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Stronger Together

Culture Wire scans the scattered nature of the arts and culture sector in India and argues for the urgent need to unite as formal representative bodies.

Since the lockdown was first imposed in India in late March, Culture Wire has repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that the arts and culture sector is in deep distress; that we’re doing what we can; and that we want and need the government to step up and help floundering artistes, arts organisations, and culture professionals. However, there has been little by way of relief, and we’re bootstrapping our survival. The lack of a collective voice has turned out to be our biggest handicap at this time, with no one being able to communicate decisively and demandingly with the government.

The lack of organisation has been a matter of growing concern for a while, as sector heads agreed at Culture Con 2020. But its true need has been felt only in the shadow of the pandemic. Forming spontaneous collectives to tide over the situation is one thing, but the global crisis has necessitated some hard introspection. Why, we wonder, are the practitioners of art and culture such a fractured lot? Why are there such few professionally-managed organisations and united fronts? Is it a self-perception problem (read, artists cannot be business-like) or is it a problem of present-day tropes (read, art is not serious business)? Because it wasn’t always this way…

Guild-ed histories

By all accounts of ancient and medieval Indian history, our artsy ancestors were an organised bunch. Evidence points to the existence of trade and craft guilds as early as the 5th century BCE. Each craft genre had its own guild known as a shreni comprising many artists or shilpi members, and the leader or president of each shreni was called a sthapati. It is deemed that the Vedic varna system, which many argue to have just been a labour-oriented division, was conducive to the formation of such guilds. Demarcated groups practicing specific crafts tended to organise themselves economically too. Other factors such as surplus agricultural production, growth in trade, rise in use of currency etc. may have allowed society to expend time for some serious development of the arts. Further, the emergence of writing systems allowed for the codification of rules of the craft and their dissemination.

However, art and architecture flourished in a big way in the late ancient and early medieval period under the patronage of Buddhist and Hindu rulers, belonging from the Maurya, Gupta, Satavahana, Chola, Pala and other such dynasties. The Mughals were also great patrons of the arts and maintained famous ateliers. The commissioning of large temples/mosques to make a statement of political power was common, and artists and craftsmen of all kinds found plenty of work in these temple-building projects. However, the death of a commissioning ruler or nobleman and/ or a change in political power could bring such projects into a grinding halt. Guilds, which had their own laws regarding organisation, production, pricing, etc., provided a buffer, since these rules were recognised by the state. And when projects were abandoned midway, guilds moved to other locations and took up other work.

“The key to the existence of any of these systems, however,” says Dr. Kurush Dalal, historian and archaeologist, “was the fact that there was royal/ state patronage. For as long as powerful monarchs undertook these projects and paid its makers, the guilds thrived. The money flowed top down, but it flowed. With the coming of the Europeans and the disintegration of empires, the arts and their respective guilds disappeared.”

Dr. Dalal adds, “The laity, whose religious affiliations were often different from those of the political heads, did not extend their support to the art communities for these building projects either, for they held no personal significance for them.”

Artists were on their own.

What associations mean today

Today, the art & culture sector, which is unorganised, operates in highly segregated silos. Sure we have hundreds of art and culture associations but they are mostly sector-specific, with their activities often limited to their geographical locations. Some examples include the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), the All India Artists Association (AIAA), Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), Cine & TV Artists Association (CINTAA), The Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth (SPIC - MACAY) and The All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACWA).

In their current form, these associations offer benefits such as networks, opportunities, finding mentors, getting training, perks and certain protected group interests. Reena Dewan, president, International Council of Museums (ICOM) India, and director, Kolkata Centre for Creativity, explains the nature of such benefits. “Many capacity-building programmes, conferences and conversations are organised by ICOM the world over that provide fertile grounds for the development and growth of individuals and organisations,” she says. Perks such as free entry into ICOM-listed museums also act as incentives for potential members.

Mumbai-based architect and independent museum consultant, Batul Raaj Mehta, who is a member of a number of such organisations is, however, not inclined to see much value in these benefits. She is a registered architect with the Council of Architecture, a member of the international NGO, ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) and INTACH. On what kind of role such organisations have played at a time like this, Mehta says, “I do know that a group of architects (not the Council of Architecture) have petitioned the government to help with some kind of financial aid, but I don’t think much has come out. These are fairly niche associations with a small number of members, especially INTACH and ICOMOS, so I don’t know if they have any negotiation power; at least it isn’t evident to a member like me.”

Barring a handful of associations such as CINTAA and The Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE) that coerced producers into clear payments of actors, who have been badly hit by the pandemic-induced industry closure before allowing shoots to resume, none of these ‘national organisations’ have been able to do much for their respective member communities either by themselves or through the government.

Reasons to unite

There is clearly a need to seek more than these soft benefits of cultural associations, especially in such times of grave crisis. There may be valuable lessons in the trade or labour unions formats of today. Labour unions originated in Britain in the throes of the Industrial Revolution in a bid to protect the blatant exploitation of a growing workforce. Today, they are scoffed at equally by capitalists, socialists and communists, but they’re effective and are often the sole safety valve for workers.

Further, there is an increasing reassessment of the premise of artists as workers. In his latest book, Art and Labour, artist and writer David Beech explores questions like whether the artist is a relic of the feudal mode of production or is a commodity producer corresponding to the capitalist mode of cultural production. He studies the history of formation of art as distinct from handicraft, commerce and industry, tracing it back to the dissolution of the dual system of guild and court, and stresses on the need to rethink the categories of aesthetic labour, attractive labour, alienated labour, non-alienated labour and unwaged labour that shape the modern and contemporary politics of work in art. He applies the Marxist theory of capitalist production to artistic production but demonstrates that, “despite the buying and selling of artworks, artistic production has never been fully converted to capitalist commodity production and therefore artworks are not, strictly speaking, commodities at all in the capitalist sense.”

Be that as it may, artists and artisans are presently placed in a singular category and this necessitates a unified, if somewhat fallacious narrative. The labour of art deserves the kind of protection the labour of industry does, for nations cannot be built on economics alone. A common definition of trade/labour unions that they are workers’ associations forming a legal unit or legal personhood and acting as bargaining units, is an excellent reminder of why the arts & culture sector needs it. Bargaining chips are what the sector severely lacks, and is therefore unable to consolidate its power. The greatest worth of associations is finding safety in numbers.

The bigger the better

Speaking of numbers, let’s take a look at the membership size of the largest, most prominent trade unions in India. Of the 12 Central Trade Union Organisations (CTUOs) that the Ministry of Labour recognises, the top three on last count are the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) with 33.3 million members, the the Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh (BMS) with 17.1 million members, and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) with 14.2 million members. BMS has claimed to be the largest trade union on other occasions with different data, but they all drive home the point of sheer size. Further, these unions are affiliated to the Indian National Congress (INC), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Communist Party of India (CPI) respectively. Each of these mega unions forms an umbrella which collates and voices the concerns of several smaller federations, mostly from the manufacturing sectors. Affiliations with major political parties allow these unions to wield considerable muscle through representation in the Parliament, and thereby ensure delivery of their demands.

Size clearly matters even for the arts & culture sector. Culture Action Europe (CAE) is a case in point and will serve to demonstrate the importance of scale when it comes to agency and bargaining power. CAE is the major European association of cultural networks, organisations, artists, activists, academics and policymakers and is referred to as ‘the network of networks’. Last month when the multiannual financial framework (MFF) proposal for long-term recovery through the years 2021-2027 was tabled at the European Parliament – especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic – the CULT (Committee on Culture and Education) deemed the 1% allotment absolutely insufficient. CAE too threw its weight behind the need for a revision and has demanded a doubling of the budget towards the recovery and improvement of the culture sector in Europe.

While revisions are still under consideration, European Parliament President, David Sassoli has acknowledged the need for revision of budget allocations towards culture in a recent statement. Drawing attention to a sector’s needs and building adequate pressure on its behalf is instrumental to changes at the acts and policies level, and it is through organisations like the CAE that such change may be catalysed.

In India, the pleas for relief for the arts & culture sector have been several but small, and it remains to be seen whether the Government will pay heed. But if the current crisis ought to have taught us one lesson, it is this: we need strong collective arms to keep waving that SOS banner and a loud, unified voice seeking to claim what is rightfully ours!


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