At the start of each year, arts circles are abuzz as lists of the Padma awardees are made known. And the government makes its ‘commitment’ to the arts by yet another token gesture.

Looking back, though, one finds that national leaders have shown a greater concern for the arts. Classical music and art was supported by the intellectual elite during colonial rule, partly to bolster national cultural identity. Dadabhai Naoroji, the ‘Grand Old Man of India’, was the president of the Parsi Gayan Uttejak Mandali—perhaps Mumbai’s first formal music club, that promoted Hindustani music among amateurs.

In the 20th century, leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai were admirers of the vocalist and educationist Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, who set up the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Lahore to promote music education. Later, Paluskar moved the headquarters of the school to Mumbai, and Madan Mohan Malaviya, Sarojini Naidu, Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi visited the vidyalaya on various occasions.

Gandhi’s insistence on making music a part of everyday life was greatly influenced by his urge to spiritually awaken the masses.

He said, “It is sad that the study of music is generally neglected in our country today. Without it, the entire educational system seems to me to be incomplete…Music pacifies anger and its judicious use is highly helpful in leading a man to the vision of God” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol37, p2).

Accordingly, he requested Paluskar to send a good musician to Ahmedabad to set the Sabarmati ashram prayers to music. Paluskar sent his disciple Narayan Moreshwar Khare, who composed several bhajans.

The correspondence between some Congress leaders also shows a concern for the quality of music and its dissemination.

In a letter to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Interim Government, Maulana Azad wrote, “It has been a shock to me to find that the standard of music of All India Radio broadcasts is extremely poor. I have always felt that All India Radio should set the standard in Indian music and lead to its continual improvement. Instead, the present programmes have the opposite effect and lead one to suspect that the artistes are sometimes chosen not on grounds of merit” (The Selected Works of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: Vol.III-1947-48, p28).

Such a letter from a senior leader is scarcely imaginable today: our leaders are far removed from reality or choose to neglect it. The present state of music on the government broadcasting networks is abysmally low, what with the sharp decline in recordings and a perceived need to raise TRP ratings in the face of competition from private networks.

That innovative programming can raise TRP ratings has perhaps not occurred to the bureaucracy. Meanwhile, artistes are left high and dry to locate potential sponsors for their broadcasts.

It was in Jawaharlal Nehru’s tenure that cultural institutions like the Sangeet Natak Akademi were set up, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations sent delegations consisting of top-ranking artistes overseas.

The government needs to come up with a holistic culture policy. The lessons of history direct us to the course of action we must now take.

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