Ravi Varma's Milkmaid

Here’s a New York Times article that caught my attention, bemoaning the risk to Indian culture in quest of prosperity.  It is a well written article by Akash Kapur, addressing the influence of commercialism on arts and humanities in the country, even if I disagree with a few points. The author talks to an old Chennai book salesman as he alludes to the changes in the pattern of books being purchased by the younger generation today.  He then compares the business and technical schools of the nation with those of the arts and humanities, in terms of the bureaucratic discrepancies and difficulties involved in appointing the right staff and raising proper funds – presenting the concerns of erosion of cultural values of a prospering nation in an overwhelming commercial pursuit.
A few snippets from the article followed by my opinion..
On Anna Salai, a central artery that runs through this city, there is a store called the American Book Center. The owner, V. Krishnan, is 70 years old. He has been selling books since he was 8 –
In the old days, he sold mostly novels — Pearl S. Buck, Daphne DuMaurier and Agatha Christie were especially popular. Now, young people do not read so many novels. They buy computer books, and books about business.
Mr. Krishnan’s story offers a window onto changing patterns of cultural consumption in India. This is a nation of rising prosperity, increasingly convinced of its destiny. Its confidence stems largely from the recent achievements of its ITES sector — Information Technology Enabled Services, the software and outsourcing companies that have put India on the map of global business.
The success of these companies has been firmly ensconced in an emerging national mythology. Schoolchildren are brought up on tales of Infosys, India’s best-known software business, founded in 1981 with 10,000 rupees of capital — just $224 at current rates — and worth billions of dollars today. Indian entrepreneurs have entered the pantheon of national heroes.
No one can deny their achievements. But the adulation of commerce and wealth poses important questions about the place of softer, more humanistic endeavors in the country — the role of art and artists, the place of the humanities and social sciences and, more generally, the character (and breadth) of the Indian imagination.
As India grows richer, its culture is changing. The question is whether that culture will be defined solely by the nation’s new prosperity — whether a nation in the midst of a consumerist frenzy can maintain noncommercial islands of intellectual and cultural endeavor, and whether a population determined to get rich can appreciate pursuits whose returns are less immediately tangible.
Indian humanities and social sciences institutes have been neglected over the years — stultified by curricular inflexibility, underfinanced and understaffed.
According to the World Bank, while general graduate degree programs, which include the humanities and social sciences, still have the highest enrollment, the number of students seeking technical degrees grew six times faster from 2000 to 2004.
But it points, also, to a broader shift in public perceptions — from an appreciation of the intrinsic value of an education (its ability to widen the mind, to expose students to new ideas and experiences) to an obsession with the instrumental value of a diploma.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a former academic and now head of a research institute based in Delhi, suggests that while the ascent of more monetizable disciplines is real, it may simply represent a form of consolidation. “Part of what you hope this growth will do is create conditions that will sustain a richer culture in the future,” he said, arguing that culture needs financial backing to survive. “After all, New York is both Wall Street and the city’s publishing industry.”
But in the meantime, the commercialization of intellectual life seems set to continue, and possibly even worsen. There has been much concern, recently, that the increasing privatization of Indian education could further erode the arts and social sciences.

The first thing that comes to mind to me  is a saying about nostalgia  – the good old days were never so great and the future is never that bleak.  We only tend to remember the good from the past and nostalgia tends to gloss over the rough edges. I was one of those who was addicted to novels growing up.  I read anything and everything I could get my hands on during my school days including every Agatha Christie book ever written just as Mr.Krishnan’s customers from yesteryears, but it can be debated if reading novels is a great indicator of interest in arts and humanities.  Interest in reading fiction is as much driven by a desire for escapism as any innate artistic appreciation.  There are far too many avenues for transporting yourself into another world and living vicariously through other characters than books and novels.  Telvision, movies and video games have taken over that role for the younger generation of today.  They don’t read novels as much anymore because these modern media outlets provide them the same escapism that you normally look for from a novel.  This is not to say there is no place for a printed word anymore, a well written piece of fiction still beats a good movie for me, but if a kid today prefers to watch Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” instead of reading the original epic fantasy novel by Tolkien, I personally don’t view it as an erosion of cultural values of the generation.  It is merely a change in the cultural facet of today’s society considering the availability of time and the overload of the information that kid has to grasp in his or her new modern global world.

Indian Handicrafts

Appreciation and patronage of arts in every society, not  just Indian society, has always been for the most part a luxury afforded by the affluent.  Most of the great poets, painters, singers and writers through out the history have always created for their rich patrons, whether they are wealthy businessmen of the west or the rich majarajas and the powerful landlords of the east. In a world where capitalism is not only our preferred economic system but also our accepted social system now, getting as rich as you can is an expected way of life.  When you choose to pause and appreciate the so called “finer points of life” is a choice you make once you feel you have accrued enough wealth. How much is enough is another individual choice.  You might spend your entire life in the pursuit of getting rich and never appreciate those finer points, but you will expose your children to the artistic and cultural aspects early in their life because you can afford to and whether you lived your life that way or not you know you want your children to be well rounded human beings.  Subsequently, your children and their children will then grow up appreciating arts and culture even if they don’t end up being rich.  If there are societies in the world that show this balance in their culture today, it is for this reason.  To expect arts and humanities to prosper irrespective of the country’s finanical status is somewhat impractical.  This is the same reason the Indian societies in the US show more of a concerted effort to teach their children the cultural values of their heritage, more so than their counterparts in India in my opinion.  Majority of them do it because they realize the importance of it and they realize they are not living in a society where their children have no shot of making a comfortable living unless they are brought up to become only an engineer or a doctor and most importantly because they can afford to do it.  Until India gets to that point, any notion of arts not taking a backseat to economical and financial welfare of the society is only wishful thinking.

Indian Handloom Weaver

The survival of indigenous arts and crafts in India until now has been an ironic byproduct of an aggrieving caste system imposing an antiquated hereditary vocation.  The son of a handicraftsman only knew one way to make a living, continuing to create handicrafts like his father did as a valued family tradition.  It didn’t mean they were well supported, in fact a look at their standard of living indicates clearly that they weren’t. If arts in India survived it is because these craftsmen had no other alternative and for centuries their families accepted their meagre livelihood and continued to produce what they knew how to create best.  But in the globalized free economy today, this is no longer a forced necessity with other avenues available for them easier than before. They can provide other services that the society might deem more valuable that can provide them a better livelihood.  Unless the patronage for their artifacts improves to an extent where the artists can produce these products because they are not compelled to take up this vocation, but because they can make their desired livelihood out of it, they will continue to deteriorate.  The only way it can get to that point is if the society gets rich enough to produce enough patrons who not only appreciate the arts and culture, but can also afford to support them and inculcate those values within their children without feeling they are ruining their future in doing so.