars. Given the closure of Archaeological Survey of India-protected monuments, budgets allocated for repaving walkways, growing exotic flowers on lawns and installing dynamic lighting systems should be transferred to fellowship schemes for students and scholars of archaeology. Funds apportioned for the construction of grandiose experiential museums in the recently-concluded budget session should be transferred to charitable trusts devoted to advancing the history, conservation and enjoyment of art. These trusts should be allowed to help existing museums pay the salaries of positions critical to their missions and cover other essential expenses. The Ministry of Culture should publicise its pension and medical aid scheme for artistes facing hardships, simplify the application process and expedite fund disbursal.

Over the past decade, The National Missions on Manuscripts and Libraries have scanned thousands of manuscripts. These digital resources should immediately be made freely available online. Scholars must be given grants to begin translating these texts from the ancient languages into contemporary tongues. Subventions should be given to presses to publish these works. The Ministry should give stipends to humanities researchers to write accessible essays and podcasts for a broad audience, including school children. Finally, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations should work with embassies worldwide to encourage private collectors and connoisseurs of South Asian art to donate funds to arts organisations in India.

As cultural historian Lakshmi Subramanian recently reflected, music is one of the few transmissions in the human chain that can be safely amplified now. Governments might remunerate practitioners of musical and performing arts if they consent to teach students basic singing techniques through teleconferencing facilities. Following the lead of global pop stars, India’s agencies should initiate schemes that will disburse funds to local musicians who Livestream melodies from their homes.

Today, India’s eyes are on China, where the pandemic began and which is now carefully reopening its economy. If we also take into account China’s modernising initiatives in the 1950s and 1960s that aspired to pull millions of its citizens out of grinding poverty, then we will see that they led to a paradigm shift in China’s cultural landscape. Many practitioners of long-cherished traditions found themselves tilling fields or working in assembly lines on factory floors, hundreds of kilometres from their hometowns. As these erstwhile practitioners aged and their unique skill-sets became rusty, an array of artistic practices that helped to shape China were endangered. Some artistic traditions even disappeared. Our creative and cultural industries are essential — they nurture public health and preserve cultural diversity, and so, these are among the nation’s most valuable assets in the age of coronavirus and in the years to come.

Nachiket Chanchani is an associate professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, US

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