Our man in the subcontinent, novelist and Wales Arts Review editor Gary Raymond writes back from the British Council March 2016 expedition to India.
Day -1 | the prospect of India
Where does one begin with India, a country that possesses a ‘bottomless seam of stories’? 1.3 billion people (give or take); in a lifetime you could not hope to take it all in. In preparation for a virgin visit, you stock up on books, flick through documentaries, crawl down the rabbit holes of the hyperlinked cybersphere, but you cannot focus on the central idea. Everywhere you look, every page you turn, India does not become more knowable, but becomes even more daunting, the depths plunge and the plains widen. I am going for a week.
From the moment I received the call from the British Council office in Cardiff, asking if I, as editor of Wales Arts Review, would be interested and available to accompany, as a delegate, a BC mission to India ‘in a few weeks’, to make contacts, to reach out, to lay the foundations of future bridges between the subcontinent and the Review for which I am editor, I had to entertain the onset feelings of mild panic and acute bewilderment. What the British Council also wanted me to do was to write about the trip. That was where the panic came. Where does one start with India? And then came the bewilderment.
Three years ago, in 2013, I travelled to Japan with National Theatre Wales, on a very different trip but with a very similar task at hand. NTW were embarking on their first ever international collaboration – the ‘mainstream’ media could not have been less interested in the story, so I was the only writer going to Tokyo as observer. That project was less daunting than this one was at first, and here’s why: as a novelist and short story writer (and I take this strategy to most of my non-fiction, too) I am most at ease when I have a narrative arc out ahead of me. Most writers will tell you a solid arc is a peg onto which you can hang a multitude of indulgent garments. In Tokyo, I had the play, Alan Harris’ The Opportunity of Efficiency. My arc was in the fabric of the endeavour. I would interview, sit in on rehearsals, wander the streets, see some sights, educate my body and soul, and at the close of the trip was my ending – the opening night. What I was going to learn about Japan – and I learned much – would come to me through that arc. But what about India?
Well, for a start, this is not a journalistic project; I am less an observer and more a documentarian with a very wide-brief – but I am also the editor of Wales Arts Review, and so a participant. I am also a novelist, and that comes first; so I will be doing that thing that novelists do, and I will be stealing moments to use in later life under the night shade of fictionisms.
So, my first task was to figure out what the arc would be. As always, the simplest is best; I, along with the other delegates, will be visiting three cities in six days – Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Mumbai. So let us see what glimpses I get of the cultures of these enormous cities. This is a play in three acts.
But then the more you read the more things take shape.
As a writer, and being Welsh, and being editor of a national journal, questions of national identity are no stranger to me. My first impressions of the India of the literature I assembled hastily and haphazardly, gave me the suggestion that India and Japan perhaps have a mutual concern – if concern is the right word. My experience of Japan was that it was an ancient world walking about in the clothes of the one-time hegemonic West, riding its trains and logging on to its computers (this, of course, is nonsense – but it is symbolic of a very real undertow in Japanese culture). Will India be striving for a similar clandestine balance?
Will this three act play be called East Meets West?
I truly hope not – that’s a dreadful title.
In William Darymple’s majestic Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, he tells of a conversation with an idol sculptor, Srikanda, who mourns the fact his son, if he does as expected in school and attains top grades, wishes to go to Bangalore and work in computer technology (Bengaluru is India’s Silicon Valley), thus ending a family tradition of carving religious statues that went back over 700 years. Dalrymple asks Srikanda if that makes him sad; Srikanda replies that it does of course, but that ‘our work here is very hard, and computer work is not so difficult and it pays much more.’ But Srikanda goes on:
We are inheritors of an unbroken tradition, generation after generation, father to son, over 700 years. That’s part of what makes a difference with our sculptures. I do feel there is something special in the blood. At some level this is not a skill which can be taught. The blood itself teaches us our craft, just as a fish’s blood teaches it to swim and a peacock’s blood teaches it to spread its tail.
I know from the briefest of forays into the mountains of books of Indian culture that it will remain unknowable, undefinable. I have spoken to friends of mine from India and from Bangladesh, and everything falls back to family anecdote. When something is so vast it is safest to return to the apron strings. How would a Welsh person define Wales to a visitor? We can all bemoan the fact BBC Wales would immediately nominate rugby, Tom Jones and coastal paths as the faces on our totem poles. (And Dylan Thomas, of course – let us not forget we’ve recently added him to the Team Wales pantheon). Wales is, as Margaret Atwood pointed on in her travel memoir, a nation preoccupied with notions of its own identity. And this, sadly, has become an exercise in condensing the national experience into slogans and icons. Ironically, it is a dumb, and Wales is not dumb. India, at first glance, seems to have attempted no such thing.
Mark Twain said, ‘India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.’ Wouldn’t that be a fine answer to a tourist board questionnaire?
As artists, as writers and producers and theatre makers and the like, we are going to India to not answer, ‘Rugby’, ‘green hills’, or ‘Tom Jones’ when we are asked what is Wales? We are going to have a deeper conversation than that. Or start them, at least.
Day 1 | first moments, the cliches, the road
If you want a telling angle of a city, drive across it as it awakes. Shoot through it as an observer, go on safari, as its day begins, as its people rise. We landed at Bengaluru airport at 5am, to the last ink spots of a thick night sky that fizzled to charcoal as we left and lifted to a light terracotta as we hit the highway. An hour’s drive from airport to hotel – billboards and peeping horns, unfinished factories, scrubland and palm trees, high rises and markets, temples amidst apartment blocks, the dome imprints of Islam next to featureless stone functionary homesteads. With the sun coming up, India is the colour of rust.
They tell you about the assault on the senses, the smells, the heat, the colours and complex landscapes that stretch beyond what the eye can take in. And then you find out all this is true just from the first taxi ride.
We pass a building, four storeys high, it could be a textile factory, it could be an abandoned municipal building, a small business, a domestic block – it would house maybe two apartments per floor. But the sign says “hospital”. Privately-owned health centres like this are common, I’m told. You couldn’t bed more than 20 patients at a time in that place. The signage suggested more like the tourist lure of a point-at-the-picture restaurant.
But there after it, quick as a flash as we drive, is the least inviting market I have ever seen. Pock-marked with ancient scaffolding, the banners beckon passers by, but the entrance is like a toothless mouth and all around looks sucked dry. The heat hasn’t descended by this point, but still everything looks dust dry. The smell of the tropics – that sweet, wet scent – is waking up now too.
The taxi ride is swift – smooth and gliding and a little frightening – and we pass scene after scene, second after second, that could fill a hundred novels, a thousand history books; India is already overwhelming.
It’s oddly comforting to notice in India that they drive on the same side of the road as we do in the UK – I thought we only shared this oddity with New Zealand now (and maybe a Pacific island group or two); us out of typical British stubbornness and the Kiwis out of a kind of isolationist’s apathy. But for all that, the similarity ends there. I would not drive here in India. The road we took from airport to hotel was three lanes wide, as straight as you can get away from America’s grids, and not busy. You could drive it with your eyes closed, rather like BMW drivers tend to do on our own M4. And you’d be forgiven for thinking BMW drivers would be in hog heaven on these seemingly lawless highways, but here there is a lackadaisical aggressiveness to it all. The horn is used as it should be – excuse me, coming through – rather than back home, where it is just a last resort for when you can’t shout Motherfucker loud enough. For a lilly-livered foreigner like me the roads are tense. Our taxi driver is extremely polite, accommodating and relaxed; he drives with a swagger, you might even say he dices with death with an admirable panache. He made me glad he was on our side. Be damned you motorcycle sidewinders and clattering iron busses the noise of whose gear changes ricochet off the distant boulder mountains, we have arrived in India and we will make our way.
Day 2 | Bengaluru: theatreland and the modern city
Bengaluru is a university town, a city whose people believe it has thrived in spite of various political atmospheres, policy drives and personalities, not because of them. This is the considered opinion of an authoritative voice on the subject, head of the British Council Bengaluru office, Leighton Ernsberger, who meets us for lunch. Even if this evaluation proves to be not the whole story, it says a great deal about the attitudes of the people of Bengaluru. Since the late 1970s, Bengaluru has seen a population increase (what rate constitutes an explosion nowadays?) from 2 million to 9 million. The impression you get from travelling around (which for me and my fellow British Council delegates today has taken the reassuring form of a local minibus hire service) is that it is a sprawl, that it has no centre. And this is true – there is no “high street”, but several congested commercial focus points, malls, markets, gathering spots, interconnected by unfathomable road networks, road systems, and fragmented pedestrian walkways. It is astonishing to be told that of the three cities we are to visit, Bengaluru is the cleanest. But perhaps that a human settlement this dense and surging can exist at all is the real story here. Bengaluru is, in comparison to Kolkata and Mumbai, a city thriving in a very modern sense – the expansion, not entirely welcomed by those who have lived here for longer than the boom of the last decade, is very much a corporate takeover.
As the day moves on my suspicions grow that with Bengaluru we have been broken in gently to the urban Indian experience. Kolkata, a “writers’ paradise” I am told – a place where nobody works, everyone just “reads books and watches cricket” – awaits us next, jittery in the wings; and then Mumbai, a city with a reputation for eating its visitors.
Bengaluru is built on a vast plain – I think of the animals that must have once roamed it, the tales that have been handed down through generations of beasts of when this heaving splat of concrete and twisted metal was indeed all fields. It is obvious, pushing through traffic in the lace-curtained minibus, that getting a handle on Bengaluru – on India – is futile; just sit back and let it flood over you. Motorcycles and mopeds and trucks and buses and cars hiss and choke and spit and caw around us like a gaggle of geese as we pass Louis Vuitton, a cake stall, a watermelon stall, a man carves spear-like bamboo tools, four or five feet long at the side of the street; a monkey sits on an iron railing amongst it all, all the dust and fuggy exhaust fumes, the bustle, the lava flow of traffic, and chews some purloined booty with a grizzled regality, his Trump hairpiece and grotesque smooth belly, his strangely cruel eyes. “Don’t go near the monkeys; they are trouble,” is a warning we are given that none of us need.
A brief visit to the British Council library – a spot of very British cultural outreach in the midst of the concrete dust, a pack of stray dogs curiously circle the bus as we pull up outside. The building, the atmosphere, of the library, is exactly like that of any municipal library in the UK – functional, chrome and glass, Internet stations, rows of well-thumbed English language novels, travel books, economics journals and encyclopaedias – a very English, culturally philanthropic spot in a land that seems, at face-value, to wear very sparingly, the hangover of its most recent outside influence.
The other meetings of the first days, largely concentrating on theatre, are startlingly insightful – particularly in mind of the fact it is a “light day” in comparison to what the British Council has in store for us. Arundhati Ghosh is a fundraiser for the India Foundation of the Arts , a private trust that serves as a kind of Arts Council, providing grants to an array of artistic projects. There is no public subsidy of the arts in India (apart from government backing of uber-conservative traditional forms, and even then it is mainly to showcase abroad). Again and again the similarity of our conversations in Bengaluru to the ones we all get sick of having back in Wales – funding the arts – are striking. The corporate attitude to the arts here are the same as they are back home. The “suits” view the arts with condescending suspicion, and the artists’ view of the corporate world is forever coloured by the vulgarity of money. If you ever thought the fiscal problems facing the arts in Wales is one of parochialism you can now safely rest assured you have always been categorically wrong. Ignorance, even for pessimists, is bliss.
The truth is, it seems, Wales, relatively, has a lot right (even if you dispute the details). What theatreland in Bengaluru wouldn’t give for just the smallest taxpayer support.
So instead the problems shift in India, and the gaps are filled by people who can manage, no matter how strained, working the land as it is. This is, of course, not an Indian story, but the story of the history of art. At the Jagriti theatre, joint artistic directors (and husband and wife) Arundhati and Jagdish have the benefit of owning the marvellous building in which they produce their diverse programme (K-Pax is in rehearsal while we are there). But this came about as corporate developers came in to buy up their inherited farmland. Regulations in India stipulate that if a developer purchases land for domestic buildings then the original owners are contractually obliged to have given to them a certain number of apartments (that’s the gist, anyway). Instead of apartments, Arundhati and Jagdish asked for the developers to build them a theatre (and due to the money from a tribunal when the building contractors missed deadlines, they had it kitted out too, down to the very cushions on the seats). It is now 5 years old, and still a labour of love; (“amateur”, Jagdish reminds us, in the sense of the original Greek, “for the love of”).
As for many in Wales, education and outreach is the strongest money-making arm of the theatres here in India. Workshops and local programmes are very much part of the package. We see a Hindi Romeo and Juliet at Ranga Shankara (the other theatre in Bengaluru) performed and produced by the students from a touring one-year acting course – the closest you get in India to drama school. The production stands as a symbol of what we see in the theatre world of Bengaluru – what the people here achieve with no public subsidy is truly remarkable.
So how do they do it? The answer is complex, but the overriding themes are, as with the story of the building of Jagriti, a little to do with luck, and much more to do with a social pattern. Almost every young actor, writer and director we speak to has come to the theatre after leaving the corporate sector. Engineers, IT consultants, corporate investors – the pattern is one of quitting capitalism to follow a passion. Vikram Hemanathan, artistic director of Barking Dog theatre company, moves like the seasons between lucrative corporate work which he uses to them fund his next theatre project (which has seen him tour many times to Europe – critical accolades have brought very little in terms of financial sustainability).
Arundhati Ghosh of the IFA came to arts fundraising after many years working for multinationals. Munira Sen runs the Bengaluru office of London-based Common Purpose, and helps partners her husband Ashish in community theatre and arts projects in the evening for free. She says, with winning-modesty, that he is the intellectual, she is the networker. We talk at length about politics, religion and history, how the two things are mirrored and replicated by our two respective homelands. And so why, I ask her, is it so difficult to raise money for the arts? Money in India, she says, goes to poverty and education. Later that day, from a taxi window, we see children eating from a pile of roadside garbage. Ignorance, as I say, is bliss.
Addendum – Traffic Update
I am developing a mild obsession with Indian traffic. There is, in its operation, a lack of aggression that seems very much to be a part of India itself. Everything about the traffic system here screams of chaos. And yet it not only seems work, but it does so in the most adverse of conditions. I have spent quite a bit of time in silence gazing from the minibus or taxi windows, trying to come to terms with it all. I was convinced for a moment I had stumbled upon what is akin to a coded language within the rabble of beeps. I was convinced. I asked a taxi driver:
“The car horns, am I right in thinking, it is like a language? Like morse code? Back home the horn is only used aggressively, to shout at someone. Here it seems a part of the operation of the car. Is it something like one beep for I’m coming up behind you? Two beeps for I’m very close now? A long beep for excuse me, coming through?”
The driver smiled.
“No, sir,” he said; “beeping in India is very very rude.”
Day 3 | Kolkata: the city and folk art
“Kolkata has a lot in common with Wales.” Although the local poet and translator who told me this had spent some time in Cardiff and Aberystwyth, I respectfully disagreed. The challenges facing the arts communities here may share some of the temperament of the challenges back home, that is pretty much where the similarity ends.
We were right when we figured we were being led gently into the Indian experience – perhaps the only time Bengaluru could be described as gentle is when compared to Kolkata (and then Mumbai). We step up in so many ways here. The population doubles from 8-9 million to 14-16 million (depending on who you ask). This does indeed translate into an upsurge, it seems, in people on the street. Masses, throngs, multitudes, throw whatever adjective at it that you like, all that really matters is in Kolkata you are never more than arm’s length away from another body. This also means inequality is felt sharper – the caste system (and, it has to be said, the importance of it to the way enormous, chaotic cities like this have learned to function) is on view at the side of every street. Abject poverty specks the vibrant colours and wonderful architecture. This architecture is where much of the considerable charm of the place lies (although there is a great deal of other charms besides). Even when in dereliction the streets are filled with character, the porticos and verandas and slatted windows and pastel-shaded stonewalls, the regiments of shop fronts and stalls and smoking fires and lush palm trees and terracotta dust. As a novelist you fall back on the cliché that in every frame of the eye is a hundred stories, for what else is there to do? Try and comprehend the futility of fiction to represent this mass human experience will just make your head explode.
But to experience, to converse, to connect, is why we’re here, and it is what we do. Every step through India turns my hitherto suspicion of isolationists into a complex sense of pity. What a marvellous and brutal world we have created for ourselves.
We are here to explore ideas, to learn and to impart learning, in any way we can. And we are receiving as much, if not more, than we give.
And this is not just a cultural eye-opener. Tips on publishing networks, on theatrical technique, in development of business models and leadership skills are the bulk of what we are talking about. But as well, there are exhibitions of tradition, of history, glimpses like a National Geographic spread of old.
Banglanatakdotcom treat the delegation to a tour of Indian folk art. It is a stunning showcase, as moving for the fact they have welcomed us with such respect and warmth as it is for the stories it tells. Owner and director Amitava Bhattacharya in some respects has come to the rescue of many of the traditions on display, creating a hub for Bengali cultural history in a modest courtyard and gallery space sunk deep into a residential block. The aim is not just to preserve traditions, but to give them renewed life. The programmes Amitava has started seek to teach new generations ancient forms. And so far it has been a huge success.
The organisation provides an opportunity of livelihood and improved living standards for rural folk artists such as musicians, dancers, craft-makers, storytellers and actors, and they also run a series of international folk festivals, including in the UK – keep an eye out.
Firstly we are serenaded by minstrels, then treated to a demonstration of Pata-Chitra Kahini, a mixture of oral storytelling and storyboarding, the artist singing an excerpt of the Vishnu Vedas whilst unraveling the scroll of lurid images – a living, breathing comic book. We are shown an exhibition of scrolls, cascading, and, perhaps surprisingly, telling of stories such as 9/11 and the Boxing Day tsunami – ancient forms telling modern tragedies.
In the courtyard we are dazzled by a fast-paced roll call of street performers – puppeteers, then dancers, drummers, acrobats, then a balladeer. Amitava guides us as ringmaster, a man with considerable personal charm and not a little sense of modern showbiz. We learn later the minstrels travelled over seventeen hours to perform for us, for what amounted to about 4 minutes. I have never really understood the go-to phrase of false modesty when an award-winner claims to be feeling “humbled”. (Surely the whole point of a slap on the back is to elevate and inflate, not shrink), but as we spend our time chasing deadlines, publishing contracts, grants and awards, I will have no choice but to humbly think of this afternoon in a courtyard in Kolkata.
Day 4 | Kolkata, books, books and more books
On the first day in India, British Council representative in Bengaluru, Leighton Ernsberger made a comment that has proved most useful in subsequent attempts to get a grip on India. He said that we should think of it more in terms of Europe than we might a single country. It has over 20 languages (it is English that unites India), state rule, state culture, state climate. Kolkata is the publishing capital of India, the literary hub, the Paris of the 1930s. It’s cool. (Not cool – we have the 38 degree heat of Bengaluru here, but a new blanket of humidity comes with it). At least – a grim thing to appreciate – the sun is hidden from blasting its full force by a damning dome of smog. This afternoon thermometers tickle 40 and it seems to be only mole-like Welshies like me who feel the need to don sunglasses.
Today the delegation splits, for meetings directly associated with our areas of interest and expertise, and the itinerary, although nothing less than gruelling, is expertly put together by the British Council office of Kolkata.
(Indeed, here may be a good place to linger on this gruelling nature of the itinerary. To make the most out of this week-long trip, our timetable is full, and the flights between cities are early morning, arranged so as to make the most of the days we have. We are all averaging no more than 5 hours sleep a night – I have managed 5 hours only once scene we got to India – and the only time I have available to write these posts is when I’m 35,000 feet in the air, while my fellow delegates sit around me, each using the time to either catch up on their own records and paperwork, or to stockpile a bit of sleep before we land and are whisked off to further meetings. Many of us are making the most of the things adrenaline can do for the human body. The trip is in equal parts exhilarating and exhausting).
But this day is the most gruelling so far. And the most exhilarating.
We start by visiting the University Press at Jadvapur, a small and energetic team in the heart of the campus jungle, headed by Abhijit Gupta, a much-loved and slightly eccentric English professor known to everyone affectionately as Tintin. It is a new press, 3 years old, with a very small budget from the university, and they are still finding their feet, but already they have published Bengali translations of The Aeneid and the works of Petrarch. Coming soon will be their translation of Murakami into Bengali; the first ever translation of his work from one Asian language to another, Dr Rimi Cuaterjee, the co-director, proudly tells us. A remarkable coup for such a press. On the wall of their open plan office – it has the air of an old-school newspaper bullpen about it – is a quote from HG Wells: “If you are finding a book difficult, try surprising it; come at it when it least expects.”
After this we are taken from meeting to meeting, our driver pushing through congested traffic, the honking braying around us. Again, I will use the metaphor that Indian traffic is like lava flow: vehicles push and slop into each available space, paying no attention to lanes or, many times, oncoming traffic. The trick is to concentrate intensely on what is in front of you. If everybody does that all angles are covered. Of all the folk art I have seen in India, the traffic is the most insanely beautiful.
But – the meetings!!!
This is a day of heavy hitters. We have coffee with Maina Baghat, owner of the world famous Oxford Bookstore (we have coffee in the store). Maina is recognised the world over in literary circles as one of the most significant figures in Indian books. Between the regular events at the bookstore and the affiliated annual festival, you still have rungs to climb if you have not made an appearance for her. Rushdie, Barnes, Theroux, Carey… reading at Oxford Bookstore is a badge of honour for writers on the world stage. Maina is generous, modest, and responds warmly to suggestions of potential collaborations between her team and Welsh authors.
Likewise, Malabika Banerjee, who runs a very successful literary festival, Kolkata Lit Meet, as part of the portfolio for Gameplan, a major sports promotion firm (Imran Kahn and Steve Waugh had recently been sitting in the same chairs we were sat in). Literature is Malabika’s overriding passion. She loves the Latin American writers – Bolano, Llosa, Marquez – but stresses on us the fact that great Bengali-language writers are often overlooked in favour of decent English language writers. We talk through a series of potential collaborative projects, and her festival, held every January in the grounds of the palatial Victoria Memorial Park, seems a grandiose contrast to Malabika, who is open, generous and has a wonderful sense of humour.
And this is a running theme. The Indian arts seems a place distinctly lacking in barrel-chested egoism. Of course, to be determined enough to become a success in the arts means that ego is essential, never absent, but here it seems to manifest itself differently. The previous night we were guests at the Kolkata British Council offices for a networking reception and dinner with figures from across the arts disciplines, and, to paraphrase one aired sentiment from a fellow delegate – how many events like this have you been to in the UK and not spent at least two minutes talking to some tosspot? Tosspots, bores, drunks, windbags, blowhards, egomaniacs, wideboys, wannabes and hangers on are all conspicuous in their absence in Kolkata.
The highlight of a day in which our hosts used every opportunity to treat me better than I deserved, came at the end. Down the narrow characterful streets of North Calcutta, the original, old town part of Kolkata, past cedar trees, past rickshaw drivers and old women cooking in pots of front steps, we met with the directors, founders and organisers of the world’s largest book fair, held in Kolkata every January, and which last year welcomed 2.5 million people to its 10 day bookgasm. That’s right – million. Almost as many people came to talk, listen, and buy books at this thing than actually live in Wales. Again, talk of collaboration between writers and publishers, with festivals as focal points and meeting places, were enthusiastically received and discussed.
Tridib Chatterjee, director and founder of the book fair and affiliate festival, himself gives us the tour of the offices and printing press (housed on the ground floor of the offices of Bee Books just a few minutes walk through the crumbling grace of the old town). CEO of Bee Books is Tridib’s daughter, Esher, who has everything about her that would suggest she is on her way to being a leading light of Indian literature in the not-too-distant future: that youthful energy, a dedication to the idea of literature (so obvious in those we had the privilege of meeting earlier in the day), a publishing policy that appears to put concept first and potential commercial impact second, but that matched with a pragmatism and a steely intelligence. We discuss potential publishing collaborations, and already, at first contact, Esher is panel-beating ideas. If you’re going to partner with someone from six thousand miles away, the need to cut through the niceties is paramount. But for all that, niceties are not in short supply – all of at the meeting come away afterwards buzzing, with a real sense of an important connection made, one that was beyond business, one that might even have been the beginnings of friendships.
And still not a moment is wasted – there are opportunities to meet people, to network, to spark ideas and talk about collaborations. Esher has arranged for me to meet up with the representatives of the local blogging community, Arjyak Bhattacharya and Rupsha Bhadra – exceptionally young and talented, they have built in just a few years a hub that boasts nearly two thousand writers, and they are contracted as official bloggers of several festivals, including the Kolkata Book Fair. It doesn’t take long before I’m wondering if I shouldn’t be asking them for a job. In any case, the set up, the support they have from Kolkata business ventures (the bloggers cover everything, the arts is just a small part of their remit) far outstrips anything given in Wales, where, for the most, festivals seem to offer semi-reluctant, always restricted, access for bloggers and commentators, a kind of almost-suspicious welcome. In Kolkata they have it right, and it is proving of great benefit to both the festivals and the young bloggers. It is to the enormous credit of Esher, and Arjyak, Rupsha and their cohorts, that they have had the vision to not just do it, but to go all in, and to do it right. At last year’s book festival, the website blog was registering around 25,000 readers a day.
And so again, we find we have as much to learn as to teach here in India. As we drive between the old town and our hotel, we go down College Street, several miles of open front second hand book stalls, giving the effect of a streaming tunnel of library, teeming with all the life and cluttered chaos of this magnificent city. Kolkata is my kind of town.
Day 5 | Mumbai: the Colossus and the Artisans
Mumbai is a major global city, a considerable departure from the boomtown of Benguluru and the characterful swagger of Kolkata. Mumbai has its own Indian identity, of course, but it carries with it that sheen, that proudness, that arrogance of the major cities. V.S. Naipaul wrote that “Bombay is a crowd”, and although it does not have the condensed chaos of Kolkata, it does have a feeling of a coherent cultural sway. A major modern city is made up of required facets, economic, cultural, bureaucratic, demagogic, democratic – it has to function like a machine, the pistons moving to make a whole. The inequality in Mumbai is world-renowned, and you cannot ignore it, even from the descent into Mumbai airport over the drably colourful corrugated rooftops of Asia’s largest slum, Dhavri. As tragic as is aspect of the city is, however, it is only a part of it, and it is also wrong to think India does not wear it like a bruise. The truth is that Mumbai is not defined by those bruises, no matter how much they may hurt and linger. It is strong and full of fight, full of humour and ambition.
Some of that comes from centuries of being a wealthy sea port. It is a jewel that has been shared between and treasured by many crowns. And as such, it is here we find the first real footprint of government money in the arts.
The National Centre for Performing Arts is a colossal venue, and we are shown around its many concert spaces and performance halls in a somewhat perfunctory manner. It is at the end of a long day, but perhaps there is something to be read into the beaming pride of those who have showed us around other venues – it is impossible not to think of Jagdish Raja and Arundhati at Jagriti theatre in Bengaluru, their warmth and verve and enthusiasm; or Tridib and Esher Chaterjee of Bee Books and the Book Fair in Kolkata, guiding us around their printing press and then showing off their latest titles over salted lemon tea like proud parents with baby snaps.
The NCPA is vast; thousand seater auditoriums, stages capable of holding the most reputable of ensemble companies, and wide concrete staircases leading up to them. It is municipal to the core (although only partly funded) and is in the model of the concert hall that any major city should have. It feels a little like a university building, a little like a British concert hall from a few decades ago, it feels… my god, whisper it… but it feels a little Soviet. It is a statement, a statement that the government values art, values culture… that it values values. It is part of the branding of a government, it is mega city furniture. And the programme is of the big league, the elite… although you could describe it as a big on the predictable side. International opera companies, a season of Chopin concerts, the Symphony Orchestra of India will passing through soon with some Smetana and Bartok; there is traditional – and oh so conservative – Indian dance and music. This is a million miles away from Jagriti, and a billion miles away from Banglanatakdotcom.
But, rather than this being a jolt to the system, there is a familiarity to it. Wales Millennium Centre, for instance, may have a lot more soul, a greater vision, but it would only take a political change of attitude for it to be a lumbering beast like NCPA. That it isn’t is something to be grateful for, but not something to take for granted. The world is full of government rosettes like NCPA.
And of course it does do its job. It is impressive – (did I mention just how enormous it is?) It does make up part of the fabric of a major city. Frankly, you couldn’t really sit at the top table without one nowadays.
The contrast comes this evening, when we meet the movers and shakers of Mumbai’s independent theatre scene for dinner. RAGE has a long tradition of collaboration and developing new work. In Shernaz Patel we return to the open enthusiasm and intellectual engagement we have become accustomed to in India, and which met a lull at NCPA. This is the moment when Mumbai comes alive, over beer and curry, down a long table, debate and discussion, the realisation our two cultures have so much in common when it comes to the creation of our arts. We are driven by the same things, we hope for the same things. This is cosmopolitan Mumbai, this is the Mumbai of coffee shops and arguments about art and literature, artisanal, full of brilliant people, characters, larger than life, a coherent community in a modern city.
Novelist and playwright Farhad Sorabjee talks about the place in serious terms, the fact that Mumbai is a globally significant, the way that few cities are, and that will always bring out important creative figures (he also has a soft spot, like the one developing under my skin, for the crumbling grad Eir of Kolkata). Mumbai is significant like London is, New York, Paris, Moscow. And just like in those places, we find experimentalists and egomaniacs, bright young things alongside the steady hands of established genius. But everyone is trying to create something, and that is always a struggle, and in those struggles communities emerge.
The visit to Mumbai may have started with a groan but the evening ended with a surge, and in the likes of Shernaz and Farhad you see why Mumbai crackles.
Day 6 | Mumbai and a brave new world of arts management
The last full day in India and I hear the word ‘crowdfunder’ for the first time.
Perhaps before the trip, when none of us really knew what to expect, this would not have been surprising, but we have discovered that the arts in India are, by and large, drifting in a sea of uncertainty, with few corporate philanthropists coming forward, no government funding outside of conservative traditions, and a widespread public apathy. What we have discovered is that when it comes to the funding of the arts, the problem is enhanced rather than relieved as the population ratio increases on that of Wales. We have it easy back home, although it may not feel like it.
In Wales, crowdfunders have become a very real, very viable source of project funding. It is an injection of public faith into the project. Wales Arts Review ran a very successful one just a few years ago, and it kept us afloat at a crucial time. I would wager no arts organisation in Wales has not at least considered running one in the last few years on some scale or another. Indeed, when Ken Skates took his post as minister for arts (and other things) last year he made noises that as good as made the encouragement of crowdfunders government policy when it came to the arts.
Some feared, and still do, that this is the beginning of softening the blow as public funding mission-creeps backwards under the cloaks and daggers of ‘austerity’. In India, they are now just settling in to the reality of life under a right wing government, and what little they did have is now under more threat. In Wales we can learn much about what state our culture might find itself in if we were to go down the same route.
Over and over again here, the argument that art must be commercially viable to be worth anything is left spluttering in its own shallow waters. In India art is created, or at least curated, by those who can afford such hobbies. Theatre is created by people with significant private incomes. In Kolkata, in the country’s most famous bookshop, the haven of the literati, Oxford Bookstore, (frequenters of which include Rushdie, Barnes, Theroux and pretty much anyone else you can think of), the coolest spot in town, the largest front window display the new Jeffrey Archer novel. The line of thought is quite simple: supplant the cultural funding model in Wales (which is a mix of public, private and commercial funding for most succesful organisations) with the Indian one and Wales would crumble and crumble fast.
The professionalisation of the arts in India, as an industry, is fairly new. At India’s most famous theatre, Prithvi, here in Mumbai, we meet with owner, Kunal Kapoor, and director and manager of youth programmes, Q; they tell us arts management, as a career, is a very new phenomenon. Indeed, they are all still getting used to just what such a person can do, not just what they are supposed to do. For decades, the only place in India with an arts management job, we are told, was the British Council.
This seems like an appropriate point to meet where we started. This delegation is in India to start conversations, to make connections, and hopefully to bring back the seeds of exciting projects that can bring India and Wales closer together. The role of the British Council (and Wales Arts International) will be vital in this. Because the creation and dissemination of creative culture is a complex business, and many of us – all of us – are still only in the foothills of understanding how this is all going to pan out.
There will always be the naysayers, those who we used to think were soulless and ignorant, but I’d now like to think just need to catch up to reality. Those of us who believe art should be inclusive, and should only consider commercial matters as part of the package, not as the leader, also need to admit we do not have all of the answers. But the one thing of which I am now certain, is that without the backing of publicly funded organisations, we will never be given the chance to learn these lessons and to surge toward the inevitable Eureka! moments, where it all comes together. The first task, I think, is to try and agree what we are all after. They are having that conversation in India, just like we are having it at home. I’d suggest we are all striving for a fair and creatively vibrant nation. And then we can argue about the details. And we must realise we will never all be happy. But that’s culture for you.